Public schools and moral degeneracy

by Martha L. Blandford

Dr. Regis Martin’s article, Where do we go from here?, in the September issue of the Concourse presented a depressing, but unfortunately accurate view of American popular culture. Reading it, I was reminded of Orwell’s 1984 : how the fictional state controlled the “proles” through the use of pornography, alcohol and the lottery. These “controls” parallel those that enslave the masses of today. I asked myself the question Dr. Martin posed: “Have we grown so callous to the corrupting effects of sin, so demoralized by the disorder around us, that none of it matters any more?” And yet, in 1984 it wasn’t so much the sin of the proles that was so astounding—wrong and pathetic—yes, but evil—no. The real evil existed in the state, whose power-mongers systematically inculcated in their people a debilitating moral passivity, which led to decadence as an escape.

One can see the same sort of rampant passivity and escapism in our society, especially among our younger generations. What is causing this horrifying moral breakdown? If one believes that knowledge of reality (truth) and an understanding of truth (wisdom) are prerequisite in the formation of a strong conscience, then an absence of these things could be a big part of the answer. Can it be that our government is responsible for their absence? If so, what is their modus operandi?

Public education is one means by which the state is rendering its civilians morally handicapped. Many people, including zealous proponents of public education, agree that it has become a colossal failure. After decades of argument, debate and experimentation, it has become increasingly clear that reform programs and refinancing gimmickry will not save the system. What went wrong? One good answer is that the public school system has failed because it is a socialist system education, and therefore shares all the symptoms and consequences observed in other examples of socialist enterprises, such as ever-burgeoning overhead costs and lack of incentives to succeed. More specifically, I believe there are three important ways in which state schooling undermines the education process. First, public education has failed in teaching the basic subject areas, the substratum of all higher learning. Secondly, state schooling tacitly teaches values that are anti-family and anti-Christian under the guise of “separation of Church and state.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it creates a crippling disdain for learning.

Proponents of government schooling claim that it produces large-scale literacy for all classes of people and that compulsory public schooling greatly benefits society as a whole, since education increases human productivity. But in fact these ideals are illusory. Employers today frequently complain of employees’ inability to follow simple directions, or to even speak and write basic English correctly. Business owners and leaders (who take the education of our youth very seriously, donating billions of dollars to educational programs) share the fear of the future that Dr. Martin expressed when he wrote, “A people besotted for a generation or more on images of deviance, violence and depraved sex cannot even be trusted to keep the machinery going.” As for creating a literate society, research shows that fewer people know how to read and write since public schooling became nationally compulsory in 1900, and that scores on the American College Test (ACT) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) have declined significantly since the 1950’s.1

One wonders if education would have been much better off remaining solely in the private sector. “But education is too important to be left to the free market,” supporters of public school tell us. Actually, education, like religion, is too important to be left in the hands of the state.

If one questions the claim that public education is run like other socialist systems, one could consider the philosophy, specifically the epistemology, of the Father of American Education, John Dewey. Dewey’s theories spawned the so-called “progressive” educators, who formally delivered American schoolchildren over to a bankrupt pragmatist philosophy. Dewey’s view of education was to dispense with all “rigidity,” all principles, all necessary laws, whether of reality or of the mind, and to proclaim the final climax of the idealist view: human beings are free to select their own thought patterns in accordance with their own unrestricted choice; they are free to “experiment” with any form of thought which they can imagine or concoct; and, therefore, they are free to attempt to create whatever reality they choose, no holds barred. The mind, says Dewey, is not a “spectator” and knowledge is not “a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing…” It would seem from this statement that the goal of progressive educators was not to relate a specific system of ideas on the student, but to destroy his capacity to hold any ideas, on any subject.2

Dewey’s epistemology not only rejected the notion of an objective reality outside man’s own experience, but it also created a method of teaching not conducive to any learning beyond memorization. A brief historical note on the development of modern education may clarify this idea. Throughout history, rulers and court intellectuals have aspired to use the educational systems to shape their nations. The model for this was set out by Plato in The Republic and was reproduced most faithfully in Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. But one need not look only to extreme cases to find such uses of public schooling. “Europe’s first national system of education was set up by King Frederick William I of Prussia in 1717. After the defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1807, King Frederick William III strengthened the state’s hold on society by, among other measures, increasing the power of the school system. He instituted certification of teachers and abolished semi-religious private schools. Children aged 7 to 14 had to attend school. Parents could be fined or have their children taken away if the children did not attend.”3

American advocates of compulsory state schooling observed the Prussian system, became enamored of it, and adopted it as their model, creating a standard for educational systems which survives to the present. This system aimed less at forming well-educated adults than at creating good citizens—that is, citizens amenable to the interests of the government. John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City and state Teacher of the Year, wrote: “The whole system was built on the premise that isolation from first-hand information and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers would result in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary orders.”4 In other words, rigorous, independent thinking was practically discouraged.

Furthermore, by breaking whole ideas into fragmented “subjects” and by dividing school days into fixed periods, Gatto believes that “self-motivation to learn would be muted by ceaseless interruptions.” Patrick Welsh, another public teacher agrees:

“Imagine an office where you sit at a desk and do the same work as 25 co-workers. No one is allowed to talk. At the end of 50 minutes, a bell rings, and whether you’re finished or not, you must immediately move to another office, have a different boss and different colleagues, and start a job that had nothing to do with what you were just working on. Imagine doing that six or seven times a day. That is the essence of the environment that educators have designed for teenagers full of energy and raging hormones.”5

Younger children in public schools face a similar environment. Bursting with curiosity about the world around them, including their fellow pupils, they are ordered to sit still, keep quiet, and don’t touch. That is called “socialization.” If they cannot follow orders, they may be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder and drugged, or declared “learning disabled”—a label that often haunts throughout life.

According to the progressive’s method of “education,” while Johnny may not be able to read or add or spell or think, he does learn to cooperate with others, to adapt to others, and to obey his leader.

As in 1984, progressive double-speak disguises disvalues as values. For example, the progressive’s “individual” becomes what Dewey termed the “new individual,” for whom social conformity is the fundamental imperative. The progressives stress “scientific methods” and “intelligence,” while promoting an epistemology that denies the mind’s capacity to grasp reality, including true principles and fixed causal laws. The progressives emphasize the notion of “individual power,” meaning not the power to know reality and live by the moral law, but rather the “power” to create reality subjectively and eschew morality. Americans once wanted education to instill a morality relevant to life; the Deweyites lay claim to this goal, and proceed to disseminate a cynical amoralism.

Besides the subjectivism inherent in the epistemological foundations of this pedagogy, today’s public schools are ruthlessly denuded of every vestige of traditional moral instruction, under a specious interpretation of the separation of Church and state. Nativity scenes are banned from public property; the Ten Commandments may not be displayed, and school prayer is eliminated.

Needless to say, such practices do not ensure that education is “value-neutral.” Public education simply exchanges the values parents wish their children to learn for those the state has chosen.

In the late 1960’s public education added to its list of responsibilities that of educating young people on sex. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in 1964 gave a grant to a Planned Parenthood unit in Texas of a little less than half a million dollars. By 1966, the OEO’s financing of sex education had multiplied more than five-fold by the end of that fiscal year.6

“Family planning services grew phenomenally from the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s. In 1964, the federal government made its first family planning grant, which served only married women. By 1970, Congress had passed the first national family planning and population legislation. Federal expenditures grew from $16 million to close to $200 million. In 1969, there were less than a quarter of a million teenagers using family planningclinics: by 1976 this had swollen to 1.2 million.”7

I mentioned earlier what I believe to be one of the most wide-spread, negative consequences of state schooling, i.e. the creation of a disdain for learning. Albert Einstein was a product of a state school modeled after the Prussian education system. Einstein’s intellectual achievements might suggest that the schools in Germany were of high quality. Before drawing that conclusion, however, listen to Einstein’s own words:

“One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year. It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.”8

Having made these accusations against public education, I realize that many have survived it somewhat unscathed, and many others of us have reached great success as strong Christian leaders in innumerable vocations. My point here is that it seems that the current educational system is deteriorating at a rapid pace while corroding the natural desire of our young people to learn. Left without this thirst for truth, beauty and goodness, man is left to boast of his effronteries like the prostitutes, drug addicts and racists the talk-show hosts use to torture good people like Dr. Martin’s wife.

Parents, it is true, can opt out of the system, but only at an enormous cost. They have to be willing and able to pay a double tuition—once in the form of compulsory taxation for the public education they are rejecting, and again in the form of a voluntary fee for the private educational services they actually want their children to have. I know that many Concourse readers choose to homeschool their children as an alternative to public education. I am greatly inspired by their actions, and have much to learn about home-schooling methods. Home-schooling provides an opportunity for parents and children to declare their independence from the state’s educational system. They need not wait for reforms; they can do it at once. (Of course, the abolition of school taxes and a major reduction in the general burden of big government would make it easier for families to turn to that form of education.) Home-schooling also provides possibly the best environment for real learning, an education not devoid of stimulation or of moral instruction.

In conclusion, no single institution should be held responsible for all the world’s woes, and in my criticisms of state schooling I do not want to underestimate the power of an individual’s free will in rising above his environment. My question is how “free” is an individual who, as a youngster, has been subjected to this method of “learning” for twelve years? I also want to state that I do not believe that all public teachers and educators conspire against the masses to intentionally dumb them down. I’m sure that the majority of those involved in public education are true believers in what they are doing, and mean to do well by their students. My intention here is to simply show that the consequences of public schooling are many and grave. In robbing a child of knowledge, diminishing his love of learning, and substituting his moral instruction with a state religion, government schooling erodes humanity.

Martha (Cotton) Blandford graduated from FUS in 1989. She and her husband, Scott, live with their daughter in Kentucky.

  1. Charles Murray and R. J. Herrnstein, “What’s Really Behind the SAT-score Decline?” Public Interest, Winter 1992, p. 38. ↑
  2. The Quest for Certainty (New York, Putnam’s, 1960), pp.44, 137. ↑
  3. Murray N. Rothbard, Education, Free and Compulsory: The Individual’s Education (Wichita, Kans.: Center for Independent Education, undated), p. 18. ↑
  4. John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Complusory Schooling (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1992), pp.10 Gatto is the former New York State and City Teacher of the Year who in his acceptance address denounced the schools as antichild and antifamily. ↑
  5. Patrick Welsh, “The Bored of Education: An apology from a Teacher”, The Washington Post, “Outlook” section, June 21, 1992. ↑
  6. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of The Anointed: Self-congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.), pp. 14-15. ↑
  7. Theodore Ooms, Teenage Pregnancy in a Family Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), p.26. ↑
  8. Quoted in Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-education and The Community of Scholars (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), p.6. ↑