I understand that Dr. Al Mohler has far too large of an audience of average American Southern Baptists and Evangelicals to say too much controversial, or to take too firm a stand against the golden calves of our generations. But his recent essay addressing the greatest gilded bovine of America Christians today, “Is Public School an Option?,” plays the part of Aaron rather than Moses.
It starts off laudably:
We start with the affirmation that it is parents who bear responsibility for the education of their children. God will hold every parent accountable for the decisions we make about our children and the context, as well as the content, of their education (Deuteronomy 6:1–26; Ephesians 6:1–4). In the truest sense, Christians understand that every home is a church, a government, and a school—the first church, the first government, and the first school that a child will come to know. The duty of Christian parents to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord cannot be delegated to anyone else—not to the state, not to the schools, and not even to the church.
He starts with Scripture and faithfulness to God’s Law. If he only would have stuck with these premises and developed them accordingly, he would have avoided the confusion that follows, and the answer to his title’s question would have been obvious. But he does not, and we are left with authoritative platitudes based on sentimental views of history which develop half-truths. We are left with culture controlling Scripture instead of Scripture defining how Christians should behave amidst culture.
For example, Mohler writes,
In today’s context, most parents still send their children to the public schools. This has been the norm and expectation for most American parents since the beginning of the twentieth century. Until fairly recently, exceptions to this rule have been seen as profoundly anti-democratic and practically un-American. Homeschoolers were seen as marginal eccentrics, Catholics were seen as hopelessly sectarian, and those who sent their children to private schools were seen as elitist snobs.
For the most part, American evangelicals in the twentieth century agreed with this assessment. Evangelical families sent their children to the public schools with confidence and with eagerness. They had little interest in other alternatives for the simple reason that they saw little need for any alternative. Evangelical Christians were happy with the public schools and saw them as both effective and efficient in the delivery of an American education. They also saw the public schools as safe and healthy places for children, and they grew to love the athletic programs and extracurricular activities that grew along with the schools in the American Century, as the last century came to be known.
He then acknowledges that this has changed drastically in the last few decades, and asks, “Why?”
I am miffed! Why did he not ask “Why?” anywhere in those previous two paragraphs? Like this:
In today’s context, most parents still send their children to the public schools. Why? This has been the norm and expectation for most American parents since the beginning of the twentieth century. Why? Until fairly recently, exceptions to this rule have been seen as profoundly anti-democratic and practically un-American. Why? Homeschoolers were seen as marginal eccentrics, Catholics were seen as hopelessly sectarian, and those who sent their children to private schools were seen as elitist snobs. Why?
For the most part, American evangelicals in the twentieth century agreed with this assessment. Why, Why, Why?!? Evangelical families sent their children to the public schools with confidence and with eagerness. Why? They had little interest in other alternatives for the simple reason that they saw little need for any alternative. Why? Evangelical Christians were happy with the public schools and saw them as both effective and efficient in the delivery of an American education. Why? They also saw the public schools as safe and healthy places for children. . . . Why?
My challenge to Dr. Mohler and other leading Christian public intellectuals like him would be to answer those questions from a biblical point of view.
Dr. Mohler begins to offer some answers in his article, but his assumptions still govern the day. His reasoning is that public schools used to be OK because they were locally controlled. Again, this begs the question of whether from a Scriptural point of view, public schools ever should have been an option for Christians. And this causes problems with his subsequent narrative: It ignores the history previous to the period he highlights, it neglects important facts about the very period he presents essentially as a golden age of public schools, and it simply gets some of its facts wrong.
For example, Mohler writers, “The earliest public schools in the United States were community-based and parent-controlled. Parents and fellow citizens within a community would establish a school and hire a schoolmaster. The community would establish the curriculum, and the schoolmaster was expected to maintain discipline within the school as well as to guide the education of the students.” These are very broad, sweeping generalizations that do not represent the majority of the early public school movement, or do not represent it in all its humanistic glory.
Let’s just be honest to start with: socialism is socialism, and statism is statism, no matter how small or large a scale on which you operate them. Public schools are and have always been based on civil government coercion, forced taxation of property, and redistribution of wealth. These principles are unbiblical whether they are nationally controlled or locally controlled—Washington-based or community-based.
Further, from day one the public schools were designed to be centers of humanistic indoctrination. They were designed by secular humanistic Unitarians, based upon materialistic and what we would today call behavioristic models of improving humanity, all borrowed from or influenced by Darwin and Marx.
But everyone with political sense knows you can’t just spring such great changes upon a largely Christian population whole scale. You have to make it look “Christian” and pious and implement it in small increments. Lots of religious-friendly and family-controlled language must be infused in the literature, at first. The fact that the earliest implementations (a few of them) were presented as locally controlled and community-based should surprise us no more than leftists today trying to convince us that with Obamacare, nothing will change—if you like the insurance you have today, you can keep the insurance you have today. Did any conservative ever buy this promise up front? Did Dr. Mohler? No. And neither should any Christian buy into the promises made by the educational equivalent of Obamacare, public schools, in its early days. The goal was always a “single-payer system.”
Mohler relies upon the “good old days” view of public schools, and argues that everything began to change when that darn Dewey came along:
Figures such as John Dewey argued in the early years of the last century that the public schools should form a common liberal culture as their main purpose. Without hiding their agenda, these educators argued that the public schools should separate children from the religious “prejudices” of their parents and redefine Americanism as what Dewey called a secular “common faith.”
It is a very popular theory today to blame everything on the Wilson and Dewey era, but in regard certainly to education, there’s only one problem with that theory: Horace Mann. Mann was the generation before Dewey, and Mann was the godfather of the public school system. Dewey was not. Mann was the father of the secular humanist, common faith philosophy in education before Dewey called it that. Mann designed the system and the philosophy that Dewey would later expand upon.
And that fact means that authorities like Dr. Mohler really need to revise their tipping point for public schools to about 1830 instead of 1900 or 1950. But there’s the rub: the 1830s were the foundation and beginning of public schools, not some later perversion of their golden age. The perversion was there from the start, and no Christian should ever have taken part in it. But that’s exactly what a public intellectual like Dr. Mohler, I fear, cannot risk saying.
So instead, he focuses on near-term historical memories: “That condition did not last, however, and the last half of the twentieth century saw the public schools radically transformed in the vast majority of communities. Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court secularized the schools in a way that separated the schools from their communities and families.”
Again, what Dr. Mohler does not discuss is that those Supreme Court decisions of the 50s and 60s were only the tip of the iceberg. The titanic had hit the submerged part long ago. Most people don’t know, and are not informed by their public intellectuals, that the first Supreme Court case that pulled Bible reading from public schools was Minor v. Board of Education of Cincinnati . . . in 1870. (John Dewey was about 11 years old.) In the 1950s, the Supreme Court was merely citing their older cases as long-standing precedent. Stare decisis!
Then, Mohler argues, “Control of the schools, enforced through both funding and mandates, migrated to the national government where an army of educational bureaucrats replaced local school boards as the real arbiters of educational policy. Labor unions for teachers, rather than parents, now exert vast influence over the schools.”
This is supposed to be the dreaded outcome of that revolution in the 60s again. But it’s factually wrong. The American Federation of Teachers was chartered in 1900. The largest teachers union, The National Education Association, has roots that go back to 1857, and even then it was a centralizing power that only joined already existing teachers unions in at least fifteen states. By 1957, when this revolution allegedly began according to Mohler’s suggestion, the NEA already had a whopping 700,000 members.
In the end, Mohler’s presupposition rules the day: public schools could normally be an option if they hadn’t become so corrupt over time. But this presupposition is misguided, and it leads him into a revisionist history of his own. It leads him to let culture rule Scripture instead of vice versa.
So when he concludes, “Is public school an option? For Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake, the answer is increasingly no,” I have to remain a bit miffed. While I am thankful if this leads more Christians to abandon public schools, they will be doing it with misguided thinking, and they will be liable to return to the mire. Indeed, some will be tempted to stay there based upon even the slightest excuse, merely because Mohler hinted that public schools may be an option for some. The correct answer he should have given his readers is not “increasingly no,” but “No, never, and should have never.”
But he gives these small outs which become great escape clauses for many Christians: “We can understand the nostalgia that many Christians hold about the public schools.” Well, let me be the first to challenge Dr. Mohler: your view as a whole is based upon little more than that very nostalgia, and it is a mistaken and misguided nostalgia that has not yet faced upon to the full truth of public schools.
And when he rises to that challenge, I hope he does it on his own broader, public website, and not just on that of a young-earth creationist, homeschool-friendly venue like this time.
Let Aaron give way to Moses, and then to Christ, and let the whole world hear it.