Public Schools "Inculcate Values"—And That's the Problem

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Defenders of public schools speak out of both sides of their mouths. When Christians raise concerns over the secular and anti-religious nature of the schools, public school advocates retort that the schools are “neutral.”

Yet in other contexts public school advocates emphasize the importance of public schools “inculating values.” This fact was praised by the Supreme Court in its most famous education case, Brown v. Board of Education:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.

Everyone would agree with the Court’s acknowledgment of the importance of education, including for good citizenship. (Though the Court assumes this should be done by the state.)

But the real words to focus on are those in which the Supreme Court describes the goals of education, particularly “awakening the child to cultural values.” Elsewhere the Supreme Court has said that public education is the vehicle for “inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.”

Value-Inculcation as the Primary Role of Schools

Law professor Kevin Brown has summarized the Supreme Court’s understanding of public education in the following:

Public schools . . . inculcate cultural values, including political and social attitudes, opinions and beliefs. For example, schools foster such values as respect for our country, tolerance for political and religious diversity, commitment to self-sufficiency, and commitment to discharge faithfully the duties imposed by citizens. Schools teach these values by selecting and excluding the materials that teachers present to students. They also instill values through a myriad of administrative rules and regulations governing student and teacher conduct. The Supreme Court’s education jurisprudence has long recognized the importance of education’s socializing function. Many of the Court’s recent opinions involving public schooling embrace value-inculcation as the primary role of public education.[1]

Professor Brown is correct that public schools “inculcate cultural values.” This seems obvious. Schools teach values, both moral and cultural. Whether in history or English class, the teacher and textbooks select the material and present it from a particular angle. You should act this way or that way. You should emulate this person and not that person. As Professor Brown stated, “Schools teach these values by selecting and excluding the materials that teachers present to students.”

The most important point in all of this is that Brown finds the Supreme Court to identify “value inculcation” as the “primary role of public education.”

This is actually in agreement with Christianity’s view of education, that it is primarily moral. Children need to learn facts, but those facts should aid moral character and value formation. The goal of Christian education is to form children who love God and glorify His name.

Which Values? And Who Decides?

This raises two questions that are left out of the Supreme Court’s comments: (1) Which values will a school inculcate? (2) And who decides which values a child should be taught? 

In a private system, that right belongs to parents. Parents choose where they send their children to school. They can choose a Christian school or a secular school. It's their decision.

But in a “public” school system, it is the State and local government that chooses which schools children will attend and what values they will be taught. Even if there is school “choice,” this is limited to a number of nearby government schools (who are all thoroughly secularized). 

But is the government really competent enough—or moral enough—to choose which values should be inculcated in students? 

The current government of the United States (including every State government) believes that two men can “marry” and that a woman has a legally-protected “right” to kill her child in her womb. Many State and local governments are also beginning to confuse the simple categories of male and female. Is this the government you want choosing the teachers and curricula to present to your children?

Don’t ever let people say schools are “neutral.” They are not. Public schools inculcate values in children—and that’s the problem.

[1] Kevin Brown, Has the Supreme Court Allowed the Cure for De Jure Segregation to Replicate the Disease? 78 Cornell Law Review 1, 7 (1992).