Obama’s Skewed View of Christian Education

Barack Obama, Michelle ObamaEarlier this week, when he was in Ireland for the first leg of his European trip, President Obama made a speech that didn’t garner a lot of attention at the time, but now part of that speech has raised some very real concerns among Christians, not only in Ireland but in the U.S. Essentially, the president criticized religious education as divisive and a contributor to violence. That’s startling to those of us who are deeply committed to providing a Biblical foundation to all learning. Here were his exact words:

Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity—symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others—these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it. If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

Notice how the critique of religious schools is couched in the very real desire for peace and harmony, something everyone wants, at least on the surface. But you have to look deeper. Obama’s worldview doesn’t have room for differences; all are to be incorporated into the whole, under the wise guiding hand of the federal government. Any deviation from that would be “division.”

His wording assumes that somehow segregation and lack of opportunity in society can be traced back to religious differences. He believes that these differences lead to fear and resentment. Certainly, in history, that has sometimes been the case, but with one mere paragraph, he has tarnished all religious education. What he either fails to realize, or seeks to ignore, is that Christian education, whether via homeschooling or private schools, is a major source of strength for the country. There is no war in America between Protestant and Catholic; the only battle I see waging is between Christian faith and encroaching statism. The president’s own signature piece of legislation, which we call Obamacare, began the war by trying to force religious schools to provide contraception and abortifacient drugs in direct violation of their bedrock beliefs.

Who’s causing the division? It’s emanating from Mr. Obama himself.

Further, any objective study of the results of private education shows that students are learning more through that medium than through the government-controlled system of schools. I don’t accept the argument that government schooling is the way to go. I’ve always been disturbed by how easily our citizens, even those whose Christian beliefs should alert them, become like sheep when herded into that system. Civil government is not the Biblically ordained agency for the education of children. Parents are to take that responsibility and then decide if and how they want some of that education delegated to others. All too often, we have come dangerously close to the idea that children belong to the government.

So I oppose government-controlled education on principle. Others look mostly at the bad results. While I would like for more people to be informed on the principle, I am happy when anything attracts their attention to the woeful state of education as it exists today. On the practical level, we are failing:

Get With the Program

The bad results should make us want to reexamine our most basic concepts of how education should be carried out. Failure should lead more parents to consider the alternatives.

No, President Obama, the homeschoolers and private Christian schools in our nation are not the problem; they are the beginning of the solution.

Lewis: The Learned Life Is a Duty

For me, as a university professor, this quote from C. S. Lewis is one I would think of framing and putting on my office wall. Please don’t skip over any of it; each sentence is truly weighty, if you stop and ponder as you should. I’m particularly drawn to phrases about “good philosophy” answering “bad philosophy,” our need for an “intimate knowledge of the past” (well, I am a history professor, you know), those trendy ideas that Lewis terms “temporary fashion,” and the “nonsense” that emanates from the press. Give this one a few minutes out of your busy schedule and see if you might agree with me.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods, and that much that seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

I’ve been trying to shoulder that duty for quite some time. There are others with a greater intellect than mine; I know that without a doubt. Yet those of us who have been tapped on the shoulder by the Divine Tapper to teach must remain faithful and continue to seek His grace to work with our efforts. This is really not an onerous duty; it is a privilege.

Screwtape’s Education Formula

C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters remains one of his most admired and imaginative books. In the later editions, Lewis added a little essay called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the master devil shares his insights into how to undermine the human race. One of his methods is to destroy education. If his formula sounds familiar, there might be a good reason. Here’s a portion of Screwtape’s speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils”:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Lewis on Education

As we survey the vast wasteland of modern American education, C. S. Lewis can help us see the root of the problem. From his essay “On the Transmission of Christianity” he offers this bit of wisdom:

This very obvious fact—that each generation is taught by an earlier generation—must be kept very firmly in mind. . . . Hence the futility of many schemes for education. None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. . . .

If we are sceptical, we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. . . . We shall admit that a man who knows no Greek himself cannot teach Greek to his form: but it is equally certain that a man whose mind was formed in a period of cynicism and disillusion, cannot teach hope or fortitude.

A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law.We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.

So, once again we come face to face with the undeniable truth that our society—government, education, and all—is only a reflection of who we are as a people, and the only way to salvage the society is to salvage individual souls first. The propagation of the gospel remains our top priority because only through relationship with God can our souls be salvaged.

Sixty-two . . . and Still Learning

Add another year to the total. As startling as it was to turn sixty two years ago, I’m just as amazed by the undeniable fact that today I’ve reached the sixty-two mark. I have a tendency to get reflective at times like this. I hope you’ll excuse me for it today because I was thinking about what I’ve learned over the years, through the good and not-so-good times. Where was I each time my age ended with a two? Here’s my review.

Age 2: I thought I might skip this one. After all, who really remembers anything from when they were two years old? Yet I have a vivid memory of seeing my grandfather sitting on the couch. He had lost one leg and used crutches. I must have been two, or no older than barely three, because he died when I was three. We never got to know each other. What does this mean to me today? Just this: I want to be around to get to know my grandchildren and be a positive influence on their lives. Whatever I can do to point them to serving God and loving Him, I want to do. Currently, I have four grandsons and one granddaughter. Two more are on the way this year—a fifth grandson and one of unknown gender at this time. Seven grandchildren by about October. May my life be a blessing to them.

Age 12: This was about the time I reluctantly realized I wasn’t going to be a Major League baseball player. An .032 average in Little League can lead one to that conclusion. It was disappointing. The Yankees were my life; Mickey Mantle was my hero. But I learned I had to move on to other goals, and it wasn’t too difficult once I put away my childish dreams. I entered junior high that year, and life was changing. It was time for a new perspective. God already had His hand on me. I know this because I was probably the only guy who actually looked forward to Saturday morning confirmation classes at my Lutheran church. Yes, life was changing.

Age 22: Married less than a year. Getting ready to graduate from college and take on my first fulltime position. Shortly after this birthday, I arrived in Portsmouth, Virginia, and began working at the Christian Broadcasting Network. I started in the television studio, but moved up shortly afterward to radio, where I became the all-night “personality.” It was a time of maturing, even though I don’t think I matured as quickly as I needed to. I had great zeal, learning Greek and beginning my study of theology. Two years later, I would be a father for the first time. A year after that, headmaster of a Christian school. All seemed right with the world.

Age 32: All was not right with the world. Well, let me rephrase that: all was not right with me. I was completing my doctoral studies at American University in Washington, D.C., not knowing it would require another six years before that dissertation would be finished. Spiritually, I was in rebellion, but God hadn’t given up on me. He was beginning to show me how void of meaning a life of study and learning can be without Him. I would begin to take those first steps back to Him, but the process would be much slower than it ought to have been, and true repentance still lay in the future.

Age 42: Spiritual restoration was now in the past, and I was a professor in a Christian university. The students voted me Professor of the Year, yet my tenure at the university was not assured. I had to learn a greater depth of trust in the Lord’s provision. The struggles of that year led, ultimately, to a call to another university, where I could teach at the graduate level. I began to believe more than ever that the Lord does open and close doors, and all I had to do was rest in His leading.

Age 52: At my third institution of Christian higher education. The students were a joy to teach, but I was again undergoing a test. Had I missed God’s calling? Why did it have to be so hard? How many ways can I be misunderstood by those in authority over me? Lord, what am I supposed to do? Those were the constant questions that plagued my thoughts. At age 52, things were looking a little bleak. Yet, as I learned soon after, God hadn’t deserted me, no matter how I felt at times. He was still the God who opens new doors.

Age 62: It’s been a rough couple of years as my wife has gone through cancer treatments and surgery after surgery. I’ve been there with her all the way, and the Lord is teaching me what it means to love—in ways I never thought I would have to learn. The cancer storm has subsided for now; my position at my fourth Christian university seems secure; the joy of teaching has not abated. There is purpose in life through Him, and even if circumstances change for the worse, I would be the most dense student ever if I began to doubt His care now. He has proven Himself over and over with each succeeding decade. The lesson: rest in God’s love and draw strength from His seemingly endless supply of grace.

That’s my review. Those are the things I’ve learned at these various stages of life. Whether I have another decade of learning is in His hands. If not, I can say with the apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Dismal Education: The Head Start Failure

Whenever government takes on a task for which it is ill-suited, failure ensues. Nowhere is this failure more evident than in the realm of education. I always begin with a Biblical analysis, and in this case I find no basis in Scripture for civil government to be in charge of education. That is primarily the responsibility of parents. Historically in America—prior to the development of the public school system—parents, churches, private academies, and local townships dominated education, and we were probably the most literate nation on earth.

Then we decided to mess up the system by getting the government deeply involved. There are a lot of examples I could give, but today I just want to mention the Head Start program that began in the 1960s as part of LBJ’s Great Society—one of the greatest misnomers in history.

The stated goal of Head Start was to provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parental involvement services to low-income children and their families. Sounds good, right? It has continued to expand over the years, always getting reauthorized with even more funding, because presumably all these problems can be solved by spending as much money as possible. At least that’s the theory.

Studies, though, even those conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, are revealing a rather dismal showing for all the dollars being thrown at these children. Although they seem to be helping them at the ages of three and four, by the time they have completed first grade, there is no discernible difference in their performance or emotional stability than the children who were not in the program. Spending those billions of dollars yielded little in return. No amount of funding can compensate for the fact that 70% of inner-city children grow up without a father in the home. The destruction of the family structure has more of a negative impact on these children than anything government can do to balance that loss. Yet those who are responsible for the program have a hard time facing reality.

The cartoon captures an important fact about how liberals/progressives operate: it’s more about feeling good about doing something they believe is beneficial than it is about being really effective. They live for the government program and cannot handle the truth. In fact, they are very skilled at fixing the blame elsewhere:

Head Start is only one small example of government-sponsored education’s spiritual, moral, and intellectual poverty. Even more pernicious are the emphases on trendy causes such as diversity, multiculturalism, environmentalism, radical feminism, and the immorality of most sex education. If we want to examine the roots of our cultural rot, a major factor would have to be the deterioration of education. That’s probably sufficient reason for a series of posts in the near future.

The Abandonment of Biblical Education

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?