Declaration of Independence
by David Zweibel
Am Echad Resources
July 17, 2001
The U.S. Department of Education recently sponsored a conference in Washington, at which I was privileged to speak, commemorating the 75th anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling that (in my admittedly narrow view) may well be the most important judicial decision in the history of the United States. And, legal significance aside, looking back at the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters three-quarters-of-a-century later offers some important insights into a subject of critical contemporary relevance.
At issue in Pierce was a 1922 Oregon law that required all elementary school children within the state to attend public school. The good people of Oregon, it appears, were concerned about the influx of immigrants into their fair state - many of whom were of the Catholic faith and sent their children to Catholic parochial schools. The anti-Catholic Protestant majority did not take well to the prospect that significant numbers of future Oregonians would be committed Catholics, and they recognized that the best way to ensure that immigrant children would be weaned away from their parents' despised religious lifestyle would be to insist that all children across the state be educated exclusively in a public school setting.
The Supreme Court rejected this effort at what Yale Law School’s Stephen Carter has termed "Protestantism masquerading as patriotism." Citing "the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control," the Court struck down the Oregon statute as unconstitutional. In so doing, the Justices rebuked Oregon's heavy-handed attempt to force all children into one cookie-cutter mold:
"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children, forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. A child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."
The Supreme Court's ruling in Pierce established the absolute right of parents to educate their children in independent non-public schools. It is unlikely that the Justices were animated by the vision of the cheder child reciting his first Torah verses - but 75 years later, if Dr. Marvin Schick's recent "Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States" for the AVI CHAI Foundation speaks of approximately 700 Jewish elementary and secondary schools across America, with enrollments of some 200,000 students - may there be many more - we can directly attribute this tremendous growth of Jewish education in the United States to the equal rights we as Americans enjoy to educate our children in settings other than the local public school.
What is especially noteworthy about the Pierce case is the recognition, both by the Oregon law's proponents and by the Supreme Court, that public schools are the most powerful agent of assimilation a society has to offer. Such assimilation, the Court ruled, may not be compelled. But it is still available to parents who choose it. And therein lies the lesson for our time.
Historically, Jews have always been outsiders, never fully integrated in any society in which they have lived. Jewish Sages over the ages have taught us that this is as it should and must be, that remaining separate from the surrounding society is ultimately the key to our survival within that society.
But this lesson has not been easily absorbed. On the surface, it is counterintuitive. After all, if Jews are the targets of persecution, and even of holocaust, would not logic seem to compel a strategy of shedding the identity of outsider, of assimilating into the broader majority culture?
Little wonder that so many Jewish immigrants to the United States, escaping the ghettos and pogroms and concentration camps of Europe, and encountering barriers to Jewish advancement in this country, were so anxious to ensure that their children would be part of the great American mainstream. Little wonder that they rushed to enroll their children in the very finest public schools, where they would mingle with other children, be accepted by other children, and ultimately become largely indistinguishable from other children. Little wonder that the mainstream secular Jewish establishment emerged as perhaps the most articulate champion of public education, the most vociferous opponent of support for religious education.
The strategy of embracing public education as the assimilationist savior of future generations of American Jews has worked all too well. Jews in the United States, by and large, have overcome barriers of all types, to the point where they have become accepted in virtually every nook and cranny of American society. Anti-Semitism has not gone away, but on balance one would conclude that American Jews are now insiders, no longer outsiders.
And, G-d forbid, they are at risk of disappearing. The American melting pot, whose fires were stoked at the doors of the public schools, has robbed the large bulk of American Jewry of the religious identity and heritage that is our most precious possession.
The seventy-fifth anniversary of Pierce should serve as a reminder to the larger American Jewish community that public schooling, whatever its academic or other merits, is a tool of assimilationist destruction. To opt for public education as opposed to religious education is, as the Supreme Court wrote, to opt for "standardize[d] children."
All thoughtful Jews today must ask themselves: At this precarious point in our people's history, are those the types of children American Jewry should be producing?
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[David Zwiebel is Agudath Israel of America’s Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs]
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