Today’s educational landscape is rapidly changing. From the debates surrounding the Common Core standards to the pedagogical “game-changer” known as the Kahn Academy, there are constant shifts in thinking and practice in the area of American Education. Yet, amidst all of these shifts in the mainstream, like a stone sculpture (or perhaps more appropriately, a carved image), one thing has remained steadfast for over a century. It is this – government education
is still perceived as a primary agent of salvation in our society.
This idea came home again to me a few weeks ago when I ran across an astonishing quote. It was an excerpt from a forum on government school construction and modernization. On the eave of the popular “21st Century Learning” movement came this statement about our American government schools.
“We all know you can be deeply religious in a store front church, but all the major denominations try to build grand cathedrals, huge temples – for the Muslim faith, for the Jewish faith, for the Christian faith. Why do they go out of their way to build these huge cathedrals? – to signal something very important. There is grandeur here. There is awe to be inspired. This is a place of respect, a place of sanctuary. Every reason to build a grand cathedral in the middle ages can be echoed for our reasons to build a grand school for kids. It signals a place of awe, of inspiration, if you want – divinity in a way, because that is how we hold learning in this country. It is important to recognize that in a sense, education in America is our secular religion. We all treat education as if it leads to salvation. That used to be how we regarded religion. In the United States, education is salvation. It gets you the jobs. It gets you the incomes. It gets you the good life. The more of it the better. The more immersed in it the better off you are. If we are going to keep in mind the notion that education is our secular religion, then we really need our temples – our places of worship to reflect the high regard we hold for it.”(1)
The “notion that education is our secular religion” is nothing new. This has long been the case in this country. R.J. Rushdoony detailed this in 1963 in his landmark book The Messianic Character of American Education. In it he states,
If education is at all concerned with truth, it is again religious. If education is vocational, then it deals with calling, a basically religious concept. It would be absurd to reduce preparation for life, truth and calling to an exclusively religious meaning in any parochial sense, but it is obvious that these and other aspects of education are inescapably religious.(2)
Most of us can accept this concept, but what about this idea of the salvific nature of the system? Some might be tempted to think that this is a bit of a stretch. Rushdoony’s book provides a clear understanding to the contrary by tracing the philosophical premises of statist education at its root. I had referenced Rushdoony’s book from time to time over the years but in running across the quote above I decided to pull it off the top of my bookshelf, dust it off and read it cover to cover. It was time well spent.
While it is true that many directly involved today in government education may not self-consciously hold to certain ideas, they are nonetheless working within a system constructed by those whose design was calculated and purposeful. This is seen clearly in two of the early architects of the system, Horace Mann and Col. Francis Wayland Parker.
Mann was referred to as the “Father of the Common [government] Schools”.(3) His influence was extensive and he had a fundamental commitment to the idea that man could be perfected through education.(4)
Mann’s concept of education was clearly messianic as well, and his language self-consciously echoes biblical Salvationist phraseology…In 1823, at Dedham, in his Fourth of July address, he declared, “Intelligence, like the blood sprinkled upon the doorposts of Hebrew houses, will prevent the destroying angel of despotism from entering.” (5)
His view of the redemptive nature of education is more than clear. He was not alone. Mann was followed by architects of the school system such as Col. Francis Wayland Parker. The well known John Dewey gave Parker the title of “father of the progressive educational movement”.(6) The “learn by doing” approach of progressive education is an alternative to the now more common test-oriented instruction. That said, the concepts still influence teaching methods to this day. Parker’s passion for the progressive approach was evident, but even more evident was his ambition for what he intended to accomplish through it.
“We must know that we can save every child. The citizen should say in his heart: ‘I await the regeneration of the world from the teaching of the common schools of America.’ “ (7)
For everything else that it is, the topic of government education is at base an issue concerning covenant institutions. When we operate out of sync with the biblical responsibilities and jurisdictions of the family, church and state, drastic consequences result. I would submit that the idea of government education as a primary agent of salvation in society is a result, at least in part, of giving the state jurisdiction not granted to it in the Word of God. God gives to the state the responsibility for protecting and restraining through the punishment of crime. Its role does not include the education of our children. Seeking to liberate modern man through the state’s care and instruction of our children is not only impossible, it is an attempt at setting up a rival messiah.
Education is not a separate category of society. It is a part of the parenting process and within the jurisdiction of the family. It is just another aspect of parental responsibility. More than this, it is not fundamentally intellectual in nature. It is an ethical endeavor.
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 ESV)
Let us not turn over to the state, that which is required of the family.