Private Schools Make You Racist (?)

Maybe public school graduates can’t read or write, but at least they’re more tolerant than their private school counterparts, and that’s what really matters here in the 21st century, right?

This is the argument that New York Times columnist Charles Blow appears to be making in this piece about a “civility gap.” Evidence for the relative nastiness of private school students is supposedly found in this survey on bullying conducted by the Josephson Institute.

In the survey, which Blow probably hopes his readers won’t scrutinize too closely, private institutions come out smelling like roses compared to public schools when it comes to questions like whether physical violence is a major problem at school or whether it’s easy to obtain alcohol and illegal narcotics on campus. Blow ignores these findings and fixates on the small differences (almost within the margin of error) in responses between public and private school students on the following items:

1. Having “bullied, teased, or taunted someone” in the last year (49.4% of public school students admitted to doing this at least once versus 51.5% of private religious school students)

2. Having “used racial slurs or insults” in the last year (fewer private religious school students admitted to this, but among males it was 53.5% private versus 51.1% public)

First, I have to say that if this is the best that critics of private schools can come up with, those schools have nothing to worry about. But these numbers do nothing to prove that there is a “civility gap” at private schools. There is too much missing information here.

For example, what might have been the results if there had been a question on this survey about the frequency of student swearing? Or talking back to teachers? Anyone think there’s more of that at private religious schools?

Can we be sure that public and private school students use similar criteria to answer these questions? On the bully/tease/taunt question there’s no differentiation between a threat to kill someone and saying “na-nee-na-nee boo-boo, stick your head in d**-d**” a favorite chant among my classmates at Sidney Deener Elementary, as I recall. Is it possible that students at Christian schools respond affirmatively to the question with the latter sort of taunt in mind, a taunt which might not register on the public school student’s radar? Might the same sort of thing be occurring on the question about racial slurs?

I’m not faulting this study, which is what it is, but I don’t like it when people torture statistics until they cry uncle. That’s what Charles Blow has done here in alleging a systemic civility gap between private and public schools.

But if you’re concerned about civility (or violence, or drugs, or Mammon worship) at your child’s school, there’s always this solution, which my wife and I really like.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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