MAXWELL:  Social forces tug our schools off track

12/4/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia, responded in 1671 to a question from the Lords of Commissioners of Foreign Plantations reflecting their concerns about the specter of public schools in the colonies: “I thank God, there are no free schools . . . and I hope we shall not have these (for a) hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world. . . .”

Berkeley’s 17th century fear of public education will strike many of us as quaint, harsh or even foolish. But take a hard look at America in the 1990s. I am not sure about the heresy part, but the world Berkeley referred to now suffers from rampant disobedience and contains sects (many violent ones) too numerous to count. Whether public schools caused these problems I do not know.

But I suspect that even Berkeley would be shocked that such disobedience, sectarianism and other isms, warring pedagogies (“meaning first” versus “phonics first”) and various ideological fiefdoms have virtually overrun the very institutions that he feared would ruin the rest of society. In fact, public education in America is fast becoming a Tower of Babel. Cultural pluralism has run amok, and the Balkans are in the schoolyard and in the classroom.

Many religious groups, for example, are hell-bent on bringing mandatory prayer and other doctrinal causes to the schools. The recently released annual survey of the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State indicates that public schools were the battleground for the overwhelming majority of church-state conflicts in all 50 states during the year ending September 1994.

On the secular side, crusaders for political correctness want to put a bit in everyone’s mouth in the schools, and defenders of the First Amendment are screaming for the right to do, say and wear whatever they damned well please. Integrationists still see the divisive bus ride as the answer to most problems of equality. But one of the most harmful trends is that too many parents, with no academic training, feel no qualms in minding the school’s business.

Many of our schools are besieged by so many outside forces that they have all but abandoned their real mission of teaching the nation’s children the three R’s and are now serving as clearinghouses and laboratories for every whim and scam larger society entertains.

If you want to see what is wrong with America, visit a typical public school. More than likely, you will see young children playing out our troubles. If you attend a typical school meeting of any kind, you probably will witness tribal warfare. You will see ordinary citizens _ who would not dare tell a police chief how to make an arrest or a bank president how to count money _ reading the riot act to principals and teachers.

I have long believed that public schools, as democratic institutions, are victims of their own success. Why? Because democracy is citizen-driven. This fact makes all democratic institutions inherently vulnerable to creeping anarchy because ordinary citizens today play a more direct and more aggressive role in how these institutions operate.

Every public school is a virtual town hall. Anyone can attend meetings there and exert some influence. And most significantly, every American child has the right to attend a public school. I asked several educators, two of whom I will quote at length, to explain why public schools, of all such institutions, are most vulnerable to societal forces.

“Public schools in the United Statesare exactly that,” said Dr. J. Howard Hinesley, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, whose embattled desegregration plan for Florida’s fifth most populous county is one of the most closely monitored in the nation.

“They are open to all and are required to serve all equally. . . . The schools, therefore, are the society. As our nation becomes increasingly fragmented, nowhere is this trend more easily observed than in the classroom.

“There is no longer a generally accepted concept of “right and wrong.’ The collective American conscience, which in past years was based on Judeo-Christian principles, no longer exists. Parents and students today continually challenge the institution of public schools because it does not conform to some aspect of their personal belief system. It is impossible for the institution to be the conduit through which a common set of values is transmitted, because such a set of values no longer exists. The public schools are the inevitable arena for testing ideologies and beliefs.”

Carolyn A. Wood, who has been a teacher for 33 years and who has two children in Alachua County Schools, shares Hinesley’s views and offers some refreshingly candid observations from the trenches: “All of the social, cultural, racial, political and religious problems show up on the doorstep of the public schools because every culture, race, political stripe, social level and religion is in the public school. Private schools can filter out all except those like “them’ _ whoever “them’ may be.

“And we (parents) are all the authority on our own children, so we feel comfortable telling teachers what to do and how to do it. Teaching remains a suspect and disrespected profession _ thought of often as glorified baby sitting. Add the fact that a public school education is not the great equalizer anymore.”

I know of very few average citizens who advocate less citizen involvement in public schools. But most teachers and administrators I have consulted distinguish between responsible and irresponsible involvement. Like other democratic institutions, public schools work best when non-school participants are reasonably informed and are motivated by a need to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. But exactly the opposite is happening in many school districts across the country.

Uninformed and misinformed parents and inflexible, organized groups are staking out schools as their ideological turf, thereby harming everyone. These adults have failed to fulfill their responsibility of learning the value of education, of learning the nature of learning itself.

Our public schools need mature, committed, well-informed allies _ not self-interested detractors who confuse and destroy. Our schools need adults who care about the future of all of our children.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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