Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 3
Dr. Ronald Nash is visiting professor of Philosophy and Religion at RTS/Orlando. He has been a philosopher of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University since 1964, 20 of those years as the department chair. With degrees from Brown and Syracuse Universities, He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Faith and Reason, The Concept of God, and his latest, The Closing of the American Heart, from which this article is adapted. Dr. Nash will join the RTS/Orlando resident faculty for the 1991-92 academic year.
There is a crisis in American education. Every year, at least a million students graduate from America’s high schools functionally illiterate. This means that these youngsters cannot read, write, or use numbers well enough to get along in our society. Ninety-five percent of American 17-year-olds cannot read well enough to understand technical materials and literary essays. Imagine the problems they will face if they ever attempt to read the Bible.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that our educational sys- tem has already left us with 24 million functional illiterates.
But millions of Americans are culturally illiterate. This means they are ignorant of the basic information necessary to function effectively in our society. Thirty-two percent of American 17-year-olds don’t know Columbus discovered the New World before the year 1750. Think of it! Forty percent of our 17-year-olds have no idea what event precipitated World War II. Seventy-five percent cannot place Lincoln’s presidency or the Civil War within the correct 20-year period. Similar numbers of young people cannot point out England or New York or the Mississippi River on a map. As author Samuel Blumenfeld sums things up: “The plain unvarnished truth is that public education is a shoddy, fraudulent piece of goods sold to the public at an astronomical price.”
Nor do things get any beyter when we move to what we still call “higher education.” American colleges have permitted their curricula to deteriorate. This can be seen in the watering down of essential courses. They have also allowed the removal of important courses or the addition of trivial courses to the core curriculum. According to one estimate, as many as 10 thousand American college professors are Marxists who often use their courses to indoctrinate their students in their left-wing ideology. Colleges have opened wide the doors to trendy and faddish courses, such as the study of pop culture, where students get university credit for looking at pictures in comic books.
College students today are surrounded by an alleged academic setting in which the things they find most obvious are confusion, conflicting claims, and the absence of any fixed points of reference. This is true not only of huge state universities, but also of many so-called Christian colleges. America’s colleges have become centers of intellectual disorder As Davis Cress explains, “Instead of being havens of independent thought, universities have become channels of indoctrination… confirming the prejudices of those who control the agenda of public discourse.”
Shockingly, many Christians find it difficult to take talk about a national educational crisis very seriously. Their minds are on higher, more spiritual matters; at least, this is how many justify their lack of concern and action. Some Christians respond as though their interest in saving souls excuses their indifference to the state of people’s minds. Surely such an attitude is both short-sighted and unbiblical.
We are talking about youngsters so poorly educated that they will never be able to read the Bible with understanding. Even when some of these youngsters become Christians, they will be so poorly educated that the possibility of their ever becoming effective servants of Christ is slim or nonexistent. People who have trouble reading and writing aren’t going to become effective pastors or missionaries, let alone secretaries or salesmen.
A Crisis of the Heart
Up to this point, I have focused primarily on the intellectual dimensions of our educational crisis, a problem which Alan Bloom examined so carefully in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind. This is a good time to consider why I recently published a book titled The Closing of the American Heart.
The inadequacies of contemporary education are not exclusively matters of the mind. Traditional religious and moral values are under assault at every level of public and higher education. Our educational system is engaged in a systematic undermining of these values.
Our educational crisis is to some extent a closing of the American mind. But it is also something more profound, a closing of the American heart. No real progress towards improving American education can occur until all of us realize that an education which ignores moral and religious beliefs cannot qualify as a quality education. Recently, no less a person than Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the major reason his nation is in such trouble is because his people are ignorant of moral and spiritual values.
The development of the intellect and of moral character are intimately related. Just as there is an order in nature (the laws of science), in reason (the laws of logic), and in the realm of numbers (the laws of mathematics), so too is there a moral order. We must recover the belief that there is a transcendent, unchanging moral order and restore it once more to a central place in the educational process.
Throughout history important thinkers have contended that there is a higher order of permanent things (like moral norms), that human happiness is dependent on our living our lives in accordance with this transcendent order, and that peace and order within human society require respect for this order. The most important task of education is to remind students continually of the existence and importance of this transcendent order as well as of its content.
If teachers are doing their job properly, they serve as an essential link in the chain of civilization. Without this link, the chain cannot hold. Teachers are the conservers of culture; they are also its transmitters. At least, that is the role teachers once played.
Modern education in America has largely separated virtue and knowledge. The Sophists of our age have severed the link between reason and virtue, between the mind and the heart. There is objective truth out there, which it is our duty to pursue and discover But there is also an objective moral order out there, as well as in here. An adequate education dare not ignore either the mind or the heart. Just as we dare not divorce education from matters of the heart, so too must we not rate education from religion.
Religious faith is not just one isolated compartment of a person’s life-a compartment that we can take or leave as we wish. Religious faith is rather a dimension of life that colors, affects, and influences everything we do and believe. Human beings are incurably religious (Calvin). Paul Tillich was right – possibly the only time he was right – when he defined religion as a mailer of “ultimate concern.” Every person has something that concerns him ultimately and whatever that may be, it will have an enormous influence on everything else that person does or believes.
Since every human being has something about which he is ultimately concerned, it follows that every human being has a god. No human being can possibly be neutral when it comes ton religion. When the Christian encounters people who claim that education should be free of any religious content, he should recognize that this is not a religiously neutral claim. Rather it is an assertion that reflects the religious commitments of the person making it. Education is an activity that is religious at its roots. Any effort to remove religion from education is merely the substitution of one set of ultimate religious commitments for another.
It is absurd, then, to think that a choice between the sacred and secular in education is possible. whatever the state and the courts do regarding education will only establish one person’s set of ultimate (religious) concerns at the expense of someone else’s. All the while that the ACLU, educators, the media, and the courts are claiming that it is unconstitutional to say anything favorable about Christianity in the public schools, another religion – the religion of secular humanism – is being established as the bootleg religion of the public schools. Our children may not be getting educated in the public schools, but they are being indoctrinated in a set of ideas that are antithetical to everything Christians hold dear.
What Can Christians Do?
It is clear what the humanists, relativists, and secularists have been doing to our schools. It is now time to ask what Christians have been doing. The sad truth is that most of us have been doing nothing. We continue to supply our coerced support for the public schools and dutifully keep a respectful silence about what the schools do with all their public money. Most of us continue to send our children off to schools that offer an increasingly inferior education and are, at the same time, actively undermining important Christian beliefs and values.
My book, The Closing of the American Heart, discusses a number of things Christians should be doing about our educational crisis. I only have space to mention two. First of all, Christians need to place new emphasis on the educational role of the family The famous Presbyterian scholar, J. Gresham Machen, once wrote: “The most important Christian education institution is not the pulpit or the school, important as these institutions are; but it is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work.” Christians must begin to pay more attention to the essential, indispensable role of the family in the overall education of their children. Christian families must once again take control of their children’s education.
Secondly, Christian families must become more socially active and call for a new pro-choice movement in education. Nothing will remedy the problems of American education more quickly and more effectively than the introduction of greater freedom and choice in education. We should seek a permanent end to the situation that allows the state to determine where children must attend school if that child is to receive a free public education. American families should have complete freedom to send their children to any school they wish – including public or church-operated private schools- without financial penalty or the burden of double taxation. Christian families must once again take control of their children’s education.
The way to realize this objective is through educational vouchers. Following the institution of a voucher system, public monies for education would not pass directly to schools. Rather, that money would be given first to the families of school-age children in the form of vouchers. Parents would then use those vouchers to pay for their children’s education at a school of their own choosing.
Perhaps the major reason why public schools are so bad is because they have no competition; they are immune to what we call market-discipline. Consequently, public schools have no incentive to offer a better product at a lower cost A pro-choice movement in education would give public schools serious competition for the first time in more than a century and allow families to select schools not only on the basis of academic quality, but also with a view to the moral and spiritual values fostered by them.
Many Americans are unaware of the fact that for generations, America’s public schools did not enjoy a monopoly with regard to public financial support. The United States is the only nation of all the Western democracies that still refuses to provide public support for private schools – the only one!
It is worth noting that public school teachers send their own children to private schools at a rate twice as often as other parents. Forty-six percent of public school teachers in the Chicago public system send their children to private schools. This reveals much about which schools in the Chicago area are really doing the best job.
Getting legislators and judges to approve a full-fledged voucher system in education will not be easy. But why should this be news to Christians who care about changing their society for the better? If enough Christians get informed, get concerned, and get active, the dream of total family choice in education can become a reality.