SepCon '98: Introduction
by Ari Armstrong, January 1999
I went to "SepCon," the conference of The Separation of School and State Alliance held November '98 in Colorado Springs, feeling a little nervous that I wouldn't quite fit in with the program. Alliance founder Marshall Fritz, himself a dedicated Catholic, framed the topic of this year's conference as "Do 'public schools' undermine your religious beliefs so much that you should remove your children?" To those who, like me, don't consider themselves adherents of any particular religion, this question seems beside the point when it comes to the politics of government schools.
While I never quite got over feeling that some sessions of the conference were off the mark, and while I heard ideas from some of the more conservative of the theists that, frankly, frighten me, I also learned to appreciate the diversity of knowledge and opinion that Fritz managed to assemble, and I gained a fairly good understanding of his strategy. I examine the relationship of religion to Fritz's organization, along with the question of whether his strategies for Separation will work, in a later section.
A question central to the conference was whether Christian parents ought to send their children to Christian schools. Many at the conference stated that a particularly Christian education is indeed appropriate or even a moral imperative. Others disagreed with the notion that education should take a particular religious slant. What argument, then, might those who don't want a religious education find compelling in the issue of separating schools from the State?
Critics of Separation see religious education as a bad idea, and they want the State to require citizens to pay for non-religious education for those who want it. Fritz invited several such critics -- others showed up of their own accord -- and libertarians involved with the issue of education would do well to pay attention to the criticisms and consider them thoughtfully. The critics earn their own section in the present series of articles.
The libertarians found plenty to argue about among themselves, though. In particular, school vouchers and tax-credits found both ardent support and vehement opposition.
The final section of the series focuses on the closing speech given by John Taylor Gatto, who suggested that the purpose of government schools during this century has been to churn out masses of "mindless consumers." Gatto, a fascinating and awe-inspiring man, raised a host of pivotal issues in his talk.
The closing dinner, however, was almost surreal. (It probably didn't help my emotional state that I was quite exhausted by this time, having been sick before the conference and busy throughout it.) The dinner ran painfully behind schedule with a botched awards ceremony and a long, pointless prelude. (Oh, and Fritz canceled the 1999 SepCon for fear of "Y2K" problems.) Gatto began about an hour late, about 9:45, and the advanced hour may have combined with exhaustion after re-writing his speech -- lost with luggage by his air service -- to render the speaker incapable of concluding his presentation. Gatto had to sit and then lie down as Fritz read the conclusion while offering a veiled exorcism in the process. It was certainly the most bizarre and frightening conclusion to any conference I've yet attended. Fortunately, Gatto was not seriously ill, and the audience got to hear a most provocative talk.
In all, I found the conference exhilarating and thought-provoking. My discussions with the scholarly theists gave me a fresh perspective on a wide number of issues. The supporters of government schools raised thoughtful objections, and at least pointed out the types of arguments libertarians need to make more effectively. I met new friends from Colorado and around the country. Even though SepCon may not be held in Colorado again, I would recommend future conferences to libertarians interested in education.
You the reader are welcome to move on to the discussion in the following set of articles. Each part can be read as a self-contained unit. Taken together, the pieces will offer a fairly comprehensive view of SepCon '98 and of the Separation issue generally.