One of the most important truths for Christians in our day to burn into their minds is the religious nature of education. Not the religious nature of some education or the religious nature of private education or the religious of explicitly religious education, but the religious nature of all education, period.
The is a particularly difficult truth not on account of its clarity but rather because of the cost of believing it. For Christians who want to think at all, the public education system is a wreck, and not simply because of the literacy levels of graduating seniors (though that ought to be enough). A seventeen year old can’t get her ears pierced with permission from her parents, but she can get a complimentary cab ride and abortion under the supervision her high school, without her parents ever knowing about it. This is the law in Washington State, and the head of the clinic at Ballard High School, with whom I just spoke, defends it as a “best practice”. The law allows it and therefore the high school enforces it. If, as the child’s parent, you disagree and insist the school inform you regarding your child’s abortion, too bad. You have the right to know about ear piercing, but the death of the fetus is none of your business unless your child decides to tell you. Calm down and be assured there are laws about these sorts of things.
How did we get to the point where the public school can legally facilitate the execution of your grandchild and insist it is healthy and right for you to never know about it? Is this simply the final result of prayer being driven out? No, this is the design of the system. The state is sovereign over the schools just as it is over the military. It’s astonishing that we don’t see this, that anyone can think schools are answerable to parents. Horace Mann, named the “Father of the Common Schools”, directed the public schools to provide the best religious influence on society through state-controlled education: “the Sabbath school, the pulpit, and so forth” are “cooperative or auxiliary institutions” to the school (quoted Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education, p. 26). Schools would teach morality (how could they escape doing so?), and thereby create a society where vice and crime are nearly unknown. The alternative to this public system was rampant immorality:
“What Paley so justly said of a parent, that ‘to send an uneducated child into the world is little better than to turn out a mad dog or a wild beast into the streets,’ is just as true when applied to parliament and hierarchy, as when applied to an individual.” “For, in the name of the living God, it must be proclaimed, that licentiousness shall be the liberty; and violence and chicanery shall be the law; and superstition and craft shall be the religion; and the self-destructive indulgence of all sensual and unhallowed passions shall be the only happiness of that people who neglect the education of their children” To read Mann, the issue was ostensibly education, or no education. Actually, the issue was between state-controlled education and community controlled education, and this was the basic issue. Mann’s work was two-fold, first to secularize education, and, second, to make it the province of the state rather than the community and parents. According to Cubberley, first, Mann changed the function of education from “mere learning” or religiously oriented education, to “social efficiency, civic virtue, and character” Second, he transferred control of community schools into state hands. (ibid, p. 27)
What happens when the state-sanctioned morality is identical with Mann’s theoretical mad dogs running around the streets? You can teach what you know and give what you have. Mann wanted state-run schools laced with morality and values that superseded parental and community control. Of course Mann was an ardent churchman of the early 19th century when Unitarianism had yet to break out of its Trinitarian shell, and he wanted the morality derived from the Bible to flourish in society through education, without the source for that morality having any place.
So the system has become a mess even as it has fulfilled the role established for it at the beginning. Why is this so difficult to recognize and oppose? Why don’t more pastors, who can parse the intricacies of Pauline theologies and marvel at the courage of the minor prophets who confronted the idols of their day, address this Goliath in the room? Because so many Americans are functional statists, including those whom churches want to reach. What happens when you have a church with healthy contingency of, God-forbid, people who home and private school, and who do so out of principle? You’re going to weird out a lot of visitors, that’s what. You’re going to have to train people with these convictions to be gracious in their approach to genuine Christians who do not share them, and yet you cannot retreat on issue under the cover of neutrality. You are going to have to devote time and resources helping these families, resources that might have been spent on evangelism.
The price is church growth of a particular kind. Not church growth ever or even immediate and regular church growth, but the sometimes sort of growth that comes from shallow ground, pops up fast, but withers quickly–over one or two generations. This is because education is religious and it is also generational. He who takes the king’s money is the king’s man. You can’t give your children the king’s education and then expect them to think like King Jesus and bring up the next generation to do so. You can’t undo in one sermon and a Bible study what an idolatrous education instills (or doesn’t instill) for 30+ hours a week. Notice that I’m not arguing that conscientious Christian children will necessarily fall away from the faith if they attend public schools. They won’t, although it happens from time to time. It’s much more subtle than that which is why parents, particularly first generation Christians, remain unaware of it. What certainly does happen is the downgrade of their faith and worldview. The system was designed to replace parents, as explicitly taught by Horace Mann among others, and it effectively trains students to think and live a certain way. When the morality of the government is ostensibly Christian, then that morality is passed on. When the government is secular,pluralistic, and infanticidal, parents who put their children there passing that on as well.
The ramifications for the church are clear. All a pastor has to ask is where his next generation of leaders will come from. Providence may bring, no doubt will bring, a new crop of first generation Christians to the church and many of them will rise to serve. But will these people replace the generation that has fallen or been driven away by boredom? Or will they see the next generation being raised in faithfulness and have a discipleship standard to rise to?