I’ve been cataloging the biggest failures of the church in our day, beginning with a watered-down salvation message, then on to our lack of renewed minds when it comes to putting the faith into practice, allowing worldly thinking to dominate. There’s one more leg on the three-legged stool of failure—the abandonment of Biblical education.
In early America, most education was centered in the church or home, and the lion’s share of the home-schooled portion of society was Christian also. That began to change in the middle of the nineteenth century when people came up with the idea of placing responsibility for education in the hands of the state. One group that eagerly sought this was the Unitarians; they continued to call themselves Christians, but they denied the deity of Christ, didn’t consider the Bible to be divinely inspired, and explained away Biblical accounts of the supernatural. Unitarians wanted to remove education from the control of the orthodox, put the state in charge, and include only the behavioral aspect of Christianity in the teaching. Moral lessons divorced from their eternal base.
Massachusetts was the first state to move toward a top-down, centralized system. The first secretary of the board of education in that state was a Unitarian named Horace Mann, who endorsed the typical Unitarian vision that the “proper” education would yield good citizens. In fact, Mann was so enamored of this vision that he honestly believed the common school system [as it was called then] was the greatest innovation in the history of the world. He was absolutely rapturous in his prediction that if a common school system could be established it would wipe out 90% of all the crime in society. The irony today is that 90% of crimes now are perpetrated in the government schools.
Another group that wanted to put the government in charge was an incipient socialist/communist movement at that time. Disappointed that their utopian commune fell apart because Americans had an attachment to private property, this group formed a political party—the Workingman’s Party—for the express purpose of establishing government-controlled schools where they hoped they could influence the curriculum to teach communist principles. Whereas Unitarians could take control in Massachusetts at least, this group was less successful and couldn’t achieve its goal.
However, the common school idea eventually spread throughout the nation, state by state, primarily because of a third group that also wanted to create a government-controlled environment conducive to its particular beliefs. That third group was the evangelicals of the era. Dismayed by the perceived threat of Catholic immigration, they wanted to diffuse Protestantism through a system that would be forced on everyone. By taking this route, they violated Biblical principles. They used the government to achieve their purpose rather than voluntary means.
For a while, it seemed to work to their advantage because they were the dominant group in society. Over time, though, as an educational establishment drifted away from Biblical underpinnings, that top-down system was turned against Protestant views. Probably the most influential educator of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century was John Dewey, a signer of the Humanist Manifesto who developed an educational philosophy that dismissed any concept of God and eternal right and wrong. Dewey also helped move education toward experiential learning that downplayed strong academics, and he pushed what we now call socialization as the primary purpose of education. A convinced socialist and atheist, Dewey became the Father of Progressive Education; his disciples filled the education schools throughout the nation.
Slowly at first, but with increasing speed throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, Biblical teaching was either relegated to the periphery or eliminated. Some like to point to the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s as the start of the decline in public [government] education because prayer and Bible reading were tossed out. Closer to the truth is that those decisions were the culmination of what had been happening for many years. The prayer that was considered unconstitutional wasn’t even specifically Christian. And the fact that it was a government-sponsored prayer allowed the Court to say it was a violation of the First Amendment.
All those various court cases and the controversies they have spawned are the result of turning education over to the government. If we had kept it in the private sphere, there would have been no court decisions and everyone would have been free to teach as they chose.
This system the evangelicals helped to set up continues to educate from 85-90% of all American children. It is now, by and large, antagonistic to Christian beliefs. That’s not universally true, and I appreciate all dedicated Christians who feel called to work in that system as a witness. But it’s getting harder with each passing year to have any freedom to be what God calls us to be in those circumstances. Religious liberty is being squeezed ever more tightly.
Evangelicals, since the 1970s, have started a lot of Christian schools. Many have done a fine job, but others teach little differently than the public schools, adding only chapels and prayer at the beginning of the day. Sometimes they even bow to the state system of accreditation, thereby losing their uniqueness and their distinct Christian calling.
There are many evangelical colleges and universities, but I know far too well from personal experience that a mighty battle wages in each of them for the integrity of the Biblical worldview. Who teaches in these colleges and universities? Professors who had to receive their doctorates from state universities. All too often, they imbibe the worldview of their mentors and pass that on to their students. They may be Christians, but they don’t necessarily teach from Biblical principles. One of the biggest disappointments expressed by students in Christian colleges is that they don’t always feel like they’re getting anything much different from what they would have received in a secular setting.
I don’t want to over-generalize, but I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to keep an evangelical institution from straying from its Biblical roots. History, political science, psychology, and social work programs often are just as liberal and secularized in a Christian college as anywhere else. This liberalization even touches theology departments as Marxist social justice perspectives are incorporated.
Overall, we’re doing a miserable job of communicating Biblical truth in our education. The state schools are almost bereft of it; Christian schools too readily succumb to the desire to be respected by the world, so they discard their strong Biblical message and sell out for the honor of being “recognized” according to the world’s standards.
It’s no accident that homeschooling has made a comeback in our time. Many parents are once again taking control of their children’s education. The threat, though, is that government will not like any deviation from its educational plans. Faithful Christian schools and colleges, and dedicated homeschoolers, may be in for a hard time in the next few years. Obamacare already has laid the groundwork for a frontal attack. Withstanding this attack and others will call for commitment. This will be a test of the genuineness of our Christianity.
Will we pass the test?