Posts Tagged ‘public schools’

Cornelius Jaarsma and the Argument for Schools

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian  theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education. The introductory post to this mini-series is here. One of my criticisms has been that most, if not all, of the thinkers we have looked at assume traditional schooling — i.e. kids leaving home daily and going to some sort of building where professional teachers take charge of their education. I have been trying to restrain myself because I know that most of them lived and wrote before the modern homeschooling movement and that educating one’s own kids at home was just not an option that was on their radar. But now I have run across a brief article by Cornelius Jaarsma (whom I covered once before in this post) in which he at least begins to present arguments for schools and so I have a pretext to vent a little 😉

I should be clear that though I am a homeschooler and though I think it is a very good option that could work well for a large number of families, I do not think schools as an institution are inherently evil (for some brief discussion of the public/private/Christian school issue, see this post and this one).

What I do think is that we need to approach schooling critically. Jaarsma and his contemporaries seem to accept that institutional schooling is the way to go without much consideration or argument. The article I am looking at today is paired with another, “An Overview of Christian Education” by John De Beer (in “Towards a Philosophy of Chrostian Education,” Calvin College Department of Education, June 2000; orig, pub. 1953). De Beer cautions that while “the Christian school is constantly to improve ways of teaching” and “may borrow-freely from whatever source is available,” that discernment should be used in adopting the practices developed by non-Christians as their goals, methods and results may not coincide with our own (p. 4). My argument is that it is not just the practices which we need to question but the very institution itself.

In the second part of this publication, “A Brief Overview of Christian Education” by Cornelius Jaarsma, we are rightly told that “[a]ccording to the Scriptures . . . [p]arents are assigned the task to ‘train up’ their children, ‘bring them up,’ and teach them commandments of God” (pp. 10-11).  Jaarsma goes on to argue that, as we are inherently religious creatures, education, even in seemingly non-religious subjects cannot be separated from this religious “bringing up.” Thus all of the child’s education, not just the religious part, is mandated by the Scriptures to the parent and the responsibility for it is theirs and theirs only (p. 13).

Thus far I agree completely with Jaarsma. And I agree with him as well when he says that parents may “seek assistance in their God-assigned task” (p. 13). In my own denomination when the parents at their child’s baptism vow to provide him with a God-centered education, the members of the church also vow to assist the parents. Those who choose to educate at home often find that homeschooling involves selective outsourcing. Hopefully one’s church family does help, but one can also get help from a variety of other sources from grandparents to co-ops to online classes. Which is to say that we must not think of schooling versus home-education as a dichotomy. There is a spectrum of options from the parents doing everything themselves with no outside help on one end to the parents doing nothing themselves at the other end. Neither end is acceptable (or biblical) but that still leaves a lot of room and a lot of possible choices in the middle.

The question before us today is, within this range of options, why institutional schools? As I have said before, the Bible establishes certain institutions including the family, the church, and the civil government. It does not establish schools. This does not mean schools are inherently wrong or unjustify-able. There are other non-biblical (but not un-biblical) institutions which most of us make use of and am quite grateful for — hospitals come to mind. But as we are adding something that is both cultural and is not mentioned in the Bible, it is worth asking if this new institution is at least in line with biblical principles. This is particularly important because what that institution does– educate children — is a task the Scriptures have particularly assigned to a God-ordained institution — the family.

Jaarsma and others we have looked at do not deny that the Bible charges parents with educating their children. They account for the schools doing so by arguing that they do so in loco parentis, that is, with authority specifically given them by the parents. All authority in heaven and earth belongs to God. He delegates some of it to others for specific tasks including giving  parents authority over their children and their education. There are ways in which I as a parent and a homeschooler may delegate my own authority to others on a temporary basis. Every time I leave my child with a sitter or drop him off at Sunday school or enroll him in a class I am delegating  a bit of my authority. One may argue that if I drop my child off at school for six hours every weekday that I am doing the same thing — temporarily delegating my authority to another – and to some extent this is true. The problem is in the practical application; it is very hard to delegate such a large chunk of authority and still to pick it up again at the end of the day.  There are no doubt parents who send their kids to a school and still stay very involved, but (as Peter Ton also pointed out) it is very hard to send your child away to someone else to educate for something like thirty hours a week and to still stay in control. At the very least, I would say that using a school, even a Christian school presents certain dangers and that one must be very careful how one uses the school and relates to it.

While the responsibility may be primarily on the side of the parents to ensure that they are maintaining their authority, Christian schools also bear some responsibility to make sure they are not usurping the authority that has been given to parents. In the article we are looking at, Jaarsma paints a picture of the role of the teacher which seems quite pervasive:

“The personal loyalty of the child to the teacher is strong. The child must still feel the security afforded by the solidarity of family life as represented in the parents, and he comes to feel this in the teacher. In school this security transfers to the teacher.” (p. 23)

What he describes here, and even advocates for, is not a temporary delegation but a new relationship which is being created and which is on par with that between the child and his parents. It is easy to see how such a bind could begin to rival the parent-child bond. I do think a wise, active parent can send their child to a school and still maintain his own God-given role to educate his own child, but I think it is difficult because even with the best Christian teachers and the best of intentions, the very nature of the school environment tends to undermine parental responsibility. The school is not in loco parentis  in the same way the babysitter who watches my child for a few hours at a time is but comes, by its very nature, to usurp and thereby undermine the parents’ God-ordained responsibility. In some sense the danger is even greater with Christian schools. Those who send their children to public or secular private schools are more likely to be aware that the schools will be more cognizant of the school’s shortcomings and more aware of their own need to stay involved. Any Christian school needs to define clearly where its own authority begins and ends. It needs to work closely with parents and deliberately keep them in the process. It needs to recognize that any authority it has is delegated by the parents. It needs to not allow the parents to get lazy and to not stay involved. It needs to always see itself as the agent of the parents.

While Jaarsma acknowledges the God-given authority of the parents over their children’s educations, he favors institutional schooling because, he says:

“Parents have neither the time nor generally the qualifications to lead children to maturity in the complexity of modern life.” (p. 13)

There is a lot in this statement and though Jaarsma does not pull it apart for us, he does throughout the article give us clues that we can use to unpack what he means —

Maturity is the goal of education. This Jaarsma defines for us:

“In the covenant of grace the parent assumes the responsibility of giving immature child-life the direction of the ‘new obedience.’ . . . Maturity is the stage when the child assumes this responsibility for himself. The way of the ‘new obedience’ must become his own commitment, his freely chosen way . . . When the youth has come to accept life in the ‘new obedience,’ he is said to be mature.” (pp. 12-13)

Note that Jaarsma acknowledges again that we are within the framework of the covenant here and that it is the parents’ covenant responsibility to help the child to mature into what he calls “the new obedience.”

If this is the task of the parents — as Jaarsma himself says repeatedly — why do they not accomplish it themselves? Jaarsma says that they “have neither the time nor generally the qualifications.” There are two elements here. I am not going to dwell too much on the time except to ask: what other God-given obligations do you not make time for? As for the issue of qualifications– In some sense none of us are qualified to do anything of the things Gods calls us to do, but He gives us grace to do them nonetheless. If God in the Scriptures assigns this task to the parents, I think we can also assume that He will give us the grace to fulfill it.

The key for Jaarsma seems to lie in the end of the quote: “in the complexity of modern life.” Apparently, something has changed and in the modern world, one needs additional qualifications to lead children to spiritual maturity. Specifically, one must have professional qualifications (p. 13).  Jaarsma notes that the schools as we know them are both modern and cultural. They did not exist as such 150 years ago (Jaarsma writing in the 1950s says 100 years ago).  They are a mere flash in the pan historically speaking. Again I appeal to what De Beer said in the companion essay to this one — we may accept cultural developments which come to us through secular or non- Christian sources, but we must not do so uncritically. So we must, as De beer said, analyze their methods, goals, and results. This Jaarsma does not do (he may elsewhere, but he does not in this essay). Instead, he accepts the structure of schooling as it is because “parents cannot effectuate this cultural task in the complexity of modern life” (p. 14). The problem for Jaarsma seems to be one of modernity – something has changed and parents are no longer equipped to be the primary educators of their children.

One might expect Jaarsma to point to the vast bodies of knowledge that have been discovered and the many subjects which students are now expected to learn. Though Jaarsma clearly favors a class of teachers with “academic and professional learning” (p. 14), when he lists qualifications for Christian teachers, he mentions first love and faith as the key elements and obedience as the goal. One wonders for which of these the parents are unqualified — is to love their children? To have faith or demand obedience?

Jaarsma goes on to say that education is largely about differentiation. He gives the example of a small child who initially makes a seemingly random collection of noises which then become refined into distinct words. The basic process he sees is one of “great differentiation and corresponding integration” which “[t]he school is especially equipped and organized to deal with” (p. 19).

Since Jaarsma gives us the example is the toddler learning the beginnings of speech and communication, let us see how this example plays out. The ordinary child learns this skill, one of the hardest skills a person can learn, under his parents’ guidance. A child raised in isolation will not learn to speak but neither is any special expertise needed to teach him to do so. Underlying Jaarsma’s thought there seems to be an assumption about how education works — that it originates largely in the activity of the teacher. He sees the need for a professional teacher because he sees education as something rather complicated that needs to be guided by an outside mind. Our example argues otherwise. The toddler learns largely without conscious instruction. In other words, the child does the learning more than his parents do the teaching. Whether one learns later skills in the same way is an open question. Jaarsma clearly assumes that more deliberate teaching is required and therefore requires professional, trained teachers.

There is one more element we need to unpack–  Jaarsma says that “parents cannot effectuate this cultural task in the complexity of modern life” (p. 14; emphasis added). Previously Jaarsma had put the goal of education as the spiritual maturity of the individual, but there is also a level on which he sees education as a cultural task rather than one relating primarily or solely to the individual. The school, he says is “a cultural institution” and “a cultural medium” which we use “to effect a cultural task” (p. 16). The cultural mandate argument is one we have seen before. Frank Gaebelein made a rather good argument for a certain model of Christian schooling which, because it is open to all children, not just those from covenant families, has the power to affect culture. It is harder to see how the schools Jaarsma proposes which are for Christians and by Christians would have the same societal effect. My main problem with this argument, however, is that it is just not consistent. Jaarsma began buy telling me that education is towards the maturity of the individual and now he makes it a cultural phenomenon. The two may not be unrelated, but neither are they the same. I think we must be careful if we believe education is for the benefit of the individual not to lose him in the institution. Institutions have a nasty tendency to run rough-shod over individuals. No man can serve two masters and if we have two goals – the individual and the cultural – one must eventually take precedence.

I have seen nothing thus far that has convinced me that there is a reason to take what the Scriptures clearly give to parents – the right and responsibility to educate their own children – and to give it to another. There is no doubt that parents can and even should get help in this task but the role that Jaarsma and others paint for the schools seems quite pervasive and I have yet to read anyone who favors schools as an institution who then outlines what the parents’ role is and where the one ends and the other begins or how a school may serve the parents without usurping their God-given responsibility. Jaarsma’s primary argument seems to be that parents are ill-equipped to fulfill their task God has assigned them and that this is a modern problem. That means that something, about 150 years ago, changed and that what parents were once able to do, they now no longer can. But, as the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). If, as Jaarsma himself said, the goal of education is spiritual maturity (and I would not quite put it that way myself though I do think he is in the right ballpark), then it is hard to imagine what has changed so very recently that has rendered parents unqualified to educate their own children. Jaarsma seems to be biased towards a professional class of teachers, in part because he makes assumptions about how learning works. He also confuses a bit the cultural argument with the educational goals for the individual. Because the Scriptures establish various institutions and because they clearly and directly assign the task of educating children to their parents, I think the burden is on those who would take this responsibility from the parents and give it to another, non-biblical institution to justify this decision. I have yet to see an argument that convinces me of the necessity of the school as an institution. There are certainly people in various situations for whom a school serves a good purpose but I think the relationship between the school and the parents must always be clearly defined and I think we may also consider other ways of helping parents to educate their children. Above all, I think, as De Beer said, that we must use discernment when adopting an institution which Jaarsma himself acknowledges is both modern and cultural. Though he is not a Christian, if you would like an alternative view on how and why the modern schools developed and what their effect is, I recommend John Taylor Gatto’s books (see reviews here and here).

Nebby

Implementing a Christian Education in Public, Private, or Homeschool

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

If you are in Christian parenting circles, you have probably read articles or heard talks or even listened to sermons on how you should school your kids. Maybe you have agonized over the choice. Maybe you have felt snubbed at church for making the “wrong” choice. Maybe (be honest now) you have looked down on others for their choices.

I am not here today to give you the ultimate answer to the public vs. private vs. homeschool debate. Instead I am going to argue that we are asking the wrong question. At the end of the day (or hopefully at the beginning of the day) your child needs to go to school somewhere. That’s still a decision that will have to be made, but it is not where we need to start. We need to start not with “How do I school him?” but “How do I educate him?”

I began a few years ago looking at different approaches to education (find that series here). What I discovered was that each has certain base assumptions about who the child is and what the goal of education is. Because children are (or at least will be) people, who the child is actually a statement about human nature. And because education prepares us for life (or is a part of life, depending on your philosophy) the goal of education points us to the goal of life. In other words, every approach to education is a philosophy of education which makes assumptions about human nature and the purpose of human life.  Your curriculum writers and teachers may not acknowledge these assumptions, they may not even know they have them, but they are still there under the surface affecting what we do and how we do it. And, perhaps even more significantly, they have practical consequences which tend to exhibit themselves more and more over time in the lives of their victims . . .  er, students.

We need to begin not with public, private, or home but by discerning a biblical approach to education.  That is what I have been trying to do in my current series. I am not going to rehash it all today. What I’d like to talk about is what we do once we have that information.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have a well-developed, biblical philosophy of education, your child’s bottom still needs to be somewhere at 9am on Monday morning. What’s the next step? You need to make the best choice you can for your family where you are. There are a lot of variables which might affect your family’s decision — geography and finances and special needs come to mind immediately.

Homeschooling certainly allows for the most flexibility in curriculum choices, but to simply say we will homeschool and think you are done with the decision is not to provide a biblically based approach to education. In some ways the homeschooling parent has it the easiest — they can make their own decisions with regard to approach and curricula. But they also have it the hardest — they have to make their own decisions! There are a lot of choices out there and, frankly, I have yet to see any one curriculum that I would consider on target in terms of what education can and should be. The decision to homeschool is not the end of the process, it is only the beginning and a curriculum with a few Bible verses adorning the page does not make a biblical philosophy of education. For those of you who do homeschool, I am trying to provide guidelines (based on my own philosophy of education) to help you pick from among the curricula that are out there. Perhaps even more importantly, you will need to decide how to implement the resources you choose. All that is part of the ongoing conversation we are having here so I will not belabor it today.

There are a lot of reasons why families can’t homeschool, or at least might not find it the best available choice for their family. Let’s talk first about the Christian school. Just as being advertised as a Christian homeschool curriculum does not guarantee a biblical philosophy of education, so too a Christian school may not have a truly biblical foundation.  I am not saying that if that local Christian school has the wrong philosophy that you should not use it. I am saying to use it discerningly. The homeschooling parent has a lot of freedom; the parent who sends their child to a school has less, but they don’t have none. There is a lot one can do to correct or reframe what is taught in school.

Similarly if you choose to use the local public school or another not-inherently-Christian school, you can still work to put the education your child is getting within the framework of the proper ideology. You may have even less influence on what is being taught [1], but you are still the parent and at the end of the day it is up to you to provide the framework through which your child views the world.

I will say up front that as my children are homeschooled this is not my situation, but I’ll share my thoughts nonetheless —

Implementing a biblical philosophy of education does not start with a pile of worksheets or even books but with an attitude and an expectation. Even if your children are  in a great Christian school with the right philosophy of education, these are things they should still be getting from their parents. And if their school is less than ideal, you will just have to be all the more mindful of your expectations and attitude. If we want to instill a love of knowledge in our children, we need to model it. They should see us reading quality books and appreciating art and music. They should see in us a genuine love of knowledge. If you are reading books because you want to set a good example but are not enjoying them yourself, you will not be able to keep it up. Try other books. Try another subject. Try easier books. Good books don’t have to be hard books. Look for authors that love their subjects. I am a big proponent of the written word, but if you need to start with some video or audio lectures or use audio books (listen to them in the car when your kids are a captive audience!), by all means do so. You can learn from fiction as much as from non-fiction. Ultimately, the reason we learn anything is because it is part of God’s general revelation to us. Feeding your own mind should be part of your spiritual growth whether you have kids to impress or not so find something, anything that works for you. And when you have found it, talk about it. Talk about it to your kids and maybe even more importantly talk to other adults in front of your kids. Have real conversations about ideas.

You should absolutely have good books and videos and music and art around your house, but I would be very wary of requiring extra schoolwork of your kids. Most schoolkids have way too much busywork to start with, Even if what you are giving them at home is of a higher quality, it will weary them. Don’t provoke your children by overburdening them. Make sure their schedules allow for down time.

Surround them with opportunities to interact with good materials. Make sure they have access to good books, and limit their access to frivolous ones. Again, good books don’t have to be hard books.  You can respect their need to take in a little intellectual junk food after a hard day at school without exposing them to every piece of kiddie drivel out there (and there is a lot). If they are still young enough to let you, read to them. Have family read aloud time (bedtimes and mealtimes are great for this; so is the Sabbath). If you start young, they will let you continue even when they are teens.

In education we are exposed to God’e general revelation. Nature is the most obvious and available source. Spend time outside. If the kids want to play outside without you, that’s great, but if not cultivate habits that get you all outside.

Resist the urge to sneak educational material in secretly in like black beans in brownies. The things of God which are the fodder of education should be inherently interesting. We don’t want to make them boring but we also don’t need to dress them up.

Don’t worry too much about gaps but do care about the overall arc. We all have gaps in our knowledge. I never had a history class that got beyond WWII and I am not sure we ever studied the Middle Ages, These details are not overly important. Someone who loves knowledge and knows how to get it can learn what they need to learn. It is much more important that your child see God in the things he is learning. If your child is not in a solid Christian school, they are probably not getting this. It is up to you to provide it. That means first of all that you need to believe that all things are under God’s providence and point to Him. And secondly, that you need to speak and act as if they do. If we want to see God’s hand in the great events of history, we need to begin by seeing it in the ordinary day-to-day events of our lives. A lecture is okay once in a while, but sincere belief is a lot more convincing. If it’s not natural for you to talk about what you believe on a casual, everyday basis, even to your kids, you need to get there. Education is a part of sanctification. That is a journey we are all on and the best way to help your kids along that path is to be consistently, deliberately advancing along it yourself and to let them see that.

Those are my suggestions — do you have others? Things that have worked for you?

Nebby

[1] In Massachusetts, where I am, the courts have ruled that when you drop your kids off at the school door you have no say in what they are taught.

Movie Review: The Test and the Art of Thinking

Dear Reader,

Thanks ot a local homeschool group, I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” a movie on the SATs. I wrote this review for my local group and thought I would share it here as well.

Not surprisingly, this movie was critical of the SATs (and ACTs though less time was spent specifically on them) as criteria for college admissions. It began with a brief discussion of the original purpose of the test. This was not actually entirely bad. Though it was the era of eugenics and most scientists expected the test to show differences between those of us who are more evolved and those who are less so, it also had an egalitarian purpose. Prestigious schools of the day each had their own admission tests and only offered them to students who were already at high level prep schools. A common test allowed students from different backgrounds to compete.

The main criticism of the test was that it does not really measure intelligence. This is true for a number of reasons including: There is not just one kind of intelligence. It is very hard to measure or even define true intelligence. Beating the test has itself become a game of tricks in which those who can pay for expensive prep classes have an advantage.

There was also some talk of the power of the test in society. Though started by those not looking to make money, it is now big business. While some colleges have dropped testing requirements for admissions, the big names still use it and it is hard for others not to follow suit. It was implied that these elite colleges somehow must benefit from using the test though it was not specified how. The national rankings of colleges also play a role and people watch them closely and the average SAT score of admitted students is considered in them (though it was not abundantly clear to me how large this one measure plays in overall rankings).

This movie was best when it was specific and showed ways the test can be “gamed.” They demonstrated for instance that in the essay portion (which is no longer required or even wanted by most schools in my experience) that a long essay gets high marks even if its content is complete drivel. They also showed some tricks prep agencies teach for getting probable right answers without even reading the problem.

I had a number of issues with or questions about the movie:

  • It relied heavily on test prep people and admissions staff (or former admissions staff). Every time a College Board (the people who run the SATs) person was talking it was recorded from some other forum. It may be the College Board refused to talk directly to them, but then this should have been said.
  • It was very low on statistics. In fact, there were almost none that related to the success or bias of the test. There was an allusion made to gender differences but no facts on what these are. Again, it was said in passing that test scores do not correlate to college success and that all they correlate to is parents’ educational level (all things I have heard before in other contexts), but hard numbers to back these things up would have been more persuasive. Nor was there any real discussion of how poorer and otherwise marginalized groups do on the test.
  • There is no doubt schools rely on test scores. What I have heard is that even top schools do not rely solely on test scores. Harvard gets a lot of 1600s applying and they look beyond scores for something more. The movie presented things as black-and-white, we use scores or we don’t. I think an honest assessment would need to look at how schools really evaluate students and how much of a role those test scores actually play. (I know a lot of this information is proprietary and that schools do not want to share how they make decisions but we need to at least acknowledge that it is not a simple process.)
  • The movie is dated. Though it was made in 2018, the SAT has changed recently and the essay is no longer required and (from looking at schools for my son last year) most schools don’t even want it. The best criticism the movie had was of how essays don’t even have to be true (see above) but it is no longer relevant. I laughed in appreciation when they said the reading selections are like articles from Time Magazine and there are still a number like this, but my experience with my children is that they are also now including passages from real literature (like Jane Austen novels). In my observation there has been some real improvement in the latest changes which was not addressed.
  • Most of the tricks shown which cheat the system had to do with the math section. There may be similar tricks for the reading and writing potions but this was not made clear. So I am left wondering if those portions are also as game-able.
  • At one point one of the talking heads talks about a hypothetical question about who was president during WWII and how some answers, though wrong, are still better than others. I get his point, but it wasn’t well related to the test which does not have these sorts of factual history questions. I assume he was meaning to say something about the reading portion which often asks for the best answer out of a selection of possible ones but this connection was not made clear.
  • Obviously some people pay oodles of money to learn the tricks of the test. I would like to know how much they actually improve their scores by doing so. My kids who have taken the test improved some by doing practice tests at home. How does this method of preparation compare to those expensive classes? How much can a 1400 kid (on a first try) imporve versus a 1000 kid? Again hard numbers are needed.
  • There is an underlying value system here which I don’t buy into anyway which says that one needs to get into the elite colleges and therefore needs the best scores. When my own son was looking for colleges, we saw that the elite ones require a certain number of SAT subject tests or AP tests. Knowing he would hate to do all that extra prep and testing and feeling that it would be a waste of his time, we eliminated such schools from our list under the assumption that if they attract people that are so focused on such things they are probably not good schools for him anyway. It is hard to avoid the SAT (or ACT) in our society, but one can keep it in perspective and get by without buying into the whole system.
  • Not really a criticism of the movie: The test was not originally game-able (even in the 1980s when many of us parents were taking it, this was not a big thing). Since it has become so, because people have discovered ways to get right answers without actually doing the problems, the whole thing has become a game and of less value overall. The film used a lot of test prep people who make lots of money teaching rich kids how to trick the system. (I don’t honestly know how these people live with themselves, but that’s a side issue.) I think we should not be surprised that human beings cannot create an un-game-able test but how this comes through in test questions thereby making them game-able seems like it would be a fascinating psychological study to me.

“The Test and the Art of Thinking” did not really provide new information. I went in expecting it to tell me just the things it told me: that the test is game-able, that those who can afford expensive test prep have an advantage, that it does not measure true intelligence. I didn’t find that there was much new added to the discussion here and I would really have liked to see the hard numbers to back all this up.

Nebby

Public Education in America Today

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series on reformed theology and education. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

Before we go too far to look briefly at public education in America today.  I am by no means an expert on any of this but I think it is useful as we begin to form our own philosophy of education to see what our culture does and how it got to be the way it is.  My goal is not to give a thorough analysis of all the issues; that could take volumes (and has), but there are few points I’d like to draw out.

I want to be clear from the start that though a lot of what I say is going to be negative, I am not making an argument that public schools are inherently evil; that we should all homeschool; that there is no place for public education; that the teachers and administrators are evil, godless, or misguided. I do think there is a place for public education and that there are a lot of truly caring and even godly people working in the schools. I am very glad they are there.

Having said which, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if the schools were all we wanted them to be. Our goal for today is to look at the history of public education in America and the ideas which lie behind it.  [I am relying primarily on four authors; see the bibliography with my notes on each at the end of this post.]

A Bit of History

Education as we know it today — which is to say universal compulsory education — has only been around in the United States for about the last hundred years. The idea of universal compulsory education began in Germany in the early 1800s as that country moved toward nationalism and away from feudalism (Dawson, p. 49; Gray, p. 61). The German/Prussian model of education was a democratic one in that it extended education to all levels of society. Education served the nationalistic goal and was a unifying force. Peter Gray and John Taylor Gatto both make the case that public education was never about academics as literacy rates were high in both Europe and the United States at the time (Gray, p. 60; Gatto, Weapons, p. 9). Indeed as public education grew, literacy rates only declined (Gatto, Weapons, p. 17). While some still valued education for its own sake, education was for many the tool of social change. As such it included not just intellectual instruction but moral training as well (Dawson, p. 50).

As the movement toward universal schooling expanded geographically, England and America were the lone hold-outs (Dawson, p. 52; Gray, p. 62).  It wasn’t until the mid to late 1800s that the German educational system began to make headway in the United States. Horace Mann is credited with introducing the idea in the 1850s in Massachusetts but even there it was slow to take hold. The various authors disagree on the exact details of when and why public schooling did take hold, but they all place it in the early 1900s, sometime around 1920-1930.

Why Universal Education?

Though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus, it is interesting to think about the ideas and trends that were present in American culture between, say, 1880-1930 that may have contributed to the acceptance of universal education:

  • Darwinian evolution presented the idea that people as well as animals have evolved and are evolving. This is the era of unapologetic eugenics. Wiker in particular draws the connection between Darwinian evolution and liberal politics (pp. 194-97).**
  • Following close on its heels is social engineering, that is, the remaking of society through political means (Wiker, p. 197). “Sociology,” Wiker tells us, “would take the place of theology as the queen if the sciences” (p. 276).
  • Christians were not exempt from this trend. Wiker shows how Christians with legitimate, godly concerns — caring for the poor, for instance — worked with and were ultimately used by non-Christian liberals (Wiker, pp. 284-86). This is the era of the social gospel.
  • Industrialization and a move to the cities brought a trend to mechanization and systemization. Gatto and Gray have a fair amount to say on this — the school as factory assembly line. Children, Gray says, are “passed along , from grade to grade, like products on an assembly line” (Gray, p. 64; cf. Gatto, Dumbing, p. 89). For some context, Ford’s first assembly line was in 1913.
  • Dawson ties the rise of universal schooling to the end of unlimited immigration in the early 1900s (pp. 60-61). America had always been a dynamic place — both filling its borders and absorbing so many peoples from so many places. Now this was on the decline. Americans began to find their own group identity. This is when the melting pot, with less new cheese being added every year, really began to melt (my analogy, not his; never blog hungry). As education in Germany went hand-in-hand with nationalization, so in the United States education was linked to a new sense of national identity.
  • It is odd to me that none of the writers I read on this topic mentioned World War I. My own observation from reading Charlotte Mason’s volumes is that in her sixth and final one, Towards a Philosophy of Education, which was written after the war, that there has been quite a change in focus and intensity. I see a desperation in her writing that was not there before. “The War to End All Wars” (if only it had been so) really threw people for a loop. Perhaps this was more true in Europe than America, but people wondered how, if we are so advanced and civilized, we can yet be so brutal. The answer for Charlotte was a renewed commitment to her own philosophy of education as the means of changing what is wrong in society and ultimately in the human heart.
  • Miss Mason was not alone in this. The early 1900s were a boom time for educational philosophies. Maria Montessori, of the Montessori method, and Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf education movement, were also active during the period.
  • On the political side, the exaltation of the secular schools and the corresponding downfall of the church were aided and abetted by a reinterpretation of the First Amendment creating a new wall between church and state (Wiker, pp. 251-52, 290ff; Dawson, p.84).
  • Trends in education often work from the top down — spreading from the university down to the elementary school. In the 1930s and again after WWII more and more students attended (liberal) colleges and therefore absorbed and perpetuated their ideologies (Wiker, pp. 272-73).

Expansion and Secularization

Sectarian differences among different Christian groups have led them to, at various times, support state control of education in an effort to limit the influence of other Christian groups (Dawson, pp. 83, 142; Wiker, pp. 295-96). This has often been a Protestant versus Catholic issue though Dawson, a die-hard Catholic, also faults “the fissiparous tendency of American Protestantism” (p. 142; your assignment: use fissaparous in conversation five times this week). In seeking to exclude the other’s version of religion, Christians have willingly opted for a “neutral” secular version of education. But education cannot remain morally and spiritually neutral (Dawson, pp. 79-82).

I am not sure education anywhere at any time has ever been about pure academics, but even if it had started that way, education has an expansive tendency. It takes more and more time — the school year in Massachusetts was originally only twelve weeks long (Gray, p. 64). It expands to new age groups “from the university to the nursery school” (Dawson, p. 53). It expands to all areas of life, absorbing not just the academic but the physical, emotional and spiritual (Dawson, pp. 53, 78).

This trend is inevitable but it is not inherently bad. In fact I would say it is as it should be. We are composite people — intellect, body, soul, emotions. We cannot separate out one part and educate that only. If one’s students are coming to school hungry, emotionally broken, or pregnant, they are not going to learn well. A caring teacher naturally wants to see all her students’ needs met, both so they can learn and for their own good. But the end result is that school is not just about the 3R’s but comes to absorb almost all facets of life.

I say “almost” because the spiritual is sadly lacking. As in the German model, education is seen as the cure for whatever ails us (Dawson, p. 48). When problems arise within education itself, the solution is not to reevaluate but to offer more and more education. To the extent that is the answer to societal problems, education becomes a kind of savior. But it is a limited savior, touching the emotional and psychological but denying the spiritual.

In offering a kind of salvation, the schools step into the realm of the church. Wiker argues that this liberalization, which he traces through both politics and education — is not unintentional; it is a deliberate liberating from religion (p. 15). Dawson argues that universal education and secularization feed on each other:

“And in fact there is no doubt that the progress of universal education has coincided with the secularization of modern culture and has been very largely responsible for it.” (p. 78)

The more the school absorbs, the less is left for the church. And as a man cannot serve two masters, one will win out:

” . . .the fact that secular education is universal and compulsory , while religious education is partial and voluntary, inevitably favors the former . . .” (Dawson, p. 79)

“If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary.” (Ibid., p. 132)***

As in Germany, education in America is a nationalizing force. It spreads  a common culture; in doing so it also creates a common culture:

“For modern culture is not pluralistic in character, as some social scientists have assumed; on the contrary, it is more unitary, more uniform and more highly centralized and organized than any culture that the world has known hitherto. And modern education has been one of the major factors in producing this, since it brings the whole of the younger generation under the same influences and ideas during the most impressionable period of their lives.” (Dawson, pp. 111-12)

For those without strong church ties, school often becomes the center of cultural life (Dawson, pp. 60-61, 68, 85).

The result —

” . . . the majority of the population are neither fully Christian nor consciously atheist, but non-practicing Catholics, half-Christians and well-meaning people who are devoid of any positive religious knowledge at all.” (Dawson, p. 85)

Dawson argues further that these “sub-religious” people are “also in some sense subhuman” (p. 132), deprived as they are of fully realizing one aspect of their natures.

Logistics and Fragmentation

Conformity to some degree is probably unavoidable in mass schooling. For the sake of convenience, children are divided by age. This is often characterized as a factory-like system as but I think we must also use some charity in our interpretation; it is not an easy thing to come up with a way to educate thousands of children at once. I think there are ways, and Charlotte Mason’s schools seem to have done so without turning children into numbers, but grouping children by age or level seems like a logical first step. What begins as a logical move generates unintended consequences, however. Children who spend six hours a day primarily with their peers and not interacting with adults or all ages and stripes as they once would have been. There is evidence as well that this is not psychologically advantageous; children are more compassionate when not placed with their immediate peers (Gray, pp. 35, 76). But beyond that, the normal bonds of human life are broken. Gatto speaks of networks versus communities and spends some time showing that what we have now are the former, not the latter (Dumbing, pp. 49, 65). The family in particular is down-graded to a lesser role (Dumbing, p. 56, 67; Weapons pp. 41, 100).

Nor can one teacher necessarily teach every subject to the full. So as children are divided, so are subjects; science occupies this hour, history that one. There is a general tendency to fragmentation. With subjects taught separately by different teachers at different times, it is hard to give or see the big picture. With no overarching theology or philosophy [though one could argue, as Wiker does, that liberalism has its own philosophy (Wiker, p. 11)], with subjects taught in isolation, there is no coherence, no unifying principle (Weapons, p. 16). This tendency is enhanced by what Dawson calls “scientific specialization” (p. 101). Wiker describes this trend:

“The rise and ever-increasing authority of the ‘expert,’ too came from the German model of university education, wherein academic study was divide up into ever smaller numbers of distinct disciplines, each focusing on a narrowly defined area.” (p. 275)

This fragmentation is furthered by the need for evaluation. Testing, and in particular standardized testing, contributes to the break down of knowledge into discrete, unconnected facts. “Memorizing the dots,” Gatto says, “is the gold standard of intellectual achievement. Not connecting those dots” (Weapons, p. 16).

Conclusions

What can we learn from all this? First, when we look at the origins of universal compulsory schooling, we should become very wary. The ideas behind this movement are suspect. We should not, perhaps, throw the baby out with the bath water, but at the same time we need to make sure that we are not unconsciously adopting ideas that are without a biblical, God-honoring basis. In another post, I’d like to look at some of the people behind compulsory education so you can see who they were and what their motivations were.

Second, there are some interesting trends here that we can keep in mind as we begin to form our own philosophy of education:

  1. Moral and religious neutrality is impossible. Christians have at times supported “neutral” public education arguing that no religion is better than a religion that is not my brand. But it is impossible to be truly neutral. There is always a worldview behind what is being taught.
  2. #1 is due, at least in part, to the fact that education does not stay purely academic. Man is made of many aspects and one cannot educate the mind without bringing in the body and the emotions and the spirit.
  3. Yet at the same time, education has become fragmented in many ways. Even while it encompasses more and more of life the disciplines are fragmented. Science, history, math, language seemingly have nothing to do with one another. We need a unifying principle that extends through them, explains them and how they relate to one another.
  4. Education as it is usually practiced in the United States today shatters other social institutions, especially the church and the family. It is not inherently bad to have someone other than mom and dad do the educating but we need to keep in the forefront that social units which God Himself has instituted and be wary of undermining them. Jesus tells us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. I am going to paraphrase that — what your time is spent on, there will your heart be. Apart from any other concerns, when schooling takes so much of one’s time, when it is compulsory (and church is not), it threatens to seem more and more important and to consume more and more of one’s life to the detriment of those other, God-ordained institutions.

Nebby

**Wiker also has a book on Darwin which I highly recommend: The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington, D.C. Regnery Press, 2009).

***Side note: This seems like a pretty good argument for Sabbath keeping to me. If we view the first day of the week as our own, we come to resent any intrusion into it, even that of the Church.

Bibliography

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1961. Dawson is ardently Catholic and comes off at times as anti-Protestant. I have some issues with his depiction of education before modern times which I may discuss in another post, but he also makes a lot of insightful observations which really made me think. It is amusing to read his depiction of education in medieval times alongside Gray’s.

Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2002 (10th anniversary edition).

______________ . Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010. The title of this book probably says all you need to know about Gatto’s take on things. He is a favorite of the unschooling movement and was himself a public school teacher in New York City. Dumbing Us Down is a series of lectures and as such is a bit more disjointed. In Weapons he has worked out his argument a bit more. 

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Gray’s main purpose is to argue for how children should learn (through play). In the process he gives a brief history of education. He is an unschooler, arguing against hierarchical control of children. His approach is essentially the paleo diet of education; i.e. what worked for primitive societies is clearly best.

Wiker, Benjamin. Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2013. Wiker is one of my current favorite authors. If you are going to read any book on this list, make it this one. His primary subject is politics but in the course of it he touches on education as well and makes an argument for Christian education. I believe he is Catholic but you could easily read his book without realizing that.

 

 

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