Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

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3 Comments

  1. Just for the record, the classical schools you referred to where the guy molested kids don’t appear to be Christian schools. One of the web pages says that it is “a dynamic, tuition-free public charter school” [https://classicalacademy.com/locations/coastal-academy-k-8/].

    Reply
    • Thanks for the correction. I don’t think it’s a stretch, however, to say that we could find examples of abuse cases at ALL sorts of schools–public, private, Christian, etc.

      Reply

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