Banned Books: Can Government Schools be Fair?

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Banned Books: Can Government Schools be Fair?

by Ari Armstrong, November 10, 1999

A teacher at West Ridge Elementary in Jefferson County stopped reading the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to her class because of concerns raised by Christian parents. The witchcraft in the book "is directly denounced in scripture," said Paul Hetrick of Focus on the Family (Rocky Mountain News, November 6).

A lot of teachers must feel like they can't win. If they mention a book with sorcery or discuss the theory of evolution, they take heat from conservative Christians. If they bring up Biblical creation, they are criticized by atheists and the ACLU. If they talk about Columbus, they are accused of spreading racist propaganda. If they don't talk about Columbus, they are accused of the same flaw by different groups. Why all the contention?

One parent at West Ridge provides some clues in saying, "To me if people don't want kids reading these books, their kids shouldn't be in public school. They should be in private school -- Christian school." But is it fair to ask Christians to subsidize the education of others and also foot the bill for their own children's education?

Let's turn the tables. It's obvious that the history of Western civilization makes sense only in light of the rise of Christianity. Thus, to study history, one must eventually get around to learning something about the Christian Bible. But the Bible is hardly without controversy. The Ten Commandments, which some Colorado legislators have proposed government schools post in public view, declare, "You shall have no other gods before me." To some, using tax dollars to pay for the posting of this Commandment comes dangerously close to crossing that line between Church and State. Do no students in government schools worship gods other than the Christian god, or no god at all?

According to Leviticus, homosexuals "have committed an abomination," a view the Apostle Paul shares. Yet many in today's culture find this viewpoint archaic and bigoted. How loudly would the ACLU cry "foul" if a government school taught a course on the Biblical view of sex? Yet the Christian might retort, "To me if people don't want kids reading these books, their kids shouldn't be in public school. They should be in private school -- atheist school."

Why is the problem of tolerance particularly acute in government schools? Perhaps the answer can be found in the words of an early American proponent of tax-funded education, Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to George Wythe, Jefferson wrote:

Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people... [T]he tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than a thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance...

Yet Jefferson also wrote, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical."

Jefferson's conflict lies in the fact that he wants all citizens to pay taxes for education, but he doesn't want any tax dollars to subsidize controversial ideas. Yet decades of experience have proven that controversy is inherent in the very nature of education. It is one thing to believe in objective standards of truth, and quite another to promote agreement about what those standards are and how they apply in specific contexts.

Most people in our culture are openly accepting or at least tolerant of other people's differences. Most of us want our children to learn from a wide variety of sources, be they Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or so on. But why are most people intolerant when it comes to respecting the special qualms of minority groups? Christians want to force atheists to pay for printing up the Ten Commandments, and others want to force Christians to pay for books that discuss sorcery and evolution. Why is our mostly tolerant society wedded to a system of government schools which by its nature fosters intolerance?

Jefferson's explicit goal in promoting tax-funded education is to prevent the "priests and nobles" from gaining political power. The irony lies in the fact that tax-funded education has given power precisely to the priests and counter-priests who want to restrict in government schools science, history, and literature alike, and to the education bureaucracy "nobles" who will defend their tax-funded budgets with any manner of propaganda. The only losers are the children, whose education is too often sacrificed to the political power struggles inherent in the operation of government schools.

The Colorado Freedom