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When Public Education Becomes Parochial
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When Public Education Becomes Parochial

Progressivism is not a church, but it represents a faith-like ideology of moral construct and moral judgement.

There is a movement afoot in America’s schools to reconstruct public school curricula around anti-racism programming and critical race theory, not to mention a celebration of the kaleidoscope of sexual and gender identities. These goals have special meaning and power to progressives, and, if I understand things correctly, they believe teaching them is essential to creating a more just, more caring, and more morally pure citizenry.

As a parent of children in Catholic schools and a strong supporter of faith-based education as a whole, I recognize a parochial education when I see it. And progressive education is, despite its militantly secular character, just like a religiously infused education—and therefore is not appropriate for public-school students.

Public and parochial education are not at odds, but they have different goals. In public schools, one expects students to be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship in an egalitarian democracy, the demands of economic self-sufficiency, the opportunities of personal development, and the possibility of social mobility. Most of all, an American public education must serve everyone without discrimination and should rapidly integrate all young citizens into a single community with a shared identity, as it has for children for centuries.

By comparison, one expects students in a parochial school to be inculcated in a firmly rooted and often selective canon of belief, with the goal of shaping a character of virtue. This does not rule out non-believers—in fact, many students in Catholic schools are not Catholic, but want to gain from the church’s character education. Even so, it isn’t for everyone. 

Do today’s proponents of critical race theory and gender fluidity understand that distinction between public and parochial? I tend to doubt it. 

Take the 1619 Project, which now serves as a curricular lodestar in several school districts. It rearranges America’s history, founding documents, political and economic systems, and culture around the unifying theme of racism and the institution of slavery and its legacy. The fact that many historians across the political spectrum have taken the 1619 Project to task over its accuracy seems to me to be beside the point; it is a moralistic reading of history. 

That’s okay—Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Evangelicals do much the same thing each in our own way. We make sense of history through the prism of our moral teachings. That’s what religious people do.

Same with today’s progressives. Time and again, they press forward in the classroom readings, discussions, texts, and other forms of inculcation that are infused with moral judgement on matters that could easily be presented neutrally, if at all.

Do third graders need to deconstruct their racial identities? No, but in Cupertino, California, that’s what happened. Does math emanate from a racial stratification system and should it instead stress themes of resistance and liberation? No, but in California and Seattle, they rewrote the math curricula to make that case. Is American history solely the story of white and powerful people conquering people of color? No, but in Buffalo and San Diego (among other places), that’s what teachers were told to believe and teach. Do high schoolers learning about genetics need to be set straight on gender identity? No, but in Needham, Massachusetts, that was the teacher’s plan.

In the progressive educational project, ideology not only trumps objectivity—objectivity itself is defined as a byproduct of racism

There’s no shame in this; parochial schools infuse their teaching with morals-based judgements that public schools treat as unimportant, irrelevant, or inaccurate. In Catholic schools, students study the words of Jesus Christ as if they are binding law, rather than the interesting observations of a wandering preacher. In a Jewish day school, students spend hours a day immersed in the 2,000-year-old Talmud, a complex and highly attenuated compendium of rabbinical disputations and law with distant relevancy to today’s America. In parochial schools, certain subjects are taught with reverence—the presence of God in our lives on a personal level; others are taught with reserve—health and sexual education. 

In such choices, religious schools demonstrate their community’s ideological priorities. If you don’t think such choices are merited, that’s fine—you can attend a public school which does not abide by them. Of course, there are some values we want taught in every school—and practiced in every home. Bigotry should be condemned wherever we find it. There’s dignity in every person, regardless of race, gender and orientation. The Golden Rule is found in every faith and in atheism in equal measure. It’s good sense and makes for a better society—there’s nothing parochial about basic human goodness. 

But public school students, whose education is supported by tax dollars, should not be forced to submit to indoctrination. Even the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, something a great majority of Americans find inoffensive, cannot be required of students of conscience. Surely requiring students to be tested on their agreement with the moral judgements of the 1619 Project runs the same risk. 

No wonder a counter-movement to the progressive education movement has sprung forth, in the form of laws banning the instruction of critical race theory and Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education law. This opposition to having tax-supported education used for moral indoctrination may surprise some education officials, but it does not surprise me. If my Jewish friends found their children were being taught the core principles of my Catholic faith, they’d be upset—and rightly so. 

This is no different. It’s true, progressivism is not a church, but it represents an ideology undifferentiated in moral construct and moral judgement from any faith I know. Progressive education activists must accept that their moral preferences are not for everyone.

The right approach for progressive education activists—parents and teachers alike—is therefore not to force public school students to submit to their moral ideology but rather to build their own schools, much like the Catholic ones I support. A parallel system of education, rooted in progressivism, would no doubt present a new option for many students and their parents. And my hope is that they see the merits of the choices religious parents make for our own children.

Thomas Chiapelas currently serves on a Catholic high school board in St. Louis, Missouri. and earned his graduate degree from University of Chicago’s Graham School.