V&V Q&A: On the Church and State and Public Education (with Dr. Jason Edwards)

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, Dr. Paul Kengor, the executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, interviews Dr. Jason R. Edwards, a Grove City College faculty member and a contributor to the upcoming April 10-11 conference, “Church & State in 2008,” to be held on the campus of Grove City College.

V&V: Dr. Edwards, our fourth annual conference, “Church & State in 2008,”deals with many issues relating to church and state. You’ve done two papers of interest on this subject, both involving public education. The first of these, “Fundamentalism and Freedom in the American Public School Classroom,” is part of our faculty White Paper Initiative. It was accepted for publication as a chapter in Dr. Steven Jones’ book, published by Praeger. Let’s talk about that one first. You begin with the so-called “Monkey Trial.” Give us a quick overview of that trial and why it remains so important.

Dr. Jason Edwards: In 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler Act, which declared that Tennessee public schools could not deny the divine creation of man. This action led to arguably the “trial of the century” when the ACLU challenged the law by defending John T. Scopes’ breakage of it. In the trial, Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous defense attorney, faced off against William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president. Naturally, a media circus ensued. Interestingly, most Americans mistakenly believe that Darrow’s evolution side won the decision, but in actuality Bryan did and the law was upheld for decades. However, this was an example of winning the battle but losing the war, for in the media-generated public’s perception of the issues, the evolutionists enjoyed an overwhelming victory.

V&V: You say that Tennessee v. John Scopes was the “trial of the century.” How so?

Edwards: The Scopes trial better than any other embodies the key philosophic shift of the 20th century: the move from “traditionalism” to “modernism” in the body politic. John Dos Passos, in reference to another famous trial of the 1920s (Sacco and Vanzetti), said “all right we are two nations.” I think this split—referenced arguably today as “Red State vs. Blue State”—was even more notable in Scopesand far more important because it centered on schooling. What is taught in a nation’s schools determines the future and advertises what the citizenry holds most dear and what a people wants to become.

You note that the trial is often portrayed as fundamentalist bumpkins ramming their religious views down the throats of others and robbing freedom fighters of their civil liberties, when in fact the trial may have had the opposite effect. Please explain.

Edwards: Schooling is a dangerous blessing. Children need to be educated but schooling is the process of turning over a parent’s primary responsibility to government officials. While continually emphasizing the importance of education, the Founding Fathers wisely left instruction under the purview of parents. When government officials determine educational content rather than parents, freedom is eroded; the further away the government is from parental authority, the greater the erosion. In educational history, the Puritans and the Fundamentalists are often disparaged but at least the government they used to reinforce their beliefs was in the form of local or state legislative bodies. The ACLU and other “freedom fighters” of the 20th century have turned to the federal court system to impose their beliefs on the entire nation. Neither method may be ideal, but one is democratic while the other is despotic.

V&V: Could you also argue, then, going forward, that it was also the trial of the 21st century?

Edwards: I am a historian not a prophet, but the Scopes trial, especially when understood in terms of liberty, parental authority, and cultural divides, shows no sign of losing its symbolic importance.

V&V: The paper that you wrote for the conference, which is included in the reading packet distributed to attendees, touches on similar themes. This paper is titled, “Educational Leviathan: The Rise of Forced Government Schooling in the United States.” By “government schooling,” you mean “public schooling,” right? Why do we not refer to public schooling as government schooling, or, for that matter, “public schools” as “government schools?”

 Language matters. I believe that the terminology “government schools” best captures the true nature of “public schooling” in America today. Advocates of government schooling wisely embrace a different name.

V&V: You use the word “forced.” What is being forced? Who is being forced?

There is a shocking amount of force intertwined with American schooling. And, I might add, a shocking amount of acceptance of it, particularly in light of Americans’ “love of liberty” and the well-documented century-long downfall of academic achievement. Adult citizens are compelled to pay for the failing system and young citizens are compelled to suffer through 13 years of it—it is open for argument as to which is the greater outrage, but I side with the students.

V&V: How has our government transmogrified into “Leviathan” on this issue?

Edwards: First, the federal court system under the guise of religious neutrality established secular-humanism in schools. Second, both major political parties abandoned the ideal of local control. When Republican president George W. Bush joined hands in 2001 with Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind, the largest federal intrusion into American education ever, Leviathan arrived.

V&V: You conclude that we need to move from “government dictates” to “parental control” in education. Explain that.

Edwards: If you want to live in a free country there are few rights more important to vigilantly defend than parents’ right to raise and educate their children. Obviously, home and private schools are excellent avenues of defense, but public/government schools can play a healthy role as well if they are locally controlled. Local control is not a panacea—some communities of parents will do things you wouldn’t. However, local control does protect freedom and ensures that problems are limited rather than universal. Local control also reminds citizens of their duties to the next generation rather than encouraging the turning over of children to controllers in Washington, D.C.

V&V: In the end, here’s an unlikely trinity for you: Darwin, Dewey, and the ACLU…. If you had to pick one, which, or who, has had a greater impact on American public education?

Edwards: These three have one thing in common with the Trinity: inseparability. No one determined America’s educational system in the 20th century more than Dewey but his philosophy was informed by Darwin’s evolutionary theories and was frequently forced on the public through the legal wrangling of the ACLU. To clearly see the interconnection between these three simply review the Humanist Manifesto (easily available on-line) and observe the religion that truly has been established in American schools.

V&V: Dr. Edwards, we look forward to hearing your talk at the conference. Thanks for talking to us.

Edwards: Thank you.

About Jason R. Edwards

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with the Institute for Faith and Freedom and a professor of history at Grove City College. If you would like to reach Dr. Jason R. Edwards for comment, please contact him at [email protected]

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