In the eyes of most people, America’s public education system is the secular alternative to religious, faith-based schools.
But as I and others have argued, this dichotomy is false. The public education system also promotes a kind of religion, which has its own creed, rituals, and gods.
In his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, former NYU professor Neil Postman names the four “gods” that he believes America’s children are being taught to worship within the walls of today’s public schools. They are:
1) The god of Economic Utility
Postman describes this god as follows:
“As its name suggests, it is a passionless god, cold and severe. But it makes a promise, and not a trivial one. Addressing the young, it offers a covenant of sorts with them: If you will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done. Its driving idea is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of a community. It follows from this that any school activity not designed to further this end is seen as a frill or an ornament—which is to say, a waste of valuable time.”
To see evidence for the existence of this god, one need go no further than what the U.S. Department of Education defines as the goal of America’s education system: to make students “college- and career-ready.”
2) The god of Consumership
According to Postman, the push to make students “career-ready” is closely tied to a materialistic worldview. It is implied that today’s students should want successful jobs so they can live a comfortable existence in modern society:
“[T]he god of Economic Utility is coupled with another god… I refer here to the god of Consumership, whose basic moral axiom is expressed in the slogan ‘Whoever dies with the most toys, wins’—that is to say, goodness inheres in those who buy things; evil in those who do not.”
3) The god of Technology
Postman writes, “[N]owhere do you find more enthusiasm for the god of Technology than among educators.”
In describing this “god,” Postman clarifies that he is not against using technology in schools. What he is against, he writes, is “our sleepwalking attitudes toward it, against allowing it to distract us from more important things, against making a god of it.” In other words, what he is against is the facile, overly optimistic view toward technology that you find among certain educators today, who assume that simply providing children with iPads and laptops will create more interest in studies, and remove some of the discipline and hard work that has traditionally accompanied the learning process.
4) The god of Multiculturalism
Before describing the god of “Multiculturalism,” Postman differentiates it from “cultural pluralism,” which he understands to be an educational philosophy that “show[s] the young how their tribal identities and narratives fit into a more inclusive and comprehensive American story.” Postman has a sympathetic view toward including elements of “cultural pluralism” in the school curriculum.
He regards “Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, as “a psychopathic version of cultural pluralism,” and describes it as follows:
“To ‘multiculturalists,’… oppression is the key to understanding white history, literature, art, and most everything else of European origin. It follows from this that all the narratives of the white, European races are to be seen as propagandistic means of concealing their evil, or, even worse, making their evil appear virtuous. There is no possibility of proceeding in a fair-minded way, the ‘multiculturalists’ believe, unless the narratives of white Europeans are overthrown.”
The Middle Ages is today popularly regarded as the most religious period in the history of Christian civilization. It has been remarked that the typical man of that age did not really spend time questioning the existence of the Trinitarian God; instead, he took that God’s existence as a given axiom that permeated his life.
I now turn back to our own time, and the “gods” of the public education system that Postman names. In my experience, the typical man of today does not question the validity of at least three of these gods, and more often than not, willingly accepts all four. These gods have become axioms of modern education—which, by the way, significantly diverge from the educational philosophy that prevailed in the West for over 2,000 years—and modern life.
Test scores and the rise of remedial education in college reveal that America’s public education system may no longer be effective at teaching students the basics. But I would argue that it is still an effective catechist for its gods.
Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.