Schoolbooks & public values

THE court decision in the Tennessee textbook case is to be regretted. But it could have been worse. The case involved a small group of fundamentalist Christians in Hawkins County, Tenn., who objected to the use in their public schools of a Holt, Rinehart & Winston reading series. The books offended these undoubtedly sincere parents, who felt the books reflected ``secular humanism,'' a non-Christian world view that focuses on man's capabilities rather than God's. The parents claimed violation of their religious freedom. They sued to have the books, which included excerpts from works like ``The Wizard of Oz,'' Andersen's fairy tales, and Shakespeare's ``Macbeth,'' removed from the school.

Now US District Court Judge Thomas G. Hull has ruled in the plaintiffs' favor. The plaintiffs' children, he has held, may be allowed simply to ``opt out'' of their reading class. They would spend their reading period in a study hall, and then be tutored at home by their parents, with books of their choosing. The children's progress would be tracked by the school, using standard achievement tests.

Those eager to keep religious entanglements out of the public schools can at least be grateful the judge did not order that the books in question be removed. But the ``cafeteria'' system that could be expected to develop if various groups were allowed to opt out of parts of the standard curriculum would be unworkable in the public schools.

The United States is a pluralistic society and needs to accommodate a wide variety of views on religion, including lack of religion.

That does not mean, however, that there doesn't exist a body of common moral and cultural values which transcend religious differences and unify the country. And the public schools can be expected to communicate such values, which are appropriately secular. For those who are absolutely uncomfortable in a secular environment, private religious schools are available.

Meanwhile, parents can -- and should -- be alert to what their children are learning in school. Parents should certainly feel free to point out to their youngsters instances where what is taught in school conflicts with family values.

The opportunity to perceive the ``public truths'' of the school as well as the ``private truths'' of the family should give children a certain binocular depth of vision as well as greater skill in critical thinking. And surely children raised in a minority religion are going to have to learn to swim against the tide if they are to continue in that religion once they leave home.

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