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America is simultaneously the richest and poorest country in the world. Richest because it has the world's largest economy and highest standard of living. Poorest because of a toxic culture that exploits women, worships damaged celebrity, and addicts children to money and materialism.
What America needs is a healthy infusion of values, which can only come from a values-based education. But due to the brick wall that has been constructed between church and state, public schools have been prevented from teaching the social values that are the hallmark of a religious education. A country that does not instill in its young a sense of destiny and purpose will founder.
The pendulum has swung so far in one direction that even the pledge of allegiance is being questioned as to its constitutionality, since it mentions God. The public school systems do not allow even the hint of an allegiance to a higher power who demands virtuous action and moral excellence.
What's left? Parochial schools have been deputized with the task of conveying values to our children.
The problem, of course, is that most parents simply can't afford skyrocketing tuition. And parents who wish to raise kids with a spiritual and values-based education are doubly punished by having to pay high property taxes, not one penny of which can go to pay for tuition.
Thomas Jefferson said that a liberal democracy relies on enlightened citizens for its survival. How ironic, then, that parents who wish to instill in their children a passion for ethical virtue are penalized for their efforts.
BUT NONE OF this is going to change any time soon. There is a fledgling voucher movement in America that would allow parents to direct their education stipend to the school of their choice. But it has gained little traction and is not a central campaign issue for any serious politician. The teachers unions are simply too powerful and they are dead set against taking any money out of the public schools, no matter how much they fail. Moreover, the Supreme Court has yet to adjudicate the constitutionality of vouchers.
A radical solution must therefore be sought. The status quo cannot be preserved. If it is, American kids will continue to be raised with a materialist education that acknowledges their minds and bodies but ignores their spirit and character.
Every time the funding of parochial schools is raised, the traditional knee-jerk reactions occur. Conservatives holler that the government must fund faith-based educational models. Conversely, liberals circle their wagons to protect the sacrosanct separation of church and state.
The merits of the issue can never be thoughtfully discussed. It's like a bull reacting to a red cape.
To provide the religious education that should be the birthright of every American child, I propose that the three major religions of the United States, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, start local education superfunds in every community to provide a free parochial education for every student that seeks it.
In the same way that going to church is free (even as people volunteer to pay membership dues), the same should be true of receiving religious instruction in school. A values-based education should not be the preserve of the rich, and knowledge of a higher power should not be the inheritance solely of the well-heeled.
CONSIDER the following: rich Catholic kids go to the finest suburban Catholic schools and receive quality educations. They are exposed to religious mentors who nurture not just their minds but their souls. But their poorer peers have to settle for an education where even the mention of God is banned.
There is scarce justice in a system in which families who affiliate with a great world religion can expose their children to its teachings only once a week on a Sunday because they lack the funds to do so the rest of the week. This is an injustice not only against the children but even more so against the church itself that is bound by such a system to raise even more lapsed than committed Catholics.
Since when did a religious education become the preserve only of the rich? And this is an objection that can be raised regarding all of America's great religions. How will kids find God if they are not raised with it, and how can they be raised with it if the full extent of their religious commitment is not daily exposure, but Sunday services once a week?
This absence is especially acute in the Jewish community, where numerous studies have proven that the strongest bulwark against assimilation is a Jewish education. Period. Nothing can guarantee the survival and continuity of the Jewish people more than the Jewish day school movement.
Will we allow the foundation of our people to founder because of unaffordable tuition? And if trips to Israel for Jewish teenagers are now covered free of charge as part of a Jewish "birthright," then should not a Jewish education be the same? Intensive Jewish education is for the most part available only to well-off families or those who undergo the sometimes humiliating exercise of going before scholarship committees to prove that they cannot afford tuition.
BUT THE SAME truth pertains to the vast numbers of evangelical Christians who, by and large, home-school their children. They do so because they wish to avoid the toxic influences that are inherent in many of the public schools. And who can blame them?
Do parents who are adamantly opposed to sex before marriage want their children exposed to a school culture that teaches contraception rather than abstinence? No parent wants to feel that they are sending their children to a school which is inimical to their own values.
Still, there is a price to be paid for educating your children in isolation. Kids need friends to develop social skills and there is a certain camaraderie that only people of the same age group can share. A far better solution would be for Evangelicals to finally begin a serious day school movement, which is at present absent from evangelical life. A superfund administered by the leading evangelical organizations should be able to raise enough funds to provide nearly every Christian child with a religious education, with his peers, in a God-fearing environment.
The leadership of every faith should gather up its important philanthropists and begin the fund with multi-million dollar contributions that should then inspire the rank and file to open their wallets as well.
IF THIS model were replicated across the US, with every religious community taking charge of its own children's education, cultural conditions would change dramatically. A generation of kids accustomed to deeper and more wholesome fare will not readily gravitate to the toxic offerings of today's exploitative culture. The market they will create for more wholesome fare will then influence TV, music and the media to offer something healthier.
But if the religious leadership won't decide on strident, sweeping and bold initiatives now, we risk passively ceding the value systems of our civilization to Hollywood and Wall Street.
Educating our children in something wholesome and spiritual is our very first priority.
The writer, a rabbi, hosts "Shalom in the Home" on The Learning Channel and is the author of a new book by the same title (www.shmuley.com).
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