By JOHN M. CRISP
Roger Moran would like for more of us to withdraw our children from the public schools and teach them at home. A member of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, Moran believes that public schools are places where God is ridiculed, where drugs and alcohol are rampant, and where promiscuous — even homosexual — lifestyles are encouraged.
According to a recent Associated Press article by David Crary, Moran complains, "Humanism and evolution can be taught, but everything I believe is disallowed."
Moran is a prominent proponent of a movement made up of groups like Considering Homeschooling Ministry and Exodus Mandate, which want to encourage as many as 1 million students to abandon public schools for homeschooling. If they’re successful, 1 million new homeschoolers will approximately double the population of the homeschooled to something over 2 million.
But this idea hasn’t achieved much traction with mainstream Baptists, who have rejected resolutions calling for the abandonment of the public schools at least three times at their annual convention. In fact, as it turns out, a Google search of "Roger Moran" reveals a spirited debate among Missouri Baptists in connection with him that carries on some of the most unseemly traditions of religious politics. It’s gotten a little ugly, and someone has even taken the trouble to create an online game called "Moranopoly."
So it appears that most Baptists are unconvinced by Moran’s marginal arguments and are reluctant to abandon public schooling as yet, resisting the call to jump on the homeschooling bandwagon.
I hope they continue to do so. Homeschooling is an entirely legitimate alternative, but the motivation to homeschool is often driven by the notion that our public schools are in corrupt disarray. This is an overstatement. In an Atlantic Monthly article (October 1997), Peter Schrag argues that part of the public schools’ bad reputation stems from the fact that no one is particularly interested in good news about public schools because maintaining a sense of crisis (drugs, crime, low test scores) serves the ends of liberals, who want more money for schools, as well as conservatives, who want vouchers or homeschooling.
In fact, Schrag says, while many people believe that public education is a mess, about 70 percent maintain that their local schools are doing just fine.
Undoubtedly some public schools are awful, but others are excellent. My nephew graduated from high school in a moderately affluent Houston suburb. He received a fine public-school education that included literature, arts, music, sports and sufficient science and math to prepare him to study engineering at a good university. His public school was clean, modern and well equipped. He learned the trumpet in an excellent school band that eventually played in Carnegie Hall. Now he works for NASA.
Unfortunately, not every public school is like his. The great failure of public education is that our society has been unwilling to provide the same access to quality education at all schools that we provide at our best schools. Therefore, our schools appear to stumble from crisis to crisis amid periodic calls for their replacement with voucher programs and more homeschooling.
Abandonment rather than improvement of our public schools would be an unfortunate choice. I’m attracted to the ideas of the late Neil Postman, who argues in his book "The End of Education" that to the extent that our nation enjoys a common shared culture, that culture has been developed and is passed on from generation to generation at least partly by means of the shared knowledge and ideas that we acquire during our common experience in the public schools.
In other words, because our public schools are a place where we develop a set of common stories, myths and experiences — George Washington crossing the Delaware, Betsy Ross sewing the first flag, even the fear of being sent to the principal — they encourage a sense of a shared heritage that helps pull our country together.
Homeschooling and vouchers for private schools — places that allow the teaching of the things that Roger Moran believes — tend to pull us apart. All in all, our public-school system has served us well; it would be better to repair its faults than to abandon it.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)