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Letter: ‘Cultural Wasteland’

The drive toward secularization in American public schools since the 1960s is most unfortunate because without religious understanding, it becomes difficult to comprehend everything from the Reformation and settlement of the New World to the force behind abolitionism and the great social reform movements of the 19th century that shaped our history. It’s also wonderfully ironic.

Public education began by the Puritans because they believed knowledge of the world was connected to knowledge of its Creator; that the Bible and other theological writings deemed essential to the individual’s salvation could only facilitate that salvation if the individual was literate enough to comprehend Scripture. The philosophy was a continuation of the link between religious institutions and educational institutions that hark back to the Middle Ages with the church creating the universities of Europe that later served as a substrate for the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, by 1660, there were more than 400 public schools in England and, among their kindred in the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies, the literacy rate was as high as 85 percent. That’s a sobering thought when we pause to consider that in 2011 America’s literacy rate is lower than Russia, Western Europe, Japan and Singapore and that, indeed, many counties in the U.S. had a higher literacy rate in 1880.

If religious freedom and educational freedom are linked, then that which assails educational freedom is analogous to religious oppression; a human rights issue. Enter Kelly Williams-Bolar, the Ohio woman jailed last year for lying to public school officials in the Copley-Fairlawn School District about her residence. She lived in an inferior school district and falsified records to get her kids into a Copley-Fairlawn school where she believes they will receive a better education in a safer environment. Now I don’t approve of falsifying public records. I’ve personally observed police officers, lawyers, and judges do it with impunity on more than one occasion. But we don’t live in the land of Leave It to Beaver. We live with corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracies and political patronage mills and those who work for a living - as opposed to those who sponge-off those who work for a living - are generally the first to feel the brunt. Kelly Williams-Bolar is a working class mother and that means she must “game the system” to provide for her family much as people in the Soviet Union needed to bribe corrupt officials for the necessities of life. It also means that, via state and federal taxes siphoned from her paycheck, she is subsidizing education in all the school districts in Ohio and beyond - including affluent ones in which she could never hope to live. She’s subsidizing her own poverty. Perhaps they owe her a refund.

Instead of treating Williams-Bolar as a criminal, she should receive a Parent of the Year Award. Her kids have something in their lives that’s becoming increasingly rare in America: someone who cares about education. Too many public school educators care more about their pensions, paychecks, unions, vacation days and political patronage jobs to concern themselves with the transmission of thousands of years of human knowledge to the next generation. Too many professional educators care more about the classroom’s ethnic composition, self-esteem workshops, and pop culture psychobabble than teaching mathematics, science, history and literature. Too many students care more about clothes, shopping, makeovers, sports, pop culture icons, texting, sexting, drinking and smoking dope than increasing their knowledge of the world. Too many parents care more about Facebook, the Superbowl, the latest hand-held gadget and what’s on sale at Wal-Mart than their kids ever obtaining marketable skills.

A century from now, when America is no more important on the world scene than the Congo, historians will cite the decline of learning as the principal factor. Perhaps this is why the Williams-Bolar case has inflamed such controversy. She’s a reminder of how much America, in its pursuit of narcissistic hedonism, has give up on its children’s future.

If the freedom to pursue knowledge via education is akin to the freedom to pursue faith via religion, than the Puritans of the 17th century have contemporary counterparts. The literacy rate in Islamic and Asian countries, for example, has rapidly increased since 1970 as it’s declined in America. We’ve seen a revival of Islamic, Confucian and Hindu scholarship and teachings just as there was a revival of Biblical scholarship and teachings among the Puritans. We’re witnessing a rejection of the West’s hedonism and materialism that is manifest in a pornographic, consumer-oriented culture obsessed with rock stars and athletes just as the Puritans rejected extravagance and frivolity. This cultural and spiritual awakening and growing literacy in Islamic and Asian nations coincides with that part of the world producing an ever-increasing share of engineers, technicians, surgeons, microbiologists, and medical researchers. If the West is to compete with this and preserve its culture and heritage it will need an intellectual revolution to match the political revolution it needs to rid itself of rule by corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracies. That intellectual revolution starts with homework and school projects at the dinner table, family outings to museums, and homes festooned with books, scientific specimens, and art works; in homes where Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein, Aristotle, Christ and Darwin mean more than Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. It starts with tiger moms (and dads) standing up to the sauropods, who offer nothing for our children but spiritual and intellectual extinction in a cultural wasteland.

Paul Manton