Thursday, October 14, 2021
It's Thursday, October 14th 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
How Did the Public Schools Become Such a Battleground? The Real Roots of the Crisis
Who should decide what is and what is not taught in America's public schools? That's been a raging debate in the United States, especially over the course of the last several decades. And by now it's clear there are two very different answers to that question.
One side says that all the decisions about curriculum, all the decisions about what is and is not taught to our children in the public schools should be left to the professional educators, to the educational class, to the educators' guilds, to the associations of teachers, to teachers' unions, and others. They should decide what is taught. The argument here is that the teachers' colleges and the prestigious universities should be at the front of the development of policy concerning educational curriculum. The argument is that this is something for professionals, it is for government bureaucrats, and for experts to figure out.
The second argument is very different. The second answer is that there are two groups whose views ought to be paramount. We start with parents. The first argument is that parents should have the first responsibility and the major right to decide what is and is not taught to their children. After all, they are their children. The second part of this answer is that there is another party to be considered here, and that is the local community.
Now just remember this, the idea of public education in the United States began with the idea of a common school under the control of a local community. Now, that means a local school board. And as you think about the origins of the public school movement in the United States, the idea is that the local community would be in charge of its own public school. That the local community would hire the teachers, hire the principal, establish the school, take care of the curriculum. There would be local accountability, according to the understanding, the convictions, the culture of the community, when it came to the community's public school.
That principle of local control of the public schools was paramount in the history of American public schools as a project. The idea was that the school would best serve the community if it is answerable to the community. And even now you'll find people who just assume that some principle of local control is appropriate for the public schools. But we have to note that the federal government and government agencies and bureaucracies and regulations have been encroaching upon the very idea of local control of the public schools. Federal mandates that come with spending have had a great deal to do with the fact that much of educational policy in this country is now no longer set by any local school board, it is set either by government or by some kind of professional guild, by some kind of professional association, or under the control, or at least negotiation with, teachers' unions.
Well, as we think about this, we need to understand that one of the patterns that is evident here is the increasing control by elites of the entire system of the culture. And the educational elites are among the most powerful of the elites. Now, one of the figures we need to understand in the transition of the public schools away from that idea of a local common school to something of a national project, we have to understand the role of John Dewey. Back in the opening decades of the 20th century, John Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher, he didn't believe in the very existence of objective truth, John Dewey proposed the professionalization of the teaching profession, and more importantly, he proposed the common schools as an engine for creating a common culture in the United States.
Now, you say, "A common culture in the United States? That seems to make sense. Don't we want a common culture?" But what John Dewey was talking about is, as he phrased it himself, separating the children of this nation from the prejudices of their parents. In other words, establishing a common school project in order to create a common culture of a common citizenship that would basically separate children from the prejudices of their parents, and let's make it clear, John Dewey meant first and foremost the religious prejudices of parents. Wanted to free children from that context of the local home, as where they would learn citizenship in the common culture, and instead put them under the control and under the influence of a regime of experts. And these experts would help to separate children from the backward worldviews of their parents.
Now, John Dewey was also one of the founders of the humanist movement in the United States. He was avowedly secular, he was indeed an atheist. And when he talked about a common culture, even a common creed, it was a decidedly non-theistic creed. John Dewey pointed to the increasing population of the big cities in the United States. And then he pointed to what was even evident then, and that is the fact that there was a political, cultural, moral distinction between the more cosmopolitan coasts and the American heartland. He was eventually instrumental in creating Teachers College at Columbia University. And of course, he was the main ideologist behind the idea of the public schools as an engine of social transformation in the United States. John Dewey pointed to those cities with their growing populations and he said, "How in the world are we going to have a common culture if you have these Irish children who are basically being taught by Irish parents? You had Italian children with Italian parents."
But let's be really clear, he was talking more than anything else about the fact that these were Irish Catholic parents. And you had German Lutheran parents teaching their children Lutheranism. And it was just a matter of John Dewey arguing that if we're going to have a common culture, we're going to have to have a common school system, basically with a common understanding of the teacher, professionalizing the profession of teaching, and we're going to have to have something like a common curriculum. And remember, he actually talked about the development of a secular common creed.
Now let's be really clear, there are some wonderful, faithful Christians at work at every level of the public schools, teaching, serving as administrators and principals. There are parents who are deeply involved in the public schools. There are many of Christ's people in those schools, both as children and as those who are in the teaching ranks and amongst the professionals. But here's the point, increasingly the entire curricular structure of those schools, increasingly the regulatory structure that governs those schools, increasingly the governing authorities who are the deciders about those schools, are those who are operating from a worldview contrary to biblical Christianity, increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity.
Now, when you think about Dewey's idea that the public schools should help to separate children from the prejudices of their parents, just think about the modern ideology of sex education. It's often packaged as so-called comprehensive sex education. In other words, it's about a lot more than biology and human reproduction. It's actually about immersing children in an ideology of sexual liberation. Now, there are states that have opt-out provisions, advance notice for parents. Even in a state like California, there's actually a legislative mandate that the schools give an advance word about this kind of sexuality education so that parents can exercise an opt-out for their children.
But you can notice that the educational elites aren't going to put up with that. For instance, as we've seen in California and elsewhere, you have the schools repackage much of this LGBTQ agenda and other aspects of the sexual liberation movement, you have it repackaged as health education. Therefore, there doesn't have to be any advance notice and there doesn't have to be any acknowledgement of a parental opt-out provision for children. And as I say, this is taking place in some states, it's taking place even in some major cities and school systems in the American Midwest, in the heartland.
And you say, "How is that? How does that happen?" Well, for one thing, you've got an incredible amount of pressure coming from the teachers' unions and from the professionalization of the teaching society. It has become its own guild. And it is overwhelmingly liberal. Just look at the position statements, just look at the convictions of groups such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Consider the allied professions, such as librarians, we've discussed on The Briefing. How the fact that that particular profession... Again, there are some conservative librarians, there are some Christian librarians, but the profession itself is becoming, and increasingly so, avowedly secular and joining the moral revolutionaries, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Just remember Drag Queen Story Hour. That ought to tell you exactly where the profession is headed.
But Christian parents, Christian citizens need to recognize that it isn't just a matter of sex education, or even sex education repackaged has health education, it's about the entire curriculum. It's about how history is taught. That's why there are so many controversies right now about critical race theory and how history is to be understood and taught. And it's about other issues. Just consider the role of evolution in public school education. Consider the fact that there is no aspect of the curriculum that does not impinge at some point upon the Christian worldview. At some point, Christian conviction, biblical conviction is impacted in some way in every dimension of the curriculum.
State of Virginia As Ground Zero For Debate Over Who Should Determine Education of Children — The Parents or The Professional Elite
But that takes us to the state of Virginia. Let's go to the state of Virginia because what's going on in Virginia right now is of incredible importance. Now, the presenting issue there is controversy about parental involvement in the public schools, in the state of Virginia. And the catalyst for that is the election for the state's next governor. The two candidates are the Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former financier, and he is running now as governor and running a surprisingly strong race, and in a state that was once predictably, reliably red that has become increasingly, predictably blue. The Democratic nominee is Terry McAuliffe. Now, you'll recall him from the Clinton years, but he was also, in recent years, the governor of the state of Virginia. But governors in Virginia cannot succeed themselves in a successive term. But he is running to regain the governor's office, and most political odds-makers would have thought he had the advantage, but the controversy over parental involvement in the public schools now comes down to comments made by the former governor in a debate of the two gubernatorial candidates.
Now what happened? Well, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, says that parents must have a parental role and that parental voice must be respected. But Terry McAuliffe in this debate basically answered Glenn Youngkin by saying, "No, parents should have basically no role in terms of curricular decisions in the public schools."
It came down to this. The actual words are very important. Glenn Youngkin said to Terry McAuliffe, "You believe school systems should tell children what to do. I believe parents should be in charge of their kids' education."
The former governor McAuliffe said, "I'm not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions." He added, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." Well, there you go. Later, drilling down on the point, the former governor and Democratic nominee said, "Listen, we have a board of education working with local school boards to determine the curriculum for our schools. You don't want parents coming in every different school jurisdiction saying, 'This is what should be taught here, and this is what should be taught there.'"
Now notice that Terry McAuliffe is saying this because this is the Democratic orthodoxy. This is the left's absolute orthodoxy. This is the message of John Dewey going back basically a century. But you'll notice just how candid and straightforward is the rejection of parental involvement. Instead of backing off of his statement that inflamed so many citizens, potential voters, and parents, McAuliffe indeed did double down. "Listen," he said, "we have a school board. We have professionals. We have experts working on this. There are people in Washington. There are people in Richmond working on this. Send the parents home. You don't want parents coming in every different school jurisdiction saying, 'This is what should be taught here, and this is what should be taught here.'"
Again, that's the very principle of local control over the public schools that was central to the American project. But that's a huge obstacle to those who want to turn the schools into engines of their own ideology and their own ideological revolution. Parents are a huge obstacle.
But voters in Virginia should have remembered that when Terry McAuliffe was governor before, he held to basically the same argument. This isn't news, in that respect. Back in 2016, then Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill adopted by the Virginia General Assembly that would have required kindergarten through 12th grade teachers to, quote, "Identify classroom materials with sexually explicit content and notify parents who would have been able to opt out their children, and request that the teacher give them an alternative assignment." That according to the report by Jenna Portnoy for the Washington Post. The governor's response, his statement in vetoing that parental influence legislation was this, "School boards are best positioned to ensure that our students are exposed to those appropriate literary and artistic works that will expand students' horizons and enrich their learning experiences."
Just consider that. This is the language of expanding students' horizons and enriching their learning experiences. "Oh yes," say the bureaucrats, the regulators, the ideologues. "Just trust us. Get out of the process. You don't have any business here, parents. It's our business. Go home."
Some of you may say, "Well, that's just Virginia. That's not my state." But if this is happening in Virginia, you can count on the fact that if it's not happening in your state right now, it will soon. If it's not in your backyard, and it very well might be, it will be in your backyard soon, simply because the influence of the professional guilds, the ideologues, and the government regulators, that influence is trending in only one direction. But you also have the fact that most recently, an organization of school boards in the United States wrote to the president of the United States demanding that the Justice Department, indeed, even the FBI, crack down on parents who are, in their words, creating a violent context at school board meetings by debates over critical race theory or sex education or parental involvement. They are intimidating educators. They are harassing school boards.
Now let's be clear, Christians understand that we must always exercise respect, and that includes respect for the law. We must always indicate respect for our neighbors. We must respect an orderly school board meeting. But let's face it, that's not what's going on here. This is instead intended to intimidate parents and to use the law enforcement arm of the federal government to tell parents to stay home or at least stay quiet. More ominously, the attorney general of the United States, Merrick Garland, has indicated that he intends to instruct the Department of Justice, including the FBI, to participate in an investigation as to whether parental involvement in this case does represent intimidation or harassment. Now The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article simply stating that, "Merrick Garland," the attorney general, "has a list, and you are probably on it." The "you" there meaning parents or any informed citizen intending to be involved in debates over school curriculum issues at school board meetings. Your name is probably on his list.
Now, again, one of the reasons why these debates are so hot and the stakes are so high is because we're talking about what will and will not be presented to children and young people in the public schools as the truth, as the appropriate worldview, as the right way to conceive reality, as the right way to understand right and wrong, the right way to read history, the right way to understand sexual morality, the right way to understand gender, gender orientation. The entire LGBTQ array is to be presented, and we know that. It's becoming a matter of not only of social coercion, but of political coercion and regulatory coercion.
But in order to understand how this happened, I want to take us back to the 1980s. In the 1980s, the authors Brigitte Berger and Peter L. Berger, they were married by the way, and two of the most prominent sociologists in the United States, Peter Berger, one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the United States. They wrote a book entitled The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground. It's interesting that at least then it was conceivable that there might be middle ground. That's largely inconceivable now. But nonetheless, it was really interesting, in their book, The War Over the Family, the Bergers wrote about the encroachment of an entire regime of experts when it comes to the family and when it comes to parents. The experts became the new authorities.
Actually, they identified three different forces impinging upon the family. One was made up of militant activists, including feminists, gay activists, that would now be described as LGBTQ activists, and those who were described as redistributive egalitarians, that would be neo-Marxists, when it comes to political and economic theory. These were radical activists calling for radical change in the United States. Now, the thing we need to note is that that group certainly existed in the 1980s, but it was hard to imagine then that that group would exercise a great deal of direct pressure in America's public schools across the country.
The second group was made up of Middle Americans and they were in the business community. They included religious Americans. And they held to a pro-family position. But the third group was made up of the regulatory class, the elites, the new knowledge class, the symbolic analysts, as some economists call them. The people who traffic in ideas. They include highly educated elites and regulators and experts, whether they be psychologists or psychiatrists or social workers or sociologists or pediatricians, all of these professions develop their own guilds, and most of those guilds have moved in a very liberal direction.
But all of them together began telling parents how it was that they were to understand and to raise their children. Outside authorities began to invade. At first, they invaded with books. Just think of the books of Dr. Benjamin Spock. They were presented as authoritative, even though his permissive parenting and his understanding, his humanistic understanding of children, that came from the left wing even back at the time his books came out. But nonetheless, through popular culture and by bestseller lists and just by word of mouth and the books, Benjamin Spock became the so-called expert in raising children.
You had other experts who followed. And of course, by the time you get to, say, the 21st century, you have experts such as Oprah openly telling parents with great cultural authority how they should and should not raise their children. Oprah even presenting the fact that elementary school-aged children should be allowed to transition in gender and parents should just come to terms with the child's new gender identity. Just get with it. The authority, Oprah, has told you to join the revolution.
But this regime of experts includes those who are social workers and an entire class, but that includes educators, educators as a professional class. The point being made by the Bergers together in this book, The War Over the Family, is that the biggest cultural subversion of the family didn't come from the militant activists, it came from the regulators. It came from the knowledge class. It came from the elites.
Now, we should note that if you fast forward to 2021, the unexpected did happen. The militant activists increasingly gain control. And this is something that has happened not only when you think of the school systems, it has happened not only in academia and higher education, on college and university campuses, it's happened in contexts such as a paper like The New York Times, where you had liberals who hired radicals, and now the radicals are firing the liberals.
All that to say, what's going on in school board meetings in the state of Texas over critical race theory, what is happening in the gubernatorial election in Virginia over whether or not parents should be involved in making educational decisions about curriculum in the public schools for their children, these debates are now of outsize importance. And they are symbolic of the larger context of the challenge faced by American Christians, and especially by American parents. Right now, one of the jobs that requires the greatest courage, one of the roles that requires the deepest conviction, is that of a Christian parent in an increasingly post-Christian America.
The Moral Revolution in a Single Article — USA Today Imbeds Transgender Ideology In a Report About Texas Abortion Law
But finally, today on The Briefing, I want to take us to a news story at USA Today. Yes, another at USA Today. The article's entitled, "Some See More Burdens from Abortion Law." The subhead, "Trans Men, Non-Binary People Most Vulnerable to Texas Changes." Mabinty Quarshie is the author, the reporter of the story. And what we're being told here is that there's a disproportionate burden falling on some people in the state of Texas, given Texas's very strong law against abortion. And you can tell where this story is going. Just consider however, how it begins. Listen to these words, "The summer before Emmett Schelling's senior year of high school, he was sexually assaulted. Schelling, who was 17 years old, found out in November of his senior year he was pregnant, around the time he was going to sign a letter of intent for college." That's the direct quote from the article. Again, notice the pronouns. We are told that he found out he was pregnant. He found out that he was pregnant about the time he was going to sign a letter of intent for college.
Well, you see the problem. The argument here is that this is a pregnant young man. We as Christians know that is an impossibility, by the way. Biologists also know that is an impossibility. But nonetheless, you see how the political leverage in the moral revolution is being used here. It's being used to say, "Look, you're supposed to believe that this is self-evidently wrong. Here you have someone who is unable to obtain an abortion and then was forced to have a baby." And just to make the revolution complete, in this case, the pronoun "he" is used.
Well, these days it's often that you just look at one news article and you say, "Well, there's the whole revolution." Just in a matter of a half page of print, just in a matter of a few paragraphs, there's the whole revolution. A revolution that by the way, earlier this week on The Briefing, we saw linked the issues of transgender identity and abortion rights. And that was being made by someone who was advocating for trans rights, as they are construed, and abortion rights. But here we see exactly how that case is made both implicitly and explicitly in the mainstream media.
The interesting thing here is that this article in USA Today, intended for the general reading public in the United States, is implied to be on its face evidence of why the Texas abortion law should be rescinded. Of course, it's not likely that many people in Texas are going to be moved by this article. The point is, all USA Today is trying to do... But it's not all. What USA today and others are trying to do is just to keep moving the needle. Move it a little bit today, move it a little bit more tomorrow. Make this appear normal. Make this appear right. Make it appear normal. Make it appear right. Make the reader think that the reader's supposed to be offended by the anti-abortion law, rather than by the reality of the contradiction of creation that is found in the pronouns with which the article begins.
It's just important that what we see here in the entire conversation that we've had today on The Briefing, that everything is actually coming down to this fundamental collision of worldviews. It's not a disagreement over this issue and that issue, it's a disagreement over the definition of reality. It's a debate over what's going to be taught to children in the public schools. It's a debate with consequences that we now know with the law on abortion really do come down to life and death.
We're looking at two rival worldviews at every point, right down to understanding the most basic reality. And one and only one of these worldviews will be in the driver's seat. Only one. Keep that in mind.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.