Parents vs. the State

One of the most malignant features of modernity since the French Revolution has been the attempt by the State—left or right, fascist, nationalist, socialist, or communist—to take over control of children’s education from parents and local agencies—such as churches and municipalities—and direct that education in the interest of grandiose, intellectually neat, or more efficient plans and aims. The Philosophes and Jacobins of “Enlightenment” and Revolutionary France were the chief originators and evangelists of this program, but its subsequent development has had left-wing, right-wing, and even innocuous-seeming democratic or patriotic forms.

In the United States the great 1925 U.S. Supreme Court decision “Pierce vs. Society of Sisters” vindicated the rights of parents and non-governmental organizations to operate schools: “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this union repose,” the Court declared, “excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” The “Pierce” decision was a blow against a rising American nativism that from the 1870s onward had increasingly resented and attempted to restrict the efforts of immigrants, especially Catholic immigrants, to have schools reflective of or sympathetic to their beliefs. This aggressive nativist resentment, akin to the contemporaneous hostility to African-Americans and Jews, took the form of state “Blaine” amendments which were written into some state constitutions so as to  prohibit any tax support or relief to religiously-based schools, even though most schooling in America from the 17th to the mid-19th century had been either explicitly based on religion or friendly to it.

In the aftermath of World War II, after a century and a half of ultimately tragic and destructive attempts by left-wing, right-wing, or simply radically-secular states to wean children from their parents and local and religious loyalties and influences in the interest of state-directed education, many Western European nations and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (1948) clearly asserted that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children,” in the words of the Declaration. With the fall of Communism, after 1990 new national constitutions in eastern Europe affirmed the provision their Western neighbors had made in the preceding decades, a noble story told well by Charles L. Glenn in Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1995). This provision included forms of tax relief or support that would enable parents to make such choices.

Charles L. Glenn is our finest living guide to these issues, both in the USA and abroad. He is also arguably one of the half-dozen most significant educational theorists writing anywhere in the West since the death in 1952 of John Dewey,  the American educational theorist against whose vast, miasmic influence he has consistently and tirelessly fought. He has had a unique career as a major research scholar after being a  high-ranking public educational official: from 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education. He has subsequently served as Dean of the Boston University School of Education and is a major figure in the European Education and Law Association and the Geneva-based International Organization for Educational Freedom (OIDEL) and has been an advisor to several European governments at the national and regional levels. He was a heroic figure in the U.S. Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s, both in the South (he was jailed in Selma) and in Boston, where he was the main official in charge of  the integration of the Boston public schools; in Europe he is also the most highly-esteemed American thinker on public-education issues. A long-time inner-city Boston Protestant minister, he has also resided in the inner city and sent his seven children through the Boston public schools, which I suspect has been done by few educational liberals, safe in their leafy suburbs.

Thus Glenn brings to his social-science research and educational deliberation a vast and virtually unique bank of practical experience, as well as two doctorates and fluent command of half a dozen languages. Those strengths are on display in his current book, one of four that he is publishing in an 18-month period, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, which draws on research in German, Dutch, and French as well as English. In fact it was in mid-life that the already-polyglot Glenn, deeply impressed by the educational systems of the Netherlands and Belgium, learned Dutch in order to read in detail about their structural workings and historical genesis. The present book is a comparative study of the role of parents, civic groups, municipalities, regions, churches, and states in educational disputes and developments over the last two centuries in Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. It is a brilliant, authoritative, instructive, and in some respects a deeply moving work.

Glenn is a sophisticated sociologist, like the late Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), whose thinking is close to his own, a disciple of Tocqueville, a former student and friend of Nathan Glazer at Harvard and Peter Berger at Boston University. He discovered in mid-career the thinking and writing on education of a set of neo-Calvinist Dutch thinkers who early and clearly saw, analyzed, and opposed the radical, centralizing statism or “de haut en bas dirigisme” emanating after 1789 from France: Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), who went on to be Prime Minister of the Netherlands, 1901-1905. Glenn’s own first book, The Myth of the Common School (1988), is a brilliant revisionist account—historical and comparative—of conflicts between statist and religious agendas for schooling in France, the Netherlands, and the USA: the kind of detailed, sophisticated, scholarly-informed account of educational issues that is most unusual, and most unwelcome, in education schools and teachers’ colleges. Despite having been reprinted in paperback, The Myth is unwelcome—like several of Glenn’s books—because it calmly, judiciously, and in detail challenges statist assumptions about “public schools” that are so deep and pervasive that they have become unconscious presuppositions, to challenge or doubt them is taken as grievously offensive and retrograde. Given Glenn’s noble public career, largely in service of the poor and marginalized, and his academic pedigree and eminence, he has been hard to write off as a reactionary right-winger, defender of the suburbs, or apologist for markets. The better strategy has been to ignore his books and their arguments.

For what Glenn and the neo-Calvinists, both in the Netherlands and the USA, and the “subsidiarity”-oriented Catholics here and in Europe, along with Nisbet-type conservatives, have challenged is an ingrained and pervasive, but poorly-conceived and sentimental, quasi-religious American faith—with European equivalents—in what the renegade Protestant thinker and educator R.J. Rushdoony called, in a brilliant book, The Messianic Character of American Education (1963). Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper saw in the liberal elites in the Netherlands—including liberal Protestant elites—a fundamental loyalty to French statist ideas and a contempt for the beliefs of children’s actual parents; Glenn has documented the same phenomenon in the USA, from Horace Mann to John Dewey and beyond, to our own time, in his Myth of the Common School and other writings.

Contrasting Models of State and School tells, of course, the largely tragic story of German education from the late 18th century to the fall of Communism, a story rich in proposals, actions, ideas, events, and figures of great idealism, fanaticism, and pathos, as well as the exemplary subsequent story of German education since the fall of Nazism (1945)  and Communism (1990). These sections of the book make enthralling reading and provide a profound introduction to the history and contemporary status of educational policy and practice that would be hard to equal in any other volume known to me.

But the sections of the book on Dutch and Belgian educational history tell a very different story, and an extraordinarily noble one. For with the extension of suffrage in the late 19th century in the Netherlands and Belgium, the “little people,” mostly orthodox Catholics and Protestants, began to use their votes to oppose, and ultimately to overturn, the educational program and regime being imposed upon them by self-styled “enlightened,” supposedly “liberal” but actually statist elites. The Dutch and Belgian-Flemish schools were to a great extent returned to the choices of parents, which led to a long-term flowering of educational initiatives, not only Protestant and Catholic but also those based on other worldviews or pedagogical ideas, all permitted and subsidized by the state (i.e., by tax money taken from citizens by the state), as long as they meet minimal conditions prescribed by the state. Though these gains may not be permanent—what human gains are?—the Dutch-Belgian story is an outstanding chapter in the history of citizen initiative, of democratic action, and of real liberty, promoting a good, moderate kind of pluralism that meets the common-sense needs of society, state, and economy while primarily respecting the rights of parents, including non-religious parents, to make choices that will help convey their deepest convictions in the most precious relationships that most parents ever have in their lives as persons—their relationships with their own children.

Though himself, by adult choice, an Anglican Evangelical neo-Calvinist, and a Protestant clergyman, Glenn starts his book with an invocation and discussion of the idea of “subsidiarity” developed in Catholic social thought, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891 and getting what Glenn calls its “classic statement” in Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, on the one-hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s document. The opposition to statism led by Leo XIII, his predecessor Pius IX (Quanta Cura, 1864), and his successors down to the Polish Pope, has actually taken root in the decentralizing attempts of “subsidiarity” thinking in European Union policies, including the founding Treaty of Maastricht. Glenn rightly sees neo-Calvinist ideas of “sphere sovereignty”—protecting the civic sphere against encroachment by big government or abandonment to devil-may-care market absolutism—as congruous with “subsidiarity,” both having organically developed in the Protestant and Catholic communities of the Low Countries over hundreds of years.

The orthodox Protestants Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper and the “little people” had a great deal to do with bringing down 19th-century statism in the Netherlands, as did the Catholic bishops and the “little people” in Belgium; as bishop and Pope, John Paul II and the “little people” of Poland had a great deal to do with bringing down Communism not only in Poland but throughout the old Soviet Empire, a struggle with which Orthodox in Russia, Lutherans in East Germany, and Calvinists in Romania signally helped. It is clearly Charles Glenn’s hope that such histories will give encouragement and incentive to citizens to realize the promise of a principled pluralism and responsible liberty, vindicating older, renewable American traditions and clarion calls such as “Pierce vs. Society of Sisters,” by restoring to parents, whose children are required to attend schools supported by their tax money, real choices as to what is taught in those schools and dispelling the mesmerizing myth of a “melting pot” common school that more often than not serves only to dumb down, demoralize, and standardize those children subjected to it.

Watching the vast crowds welcoming the new Polish Pope in Cracow in 1979, I shall never forget the cynical comment of an acquaintance standing beside me on the outskirts of that beautiful Polish city, a female French journalist. Roughly and politely translated, she said with great but weary annoyance: “The idiots! They just don’t understand that it won’t do any good, that history has passed them by.” That’s probably what the elite opponents of Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper also said, and what much of our elite thinks when confronted by voucher efforts by African-Americans and decisions such as the Supreme Court’s 2002 Cleveland Voucher Case, “Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris.” Only time will tell, but history is not finished yet, as Charles Glenn nobly reminds us.


M.D. Aeschliman is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston University, Professor of Anglophone Literature at the University of Italian Switzerland, and the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism (1983, 1998). His most recent book is a new edition of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Critical Editions, 2012).

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