Prayer in Public Schools: The Myth of Centralization


As someone opposed to government intervention in general, the question of prayer in the public schools never interested me much. I generally dismissed the idea of prayer in school as nothing more than another combination of the powers of church and state, and saw nothing good in that. Recently, however, I tried thinking about this issue from a slightly different perspective. That is, I realized that the argument was a waste of time, not because one side or the other was 'right,' but because the question itself approached the issue incorrectly-'in fact, the very fact that we had to ask the question meant that something was deeply wrong.

To me, both sides of the debate are missing something important. Suppose I told you that, from now on, Tuesday would be either chicken day or pork day. We (by which I mean everybody) could eat only one of the two of these, all Tuesday, every Tuesday. We could, of course, argue the pros and cons of both chicken and of pork, and take a majority vote-'the issue could be resolved, somehow. But hopefully someone is thinking, "Boy, this is a stupid rule. Why should we have to eat one or the other? What if I don't like either? Why should I have to eat what someone else does?"

Well, it is a stupid example. But that's the point-'if you were trying to please lots of different people on an issue, why would you force them all into agreement? This is why trying to decide, once and for all, what should be done about prayer in school is a bad way to go about the issue. Some people would like to bring their children up in a religious atmosphere, others don't want this atmosphere but see nothing wrong with simple prayer, and still others don't want anything to do with it. So what is wrong with this? If we really respect diversity as much as we say we do, this should be exactly what we wanted. Then we go and ruin it by trying to cram everyone into standardized, one-size-fits-all public schools.

See, the public school system, not prayer, is the real heart of the issue. The problem we have with school prayer is not one that we have with food. On Tuesday night, you can eat whatever you want, be it chicken, pork, or-'God forbid-'something else. But that is because we don't have (fully) standardized grocery stores that are instructed by a central agency to sell only item X on day Y. Any store owner would be hard-pressed to earn a living like this.

So what is the point of all of this? The point, I think, is that we have created an issue where there shouldn't be one. By having a monopolistic, bureaucratic system of public education, we have closed ourselves off from letting individuals and communities decide for themselves what they want from an education. Sure, there is always private schooling, but this is often inadequate (and expensive) precisely because it is enveloped in a system of government regulation and red tape. And there will always be some who want to fix the problem by advocating more government intervention and control. But not only does this not solve the problem (since this is already the problem), but it still puts the decisions affecting a wide range of people in the hands of politicians who are far removed from the realities of the situation. What is needed is not more government, but a complete and utter removal of government from education, paving the way for cheaper, more efficient private schooling and community-provided 'public' schooling.

It is easy to see then why this is not really a question about prayer. The criticism can be applied quite widely to the public school system as a whole, from what subjects should be taught, to standardized testing, and to sports, and so forth. And perhaps more importantly, these ideas can be extended to much more than the issue of public schooling. Should smoking be allowed in public? Should I be allowed to own a gun? These are all questions that we've been duped into thinking require one universal answer. And, of course, the 'correct' answer is always somebody's personal opinion, an opinion that they ask Daddy Government to implement for us all. 'Why, if I were in charge, we'd have this whole mess turned around in no time,' they say to themselves. All the while, of course, it is never seriously considered what should be obvious: that we don't, and maybe shouldn't, agree on these things. People only feel this way because we live under the rule of a government that thinks it has legitimate authority over everyone on the continent (or, as Bush seems to think, the entire world). By deregulating and decentralizing, we can remove from our heads the idea that we all (or a majority of us) have to want exactly the same thing, or that everyone in an area as large as the United States has to live under the same basic laws. By coming out from under the rule of Big Government centralization, by living as decentralized, self-governing individuals and communities, we can reach the point where such questions as 'Should there be prayer in school?' have already been answered.

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