End public education: True separation of Church and State

End public education: True separation of Church and State

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4 1988

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2014 — Maryland’s Montgomery County Board of Education  dropped all religious holidays from its 2015 school calendar after area Muslims asked to add a Muslim holiday to the calendar. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the history and “progress” of American public education during the past half century. Increasingly, the constitutional interpretation that requires absolute separation of church and state has gained ground, but “separation” is not the term that should be used. Rather, “hostility” is a better qualifier.

In Montgomery County, demands by a small, vocal group of Muslims to include the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha in the public school calendar of holidays brought the matter to a head. The education board voted 7-1 to drop all religious holidays and all religious signification attached to school breaks around Christmas and Easter — that is, around “Winter Break” and “Spring Break.” The new names are politically correct. That is what triumphant multiculturalism really means: abolishing whatever remains of this nation’s traditional religious heritage, not talking about it seriously lest we offend someone — anyone — who might take offense, consigning it eventually to an isolated museum of curiosities and antiquities.

Robert Lewis Dabney, the great Presbyterian divine and unreconstructed post-War-Between-the-States writer, sharply criticized egalitarianism, which, since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, has been held to be the philosophical foundation of the American republic. In his comprehensive study, The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context, Colgate University Professor Barry Shain demonstrated that equality was never intended to be the basis for American polity. In fact, most of the Founders rejected that idea out of hand and foresaw serious and intractable problems should it ever become dogma. Yet it seems to dominate American thinking among both Democrats and Republicans.

In 1789, state-supported public education was almost non-existent. Education was the province of the family. Churches, community groups, and small, local organizations created and operated academies. In most cases, education was informed and annealed by religion; it was characterized by codes of moral, usually Christian, conduct. The Founders did not consider that the issue merited extended and specific discussion. Yet over the past century and half, the growth of public education and an immense public education bureaucracy has disinterred various hot-button issues relating to church and state, and the role of each in the education of our youth.

Despite continuous attempts to convince citizens and political leaders that religious instruction and commemoration have no place within the walls of public schools, abundant scholarship indicates just the opposite. Detailed historical and juridical studies by such scholars as Dr. Robert L. Cord, William A. Stanmeyer, and distinguished legal historian Raoul Berger demonstrate beyond debate the profoundly religious nature of education during the first century and a half of American history.

Yet, as Professor Dabney warned 130 years ago in a searing essay, “Secularized Education,” indecision and a failure to clearly delineate the essentially religious nature of education carried with it the seeds of its  future secularization. Dabney begins his dense discussion by defining education:

It is properly the whole man or person that is educated; but the main subject of the work is the spirit. Education is the nurture and development of the whole man for his proper end. The end must be conceived aright in order to understand this process. Even man’s earthly end is moral … Dexterity in an art is not education. The latter nurtures the soul, the other only drills a sense-organ … the one has a mechanical end, the other a moral. The State … claims to educate; as is witnessed by the universal argument … that she has the right and duty of providing that young citizens be competent to their responsibility as citizens. But these are ethical [and thus necessarily involve religion].

Dabney goes on to quote Daniel Webster:

In what age, by what sect, where, when, by whom, has religious truth been excluded from the education of youth? Nowhere. Never! Everywhere, and at all times, it has been regarded as essential. It is of the essence, the vitality of useful instruction.

Dabney’s arguments were aimed at a growing movement to establish a wide network of state-sponsored and supported public schools. His major fear — and the core of his case against their establishment — was that state-sponsored education would become secularized. But if education were not Christian, then it would inevitably become anti-Christian:

Christian truths and facts are so woven into the very warp and woof of the knowledge of Americans, and constitute so beneficial and essential a part of our civilization, that the secular teacher, who impartially avoids either the affirmation or denial of them, must reduce his teaching to the bare giving of those scanty rudiments, which are, as we have seen, not knowledge, but the mere signs of knowledge. … If his teaching is more than a temporary dealing with some remote corner of education, the fact will be found to be that it is tacitly anti-Christian. There can be no neutral position between two extremes …

“He that is not with his God is against Him,” Dabney repeated. Could education really be education if it educated “the mind without purifying the heart?” Dabney answered, “There can be no true education without moral culture, and no true moral culture without Christianity.”

In light of current debates over religion and the public schools, Dabney’s strictures should strike us as prophetic. The points and considerations he raises have reverberated throughout recent history, educationally and judicially, and, per the Montgomery County decision, seem to be reaching a boiling point.

And that brings me to a radical proposal that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years: The public schools need to be disestablished, privatized. A progressive effort needs to be undertaken over a period of years to transfer the basic control of our public educational system, grades 1 through 12, to private organizations, associations of families, churches, not-for-profit organizations, etc., that would run them and compete with each other.

For the first seven grades in all schools certain basic academic requirements would still continue: basic competency in English reading and writing; competency in basic math; courses in American and world history and government; an introduction to the sciences and electronic technology; an introduction to the arts and culture. But after that, with appropriate testing, students could choose to attend a school with a particular emphasis, operated by, say, Common Cause, or, maybe, the Heritage Foundation, or maybe Duke Power, or Microsoft, or the NRA.

Local and state governments would award funds previously funneled through educational bureaucracies directly to parents in the form of comprehensive vouchers which they, then, could use to enter their school-age children in a rich variety of schools. If Southern Baptists, Catholics, or a large group of families wished to insure that religious instruction be central to the curriculum, no government entity would prevent that, and, more importantly, if parents wanted to send their children to such schools, no Montgomery County bureaucrat would tell them that religious observance had no part in their child’s education.

It’s not a perfect solution by any means. Critics will shout it down as an attack on the unity of the American nation. I would make the rejoinder that that vaunted American “unity” ceased to characterize this terribly divided and fractured country years ago, and that since those proponents of separation of church and state have long demanded separation, this proposal only carries it forward to its logical conclusion — and evades to some degree the creeping educational totalitarianism we see around us.

Dabney, after all, was right on target.


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Boyd Cathey
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.