Monday, September 17, 2007

Why atheists, humanists and libertarians should embrace alternative schooling.

Yesterday I reported on the role of fundamentalist extremism in causing a rise in the number, and loudness, of atheists in America. This was inspired by an article in the Washington Post on the new atheists. A second article on the topic has now appeared in the Post as part of a series of article on beliefs about religion.

The growth of atheism among young people is truly astounding. I have believed, for a couple of years now, that American fundamentalists were in trouble. They have overreached for power and they were too closely identified with Bush. They were pissing off a lot of people including other Christians and they were, as the saying goes, cruising for a bruising. And they are getting it.

In the 1980s about 11% of young people, ages 18 to 25, in Pew survey identified themselves as atheists, non-believers, agnostic or as having no religion. A follow up Pew poll that would have been done toward the end of last year said that the number had risen to 20%. The Post article mentions a recent Barna survey on religious beliefs and says “one in four four adults ages 18 to 22 describes themselves as having no faith.”

If the Barna survey is correct that means the increase in self-identified atheists, among the young, is continuing at a rather astounding pace. I remember reading a New York Times piece on the social/camming network, Stickam, which is mainly occupied by young people. I read a few articles on the site and similar ones and then browsed through the site. I randomly read the “profiles” which users left for themselves. And I remember being surprised by the number of users, mostly young, who described themselves as atheists.

The article also mentioned another phenomenon based on classical liberal principles -- the rise of alternative schooling. And that is the main thrust of what I have to write about today. The Post said that “charter schools based on humanist principles have opened in New York City and Florida” in recent years along with summer camps for kids of atheists. The alternative education principle is one I have promoted here. Too many non-conservatives, mainly progressives, have seen alternative, non-state education as a means of pushing religion and other Religious Right values.

But last February, when Utah passed a state-wide voucher system (now being opposed heavily by the self-serving teacher’s unions), I wrote:
I would like to see good quality, secular, private schools teaching kids. Instead of bitching about private education mainly being run by religious groups secular liberals need to open their own schools. Consider this my friends on the Left. You can have a school where you don’t have to turn over the ID data to the military for recruitment as you do with state schools. You can have a school where you don’t have to have some fundamentalist nutter come in with his version of sex education -- as you do in the public schools. You don’t have to worry about some board of education forcing theology on you in the form of so-called Intelligent Design.
The non-believing community ought to be embracing alternative schooling. Oddly, for decades, they were the leaders in the field. Until the late 1960s alternative education in America, outside the Catholic school system, was almost entirely operated by humanists, progressives and secularists. But when racial integration became prominent thousands of “Christian” schools were created in order to continue segregation.

Unfortunately most people have notoriously short memories. They don’t remember the work of Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society. It goes much further back than that. Joseph Neef founded three humanist oriented schools in the US between the years 1809 and 1827. Montessori began her first school in 1907, and Rudolf Steiner started his first school in 1919. By the 50s, 60s and 70s the alternative education movement was dominated by people like Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol and Illich.

All this was forgotten by the tsunami of “Christian” segregated schools that rose up almost overnight. And in reaction to that non-conservatives clung to the state education system. The problem for them is the problem for the Religious Right today. The state is a cumbersome leviathan that creates chaos and conflict wherever it goes. If there is a job to be done they will screw it up. To have one’s ideas associated with the perpetual destruction imposed by big government is the kiss of death.

Decent, humanist schools are possible. And with various voucher programs where funding follows the students good, secular schools can be created much more easily than ever before. And it can be done without the artificial conflict created by monopolistic education. In addition such schools can't be controlled centrally by some third-rate Texas politician and changed from above. Sex education, courses I would support in a private school, became abstinence courses across the US because of the now heavily centralized, and federally funded, nature of education. This couldn't happen nearly as easily with a decentralized network of humanist schools.

I suspect one of the great tragedies of libertarian politics in recent years has be the Quixotic political campaigns for candidates with little, or no, chance of winning. These campaigns act like black holes that suck up and destroy vast financial resources and activists leaving nothing in their wake to speak of. A campaign that consumes millions of dollars, and in a few times will end, eats up enough funding to open several alternative, libertarian-oriented, secular schools. That money would not only fund them but allow them to be tuition free for years. Of course if tuition is charged the schools would could go on a lot longer.

Bob LeFevre was closer to the mark than most modern libertarians when he founded Freedom School in 1957. But instead of only educating adults he should have expanded into all ages and opened an alternative schooling system. Considering that some of his teachers included Rose Wilder Lane, Milton Friedman, Leonard Reader, Gordon Tullock, Bruno Leoni, Ludwig von Mises, and Frank Chodorov -- what a school it would have been, even if they only gave guest lectures now and then.

Any group that wants to change a culture has to change minds. Political campaigns are short-term, sound bites. They reflect already existing views, they don’t create them. They follow trends, they don’t start them. What starts trends is the minds of people changing. And that is an educational process and politics is poor at educating anyone.

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Photo: Marie Montessori.

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