Mention outcome-based education now to the religious conservatives at Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) or the National Association of Christian Educators, with which CEE is affiliated, or to the conservative members of Focus on the Family or Concerned Women for America or Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and they're likely to become apoplectic. Depending on the version, they insist, OBE is either nonsensical mumbo jumbo or part of something very sinister: undermining children's religious faith, promoting "politically correct issues such as environmentalism, gun control and homosexuality" in the words of Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead, and thus representing "one of the most frightening assaults on individual freedom we've ever faced." OBE, says former Education Secretary Bill Bennett (who happens to be one of Checker Finn's heroes), has become a tool for the education establishment to advance its own social agenda: "a Trojan horse for social engineering."
In the past couple of years, pitched battles have been fought over OBE and related programs from one end of the country to the other: in Pennsylvania and Virginia, Washington and California, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and a great many local communities in between. In some instances, those fights have been over shadows: a story in a new state curriculum guide that seems to some group to question the primacy of heterosexual marriage as the foundation of social life, or that suggests to someone that maybe the writer is trying to foist vegetarianism and animal rights on the tender minds of fourth graders.
But to dwell on these phantoms of the new school wars would distort a far more complex story. This is not only a controversy between an ever-reasonable education establishment and the know-nothing right, as the annual textbook censorship reports of the liberal People for the American Way seem to suggest; nor is it just a fight against attempts by the forces of political correctness to capture the hearts and minds of our children, as conservatives like Thomas Sowell or Dinesh D'Souza would have it. At bottom it reflects genuine social, intellectual, and ideological controversies about how children should be taught, what they should learn, and what, ultimately, schools should be in a democratic society. Unless the progressive education establishment begins to appreciate the sources of resistance to reform, it will invite the kind of paralyzing backlash we have seen in many areas of our national life.