I have always believed that the best education for my kids is an explicitly Christian one. I know there are many Christian parents who think differently. They think a child can learn about math, history, and science in a public school, and learn about God at home and Church. This is certainly possible, but in my view it is far from ideal. School ought to introduce us not simply to discrete subjects but to the whole structure of knowledge, and to God as the being who created that structure and makes it cohere. Put less grandly, I would rather not have my kids in any setting for eight hours a day that systematically ignores the reality of God. That is playing a game of “Let’s Pretend” rather longer than I deem healthy.
Many parents accept public schools more from financial necessity than from any really settled views about education. Private Christian schools are almost prohibitively expensive. Here in Houston, I know you would be hardpressed to send your child to a Catholic grade school for less than $5,000 tuition per year. High school tuition will run at least $10,000-15,000. Taken out of one’s net income (reduced by payment of property taxes to fund, what else, the public schools) this is a sizeable expense. Currently, I have two children in Catholic schools but a third in a public school. For that third child, our youngest, we must settle for an atheistic education in which all meaningful reference to God has been ruthlessly excised. The excisers themselves hardly strike me as unkind. They are just doing their job. I would love to have our youngest in a God-grounded environment, but for the moment atheism is all we can afford.
In truth, an education without religion is an education on the cheap. Our public school children are being systematically denied their birthright as human beings–their right to be exposed to the best that human beings have thought and believed about God. An unhappy and dangerous fiction is being quietly foisted upon them–the notion that this life is all there is and that no one has ever seriously thought differently.
What is the way out of this impoverishment? We can’t make private religious schools free. But we can make the public schools open to religious expression in a way that would raise the comfort levels of thousands of religious parents. And we can do it without raising constitutional objections from any but the most ardent secularists.
The solution is not really that difficult. Our public schools should be religion-equipped, just as they are equipped for so much else. Our public schools have bathrooms, libraries, water-fountains, and baseball fields. They have music teachers, cooks, and counselors. Some of them have grand football stadiums and spacious gyms. Why can’t they also have religious classes and clergy? Why can’t they teach religions as academic subjects, in classes offered for academic credit? Why can’t clergy of different faiths set foot on campus and provide guidance and instruction to students of the same creed as themselves? They could serve as volunteers or be paid out of funds contributed by local religious bodies. If a school can accept private money for a new football scoreboard or music wing, it should also be allowed can accept private money for a minister, rabbi, or imam to provide support to students of the same faith on-campus.
Are there insuperable constitutional objections to such practices? The secularism of our public schools has more to do with progressive theories of education than with the United States Constitution. Other public institutions where progressives have not triumphed have preserved religious life without falling afoul of the Constitution. Religion is a big part of American military life and receives significant government support. Public colleges and universities, for all their reputed godlessness, have been more supportive of religious reflection than the public high schools from which they draw students. Why, exactly, are 10-year-olds denied what is offered to college students and soldiers? There is no constitutional justification for it. If parents fear religious indoctrination–an unconstitutional “establishment of religion”–their consent could be required before a kid is allowed to take a religion class, see a minister, or participate in a prayer meeting.
The systematic emptying of our public schools of any reference to God has made them spiritual wastelands. This holds true as much for the “blue ribbon” school in the toney suburb as for the inner-city school that can barely afford textbooks. Every civilization the world over has seen to the formation of its children in some religious tradition. Our failure to include in our schools this essential dimension of human well-being is a dereliction of duty that no appeal to constitutional scruples can hide.