Can America’s public schools be fixed, or should Christian parents wave good-bye to the broken system? That’s the question posed in a new documentary which links public schools with the decline of Christianity in America.
Colin Gunn, the co-director of Indoctrination, says “People are starting to wake up to the damaging effects of a government controlled education monopoly.”
That monopoly, claims Gunn, is responsible for many of the problems that America now faces. “[H]igh taxation, welfare dependency, government debt . . . we have to see we can’t solve those problems until we solve the public schooling problem.”
To shoot the film, Gunn, his wife Emily, and their eight children traveled across America in a big yellow school bus. The bus, which periodically breaks down during their travels, becomes the metaphor for a broken down school system that, according to the film, is beyond repair.
The movie catalogues the problems plaguing public schools: students are not learning-illiteracy is on the rise; students are not being taught a moral framework-immorality is on the rise. Christian students in public schools are losing their faith-youth membership in churches is on the decline.
The 2004 Southern Baptist Convention highlighted these facts when they debated a proposal urging parents to remove their children from government schools. Those in favor pointed to a study showing that 88 percent of Southern Baptist youth left the church after graduation from government schools. Others argued that removing the “salt” of Christian children and godly teachers would allow “the darkness” to take over. Franklin Graham told the convention, “Let’s don’t surrender public schools; let’s take ’em back.”
Colin Gunn argues in IndoctriNation that public schools were never “ours” to begin with. His main thesis: America’s public school system was forged in New England by the combined efforts of Massachusetts state school superintendent Horace Mann, the socialist Owenites, and Protestants who wanted to prevent Roman Catholic parochial schools from gaining a footing.
Most history of education textbooks, such as the one I used with teacher education students, credit Horace Mann with “reforming” education in New England. “One of Mann’s most enduring legacies was to help replace the Calvinist view that children, being naturally depraved at birth, must have the ‘devil beaten out of them,’” says a commonly used text, School and Society. Gunn correctly points out that this turn away from a belief in original sin to the humanist view of human perfectibility has become a hallmark of today’s public school curricula.
What can be disputed, however, is the extent that Mann and his cohorts were responsible for establishing local public schools across America. In his forthcoming book, Founding Zealots: How Evangelicals Created America's First Public Schools, Tom Hagedorn argues that community schools were established by a variety of activists-whom he calls “zealots.” Most were Christians who were “driven by the desire to expose all children to the message of the gospel and to train them in Biblical standards of morality.” They “worked together in state after state in New England, the Midwest, and the Far West (California and Oregon) to organize and fund public schools that were available to all children.”
Hagedorn says, “It is very clear from their writings that the spiritual mission of the schools was the most important. Second, was the mission to educate good citizens (civic education). And actually, the third and least important mission was the acquisition of intellectual skills and knowledge.”
This untold history of the establishment of local community schools across America gives evidence that the founders’ vision that “religion and morality” should be the two indispensible pillars of a free nation had a stronger influence on the organizing of our early public schools than is assumed.
What has become of these schools in the past 50 years, however, is another matter. And IndoctriNation includes compelling personal stories to illustrate how far we have strayed away from that original vision of a “spiritual mission” for our local community schools.
Examples include a high school graduate who tells Gunn’s wife that the pressure to forsake her faith was so strong that she never told anyone she was a Christian. Several teachers tell of pressure not to talk about their Christian faith: a high school math teacher was fired for talking about Jesus in his math class; a fifth grade teacher was not allowed to send a letter to her students’ parents explaining that she was resigning because she could not teach a curriculum that excludes God. A school principal concluded after 15 years in the public school system, “If you are truly ‘salt and light,’ you will not be in the system for long.”
The film ends with a clear call to parents to take their children out of public schools-and the big yellow school bus is demolished.
But, can we, or should we, as Christians, abandon the public schools? That is the question I will consider in more detail in “Can America’s Schools Be Fixed or Do We Abandon Them? Part II”