From the time a child enters kindergarten, their worldview is shaped by both their peers and teachers. While everything they learned in trigonometry may be lost, the perspective developed in school will guide them long after they've received their diploma. So it's a wonder why this aspect of public education is almost never addressed, let alone addressed with any semblance of candor, in the seemingly endless political discussions about the state of American schools today.
One of the primary obstacles in establishing a "Common Core" curriculum for values is our strongly-held belief in an nearly limitless parental autonomy. Parents are allowed to choose for their child a school, a religious affiliation, a diet plan. We, our politicians especially, do not want to infringe upon these supposed rights. Dress your kid how you want, send them to whatever church or mosque or temple you prefer, feed them your ideal diet, even if it might lead to childhood diabetes. We only get involved when we absolutely have to -- when a child's life is in danger -- and sometimes not even then.
In our culture, characterized by an almost religious respect for parental rights, it would be nearly impossible for a politician to step forward and propose a deliberate public education in values. It would violate a parent's right to instill in their child whatever values they see fit. It would be political suicide. So we move in the opposite direction, shirking our responsibility to develop a public education in values, and expanding opportunities for other forms of education.
Currently, 5 million American youths are enrolled in private schools -- some secular, like the college prep academies of lore, others parochial, like the vast network of Catholic schools crisscrossing the country. Another 2 million are being educated by their parents, under the umbrella of homeschooling, they educate their children themselves, often for religious or belief-related reasons. Students in each of these alternative systems are receiving educations in environments with aims beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. They are receiving an education in the values specific to their local, and even familial, culture.
What lies at the heart of this issue is a seemingly unresolvable problem of definitions. To get to a place where we, as a county, let alone a nation, could create a common core for values, we would have to agree on what values should be commonly held. If we were to say that while a parent does have a right to instill certain values in their child, but that a child should also be a citizen educated in and responsible for upholding our social values, it would be up to those in the political arena to fight over what a social value is. The right would, as they so often do, push for prayer in schools. But are Christian values American values? The left, like always, would argue for increasing acceptance of gay students, and of trans* students as well. But are progressive values, often contextualized as anti-Christian values, American values? The fight, like every other fight between these two waring factions, would never truly cease, no ground would ever be seceded.
However, this is still something we must work toward. Values are like a language; it is no surprise Republicans and Democrats cannot work together, when they are speaking in different dialects. Without a common curriculum for civic mortality, the future is full of the futile fights we are in now. Without a common core for values, we will forever continue to spit fire in foreign tongues.
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