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american educationCan public education in the United States be saved? Given the stranglehold of teachers’ unions over school districts and state legislatures, the constant meddling of an ideologically motivated federal Education Department, the sheer weight of bureaucracy, and the commitment to mediocrity? Perhaps not. But we all should keep in mind that things could be far worse than they are for students and their parents. Take Germany, for example. In that former homeland of wisdom and learning, a law originally enacted under the Nazi regime has been given renewed force by a judge who has refused to return custody to Dirk and Petra Wunderlichs of their children on the grounds that they might take the kids outside Germany in order to homeschool them. And homeschooling, this judge and the German government declare, is a “concrete endangerment” to children.

There was a time, not so long ago, when a judge might have handed down the same kind of decision in many of our states. The flowering of the homeschool movement in this country was aided immeasurably by the decline of state laws enforcing mandatory schooling. Licensed private schools were allowed, of course, but homeschooling was, in a number of jurisdictions, illegal for decades. The same might happen again, of course. Several members of the Ohio state legislature recently attempted to gain a hearing for a bill that would have allowed social workers to play the role of that German judge, “protecting” children from the “concrete endangerment” of homeschooling.

But American education today is enriched by the existence of a widespread, active homeschool movement. Many others know more about this movement than do I, of course—for a variety of reasons, my wife and I have made the imperfect choice of parochial education for our kids, despite the problems of cost, quality, and sometimes problematic catechesis that entails. Nonetheless, homeschooling provides a crucial alternative to public schools, and even at times a counterweight to the power of our educratic elites. I can think of no better sign of how much the movement thrives than the numerous school districts in various states that offer homeschool families art, music, athletic and even science instruction and facilities in order to “claim” them for funding purposes, while leaving parents fundamentally in charge of their children’s education. Homeschoolers remain a small minority in our country, but have gained enough clout to defend themselves in important ways; the Ohio anti-homeschooling bill, for example, was all but ignored.

So, what does any of this have to do with the inestimable Annette Kirk, widow of Russell Kirk and head of the highly important Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal? Her education story attests to the power of patience, careful drafting, and sheer persistence and—even more—principle. In the early years of the Reagan Administration, the Department of Education put together a National Commission on Excellence in Education. While supporters of the Administration had hoped the Commission would work to eliminate the Education Department altogether and return control to the states and localities, it soon became apparent that the Education Secretary (Terel Bell) and top bureaucrats had no intention of letting that happen, particularly given their choice of members for the Commission.

Annette Kirk was among those genuine conservatives placed on the Commission, and was soon pressed by many other conservatives to either resign or use her post to grandstand against the educrats intent on increasing federal power. After all, what of any substance could be accomplished by a conservative serving on a commission consisting mostly of establishment-types who simply wanted the government to throw more money and rules at public schools to make them “better”?

Quite a bit, actually. Again, in a sense no one would know this, given the continuing decline in public education. But principle does matter in politics. And somewhere along the way to yet another establishment report, some genuine reform proposals and useful dates were set forward and, much more importantly, a critical principle was inserted into the document, and salvaged for American education.

The principle? Parents are the first and primary educators of their children. Sounds obvious, no? Tell that to the German judge. Tell that to the Ohio state legislators. But the principle made it into A Nation at Risk, and President Reagan led with it in the press conference announcing release of the report.

So what, you say? What can a single phrase in a single report, even if highlighted by the President, do to save American education? It can provide public support for a longstanding tradition, helping protect it against ideological attacks during the shifting policy and legal battles in which our public life has for so long been embroiled. Liberal members of the commission were outraged at the press conference, and for good reason. This principle stands in the way of federal control over all aspects of education because it supports the right of parents to argue with, to fight, and even to withdraw from the clutches of those who have turned education, far too often, into mediocrity and politically correct indoctrination.

In the three decades since A Nation at Risk came out, American education has mostly gotten worse—much worse. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have increased federal controls, destructive “rubrics,” and the concomitant power of educrats hostile to the traditional texts and mores that once allowed for excellence in education. But, thanks in no small measure to homeschooling (and its related spin-off, “choice in education”), we have more choices, and more opportunities to give our kids opportunities for genuine, wholesome and nurturing educations that ground them in humane studies that can provide them with the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural grounding necessary for a good life. And we owe these choices to the continuing powerful, though obviously contested, recognition of the primary role of parents in educating their children. More than any other “reform,” an increasing respect for this principle of parental control and policies that would make it more real would improve the chances for our children to receive a genuine education.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Don’t neglect to mention that parents have been fighting the battle to retain control of their children’s education for a long time. Irish Catholics who created their own schools in a then-Protestant America, are one early illustration.

    Another is a key 1925 Supreme Court decision, Pierce v. Society of Sisters. Technically, Oregon didn’t ban private schools, it merely required a full-day’s attendance at public schools, leaving little time for any other schooling. To their great credit, the US Supreme Court tossed out the law with an impressive 9 to 0 vote. I do suspect, however, that much of the reason lay in the fact that, along with effectively shutting down Catholic schools, the law would have also crushed elite college prep private academies.

    By the way the Walter M. Pierce of that decision was Oregon’s governor at the time, but his background was as a school bureaucrat. Sometimes governors reluctantly support their state’s laws. He zealously defended this one. It so damaged his reputation with Catholics with that school law that he became something rare among 1930s politicians, an open supporter of Margaret Sanger’s anti-Catholic eugenic birth control agenda. I’ve got a database on the more interesting letters in the collections of her correspondence and there are almost 40 letters between the two of them.

    Incidentally, if someone is interesting in researching and writing on Sanger as seen through her letters, I’d be happy to offer what help I can. They would need, however, to have access to her microfilmed papers WorldCat can tell them where they’re available. They can contact me at editor at inklingbooks (you know what punctuation) com.

    At times I’ve thought of developing what might be called a NRA Index of political effectiveness, named after the National Rifle Association’s quite able Second Amendment advocacy. From what I’ve seen, the only groups that match its effectiveness are the homeschoolers and they often benefit from the fact that parents across the political spectrum agree that they don’t want the state dictating what their children are taught.

    And in the case of Germany, it helps to recall the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf of Bismarck’s 1870s Germany. It’s particularly interesting in that it wasn’t religious Protestants in Germany beating up on Catholics. Devout Catholics, Jews and Protestants had agreed that religious education was to be left to the parents. To ensure that in Prussia, all three groups agreed to ensure that the Minister of Culture should be a devout Protestant, it being the majority religion. He would then look out for all three religions.

    When Bismarck appointed someone who was secular and liberal to the post, it signaled the beginning of his war on Catholicism in order to solicit National Liberal support. But note that he wasn’t setting devout Protestants on Catholics, they were as much outraged by what Bismarck was doing as the Catholics.

    I’m certainly no expert on the complexities of 19th century German history, but I suspect that the roots of today’s madness lie in the Kulturkampf or, more accurately, in the National Liberal dogmas that inspired it. Germany had a lot of trouble coming together as a nation and some groups, particularly big, central government liberals, overdid their efforts to create that Eine Reich. Since religion can be seen as dividing the country, religion had to be driven from the schools. And indeed any difference needed to be driven out, hence today’s hostility to homeschooling.

    It’s the classic Germany problem, the fact that Germans, or at least the educated ones, seem unable to do anything by halves or to come up with pragmatic compromises. The pastor of an international church in Munich told me that he thought that stemmed in part from the division in the German school system between realschules (excuse the spelling), which prepare students for practical work like business or engineering, and the gymnasiums, which prepare for academia. The latter, he said, have no roots in reality and spin theories ungrounded in reality.

    We see something similar in our country between traditional disciplines such as history and the various “studies” programs. In the former, areas where there’s little controversy tend to teach the discipline and objectivity to deal with other areas where emotions run high. In the studies programs, everything is driven by dogmas and agendas and the results are disastrous.

    Those who’d like to know more about the Kulturkampf, might want to read biographies of Ludwig Windthorst, the chief opponent of Bismarck and a brilliant political leader and perhaps the only German politician who could go toe-to-toe with Bismarck and win.

    Keep in mind that issues such as freedom of speech and, more recently, the right to bear arms, have had quite a bit written about their histories and their rationale. Similar books need to be written about the importance of giving parents control of their children’s education.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II

  2. Excellent piece, Professor Frohnen. Thank you! It does indeed make all the difference if we acknowledge that the first principle of educational policy is that the parents, not the various levels of government, are the primary educators of their children. Hooray for Mrs. Kirk and President Reagan, who established this principle at the highest level.

  3. Seems like mostly wishful thinking in view of what is occurring today. Public education in 20 years has really begun to dumb down the masses. A teacher in a religious school told me that when he began 20 years ago, the students averages for Introduction to the New Testament were As and Bs, Today they average C-s. Home schooling works better on the average any day than public schooling. I know of one teacher (for special ed. students), who retired early, because the central office of education for this state had a computer in her room. They controlled everything she did in that class. She had no room for creativity, etc. I have heard from others along the same lines. One told me, a first grade teacher, that she and the other teachers cried after meeting with the administrative leaders in her primary school (she taught first grade).

  4. Annette Kirk is one of the true shining examples of how principle, applied with energy and determination and dedication to the permanent things, can affect even the most evil plans of the enemies of the republic. Bruce Frohnen’s eloquent description of how this can and might happen is instructive to us all. We should also remember, however, that it was the Reagan administration’s decision to fund the DOE and give it to the giant neocon Bill Bennett that made it the true monstrosity that it is.

  5. Nice piece, Bruce, and well-deserved praise for Annette. A great example of how a single person can make a huge difference.

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