American schools, unlike many, teach harmony, not hate

Monday, August 31, 1998

With the opening of school this week, something remarkable happens — something that's the envy of the world. Students from every conceivable religion fill thousands of classrooms across the nation. Catholics sit next to Protestants, Jews learn side by side with Muslims, Hindus mingle with Sikhs, and students of no religious faith co-exist with those of deep religious conviction.

Few Americans give this extraordinary achievement a second thought. What people in places like Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and India are literally dying to achieve, we take for granted.

Complacency, however, can be dangerous. Many who call for alternatives to public schools (or even for an end to public education altogether) fail to explain just how e pluribus unum will be possible without the institution most responsible for building one nation out of many peoples and faiths.

Before we balkanize education and go our separate ways, we should recall the lessons of the Balkans themselves—places like Bosnia and Kosovo where the word “balkanization” has new and deadly meaning. Even with a fragile peace, Bosnians live in a world of religious and ethnic apartheid unimaginable in the United States.

When school starts in Bosnia, Eastern Orthodox Serbs will go to class with Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats with Roman Catholic Croats, and Muslims with Muslims. Bosnian children will get three different versions of their history—Serb, Croat and Muslim accounts—and each group will attack the other two as intolerant aggressors. The lessons of hate and distrust will be re-taught, and the cycle of vengeance and bloodshed will continue.

By contrast, American children will get textbooks that teach a shared history and a commitment to the democratic first principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The texts won't ignore our nation's flaws. Slavery, anti-Semitism, racism, nativism and other evils that scar our history will be discussed. But students will learn that the prevailing story of America is that of the struggle to overcome injustice and hate and to work toward the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”

I'm not arguing that public schools are beyond reproach. Regular readers of this column are well aware of my repeated calls for school reform, especially insofar as the treatment of religion and values is concerned. And I'm certainly not arguing that private or religious schools can't or don't instill civic principles and virtues. (Catholic schools, for example, have an admirable record of teaching good citizenship.)

But I am urging that before we abandon public schools, we think carefully about how to avoid the tribalization of America. Bitter lawsuits and culture-war battles mustn't blind us to the fact that public schools have done much to shape our identity as a nation. True, unity has sometimes been achieved at the expense of diversity. For that reason, it's important that we now work for a unity that protects diversity. But unity we must have.

Let's never forget why the United States is not Bosnia or Northern Ireland or the Middle East. With all of its challenges and problems, public education in this country has successfully transmitted from one generation to the next an abiding commitment to the democratic first principles that sustain our nation.

However we reform education, this task of nation-building must go on. As the great American Catholic thinker, John Courtney Murray, reminded us years ago, the Constitution doesn't start with “We the Tribe.” It begins with “We the People.” Principles and ideals, not bloodlines and kinship, bind us together as a nation. When students take their seats in classrooms this week and look around to see who is sitting with them, that's the first lesson they should learn.