When Schools Are Battlegrounds

Education has become a battleground. So says Stephen Bates in his book, titled Battleground. It tells the story of a textbook controversy that shattered the tranquillity of a tiny mountain community in Hawkins County, Tennessee. And the saddest part is that Christians fought on both sides of the battle. It all began when Rebecca Frost asked her mother for help with her reading homework. The question involved a story about telepathy and to her mother, Vickie Frost, that smacked of the New Age. The more she read her children's textbooks, the more Vickie Frost encountered what she felt were anti-Christian views. She spoke with the teacher, then the school board, but to no avail. She requested alternative texts for her children. The school dug in its heels. The disagreement finally erupted into a court case known as Mozert v. Hawkins lasting four years. National groups lined up on each side: Concerned Women for America supported the protesters, People for the American Way supported the school. Journalists had a field day painting the protesters as backwoods hayseeds. In the end, the protesters lost, but the issues raised are still very much alive. Stephen Bates is a secular journalist, but his book, Battleground, shows a real sensitivity to Christian concerns. Public education has undergone a philosophical shift in the past few decades, Bates says. The Christian perspective has been virtually blanked out of textbooks, and Christians are much less successful than other groups in influencing public education. For example, Bates describes a set of files subpoenaed during the trial from a major textbook publisher: Holt, Rineholt, and Winston. Internal memos showed that when complaints about textbooks came from feminists, minorities, and multiculturalists, the editors at Holt were polite, accommodating, even apologetic. But when complaints came from conservative and Christian groups, accommodation went only so far. Then the memos became hostile, calling the groups "reactionary" and even "totalitarian." The inescapable fact is that all educational materials are shaped by the beliefs of the people who write them. This is the essential dilemma of public education. As Bates puts it, "the mission of public education forces the government to do what the First Amendment as a rule frowns on: select particular ideas, package them, and present them with the imprimatur of the state." No matter which ideas the state selects, some parents will disagree. The tragedy of the Hawkins County controversy is that the disagreement shattered even the Christian community. The protesters adopted a relentlessly "us-them" attitude, sniffing out hidden controversies. On the other hand, the Christian teachers and administrators acted as though education is religiously neutral. Neither seemed to know how to address the genuine philosophical shift that has taken place in public education. Read the book Battleground for a disturbing illustration of how not to handle a controversy. As Christians we must learn to address our differences in a Christian spirit. The battleground of education is one front in the broader culture wars. And we had better make sure we are fighting on the same side.


Chuck Colson


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