One fascinating thing about liberals is their infinite capacity for surprise. Liberal secular humanists have been dominating our public school system for nearly a century; and for nearly that long, in the name of "value-free science," they have been busily inculcating school children and our culture with their own secular humanist values: nontheism, skepticism, relativist ethics, "if it feels good, do it" morality, sexual promiscuity, morbid literature, statist economics, and all the rest of the goodies of our current world. Now, after this happy domination, the educationist bureaucracy suddenly finds itself besieged by an angry Moral Majority backlash, a group to whom it "feels good" to take a hammer to the secular humanists.
It couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch. I found particularly amusing a whining comment by a Montana high school principal, who found that a discussion of sex education had unaccountably turned into a critique of secular humanism. Complained the principal: "There is this feeling that you're being questioned." Well, fellas, after a century of preaching the virtues of questioning all things, how does it feel to have the questioners questioned?
Particularly remarkable is the liberals' shock. We are, after all, a largely Christian country; secular humanism may be more fashionable, but it is still a small minority. So, in the long run, in a democratic country, who did the secular humanists think were going to run the show?
The marvel is that they were able to bamboozle the public for so long with their alleged technical expertise. But when generations of parents found out not only that their children were being taught values they considered corrupt but that their kids increasingly couldn't even write or count, then the backlash gathered. The Moral Majority, at least in the school system, is an uprising of frustrated parents and taxpayers trying to assume control of schools that are supposed to be serving them and instead have been ruling the roost.
Enjoyment at the well-deserved discomfiture of the educationists, however, doesn't mean that we should look with glowing approval on the Moral Majority. What the Moral Majority are trying to do, as some of its more articulate spokesmen are making clear, is to return to the "good old days" before 1900, before John Dewey and secular humanism appeared on the scene.
Before 1900, there was no nonsense about "separation of church and state" in the public schools. The public school system was designed from its very marrow as a compulsory Protestantizing device, aimed at taking Catholic and High Lutheran kids, forcing them into the public schools, and molding them into "good" pietist Protestant Americans. Not only was the Protestant Bible read daily and pietist values inculcated, but in many jurisdictions being a Protestant church member was a literal requirement for teaching in the public school system.
The main point should be not to figure whose values are right or which mixture is most acceptable. The main point is that each set of combatants is trying to use the State to impose a dictatorship over every parent and child, regardless of their own values. One is trying to force a majority to accept hedonism and secular humanism; the other is trying to compel a minority to swallow the Protestant ethic.
The real lesson for both sides and everyone in-between is to get the State out of the educational picture altogether. The State has no business using taxpayer money to choose curricula, adopt textbooks, impose uniform values, or anything else. The very existence of the public school system creates continuing, irreconcilable conflict over deep-rooted values and ways of life.
If all education were private, then each set of parents and children could patronize whatever type of schooling or value systems they want. Religious or traditionalist parents could patronize their favored schools, while secular humanists could go to theirs. People could pursue their own values in peace.
Both groups might have to forgo the joy of coercing the unbeliever, but they would at least be free of the unbelievers breathing down their own necks. Only when the public school system has been abandoned will we be free of any group of tyrants who might wish to force their values, whatever they may be, down the throats of the rest of us.
Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: The Moral Majority and the Public Schools".
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.