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A dismal education picture

The mortar that holds public education together was stripped away

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This is the 13th in a series of classic columns (edited for space) by Joel Belz. In the Aug. 10, 2013, issue of WORLD, Joel wrote of problems with public schools that would years later become obvious during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Please,” a loyal WORLD reader begged me last week. “Can’t you guys ever get off the politics thing, quit criticizing President Obama, and devote at least a page or two to something more positive? Politics has gotten so gloomy.”

It was hardly the first time I’d heard such a plea. I glanced back today to see what sort of issues were ­grabbing our attention during the summer of 1993—20 years ago—and was startled to discover a column in which I quoted a reader who complained that WORLD’s content had gotten terribly dark, dismal, and discouraging.

So would you find it cheerier to change the subject now, and talk instead about the state of education in our nation? Or is that a little too much like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire? For education, on every front, is a ship sailing ever closer to ruin and disaster. And yes, that applies in many ways to private as well as to state-sponsored education.

Problem is, it’s easier to talk about changing the ­subject than it is to do so. The American educational enterprise is so permeated by the state and by political structures that you simply can’t talk about the one ­without extensive reference to the other. Whatever the condition of the educational enterprise, governmental structures are largely responsible. If 90 percent of all education is state-sponsored, then 90 percent of the credit or blame for the results also belongs to the state.

It was actually just over 20 years ago that Dr. Roy Lowrie, longtime head of Delaware County Christian School in suburban Philadelphia, told several of us: “The collapse of the public school system has been predicted for a generation or more. I think the fulfillment of those predictions is still a generation away. The system is still being held together by a glue made up of thousands of teachers who were taught on the basis of Judeo-Christian values—and who also do their teaching and conduct their discipline on that same basis.”

But, Dr. Lowrie predicted, when that enormous cohort retires from the scene, or when they get so discouraged with their increasingly difficult assignment, that’s when we can expect to see the collapse of state-sponsored education. “Those people are the mortar that holds the bricks of the structure together. When that mortar is stripped away, watch out.”

That’s the phenomenon we’re watching right now. The quiet threat to the educational enterprise is the ­disappearance of tens of thousands of veteran teachers from the scene. Match that huge personnel drain with the fact that fewer and fewer college grads are becoming teachers, and you’ve got a pretty dismal picture.

And we really believe that the state with all its political structures is capable of bailing us out of such a disaster?

But some of the same pressures, it should be admitted, have begun taking their toll within the Christian school movement, where actual closures (or mergers) can no longer be denied. Christian schools with carefully spelled out philosophies and intentionally trained teachers will weather the storm. But those that have satisfied themselves through the years as superficial carbon copies of their public school counterparts, with a smattering of saccharine spirituality thrown in, have already begun to fall by the wayside. At least some of them deserve to fail.

Threats to college- and university-level structures are also not far behind in this shake-up. We’ve already seen some early rounds of tuition hikes in the big university systems—and that’s only a preliminary warning signal of the ruckus yet to come.

It’s a sober prospect. But what if we really could change the subject? What if we really could quit talking about politics and then, with a lot of clutter off the table, really address some of the issues of education?

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things. Visit WORLD’s memorial tribute page.


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