What Are Schools For?

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Hint: The education of children.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n his excellent new book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies (full review forthcoming in National Review) Thomas Sowell advises that it is necessary for us to remind ourselves from time to time of a first truth: “Schools exist for the education of children.”

Sometimes, the most obvious truths prove to be the most difficult to implement.

The outrage of the day for the Left is the Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a Blaine amendment case. Montana, like many states, has a “Blaine amendment” in its state constitution, a Progressive-era anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant measure that forbids government support of religiously affiliated schools. The Blaine amendment was invoked in a legal challenge to a Montana scholarship program, in which the state offered a tax credit for donors to a fund allowing students to attend private schools of their family’s own choosing. An organization called Big Sky began a fundraising campaign, and most of the schools that received Big Sky’s scholarships were religious schools, as indeed are the great majority of private schools in Montana. “Oh, no you don’t!” said the ghost of the Know-Nothings.

Line up the dominos real straight here: (1) Some families do not feel that their children are best served by a public school and prefer a private school; (2) Private schools generally charge tuition, which some families would have a hard time paying; (3) Other people are willing to donate their own money to a fund to help those families send their children to the schools that they believe to be best for them; (4) Montana offers a tax credit for such donations, just as it offers tax credits for many other kinds of charitable donations; (5) Nina Totenberg has a moral heart attack.

You remember Nina Totenberg: the left-leaning social activist who pretends to cover the nation’s courts for National Public Radio, our publicly supported progressive media network. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has grown more and more conservative,” she writes, “it has moved with increasing vigor away from the notion of a strict wall of separation between church and state and toward a greater accommodation of religion.” That is familiar enough stuff: the extraconstitutional “wall of separation” that appears nowhere in our actual founding documents or early legal practice is an inescapable trope of contemporary discourse, if an inescapably stupid one. But that’s just the tip of the Totenberg. She continues:

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the head of the country’s largest teachers union, called the decision “shameful and unacceptable.” In a statement, she said: “At a time when public schools nationwide already are grappling with protecting and providing for students despite a pandemic and mounting budget shortfalls, the court has made things even worse opening the door for further attacks on state decisions not to fund religious schools.”

If Nina Totenberg were a journalist rather than an advocate, she might have felt at least a little compelled to point out that that is pure gobbledygook with no meaningful connection to the question at hand. And what is the question? It is: What are the schools for? Answer? Ask Thomas Sowell: “Schools exist for the education of children.”

The Blaine amendments appeal now, and appealed to progressives in the 19th century, for a number of reasons. Public schools are a peerless example of the progressives’ conception of society as one big factory that can be scientifically managed with a kind of political (and moral) Taylorism. (Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management was enormously influential among American progressives.) Whether the problem is education or health care or pharmaceutical regulation, the factory mindset of progressives favors unified systems characterized by standardization and homogeneity. The idea of lots of different kinds of schools offering lots of different kinds of education — with many of them operating outside of the direct oversight of the central bureaucracy — gives them the willies.

There are some messy complications, too: Progressives in the golden age of progressivism had a religious zeal for science, which often led them in horrifying directions, one of which was eugenics. Eugenics and anti-Catholic bigotry went hand-in-hand for the same reason eugenics and anti-Semitism often have gone hand-in-hand; i.e., the reflexive white Protestant horror of poor people with big families. That wasn’t just an American thing: William Beveridge, the father of the British welfare state, was a member of the Eugenics Society who wanted to have men on the dole sterilized, proposing that they should be maintained as dependents “but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.” That was the line of the leading lights of the Liberal Party.

There is a lot of ideology, bigotry, and social anxiety tied up in our education debates.

But: Schools exist for the education of children.

They do not exist to provide incomes and union dues for Lily Eskelsen Garcia or the campaign contributions for Democrats that those union dues are laundered into. The schools are not there to be social-leveling projects or instruments of political indoctrination. They are not there to provide a theater for secular bourgeois progressives to work out their anxieties about people who are socially, religiously, or economically different from them. They are there to educate children.

In this, Christians do not need “accommodation.” American Christians (and Jews, and Hindus, and Muslims) simply need a government that will follow its own rules, which do not call for a “wall of separation” excluding religious organizations from public goods and benefits but only forbid the creation of a national established church.

(We had established churches at the state level for years without New England degenerating into an unlivable Congregationalist theocracy.)

We Christians have been educating people for a very long time, with pretty good results: The Divine Comedy, the Sistine Chapel, genetics — all of those managed to come into the world before the creation of the United States Department of Education in 1979. If the state of Montana wants to offer some tax credits to help educate children whose families cannot afford the schools they want to send their children to, good for Montana. It is an excellent idea. But religious people do not live their lives and enjoy their liberty at the sufferance of the mighty powers in Helena. It is quite the other way around. And it is worth keeping in mind that we have a First Amendment because certain Christians had the wisdom to demand it. The Baptists got that one right.

The Left’s anti-religious hysteria is fundamentally adolescent, an adult (“adult”) extension of tedious teen-aged acting out. It is inescapably unserious — one need only look at the way puerile evangelical atheism derailed the development of a brilliant man such as Christopher Hitchens to see that much. Many of the countries our progressive friends most admire — Denmark, Norway — maintain established churches to this day, and somehow manage not to turn into Afghanistan. A healthy society has many centers of power and many sources of community. A healthy society also recognizes that there is a genuine non-superficial diversity in a population as large and dynamic as ours, and that meeting the educational needs of such a population will require many different kinds of institutions with many different approaches. Christian institutions can be of some help there, as they have been for some centuries now.

If you want to educate the children, then send them to good schools. Give them good books and good teachers. And maybe give your tiresome petty obsessions a rest.

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