Should Public Schools Teach the Bible or the Koran?

28 May 2011

By Jacob G. Hornberger

A recent article about the First Amendment in the Christian Science Monitor reflects how differently libertarians think about religious and educational liberty compared to non-libertarians. The article is entitled "What If Public Schools Were Mandated to Teach Islamic Creation in Science Class?" by David Sessions, a 2008 graduate of Patrick Henry College and the editor of Patrol, a culture magazine in New York.

In his article, Sessions takes conservatives to task for trying to introduce Christian principles into public schools, including creationism and daily prayer. Since public schools are owned and operated by state or local governments, Sessions correctly points out that the First Amendment prohibits them from being used to promote religious principles to the students. As he observes, "Freedom of religion means keeping religion out of government." Attempts to introduce religious principles into public schools are, he correctly states, "an attack on American ideals."

He might have also pointed out that students are in public schools because the law forces them to be there. Thus, there is something unseemly about forcing children to attend a government institution, day after day for 12 years, where they receive some sort of religious indoctrination.

But which religion should be advanced in public schools?

As Sessions points out, that question will ultimately be resolved through majority vote. But suppose a school district fell within a heavily Islamic part of town and that the school board voted to approve the teaching of the Koran in school. Can't you just see Christian people with children in that particular school district going ape?

So, how would libertarians address this type of problem?

Unlike Sessions and so many others, we libertarians don't get involved in the debate over how statism should be run. You see, many people just accept the world as it is, statism and all, and then devote their lives to trying to figure out how to make statism work better or more efficiently.

Libertarians, in comparison, raise people's vision to a higher level, to a different paradigm, one devoted to the principles of a free society. Rather than taking positions on whether religious principles should be taught in public schools, or whether there should be prayer in public schools, or whether students in public schools should be required to wear uniforms, or whether students' lockers should be immune from arbitrary searches, we libertarians ask a much more fundamental question: Why should the state be involved in education at all?

Our answer, of course, is that it shouldn't. The state has no more business providing educational services than it does providing religious services. We don't have the state building churches, or training ministers, or forcing people to send their children to church. Why should it be any different with respect to education?

We libertarians ask: Why not separate school and state, in the same way our ancestors separated church and state? Then, the types of debates Sessions addresses in his article disappear. The free marketplace would bring into existence the educational services that met the wants and needs of the consumers. People who like Christian prayer in school would be free to send their children to that type of school. The same applies to people who subscribe to Jewish principles or Islamic principles. Atheists could select schools that have no religious principles taught in them.

In fact, all the fights over how public schools should be operated disappear with the end of government involvement in education. Differences of opinion on how children become educated become depoliticized, given that the matter of education is now in the private, free-market arena rather than the government arena.

Public schooling has been an absolute disaster, a fact reflected by President Obama's decision to not subject his own children to this state-run enterprise. The time has come to stop trying to figure out how the state should run its schools. It's time to raise our vision to a higher level, one that separates school and state, one in which we rely on the free market to provide educational services.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, a libertarian educational foundation whose books include Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families by Sheldon Richman.



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