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Volume 8, Issue 1: Repairing the Ruins

The Rise and Fall Government Education

Douglas Wilson

Horace Mann (1796-1858) was the father of the public schools in our country. He was deeply hostile to the historic Christian faith, and sought to replace that faith with a kinder, gentler faith, i.e. faith in man. (Historic Christianity had far too many sharp edges on which sinners might hurt themselves.) The engine selected to propagate this humanistic faith was the common or public school. But as a true man of faith, Mann did not expect tiny things from his god. As he put it, "Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ill would be abridged; men would walk more safely by day; every pillow would be more inviolable by night; property, life and character held by a stronger tenure; all rational hopes respecting the future brightened."

But a century after the common schools were established, we are all confronted with a dismal spectacle. It does not compare at all well with the glowing messianic vision for public education that was set forth by the seers and prophets of humanism in the last century. Academic standards have plummeted, and parents now have to worry about the physical safety of their children. Many school officials have quit worrying about gum under the seats and have started worrying about whether the metal detectors at the doors are adequate. They usually are not.
This poor outcome, however, should not have been such a surprise. A few orthodox and thinking Christians of the nineteenth century were not at all taken in. R.L. Dabney, a staff officer for "Stonewall" Jackson, prophesied clearly where the attempt by the government to provide a good, "neutral" education would all lead. He knew what would happen to these government schools. "We have seen that their complete secularization is logically inevitable. Christians must prepare themselves then, for the following results: All prayers, catechisms, and Bibles will ultimately be driven out of the schools." A.A. Hodge, a great theologian at Princeton, said that if the government schools were established, they would prove to be the greatest engine of atheism the world had ever seen. Unfortunately, few Christians at that time had the insight of Dabney and Hodge.
This was because, although the intellectual impetus behind government schools was unbelieving and clearly humanistic, the local schools were still controlled at the local level by Christians. Protestant evangelical Christians thought of the public schools as their schools. The Catholics agreed with this, and began their parochial school system as a response to the "evangelical" public schools. Only a few Christians had correctly identified the leaven of "neutrality," and where it would lead. It is hard to know what is more astonishing -- those few Christians who saw the real issues a century ago, or those thousands of Christians today who still do not see it.
The public schools were formed when the culture of the United States was overwhelmingly and openly Christian. This is why some Christians today look back at those days with some nostalgia. If only . . . If only we could return to the schools of the last century. If only we could return to McGuffy's Readers . Some of us wistfully look back to the public schools of our childhood, back before prayer was banned. If only . . . This nostalgic approach neglects one thing -- the public schools were a rebellious idea from the start. Is it bad for the humanists to take our tax money and force us to educate our children according to a worldview we reject? But if it is bad for them to do this to us, then how was it good for us to do it to them? Parents are responsible for the education of their own children, and must not employ the coercive power of the state to educate the children of others. With regard to education, parents must determine its character, bear its costs, set its direction, and through what they do in their childrearing, present their children before the Father at the last day. This is the law of God, and it is a law which cannot be obeyed through a civil magistrate pretending that the existence of God is a matter of educational indifference. Education is one of the most religious things we do. The idea that it can be conducted from a "secular" vantage point is laughable. The pretence of neutrality can be made for a time, but only as a transitional tactic. When a culture is changing her gods, she usually cannot bear to jettison them all at once. She must be persuaded to do so gradually, and the farce of neutrality usually provides sufficient time to do this.
Contrary to certain popular Christian assumptions, the crack-up of the government schools is not the result of them taking a "wrong turn" somewhere in the sixties. "We took God out of the schools, and look what happened." The god who was in the public schools before that time was an idol . It certainly made people who had little understanding of true religion feel good in praying to him, but this was only because this idol had all the divine characteristics and attributes of a celestial tapioca.
Christians must not be children in understanding; we must come to a mature mind. We must repent of our attempts to save "our" public schools. If the professing evangelical Christians in our nation were to take their children by their hands and walk away, they would soon hear the roar of a collapsing and fallen god behind them. If they do not leave, it will still fall, but with their children inside.

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