A Catholic Public-School Teacher Looks at Public Schools
June 1994By James Prothero
James Prothero teaches English in a public high school in southern California. He is also Editor of The Lamp-Post, published by the Southern California C.S. Lewis Society.
In the process of working on this essay, I read Jeffrey Christensen's article, "A Protestant Looks at Catholic Schools" in the December 1993 NEW OXFORD REVIEW, and was moved to reshape what I have to say. Christensen had some very valid points about the defects of public schools, and I say that as a public high school English teacher.
I don't want to defend or attack public education here so much as I want to discuss what I see daily in the public schools from a point of view that attempts (perhaps not successfully) to get beyond the usual conservative and liberal worldviews. Maybe the reader will get a fresh perspective on just what is happening in public education, and perhaps I can illustrate Christensen's assertion that the bureaucracy in public schools enshrines mediocrity. Christensen was right about this, but not having been a teacher "in the trenches," he was unable to detail his assertions. This I can do.
First, I want to lay before the reader a working definition of liberal and conservative. I was given this definition by my high school social studies teacher over 20 years ago, and it has held up remarkably well. It fits especially well in education. Take care, however, for the definition makes no pretense to being more than a generalization, and won't bear heavier traffic. The definition goes as follows: A liberal tends to think man is good, and that evil comes from the environment; a conservative tends to think man is not always good, sometimes downright evil.
What I propose to Christensen and the reader is this: There is an ideological war going on in the classrooms, front offices, and school boardrooms of America. And meanwhile another war is being lost, at the cost of civilization, for man's soul. But first, let me detail the two opposing sides in the ideological war. I would cast most parents, a very few theoreticians, and most school boards as conservative. Also, I would include a large number of veteran teachers in this category. In the conservative view, education is something to be gained, a necessary means of self-improvement. It sees history, English, math, etc., as subjects to be mastered. It teaches the Great Books and the Western tradition. Conservative teachers often lecture, following up with tests or quizzes. They focus on content. They believe that just as when I drive along the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco I will see some beautiful scenery on the way, so if I strive to master a given subject, I will come to love it along the way and discover its beauties (I can hear C.S. Lewis's analogy of a boy learning dry Greek grammar in order to later discover the joys of Greek poetry). Since man is less than wise and good, it is good to keep young people's noses to the grindstone so that they might acquire what their wayward wills would not lead them to. It is necessary to lead man outside his narrow self to the greater objective world.
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