It's that time in a parent's life again, time to take a child (who was born, it seems, only yesterday) on the junior year fact-finding expedition to look at college options. Actually, it's pretty exciting and reminds many parents of the good times they had in college themselves. My son Nick and I were just up in New England checking out Brown University in Providence, R.I., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
Nick and I were both encouraged by the conversations we had with students attending those institutions. We saw young people striving for excellence, young people highly motivated, young people eager to participate in a wide variety of campus and community activities.
I wondered where those students came from. Certainly they couldn't have come from America's public schools. Why not? Because talk radio psychobabbler Dr. Laura Schlessinger has informed us that all public schools stink. In a recent tirade, she called them places with "all kinds of sick indoctrination going on" with "stupid kinds of programs that are brainwashing kids." She concluded, "That's why I urge people to get the heck out of public schools."
But lo and behold, when I looked up the statistical data about the students attending Brown and MIT, it turned out that most of them did arrive there from public, not private, schools.
Could Dr. Laura be wrong? It wouldn't be the first time. Dr. Laura, like so many others in the right-wing media elite, would be lucky if she could even locate a public school, much less spend any time in one. They talk about public schools based on what they hear from other far-right yahoos and have a bewildering reluctance to ever go check out what is really occurring in schools. They prefer to wallow in the mire of tired tales from some "collective unconscious" that public school bashers tap into when anyone brings up the topic of education.
Dr. Laura's most recent "rant and rave" (her phrase) was prompted by a caller's frustration about a traffic safety issue at a local school. Rather than encourage the woman to move forward with her complaint, Schlessinger just started spewing anti-public school venom. My favorite was this gem: "I think most people should take their kids out of public school anyway because there's all kinds of sick indoctrination going on there, and there's no way to fight it."
No way to fight it? Has the good doctor not heard about the political process, which is often particularly effective when it comes to influencing members of elected school boards? Perhaps she would rather not bother putting her callers into a position that would require them to move away from their radios long enough to write a letter, attend a school board meeting or arrange a conversation with the school principal.
Luckily, most parents and other members of communities across the country realize that Dr. Laura is all wet. They know that when you take the time to engage the schools, good things happen.
I had two opportunities recently to see just how engaged people are on issues of educational policy. Last year the Pennsylvania Board of Education suggested that it might revise its science curriculum to allow "creation science" in the curriculum. Two groups in Lancaster decided to co-sponsor a debate about the proposal at a local middle school. Two "creation science" advocates associated with the Institute for Science and Biblical Research argued their case, going up against a geology professor at Franklin and Marshall College and me.
Laura Montgomery Rutt of the Alliance for Tolerance and Freedom met me for dinner and warned that perhaps only 25 people would show up. We arrived 20 minutes early to a very full parking lot. By kickoff time, nearly 400 people had showed up for a very lively discussion, and the nearly endless stream of questioners had to almost be dragged from the auditorium so the place could be closed for the evening.
A week later I was in Memphis for a discussion with the head of the Shelby County School Board on a highly contentious "Bible In Public School" curriculum. The board president acknowledged that what had at first appeared to be a fairly routine matter had developed opposition from many quarters. We had a very civil discussion about the inherent difficulties in picking one holy text for special treatment and the parallel concern of some parents that "comparative religion" classes might undercut some family-promoted values.
In Memphis I got a good look at the difficulties well-meaning officials have just trying to meet the mandate to provide a quality education for all, including children with expensive and highly specialized medical needs. This school district wants to be sure that voters like those in attendance support budget priorities that make meaningful education possible. The board president got a lot of support from this largely Americans United-friendly crowd. These are people who want to pitch in to make schools work, unlike Dr. Laura Luddites who spread wild tales and kooky conspiracy theories about our schools.
You might remember the embarrassing incident in l992 when President George Bush seemed surprised to see a grocery store scanner in operation. People who live in insular political worlds who don't get out enough can quickly lose touch with reality. They don't know real people with real problems seeking real solutions. They would rather revel in ranting than resolve to remedy what ails us.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.