The school, Christopher Dawson observed, plays a pivotal role in transmitting culture. Thus every despot since Napoleon has assumed control of national education. We Americans are free and so, we believe, is our educational system. But the fact that education is compulsory and largely administered by the state makes its status as a free institution tenuous.
Running schools is one of many services we now expect the government to provide. Should we trust the state with that kind of authority? Should bureaucrats, some of whom have never been on the teaching end of a classroom, decide what children should learn? Who has educational authority? This question was argued before the Supreme Court in 1925 in Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. At issue was an Oregon law compelling children ages 8–16 to attend a public school. SCOTUS ruled in favor of the Sisters on the grounds that the Oregon statute violated the 14th amendment. Writing the majority opinion, Justice McReynolds asserted “rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the State.” The state’s competence in the field of education cannot be assumed. Justice McReynolds continued:
The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations. (Emphases added.)
While recognizing the state’s legitimate supervisory role, the Pierce decision affirms educational authority belongs to parents.
In his recent book Out of the Ashes, Rebuilding American Culture, Anthony Esolen refers to public schools as “asylums.” What can be done to remedy the insanity of public education? First, responsibility for education must be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and put back where it belongs, in the hands of parents. Across our northern border, in that vast asylum called Canada, the government has now forced Canadians to acknowledge teachers as co-parents of their children. This is coercion plain and simple. The Canadian government, so concerned about bullying in its schools, is now bullying parents into compliance with this legislative effrontery, thus placing itself in the ethically indefensible position of violating the very tenets of the anti-bullying legislation it created. It is an unnatural intrusion of a foreign body into the most vital cell of human society—the family. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:8). A child’s “co-parents” are mom and dad and they alone have educational authority over their children.
Catholic tradition understands school authority as an extension by parents of their authority affirmed by the Fourth Commandment. If the school exceeds these parameters, parents are morally justified in revoking the school’s share in their authority. Many parents in America and Europe have done just this in opting to homeschool their children. In some places, like Germany, governments arrogate educational authority to themselves by making homeschooling illegal. Some in California seek to do likewise. Though an appellate court ruled in 2008 that homeschooling is legal in California, some school districts, like San Benito, have issued letters telling parents they are violating California law if they homeschool. Attempts to restrict the principle of pluralism so fundamental to American life emphasize how important educational authority is to those seeking cultural hegemony.
Beyond proposing a very general outline, curriculum is outside the state’s field of competence. We must dispense with the current assortment of lessons educationalists call curriculum, especially since so often this means indoctrination into progressivist orthodoxy. I saw a news story recently lauding a school where a third grade class was learning how to identify “fake news.” The benighted teacher held up a replica newspaper from the WWII era noting the headlines. She then did the same with a current newspaper. Besides the obvious fact that 3rd graders don’t read newspapers, it should be evident to any educator that 3rd graders can hardly conceive of events at the end of their block, let alone such ponderous events as wars and elections in places even more distant and thus difficult to comprehend. The lesson’s objective? Students will come to recognize they are being lied to and develop a habit of vigilant suspicion of everyone. The great St. John Paul II spoke of the “masters of suspicion” proliferating in modern society. The Masters are busy training apprentices in the asylums.
I am an adherent of the Great Tradition, what is today called classical education. I am unapologetically (to borrow C.S. Lewis’s designation) an “Old Western Man” because the Progressive Everyman has produced nothing better than the Great Tradition. Eva Brann noted that authentic innovation can only occur within a tradition. Rather than innovating within the Tradition, the Progressive Everyman seeks to destroy it. School prayer? Abolished. George Washington a hero? Not anymore. Prescriptive grammar? Oppressive. Christianity’s contribution to Western Civilization? Denied. Mention of God in a classroom? Forbidden. Shakespeare? A famous corpse in the heap of Dead White Males. The detritus that passes for curriculum in public schools today must be cleared away and replaced with an integrated, rational pedagogy based upon the liberal arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy).
Moreover, we must stop grinding kids in the mill of standardized testing. Education is essentially a human endeavor. Success or failure cannot be reduced to data. Any number of factors influence a student’s performance. I adopt a Scroogean skepticism when reviewing standardized test scores. Perhaps a “slight disorder of the stomach” distracted the child, an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard.” Maybe his dog died. Maybe her dad left home because of work and won’t return for a few months. Maybe mom is being induced today. Maybe a parent died recently. I have witnessed every one of these circumstances among my students over the years. Most importantly standardized testing reveals nothing about a student’s ability to think and articulate their ideas in age appropriate ways. Justice McReynolds was correct. We have no right to standardize children, not only because doing so accords an authority to the state not proper to it, but more importantly because it is dehumanizing. In the 1970s Eva Brann presciently observed that when the standard becomes what is measurable, what is measurable becomes what is taught. And because states tie funding to test scores, the curriculum now in many places is eight months of test preparation followed by a month of coasting with lots of videos. The last four decades have proved Brann right. It should be manifest to all by now, we will not standardize our way to intellectual virtue.
In his book Education at the Crossroads, Jacques Maritain argues that education “has its own essence and its own aims.” Education is for “the inner liberation of the human person.” It is essentially humanistic and therefore resists standardization. At the center of the educational project stands a human person made for freedom. This is not what’s meant by “student-centered learning.” Traditionalists’ insistence upon the centrality of the human person in education assumes a telos. Progressives deny this dimension of human experience. Maritain, writing during WWII, understood that after the war education would have to take upon itself “superadded burdens” due to the dismantling of every other institution that once held human society together. But he was clear that post-war education, as in every era, demanded “academic freedom.” The relation between school and state must be properly understood if the educational system is to resist falling prey to one political ideology or another, as had happened under Nazism.
[I]f the school, conceived according to some totalitarian pattern as an organ of the political state, were to replace the free and normal agencies provided by nature and by God for the upbringing of man, then the common good, for the sake of which the superadded burdens must be assumed, would be not ensured, but betrayed. The remedy would only have aggravated the evil.
It’s tempting to blame Progressives for the dire straits of American schools because they have controlled education for the last century. But the seeds were sown in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia where he outlined his curriculum for primary and secondary education. Jefferson found inspiration in Locke who, denying telos, placed education at the service of materialism. But Conservatives have also been complicit in promulgating utilitarian education. This is why Cardinal Newman went to such lengths in his brilliant discourses on education to persuade his audience not only of the intrinsic value of a liberal education, but also of the utility of such learning. He was addressing conservative Irish businessmen who needed convincing that studying Aristotle and Aquinas would not result in less prosperous sons. In the last presidential campaign candidate Marco Rubio proclaimed America needs “more welders and less philosophers.” Why are the two mutually exclusive? Progressives desire to reshape American culture by subordinating education to leftist orthodoxy. Republicans consider education a means of maintaining a robust economy. Both approaches are radically flawed because both fail to understand the essential humanistic nature of education.
Dr. Esolen reminds readers of the principle of subsidiarity which proposes that those closest to a problem are best equipped to find a solution. The principle affirms an Aristotelian premise that man is by nature social. Turning to state bureaucracies has the ironic effect of atomizing people through a shared helplessness. Relying upon government to solve our problems, we no longer come together locally and decide things for ourselves. This circumstance is affirmed by an astonishing fact Esolen cites: “In the United States in 1920, there were twenty-one times as many school boards per thousand students as there are now.” So many more people were involved in education a century ago because schools were small, local affairs and parents understood what was good on the east side of town might not be fitting on the west side of town. No more. The demand for standardization means bureaucrats in Washington, and their uber-wealthy friends like Bill Gates, tell parents what their children must learn. Exhibit A: Common Core. Who knows best what the local children need? A faceless departmental cog in a necktie 2000 miles away who spends the better part of every day under fluorescent lighting and does not even know what state your town is in, or a mom with a B.A. in literature from a small but reputable liberal arts institution? Or the dad who graduated from the school of hard knocks and knows a thing or two about ethics and competence?
Children belong to their parents, not their schools or states. I have heard of protests against Common Core and standardization where parents refuse to bring their kids to school on testing days. It’s a start, but more is needed. Competent parents must fill the school boards. Find the folks in your community who understand the essential aims of education and send them to your city councils, your state legislatures. The wealthy must generously underwrite rational alternatives to the asylums by founding private academies. Examples exist such as Faustina Academy in Irving, TX, Western Academy in Houston, or Gregory the Great Academy in Pennsylvania. Many charter schools are fully engaged in the noble endeavor to reform education. They need classically trained teachers. So more universities must follow the lead of places like the University of Dallas and Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in offering affordable options for teachers to gain a traditional liberal education.
Plutarch said we must ensure the education we provide is the right kind. We need education that honors parental authority, neither standardizes children nor abstracts them into identities, and recognizes the essentially humanistic and liberating aim of education.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Die Dorfschule von 1848” painted by Albert Anker in 1896.