Underestimating The Power Of Public Education

Published 11:08 am Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Editor, The Herald:

In a recent letter to the Editor, Fillmer Hevener suggests that public school enrollments may be declining because more parents opt to teach children at home for religious reasons. He argues that many parents see moral lessons “as a necessary part of preparing their children to become productive and constructive citizens.” I do not dispute Mr. Hevener’s claim that character education is important. Indeed, it is an essential part of every child’s upbringing. However, I disagree with his central implication that moral lessons are not a part of public education simply because the First Amendment to our Constitution forbids the establishment of any government-sponsored religion, and hence teaching of the Bible in public schools.

In my experience, the most profound and powerful education involves teaching by example. Children listen to lessons, but they learn far more from the examples they see, particularly of the adults around them. For over two decades I have had numerous opportunities to observe employees of the public schools in Prince Edward County and surrounding districts, and I would argue that many principals, coaches, and especially teachers at all grade levels offer just the sort of outstanding moral role models that our young children—the productive and constructive future citizens that Mr. Hevener desires—can best benefit from.

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I have witnessed many teachers providing excellent instruction in core academic subjects such as English, mathematics, science, and social studies, along with key skills including critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving. Equally important, yet unfortunately overlooked, I have seen countless occasions where dedicated teachers pass along valuable life lessons in patience, perseverance, and goal-setting. Through the examples they set by their motivation and hard work, they teach our children to aim high and follow through. Although it may not be part of each course’s formal schedule or lesson plan, they teach our children fundamental values, including the virtues of patience, purpose, honor, and respect for authority. They instill honesty and integrity. They teach future citizens about working hard, taking responsibility for their choices, contributing to local and larger communities, and respecting the lives of all people. Most of all these teachers show—through the daily example of their efforts—the lasting value of caring for others.

I have no problem with Mr. Hevener and others seeking such lessons in sacred texts, but it leads me to believe that critics of public education grossly overlook the profound moral impact that preschool, elementary, middle school, and high school teachers have on their pupils. This is regrettable. Just because the Bible is not to be found in a public school classroom does not mean that our children are not learning the most important lessons of all. Those who claim otherwise would do well to spend a day or two in school classrooms, practice fields, and hallways. We underestimate the power of public education, and the potential of all youth, at our peril. In an age where we focus too much on test scores and red tape it is all too easy to be grossly misinformed about the dedicated public servants in whose care we daily entrust our children, and of the deeply positive and lasting effects these teachers leave on them.

Alexander Werth