'In Defense of the Public Schools' By Paul Kurtz, Editor, _Free Inquiry_ magazine, profess
"In Defense of the Public Schools"
By Paul Kurtz, Editor, _Free Inquiry_ magazine, professor of philosophy
Editorial, Fall 1992, Copyright 1992.
Powerful forces in America are seeking to privatize the public schools.
Proponents argue that parents ought to have the freedom to send their children
to the schools of their choice. President George Bush, and Ronald Reagan
before him, have proposed the voucher plan, which would provide $1,000 per
family of low and middle income, no doubt as a first step.
Similarly, entrepreneur Christopher Whittle and Benno Schmidt, outgoing
president of Yale University, have announced an ambitious plan to create a
chain of 1,000 private schools. They say that these schools will allow "free
choice" (a desirable libertarian goal) and also provide for "innovation" and
"experiment" (also desirable goals). They hope that this will be only the
first of many similar private chains (_a_la_ McDonald's and Burger King)
competing for the consumer's dollar. The going rate will be $5,500 in tuition
at first, but they promise scholarships for poor and lower-middle class
children, though undoubtedly the awards will be limited.
There are serious drawbacks to this proposal that need to be weighed
carefully before we rush into _laissez-faire_ education. First, it's simply
not true that all public schools are failures. This is a libel against
dedicated teachers and caring communities where parents and other citizens are
involved in running the schools -- approving budgets and achieving education
excellence. Granted, many inner city schools face serious problems, but they
are a reflection of deeper social and economic problems.
Second, and more important, it is the public schools that have helped to
create American democracy and to blend the children of immigrants of earlier
generations into a viable society. The public schools provide common ground
for children of different economic, racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds
to live and learn together in shared experience, as humanist John Dewey pointed
out. They nourished the civic virtues of the democratic society. Today there
are loud voices against "the melting pot" -- perhaps "mixed salad" is a better
metaphor, for all took part in the common plate, yet retained some identity.
But what is the alternative? Entirely separate and unequal schools in which
children of different ethnicities and nationalities do not have the opportunity
to meet? This kind of educational system can only further divide the country
into competing groups, and it is a recipe for disaster. Instead of engendering
multicultural respect, it might further exacerbate differences and make
conflict a permanent part of the cultural scene.
Public schools have provided unparalleled opportunities for learning the
arts and sciences and developing the skills of critical thinking and an
appreciation for the value of tolerance. Replacing them with a private system
endangers the very fabric of our democracy.
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