After teaching for ten years in three public high schools and one prison, I’ve arrived at an adequate answer to this question. But before I give my answer and attempt to justify it, I invite the reader to answer this question for himself.
What is missing from public education is a recognition of the students’ humanity. The central educational problem today is not declining test scores nor illiteracy nor the absence of prayer nor the evident excess of immorality and violence. These are mere symptoms. It is the public schools’ (reduced) vision of the human person: “citizen, consumer, worker” are the approved secular end-products of public education. But each of these conceptions of the person reduces the person to a means to an end, to a mere function. One need not be an Immanuel Kant or a Karol Wojtyla or even a believer to notice that there is something profoundly amiss with the anthropology of public education.
This is especially disturbing given the whole backdrop of so-called school reform: schools are urged to gobble more and more of a child’s time and what is the vision that the school has for the child’s destiny? The greatest good in public education is “success,” which is as pernicious as it is vacuous. After all, being successful simply means accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. Although I have not met even one public school teacher who would suggest that being a successful axe-murderer is a worthy goal, there is nothing in the doctrine of Successism that could rule this out a priori.
Success for public educators generally means graduating from high school, going to college and getting a good job. All of these are good things, but the rub is we’re made for great things, not merely good things. Indeed, we are made for the Infinite! But the secular ideal – with its so-called religious neutrality – is to immerse one in the here and now but to simultaneously suppress the deepest yearnings of the heart that are provoked by a meaningful engagement with reality.
Thus in public education everything gets short-circuited: the mystery of affection and sexuality is reduced to mutual indifference and “safety”; the desire to know the Origin of everything is dumbed-down to a superficial approach to evolutionary biology while a hostility between faith and reason is presumed but never argued for; religion, when it is even touched upon, becomes a realm of one opinion versus another, but it is never taken as a serious proposal for one’s life.
The practical reality that faces us is something truly Orwellian: in public education ALL RELIGIONS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME RELIGIONS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. Agnosticism rules the roost and it is unquestioned.
For Catholics and others who reject the public schools’ great sin of omission, and recognize their own responsibility for their children, there are several positions to take. One can wish and pray that the State will recognize its obligation to help fund all schools (public, private, parochial), but the risk is seeing the Second Coming before that happens. Or one might say, “Well, you get what you pay for,” so public education isn’t so bad and perhaps an hour or two of CCD and/or taking an interest in my child’s formation will “inoculate” her from secularism. Or one might opt to send their children to a Catholic school if it’s financially viable. Others look to homeschooling as a way to ensure that both solid academics and Catholic doctrine get communicated. Still others homeschool and find some form of one day per week enrichment program (public or private) that helps with the more difficult subjects or simply gets the kids working with their peers.
My wife and I have done all of these at one time or another (except for the Catholic school option) and have found that what matters most is being attentive to the needs of each child, every year. While the powers that be are blind to the glorious destiny that awaits all of us in Christ, this is no reason for us to settle for the inanity of secularism.