The job of a foreword is to explain why a book is important and should be read. In the case of this new edition of Samuel Blumenfeld’s history of the origins of the modern “public” school system, Is Public Education Necessary?, that task is easily accomplished.
All too often familiar social and institutional arrangements exercise a subtle tyranny over our thinking. In particular, we tend to believe that the institutions to which we are accustomed are in some sense “natural,” “necessary,” or “inevitable.”
This is certainly true of how the vast majority of Americans think about our “public” or government school system. After all, most of us attended government schools; government schools play an enormous role in the social and economic life of our communities; and, with the encouragement of the keepers of that institution, we tend to think that without a government school system we would be mired in illiteracy.
Institutions, of course, have biographies. In fact, without knowing the history of an institution, our ability to evaluate it critically is profoundly impaired. This is why Blumenfeld’s account of education in early America and the origins of our government school system provides an indispensable foundation for understanding today’s government school system.
The history of education in America should be understood as the story of a transformation of a thoroughly Christian educational tradition into a “public” school system that, over time, has become a seething cauldron of spiritual, moral, intellectual, and pedagogical pathologies from which virtually all vestiges of Christianity have been removed. How and why did this transformation of American education occur? These are the central questions Blumenfeld answers in Is Public Education Necessary?
Blumenfeld’s examination of the history of education in America begins with the far-reaching educational legacy of the Reformation: the ideal and practice of universal literacy. This was, in turn, a direct consequence of the Reformers’ doctrines of sola scriptura and the priesthood of the believer. Because for the Reformers the Bible alone was the Christian’s guide to belief and practice, and because each Christian was responsible for knowing what the Bible teaches, it was imperative for Christians to be literate so that they would be able to build God’s Kingdom by applying God’s Word to all areas of life.
As a result, not only did Reformers such as Luther exhort Christians to provide their children with a Christian education, they also rapidly established institutions to provide that education wherever Protestantism became dominant. For example, Pierre Viret, an important theologian and friend of John Calvin, established an academy in Lausanne in 1537 that was eventually moved to Calvin’s Geneva and became the famous Geneva Academy.
The profound relationship between the Reformation and education is best illustrated, however, by the influence of the Reformed theology John Knox brought to Scotland. Knox was Calvin’s most famous student, and at the time of Knox’s return to Scotland from Geneva, Scotland was perhaps the poorest, least educated, and most culturally backward country in Europe. Undaunted by the unpromising conditions he faced, Knox nevertheless spoke relentlessly about the need for universal Christian education and laid out a plan for achieving that goal in hisFirst Book of Discipline.
Because of Knox, Scotland became overwhelmingly Protestant, and in a relatively short time after Knox’s death Scotland became the first country in Europe with mass literacy. Moreover, Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, which had been a smoky, foul smelling backwater, became celebrated as the “Athens” of the North, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and, along with Glasgow, the home of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Of course, the Reformed Christians in Geneva and Scotland were far from unique in their attitudes toward education. As one historian of Reformed theology, Loraine Boettner, put it:
Wherever Calvinism has gone it has carried the school with it and has given a powerful impulse to popular education … This Calvinist love for learning, putting mind above money, has inspired countless members of Calvinistic families in Scotland, in England, in Holland, and in America, to pinch themselves to the bone in order to educate their children.1
Given the way the Reformation changed how Christians viewed education, it isn’t surprising that, as spiritual and cultural heirs of the Reformation, the American colonists from the very beginning were a remarkably literate people. In fact, both Americans and Europeans commented on the high degree of literacy in America. John Adams, for instance, wrote in his A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law 1765 that, “A native of America who cannot read or write is as rare an appearance … as a comet or an earthquake.”2 Daniel Webster observed in 1820 that, “A youth of 15, of either sex, who cannot read or write is seldom to be found.”3 In 1823 Robert J. Ingersoll remarked in an address to the American Philosophical Association that, “Nearly the whole of the minor population of the United States are receiving school education.”4 Per Siljestromm, a Swede who visited America in 1853, commented, “In no country in the world is reading so diffuse as among the common people in America.”5
Professional historians have concurred with the observations of Adams, Webster, Ingersoll, Siljestromm, and others about the remarkable level of literacy in early America. Henry Steele Commager, for example, discussed literacy in early America as follows:
“How interesting that almost everyone, in Europe and America alike, agreed that the American people were the most generally enlightened on the globe, that here in these little American settlements a larger proportion of the people were educated, read their Bible, almanacs, and newspapers than anywhere else on the globe … How impressive the level of public discussion of great political questions such as independence, or the state and federal constitutions, in town meetings, state conventions, the Constitutional Convention, and the press. Imagine publishing The Federalist Papers in our newspapers today.”6
Moreover, education in early America included opportunities for higher education. By 1769, Americans had founded nine colleges, the first of which was Harvard in 1636, only six years after the arrival of the English Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of the nine colleges, seven were denominational institutions, and two were nonsectarian (but not “secular”).
Educational publishing also began early in America. Initially, the colonists used books such as The Protestant Tutor to teach their children to read. By 1690, however, The New England Primer, which was the first textbook designed for the colonies, had appeared. The New England Primer sold two million copies in the eighteenth century and was the foundation for most early education in America until Noah Webster’s Blue Back Speller was published in 1790.
But if America enjoyed such prodigious literacy well into the nineteenth century without anything remotely resembling our modern government school system, and without compulsory attendance laws, who was providing the education that produced it?
Blumenfeld’s answer may surprise some: it was primarily families, and, secondarily, neighbors, tutors, and pastors, in homes, informal schools, and institutional schools. Moreover, the Christian character of the education was clear. As late as the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that education in America was everywhere under the guidance of Protestant pastors. The 1830s also saw the launch of the highly successful McGuffey’s Readers, which were Christian to the core and Reformed in their theology.
Yet in the 1830s and 1840s a process of deliberate displacement of America’s original tradition of predominantly private Christian education by a system of compulsory education controlled by the state began to be implemented in earnest in Massachusetts, which leads to the most fascinating portion of Blumenfeld’s book.
As Blumenfeld points out, one of the ironies of history is that the movement that led to today’s government school system originated in Massachusetts, the former stronghold of the Puritans. That movement was the Unitarianism that developed mostly among the well-to-do in the Boston area in the latter part of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.
The Unitarianism of that period should not be confused with modern Unitarianism. Although it is generally accepted that Unitarianism as a denomination fully distinct from Congregationalism dates from a sermon given at the investiture of Jared Sparks in Baltimore by William Ellery Channing in 1819, various Congregational churches in the Boston area had for decades embraced one or more heresies that eventually coalesced into denominational Unitarianism.
The heresy most relevant to the Unitarians’ interest in education was their works-oriented Pelagianism. Moreover, some influential Unitarians had visited Prussia and had been impressed by the social control provided by the then new Prussian government school system.
This led to a belief that man and society could be perfected through an education system that they controlled, which would be, indeed, the greatest of all “good works.” Consequently, over the span of more than two decades the Unitarians self-consciously sought to create in Massachusetts a centrally organized, tax-funded system of government schools that they would control. The Unitarians were fully aware, of course, that such a school system would effectively create a de facto establishment of Unitarianism in Massachusetts, an establishment that they hoped would, in time, result in the de facto establishment of Unitarianism across the nation as their new form of school system spread.
Unbeknownst to most Unitarians, or to the public at large, the Unitarian project of creating a centralized government school system was also being advanced by a group of secular, utopian socialists who were followers of Robert Owen, a successful British businessman. The Owenites also wanted a government school system of the type envisioned by the Unitarians as an instrument for changing society, but had they different objectives.
The Owenites had come to believe that in order to create their socialist utopia, a new socialist man had to be born. A government system of education controlled by them was to be their means for creating that new man. Orestes Brownson, who was both an influential Unitarian minister and Owenite, and who eventually became a Catholic convert, points out in his memoirs that a key objective of the Owenite movement was to get rid of Christianity. The means for accomplishing this was to be a system of state schools from which all religion ultimately was to be excluded.
Consequently, the Owenites welcomed the Unitarian education project because they believed that eventually any such system would fall into their hands. In this they were prescient, for that is precisely that happened during the end of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century when Progressives like John Dewey gradually took control of schools of education and the professional organizations relating to education.
The visions and the plans of the Unitarians and Owenites notwithstanding, they were still very small groups whose general views were rejected by the vast majority of the people of Massachusetts, as well as by the vast majority of Americans elsewhere. How was it, then, that the project of replacing America’s long-standing tradition of educational freedom with a state-controlled system was sold, first to the people of Massachusetts, and then to the rest of the country?
The answer is that the efforts of the Unitarians and Owenites happened to overlap with a massive immigration of Irish Catholics to America’s eastern port cities such as Boston and New York. This immigration confronted Protestant America with something it had never before had—a large underclass. As Thomas Sowell has put it, not only was “cleanliness not a cultural value of the Irish” immigrants, their “reputation for drinking, fighting, and crime was not, as a general proposition, undeserved.”
Against this backdrop, the Unitarian and other proponents of a centralized, state-controlled education system run by government bureaucrats, supported by property taxes, and backed by compulsory attendance laws, saw their opening. What had previously been seen as an educational vision largely held by fringe elements of society was now to be sold to Protestants as the solution to the “Irish Problem” in Massachusetts and eventually in New York and other Eastern states.
The sales pitch was relatively simple. All of the pathologies of the immigrant Irish were alleged to be the result of their Catholicism. The solution was to implement the Unitarian plan for state-controlled schools—which the Protestants were told would be effectively Protestant parochial schools—and then force Irish Catholic children into those schools so that they could be “Protestantized.” Unfortunately, enough Protestant leaders in Massachusetts were willing to support this sinful form of coercion to allow the Unitarian educational scheme being skillfully advanced by Horace Mann to get a toehold and survive several political challenges.
By 1860, the Unitarian/Owenite/Prussian model of education was firmly entrenched in Massachusetts and was spreading elsewhere. Following the War Between the States, the Peabody Foundation carried the Massachusetts model of education into the war-ravaged South. For anyone who has an interest in that period, John Chodes’ biography of Jabez Curry, known as the “Horace Mann of the South,” provides a fascinating account of how and why government-controlled education was finally fastened around the necks of Southerners.
Among its other important lessons, Is Public Education Necessary? reminds us how pivotal control of education is to the life of a culture. This is why control of education is seldom uncontested. As pointed out before, the Owenite secular socialists were right to believe that once a system of state education was established, it would eventually fall into secular socialist hands.
The last forty years or so have shown how transitory control of an institution can be. Today, control of government schools has long since passed from the hands of Dewey’s heirs into the hands of postmodernists and Gramscian Marxists. With that transition has come a broader agenda than merely eliminating Christianity from education and promoting a kind of technocratic socialism. Those who control the critical institutions within the government education establishment today intend the entire elimination of all vestiges of Christian culture from America.
Nevertheless, as the government school system has become increasingly toxic to children, families, and our culture, a growing educational reformation has developed among conservative Christian parents. This educational reformation, however, has not taken the form of dramatically increasing the number of traditional Christian schools. Rather, it has manifested itself primarily by creating and expanding alternative models for providing Christian education. Chief among these is homeschooling, which may now involve 5 percent or more of school-age children.
But homeschooling is far from the only way in which Christian families are breaking with the government school system. University model schools in which classroom instruction and homeschooling are combined, distance learning academies, Skype-based tutorial services, video schools, and other ways of providing children with a Christian education are proliferating.
Moreover, in addition to extricating their children from the academically failing and spiritually and morally toxic government schools, families are discovering that reasserting the jurisdiction of the family over the education of their children results in closer family bonds, an opportunity to truly disciple their children in a Christian worldview, and a deeper knowledge of the strengths, weaknesses, and interests of their children that allows parents to be more effective in guiding their children toward a mature Christian adulthood.
In fact, perhaps what is most valuable about Is Public Education Necessary? is that it focuses our attention as Christians on jurisdiction. The government school system didn’t result from epidemic illiteracy. From its earliest settlement America enjoyed a remarkable Christian education tradition with extraordinary levels of literacy without a government school system or compulsory attendance laws. Instead, the government school system arose from marginal Christian groups and anti-Christian groups seizing control of education as a means for advancing their cultural agendas and for obtaining power. This necessarily required usurpation by the state of the jurisdiction ordained by God for the family.
When our Reformed forebears arrived on this continent they were acutely aware of their obligation to raise their children in the fear of the Lord by educating them in a Christian worldview. As their great-grandchildren and their great-great-grandchildren began to abandon the Bible’s teaching on education, they set in train events that down the generations have resulted in infidelity, abortion, acceptance of sexual deviance and promiscuity, destruction of the family, and a host of other cultural and political pathologies.
Reformation of our culture requires nothing less than a full resumption by Christian parents of their obligation to provide their children with a Christian education. Samuel Blumenfeld has not only shown us where our forefathers stumbled, he also shows us the extraordinary results that are possible if Christians are faithful in the education of their children. Now it is up to this generation to cast down the pagan strongholds, rescue our children, and begin the systematic and thorough reformation of our Christian families—a reformation that will in time transform our churches, our communities, our culture, and our political institutions.
1. Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932), pp. 382–383.
2. John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law 1765, available online at www.ashbrook.org/library/18/adams/canonlaw.html.
3. Daniel Webster, speaking at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1820. The Works of Daniel Webster, Volumes I and II, Boston, 1851, as cited in John Eidsmoe, The Christian Legal Advisor (Milford, Michigan: Mott Media, 1984), p. 289.
4. Charles Jared Ingersoll, North American Review, January 1824, p. 159, as quoted in Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary? (Boise: The Paradigm Company, 1985), pp. 57–58.
5. As quoted in John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (Oxford, NY: Oxford Village Press, 2000/2001), p. 57.
6. Henry Steele Commager, The Commonwealth of Learning (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp.23–24.
- Bruce N. Shortt
Bruce N. Shortt is a graduate of Harvard Law School, has a Ph.D. from Stanford University, was a Fulbright Scholar, and serves on the boards of directors of the Houston Ebony Music Society and the Exodus Mandate. Mr. Shortt and T.C. Pinckney were co-sponsors of the Christian Education Resolution that was submitted for consideration at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s the author of The Harsh Truth About Public Schools.