The Smell of Subsidized Freedom

August 31, 2007

By Tammy Drennan

Charter schools and private schools funded by state vouchers are all in vogue, as you surely know. It’s the hope of the future, the reform that’s going to work (really, this one will).

If you have your doubts, take a look at the Aug. 31, 2007 Wall Street Journal article by Nathaniel Popper (who does not proffer an opinion in this case), Chartering a New Course. He highlights two religious charter schools – one Islamic, one Jewish. Well, sort of religious – in a marginal sort of way. After all, they do receive state funds. So they can do some religious things, like eat kosher and even hang Hebrew posters on the walls.

Mr. Popper reports that the language classes at the Jewish school, Ben Gamla Charter School, “have been carefully scrubbed of any mention of God.” Hebrew classes came to a halt “after state inspectors found a few questionable lines…”

Ah, the smell of state-funded freedom.

The Muslim school, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, is also careful to keep religion and education in separate boxes.

Now you may not be religious, and you may think keeping religion out of education is a good thing. That’s your choice, because we do still live in a free country. But if you are religious and your religion informs your worldview in any serious way, you must surely see the problem with pretending that history and social studies and language and science can be approached without applying the standards of your beliefs. Do we believe Hitler was wrong? Why? Do we believe in human cloning, stem cell research? Why/Why not? How about euthanasia, infanticide, democracy, theocracy, dictatorship, and on and on? Was Rousseau right or wrong or a little of both? Should Freud have seen a psychiatrist? And how about this one: What role should the state play in defining and forcing the shape of the future?

What could possibly be the point of a religious school that can’t take religion seriously? Mr. Popper suggests that it may have something to do with what can be kept out of the school rather than what can be incorporated into the curriculum. So our new standard for educating our children amounts to shielding them from Harry Potter and drugs and some of the special interest groups that typically prey on public school children. Phooey on the wisdom (and the mistakes) of the past, phooey on reasons for history and ethics in science. Phooey on investigating man’s eternal quest for meaning.

Education, apparently, is all about accumulating facts (we do, after all, live in the Information Age), spitting them out on tests, and preparing to support the state in the fashion to which it has become accustomed. How, When Where, What… but not Why. We’re willing to settle for that, as long as the state pays and lets us take a moment during the day to memorize a prayer.

So, for a few pieces of silver, the state continues to buy us off and continues to define us, right down to our religion. And what does freedom mean? I guess it means not having to pay.