S. Michael Craven
I am frequently asked for my thoughts on “public education.” Granted, this is a dicey issue that can get you into a lot of trouble very quickly. However, the question is legitimate, given education’s enormous role in shaping our children; thus, as Christians, we have no choice but to wrestle with the answers, even if we don’t like them.
Martin Luther wrote almost 500 years ago, “I am much afraid that schools will prove to be great gates of Hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, engraving them in the hearts of youth. I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not increasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt.” Clearly, the Scriptures do not reign paramount in today’s public educational system, and true to Luther’s prediction, the institution has indeed suffered corruption from its earlier intentions.
Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Theological Seminary and host of the nationally syndicated radio program The Al Mohler Program, revealed the secularizing influence on contemporary public education back in 2005 in an article, “Needed: An Exit Strategy.” Suffice it to say, in the nearly fourteen years hence, the situation has only gotten worse.
A little history of public education should prove helpful. F. W. Parker, the so-called father of progressive education and inspiration for John Dewey (an educational reformer), told the 1895 convention of the National Education Association (NEA) that “the child is not in school for knowledge. He is there to live and put his life, nurtured in the school, into the community.” According to Parker, the family home and religious faith must give way to a “grander vision” for society that is cast by the state. Recent initiatives promoting acceptance of homosexual conduct, historical revisionism, multiculturalism, and the like reveal the antireligious and anti-Western nature of this “vision.”
Allan Carlson, Ph.D., professor of history at Hillsdale College and president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, writes, “From the very beginning, public school advocates aimed at undermining and displacing the family as the center of children’s lives. The most important claim for public education was [and continues to be] that only a compulsory system of this sort could unify a scattered and diverse people: the parochial ideas of families obviously stood in the way.”
This is the fundamental and often overlooked problem with the modern public education system; it is its goal of supplanting the family as the principal influence and primary means for preparing the nation’s children to be “good citizens.” Where do we get this idea that upon age six (at the latest) we should send our children away for six to seven hours a day to be trained by others? The fact is, prior to government-funded schools, Americans, generally speaking, were better educated. My concern with public education centers principally on its role in elevating the state’s authority above that of the family.
Norman Ryder of Princeton University, writing more than thirty-five years ago in The Population Bulletin of the United Nations, “Education of the junior generation is a subversive influence. Boys who go to schools distinguish between what they learn there and what their father can teach them. The family structure is undermined when the young are trained outside the family.”
Ryder adds, “There is a struggle between the families and the State for the minds of the young.” In this struggle, the state serves as “the chief instrument for teaching [a new] citizenship, in a direct appeal to the children over the heads of their parents. The school also serves as the medium for communicating ‘state morality.’”
Lesslie Newbigin, the famed theologian and missiologist, stated it this way: “The transmission of traditional wisdom in families from the old to the young is replaced by systems of education organized by the State and designed to shape young minds toward the future that is being planned.” Of course, this planned future is grounded in secular humanistic hopes for humanity that, it is believed, can be achieved through education.
In this secular scheme, sin is nowhere a factor in what ails humanity, our societal ills are merely the product of ignorance, and human beings have a natural propensity for doing good that is only inhibited by external influences. The institutional emphasis of state-directed education aggressively excludes any recognition of the biblical concepts of sin, the fall, and mankind made in the image of God.
The modern idea that education is the ultimate responsibility of the state originates directly from atheistic, Enlightenment thinking, which perceives the state as savior. Throughout Scripture, it is parents who are charged with the responsibility to raise and train their children, and the nature and scope of that training are made quite explicit for those who profess faith in Christ.
Unfortunately, too many Christians consider education collateral to their faith, merely preparation for a job. In thinking this way, Christians are making the same false distinction between the world of “facts” and the world of “values” that the Enlightenment thinkers made. The Bible makes no such distinction. The world of facts—the material world, including all of God’s creation and the social structures of man (facts), can only be fully understood in the light of God’s revelation (values).
It is the neglect of this truth by many professing Christians that has subsequently allowed the public school system—as an institution—to achieve its secular drift. Couple this form of education with the diminished emphasis upon theology, doctrine, and discipleship by many churches, and it is no wonder that Christianity has become a marginalized way of thinking in American culture.
So, do we fold up our tents and run, or do we stay and work to effect change from within? I say it may be a little of both. One possible solution is the idea of returning to a decentralized education system. It is the concentration of bureaucratic power that has rendered public schools incapable of localized reform and enabled the influence of special interest groups and union organizations such as the NEA.
In 1932, there were 127,531 independent school districts in the U.S., many of them operating a single school. By 1990, there were only 17,995 school districts left. This consolidation of control into bureaucratic structures only further undermined parental influence and input. Dr. Carlson suggests “a radical deconsolidation of the public system, down to even the single-school level.”
He goes on to say that this “would weaken bureaucratic and union strangleholds on the schools and so return them to real community control, where parental and neighborhood moral judgments could again play a role.” This structure would certainly afford active Christians a much greater opportunity for positive influence over the institutions they allow to educate their children. Presently, only private institutions and homeschooling offer any measure of real parental influence.
Finally, there are those who argue in defense of their children attending public schools that “our children will serve as ‘salt and light.’” However, this argument really doesn’t come close to addressing the institutional and philosophical problems now ingrained in public education. Frankly, I would add, this approach must be carefully weighed against the psalmist’s charge to “walk not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.”
S. Michael Craven is the Associate Director for the Colson Fellows Program with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.