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


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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  • Christopher Blum

    No, indeed, history is not finished yet. Patient, peaceful, and creative resistance to the aggressive secularism of the current regime is the work of our age, work that will plant the seeds for a new age to come. Thank you, Dr. Aeschliman, for an inspiring essay.

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  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    Excellent article!
    I highly recommend the book “Outcome Based Education: The
    State’s Assault on Our Children’s Values” by Pamela Hoffecker and Peg Luksik (a self-described devout Roman Catholic, a Constitutionalist, and a professional educator).
    I aso recommend that any American concerned about these issues use this article as a catalyst for looking into home education.

  • Carl

    Do you have an example of the “right,” and/or “far right” attempting to institutionalizing their ideology in public education? And please don’t tell me the Third Reich which was a leftist group.

    In my mind the “far right” would be Libertarians who are really anarchist with no standards which is the exact opposite of public school indoctrination.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Yes. Jules Ferry, the 19th century founder of the French public school system was simply more candid than most politicians, when he said that tits object was to cast the nation’s youth in the same mould and to stamp them , like the coinage, with the image of the Republic [« la frapper, comme une monnaie, à son effigie »] He also insisted that public education be unremittingly laïque [secular] and banned the religious orders from teaching.

      Ferry was on the Far Right: minister of Thiers during the crushing of the Paris Commune and the theoretician of colonization in Algeria.

      It is, perhaps, no accident that one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human rights was the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain

      • Carl

        The French of the late 18th and into the 19th centuries have no resemblance to American “Republicanism” or right of center politics. The were “enlightened-rights of man-atheists.”

        There were single issues like the “scopes monkey trial” where Protestants tried to disallow Darwinism, but look where we are today, now we can’t teach creationism. Which is what the left wanted all along.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Well, Ferry, as Prime Minister, tried to crush organized labour, imprisoned and guillotined communists and anarchists, believed that France had a mission to civilise “backward races” through colonisation – If those are not right-wing policies, I don’t know what are.

          Also, as a passionate nationalist, he hated Christianity because he believed it promoted individualism and universalism. He admired the Catholic Church for her “interpretive and repressive system” that curbed what he saw as the socialism latent in the New Testament.

          • Carl

            The two extremes are an all powerful nanny state or the anarchy of no government, call it what you like. Left and Right or the swing of the pendulum.

            The French examples you give, albeit some may have promised a less powerful government, have never lived up to those promises and only offered another dictator with a different in name. Which makes them Left of center in my mind or call it the pendulum bob at the nanny state position if you wish.

            Thomas Paine who wrote in Common Sense that if men were angels there would be no need for government. Later wrote The Rights of Man in his inspiration for the French Revolution. Paine obviously became disillusioned in believing that enlightened man could become angels on earth.

    • John

      “Do you have an example of the “right,” and/or “far right” attempting to institutionalizing their ideology in public education?”

      I’m not sure how you want to define “right”, but I can think of many military or paramilitary societies that did this — the Spartans, the Fascists of the 20th century, and Zulu society under Shaka (where boys as young as six became apprentice warriors). Right wing societies also indoctrinate by making education selectively available on the basis of race, class, and sex. For example, under Jim Crow, African American children were not allowed to attend school with white children and generally received a vastly inferior education. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution, social conditions determined the likelihood of a child receiving an education, as opposed to working, which in practice institutionalized ideology by reinforcing the class structure. Public education is influenced by both right and left. For example, right wing school boards in some parts of the US allow creationism to be taught in science classes. There are even some right-wing extremists who would like to eliminate secular public education altogether and to replace it with institutions that reject scientific inquiry and reinforce their own belief systems as inerrant. I have a very conservative friend who wants evolution to be removed entirely from high school biology.

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  • Michael — splendid! I will read that book. A question about Germany: why the animus against homeschooling there? And in Sweden?

  • musicacre

    Great article! Unfortunately I couldn’t wait for the tide to turn once our family began, so we home-schooled. (Almost finished now, just the last two). Another informative and comprehensive book about this process, but from a purely American perspective, is Cloning of the American Mind by B.K. Eakman. It rings the alarm bell and gives in depth descriptions and analysis of the psychology that is replacing content in the schools; not to mention the full history of it..

  • Steve Martin

    The bigger the state (power of govt.), the smaller the citizen and the less freedom.

    Look around, and at history. This axiom is a proven truth.