Educating Moral Idiots in America: The Case of Charter Schools
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
In America for more than two centuries one of the hottest issues is how to separate church and state while combining faith and good governance. A current culture war is being waged over whether a publicly funded charter school with strong Islamic ties crosses the line and inappropriately promotes religion.
A current focus of this war is the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. This so-called “madrassa” has operated in close connection with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, which is a branch of the Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood in America and of the worldwide Islamist movement. The school accepts public funds and thus the broader constitutional requirements placed on all public schools, but its detractors object that in many ways it behaves like a religious school. On June 14, 2008, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal elevated this local dispute about religious freedom to the national level by publishing a critique by Katherine Kersten entitled “Charter Schools Shouldn’t Promote Islam.” This evades the underlying issue whether and how charter schools and all other forms of public education should provide faith-based education.
Teaching about religion is required in most school districts in the United States, because the Founders of America based the Great American Experiment on the conviction that good government requires awareness in public life about a higher authority than the human. Thomas Jefferson denied the Christian doctrine of the trinity, but he emphasized that no nation can remain free unless its citizens are properly educated, that education consists primarily in learning virtue, and that no people can remain virtuous unless all life, both personal and public, is infused with awareness of the ultimate and with loving awe, known in Islam as taqwa, of one’s own Source.
Teaching religion, as distinct from teaching about religion, however, is strictly forbidden in publicly financed schools, because public support of any specific form of religion ipso facto denies objectivity in teaching about religion. This, in turn, denies freedom of religion, which is the highest value in both classical American and classical Islamic thought. In the normative law of Islam, known as the maqasid al shari’ah, the highest purpose of every civilization or hadara is haqq al din, freedom of religion. From it all other purposes of human life are derived, since human beings have always formed societies and nations not for mere survival but to join together in pursuit of their instinctual desire to worship the transcendent, however they may conceive it to be.
Shabbir Mansuri of the Council on Islamic Education, now the Institute on Religion and Public Life, over the course of twenty years, has rewritten the required textbooks on religion for 37 of America’s fifty states, thanks to unlimited funding by America’s first homegrown Muslim billionnaire, Safi Qureshey. Selecting the appropriate textbook is no longer a problem, because once California adopted the set of textbooks that Shabbir prepared for the various grades the publishers had to adopt it in order to make a profit.
Charter schools, voucher education, and home schooling now pose the only problems. American constitutional law, one can argue, forbids charter schools from teaching religion, as the Tarek ibn Ziyad obviously does, because charter schools are privately managed but publicly funded. Germany has never had any problem in publicly funding separate Lutheran and Catholic schools, but this has resulted only because there was no other way to avoid a religious war. Only America has enshrined in its Constitution the separation of church and state, which is the only way to accomplish the goal of faith-based governance.
The most contentious issues are voucher education and home schooling. Voucher education is popular among morally based liberals, who are a growing portion of Democrats, amorally based libertarians, who are holding their own, and Paleoconservative Republicans, who have been almost wiped out by the totalitarian ideology of the NeoConservatives. The most popularly appealing argument in favor of voucher education is its power to help poor parents send their children to quality private schools instead of to the poor quality public schools in poor neighborhoods. In America all public schools are funded by property taxes in the local school district, which means that suburban schools are well funded and inner city schools are not, sometimes at a per pupil dollar differential of $5 to $1.
Voucher parents would normally send their children to Catholic schools, because they are vastly superior to the public ones. Oddly, many Muslims oppose voucher education, even though its adoption would immediate provide billions of dollars for Muslim schools. For decades I have advocated the founding of Muslim teacher education institutes because very few teachers in Muslim schools are qualified professionally. The adoption of voucher education without proper teacher preparation and enlightened textbooks would be a catastrophe.
When the Center for Understanding Islam, held a workshop shortly after 9/11 on improving teaching about religion in the local public schools, the Muslim parents were enthusiastic, as were the superintendents of schools. When we then held a workshop on improving teaching about religion in Muslim schools, this (and a proposed workshop on Sunni-Shi’a cooperation) effectively put us out of business, because our funders said that they personally supported our work but would be ostracized from their own mosques if their funding became known. Mainly they were afraid of their own imams, even though the imam of the biggest mosque in the State of New Jersey told me that the imams were afraid that the wealthy governing boards of the mosques would throw them out if they (the imams) supported our work.
The other contentious issue in education is home schooling. This is absolutely exploding in popularity, in part because the average home-schooled child is two grades ahead of the public schools in learning. The only problem is that in effect they have to drop back two grades when they enter college. This is being addressed now by advanced-placement courses in the public schools for students who excel, but this is facing opposition due to a common prejudice against favoring smart children, because allegedly this would disadvantage the others.
The other argument against home schooling is that the children allegedly are not properly socialized, even though the home schooling movement in practice has provided even better socialization than any other form of education by group work and group outings. Muslims should strongly support home schooling, provided that parents are properly warned about the enormous work load and discipline that they must be ready to accept, as well as about the strict standards of proficiency required.
The single most important issue in American education, and one that will determine whether we as a civilization can survive, is not whether charter schools, or voucher education, or home schooling can meet public standards of proficiency, but whether the moral dimension will be crowded out of American life by an exclusive focus on preparing students to compete economically. At the national level for the past twenty years the hard sciences and quantitative knowledge are given not merely top priority but exclusive priority.
We are educating generations of moral idiots. These idiots will rise in an idiotic culture to govern everyone else in pursuit of stability and national security and thereby consolidate the satanic drive to pursue power, prestige, plutocracy, and wanton pleasure as the national purpose of America and of all humankind. The supporting educational ideocracy will deny the very concept that human nature is designed to pursue the higher purpose of compassionate justice in the form of respect for human responsibilities and human rights. The ultimate purpose of every kind of education was summarized in the Qur’an: wa tamaat kalimatu rabika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The Word of your Lord is completed and perfected through the pursuit of truth and justice.”