A Textbook Case of Coercion


It's all too easy to choose sides in the Tennessee lawsuit that the press is calling Scopes II. The plaintiffs are, after all, fundamentalists. They object to textbooks that praise the Renaissance for its emphasis on man's dignity and worth. "God is to be glorified, not man," says lead plaintiff Vicki Frost.

They think The Diary of Anne Frank is awful because Anne says people should have a religion—but doesn't specify that it should be Christianity. They criticize books that encourage children to use their imaginations—"Our children's imaginations have to be bounded," Frost told the court. In short, if you're a sophisticate looking for villains in a civilization-versus-barbarism melodrama, these Tennessee fundamentalists are the folks for you.

But Vicki Frost and her allies, in spite of their other views, are right this time. They don't want the government, through its public schools, to coerce their children to study books that subvert their dearest principles. To understand how they feel, simply imagine that Frost ran the schools, chose the textbooks, and suspended your children if they wouldn't, on principle, read them. An unpleasant thought.

What is most significant about this case, which both sides vow to fight to the Supreme Court, is that it may mark the beginning of the end of the myth of public education. Americans tend to have a rosy view of what public schools represent—a common experience, the unifying device that creates "one nation indivisible" and brings immigrants into the melting pot.

Once upon a time, this may have been true, but only because no one much worried about respecting cultural and religious differences. Jewish kids recited the Lord's Prayer; black children learned whites-only history; immigrants sank or swam in a sea of English. In the last 25 years, this attitude has changed. Now the public schools pretend they can be all things to all people, educating all, offending none, and still unifying the nation.

This is, of course, baloney. The public schools, by their nature, rely on coercion, of the mind as well as the wallet. And Vicki Frost has forced her opponents to admit it. She and the other plaintiffs want schools to offer different textbooks to accommodate the beliefs of all students.

Accommodate different beliefs? Why that would lead to chaos, cry public-school defenders. Everybody's got something he doesn't like. Better for the "weirdos" to take their kids elsewhere.

"We've agreed the books are contrary to their beliefs. That's not the issue," school-board attorney Timothy Dyk told reporters. "The issue is whether you can run a public school and accommodate these people."

To the court, Dyk said, "Sometimes the public schools are not the place for people with very pervasive religious beliefs and this is one of those cases." He undoubtedly thought he was helping his clients. But in confessing the dirty little secret of public education—that it expects private schools to take dissenters off its hands—he harmed his cause. For Vicki Frost and her friends have also asked the government to reimburse the money they've spent to send their kids to more acceptable private schools. And who knows where that might lead.