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Neil Flinders: Keeping track of school funds is only part of the story

Serious cultural erosion and the loss of vital traditional values now threaten both religious freedom and the family as an institution. In our society, money matters seem to dominate.
Serious cultural erosion and the loss of vital traditional values now threaten both religious freedom and the family as an institution. In our society, money matters seem to dominate.
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A recent article by a member of the Utah State Board of Education rightfully indicated budgetary concerns (“There is too little discussion of how the state manages education funds,” June 18). Long-overdue issues were raised concerning fundamentals of financial management. The writer correctly stressed the need for better double-entry bookkeeping to preserve monetary fidelity of millions of public tax dollars. Tools to help protect against waste, fraud, corruption and manipulation seem to be essential. Most citizens of this state would agree.

This timely observation, however, is not the only concern citizens have with public education and its integrity. Evidence suggests an even higher priority: Serious cultural erosion and the loss of vital traditional values now threaten both religious freedom and the family as an institution. Management practices of modern schooling reflect a dramatic decline by the growing absence of nonbudgetary line items on the agendas of local and state boards of education. In our society, money matters seem to dominate.

Current public turmoil regarding such matters as curricular content, testing theory, Common Core standards, disciplinary theory, teacher licensing, gender issues, technological addictions, etc., loom large in the media and parents' minds. Topics such as these are not primarily budgetary line items. They are connected values and usually transcend financial and conventional measurement. Hence, they seldom dominate administrative agendas until public distress forces such discussions.

This should be legitimate cause for concern. Recent legislative action in Nevada and other states signals a trending response to widen the options for parents to choose the type of educational experience they prefer for their children. Despite, or perhaps because of, intense special interests and lobbied support at state and federal levels, confusion prevails. And simultaneously within the profession, other forces are manifest. For example, as the published database in education expands in volume, it has dramatically narrowed in focus. The more learning and teaching are viewed solely as a science, the art of the process fades.

Central to this movement is the fact that modern academe and its professional journals now seldom publish materials regarding context. The overt emphasis is now on content, method (process) and structure. Discussion of traditional context has become a toxic topic: what to teach, how to teach it, and when or where to teach it monopolize the literature. This tendency emphasizes and often excludes that which is not numerically measurable. This editorial aversion fits well within the secular hypothesis — which holds that the more secular a society becomes the less need there is for the spiritual. This transition in education occurred last century as philosophy of education was dominated by the psychology of education with its emphasis on statistical measurement and quantification. The volume of jobs in the discipline at all levels switched from the one to the other. This dramatically diminished the acceptable discussion of context — which, ironically, largely determines the nature of content, method and structure. This evolution of thought in our society frames most current debates on educational questions.

The traditional moral school was based on cultural imperatives (e.g. the Ten Commandments, acknowledging providence, exercising self-restraint and striving to develop character that made a man's or woman's word his or her bond.) As these aims faded, "the little red schools" were consolidated, and ethics was substituted for morality. Right and wrong became relative. The new view was founded on compliance to (a) what the larger society fosters (when in Rome do what the Romans do), (b) what some group requires or (c) what personal desires and appetites urge. The former ends of schooling also changed. Character education was largely replaced with various forms of values clarification and, more recently, ethical sensitivity training. Political correctness became a social norm supported by administrative policy. Standards and norms for textbooks and teacher training were modified to match the new ideology. The sacred diminished; the secular prevailed.

This transition in education is not a secret — it is simply no longer taught. The documentation is voluminous. It includes numerous speeches, thousands of articles and hundreds of books. Our modern Western worldview did change in the academy between 1880 and 1920. The new view requires that all acceptable evidence in academe conform to explanations of physical matter acting on physical matter. Spirit acting on matter or matter acting on spirit no longer seems formally valid or useful. The school curriculum changed to match the new worldview. Textbooks were rewritten. This change in perspective was a rejection of an inclusive view of knowledge (both revelation and reason) and the endorsement of an exclusive view of acceptable scholarship in academia and public schooling. Religious freedom and the family became at risk.

Perhaps the journalist Walter Lippmann expressed this change in America quite simply in 1929. After explaining what he called “the dissolution of the ancestral order” and “the foundations of humanism,” he wrote: “It follows, then, that in exploring the modern problem it is necessary to consciously and clearly make a choice between these diametrically opposite points of view. The choice is fundamental and exclusive, and it determines all the conclusions which follow.”

Neil J. Flinders is an emerita faculty member of the David O. McKay School of Education, Brigham Young University. His view is personal and does not necessarily reflect any institution or publication.