17 February 2010

The Separation of Education and State

A New York Times article, “How Christian Were the Founders?” reveals some alarming trends of the Texas Board of Education to direct the curriculum toward religion. The thing that makes the annual meeting of this particular state board significant is that according to the Times article, the Texas board is the most influential in the country – and also one of the most socially conservative.

The article is somewhat lengthy, but worth reading in its entirety for some of its frightening details. (It gets a little bogged down in concretes, pitting one side of the argument against the other, but I suppose that aligns with its journalistic intent.) One of the prominent figures in the article is Don McLeroy, a current Texas Board of Education member and former chairman who was removed from that top position for his aggressive attempt to insert creationism into the classroom:

[McLeroy] identifies himself as a young-earth creationist who believes that the earth was created in six days, as the book of Genesis has it, less than 10,000 years ago . . . ‘Textbooks are mostly the product of the liberal establishment, and they’re written with the idea that our religion and our liberty are in conflict,’ he said. ‘But Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.

For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. ‘There are two basic facts about man, he said. ‘He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society.’[Note 2, emphasis mine.]

I don’t want to spend time in this post refuting the several items I disagree with in that quote because there is another point I wish to focus on. In other writings, I’ve addressed the fundamental incompatibility between faith and individual rights (and its derivatives, including capitalism). And notwithstanding isolated quotes (like Madison’s, “If men were angels . . .”), the notion that the life-embracing, Enlightenment principles of America are based in essence upon a “fallen man” point of view is absurd.

The main point I wish to make is that although I sympathize with this Times author’s implicit warning of the incursion of religion into public schools, I see no indication that he grasps the fact that makes it truly lethal: that it is imposed by the state. One gets the impression from the article, particularly from its first few paragraphs, that as long as the Texas Board signs off on text books praising Ted Kennedy instead of William F. Buckley, Jr., or Jimmy Carter instead of Ronald Reagan, then it is perfectly acceptable for the state to ram its monolithic message down students’ throats. The author is irked only because it is not his views that are being declared as the official ones.

The article cites some economic reasons why the Texas Board is particularly influential; they have a huge educational budget, buying and distributing some 48 million textbooks per year. The problem here, however, is not economic power but political power.

If private schools demand that creationism be taught alongside actual science, or that history books be re-written to indicate that America was founded upon Christian values, they have every right to do so. I vehemently disagree with such nonsense, of course, and I sharply criticize it. But private schools that teach creationism (or for that matter, leftist dogma like multiculturalism and quasi-religious environmentalist orthodoxy), however ubiquitous they could become on a free market, cannot block out competing ideas by force. Only governments can do that.

For the very same reason that there must be a separation of church and state, there ought to be a separation of education and state. Governments should not be controlling what children think.[Note 3.] Everything a government does is by its nature compulsory. The more consolidated and federalized public education becomes, the more it uses force to present a single message to students. The very presence of public schools disrupts the potential market of private schools, displacing - and in some cases, eliminating - the ability of competitors to offer other ideas.

Of course, the free market cannot guarantee that schools will teach objective history and science. But what the free market does guarantee is that objective facts will not be silenced or smothered by force.


1. Image credit, The New York Times, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-span/14texbooks-1-articleLarge.jpg.

2. Russell Shorto, “How Christian Were the Founders?” The New York Times, 11 Feb 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-t.html?tntemail1=y&emc=tnt&pagewanted=all.

3. An excellent resource on this topic is the ARC web page, Separation of Education and State (http://principlesofafreesociety.com/separation-of-education-and-state/).

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