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Editor’s Journal: A nation still at risk

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
—A Nation At Risk – 1983

The education system in the United States has become one of the most expensive enterprises in the world. Ranking near the top of the list of nations for its level of funding for universal or public education, the U.S. invests billions of dollars into a massive system that has grown to encompass everything from nutrition to exercise to parenting to athletics and, perhaps far behind other aspects of modern education, teaching. The modern classroom has become the laboratory for virtually every educational theory and practice over the last half century.

T. H. Bell, U.S. Secretary of Education from January 22, 1981 – January 20, 1985.

When President Ronald Reagan first called for a thorough study and report on the state of American education in the early 1980s, he formed one of the first national commissions to study American education. The National Commission on Excellence in Education produced what has become one of the most memorable government reports of all time. A Nation At Risk critically linked educational failure to the possibility of national demise. As American students sunk deeper into the quagmire of mediocrity and downright ignorance, the future of the nation was indeed at risk as more social programs would be required to supply essential life needs to the growing number of young Americans who could not read or write. With so little brainpower, America could be destroyed from within.

It was President Bill Clinton who first introduced the Goals 2000: Educate America Act which established a national education goals panel and worked to move all public education toward the accomplishment of eight national goals. By the year 2000, American education was on track to be transformed through participation and coordination at every level of education funding and service —national, state and local. Governors were seen as the leaders of education reform in their state, and they joined with business leaders as blue ribbon commissions were formed to recommend the path forward for students in every school across the nation.
It did not happen. Ten years after these goals were to be fully realized across the spectrum of American culture, students still evidence extreme difficulty regarding mathematics and science. Statistically, few students have mastered even basic algebra. Many cannot name the first president of the United States and even less can write a simple paper with paragraphs outlining coherent thought. Schools in high poverty regions often resemble prisons with barbed wire and security officers stationed in each hallway. Those who cannot afford tuition at a private school or homes in upper scale suburbs are forced to settle for a substandard education where most students will find themselves moving from the classroom to the street to prison.

Knowledge and the skills developed from it is the key to usefulness and advancement in the modern world. The ability to begin and sustain an aptitude for learning throughout life is critical given the fast pace of 21st century realities. For many, the modern American education system is not providing those skills, and parents are demanding answers. After decades of “reform,” however, a growing number of parents have simply walked away from the entire endeavor. Believing the public education system to be toxic to learning, the homeschooling movement has grown to unimaginable proportions.

Almost 2 million students are now homeschooled (almost 3 percent of the entire school-aged population) and there is no sign of decline. School choice, charter schools and vouchers dominate discussions of education reform. The need is so critical that even politics is often put aside to address the root of the problem. Adapting educational opportunities and delivery systems to the free market of supply and demand has resulted in shocking discoveries for many government and business leaders. When given a choice as to where their children will go to school, most parents prefer options that are not determined by the federal or state government. Rather, they prefer to choose for themselves who will teach their children.

In June, 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention went on record by passing a resolution in support of public education. At that time, the SBC was concerned that no public funds go to support private education. They reaffirmed their belief “that the use of public funds for education in church-controlled schools, regardless of the manner in which these funds are channeled to church schools, is contrary to the principle of religious liberty.”

Fast forward almost 40 years and Southern Seminary president, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., wrote in 2005: “I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools.” In response, more local churches are starting schools to educate their children in an effort to stop godless influences which vehemently seek to annihilate any aspect of faith or morality in a sea of moral equivalence and deconstruction. An intentional strategy is being implemented that seeks to provide alternatives to traditional public education.

This issue has not been without controversy across the SBC. Hundreds of public school teachers see the classroom as their mission field and the entire educational system as needy as some international mission outposts. The sheer depth of need evidenced by the poverty both of spirit and academic performance merits serious attention by local congregations across the nation.

As the 2010 academic year begins, there is little doubt that the United States cannot sustain itself with the current educational apparatus in place. Something must be done, but governmental strategies are proving to be of little help to the average local community. What has made a noticeable impact in many areas of America are local churches working together on multiple fronts to assist public schools as well as private institutions in after school tutoring, school supply giveaways and assistance to needy families who need stability and additional help to maintain order and routine in the lives of children.

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers authored The Lost Tools of Learning. She called for a renewed focus on a classical education that seeks to acquaint and equip students with abilities to learn across the entire academic curriculum. Believing that their futures must provide them with ways to sustain their minds and their hearts after their formal education was finished, she stated that “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

Throughout history, the Church has been actively involved in teaching people how to read and write. A literate people are those who can read the sacred Word of God. God’s Word and God’s world have always provided the ground of a truly holistic instruction whereby men and women would glorify God with their minds. Toward this goal, all education must strive lest, in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, modern human beings “educate themselves into imbecility.”

Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Author: Douglas Baker

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  • Great article. Illiteracy is rampant in Oklahoma (http://bit.ly/bIS2pJ). How can people read God’s Word if they can’t read? And you’re right about the need for “a truly holistic instruction whereby men and women would glorify God with their minds,” something I recommended six years ago in the Baptist Messenger (http://bit.ly/dhAxYR). Keep up the good work.

  • Gary Capshaw

    The answer to America’s failing education system is remarkably simple, yet not likely to be done.

    1. Return control of our local schools to the people of the community. Get government, at state and federal level, out of the classroom and quit looking to them for answers. We The People are smart enough to know what our kids need to learn and are quite competent to manage that ourselves, thank you. Send us money, yes, but don’t tell us how to spend it. We can do that.

    2. Get away from the idea that public education is only to make our children more employable by business and industry. Our entire education system, from primary to graduate school, has been allowed to morph into little more than a jobs training program for global corporations when it should be more…much more than that.

    Education should not only give students the skills they need to compete, but also the skills to be better citizens and better human beings. That used to be the focus of education, but all this governmental interfence has changed that.

    But, the church removing itself from the public schools will only exacerbate the problem and, frankly, I have trouble with some of the things being taught in some church schools. As an example, we once explored putting our grandchild (who we were raising at the time) in a church based, private school and were told that we, the grandparents, had to agree to certain behavior modifications or our grandchild would not be allowed to attend. Those modifications included some places they didn’t want us going and some things they didn’t think we ought to be doing. Naturally, we said “No thanks.” The objective was schooling our grandchild, not meeting someone elses’ standards of “biblical” behavior.

    Recently, I was on a bus in Washington, DC with a Christian group from all over the nation. One young lady whom I engaged in conversation told me she taught at a K-8 church school in Virginia and she was proud of the fact that her school used secular textbooks to teach about the origins of the universe.

    “That’s marvelous,” I said. “Teach all sides of the issue and let the students make up their own minds. How commendable that is!”

    “Oh, no.” she replied. “We’d never do that. We use the secular textbooks in order to train our children in how to refute the teaching of evolution when they get to public school.”

    What? That’s not education; it’s indoctrination and our children have more than enough of that already, don’t you think?

    So, depending upon what your church school is teaching, and how they do it, that might not be the answer either.

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