Secular Blasphemy

Published November 1, 1998

The importance of government-run schools in producing democratic values is of such emotional significance for most people that it “has achieved its place in our secular faith in much the same way that the Constitution and the flag have,” notes Jay P. Greene, assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Raising questions about this function of public education tends to provoke very emotional responses because it verges on what he calls “secular blasphemy.”

“In attacking not just education, but public education, critics are attacking the very foundation of our democratic civic culture. . . . As forges of our citizenship, [public schools] are the bedrock of our democracy.”
Political theorist Benjamin Barber

“The ‘common school’–the concept upon which our public school system was built–. . . has made quality public education and hard work the open door to American success and good citizenship and the American way to achievement and freedom.”
Education Secretary Richard Riley, responding to school choice proposals.

“To pound the table and beat one’s chest proclaiming that public schools benefit democracy . . . does not make it so,” notes Greene in a new Brookings Institution book, Learning from School Choice. In his contribution to that book, “Civic Values in Public and Private Schools,” Greene shows persuasively that the claims of public school partisans are simply not supported by the evidence.