When we think of Dr. Rushdoony’s impact on Christian education, we might think first of his courtroom testimony on behalf of Christian schools and homeschools. According to Mark Rushdoony, his father’s role as an expert witness began “early in the Carter administration and trailed off early in the Reagan years.”1
The issues, initially, were strictly educational: licensure, accreditation, and state control. Later, Dr. Rushdoony took the stand on issues of religious freedom, such as the right of street preaching. “His last participation was a deposition taken in, I believe, a Texas case that he gave at the Sacramento Airport Hotel in 1999 or 2000.”2 For now the rest of the details remain locked away in journals and files, good material for a future biographer.
“Incidentally,” Mark continues, “[my father] was allowed as an ‘expert’ witness in education cases because he had a master’s in education and had (at that time) written two books on education, Intellectual Schizophrenia and The Messianic Character of American Education.”3 Our concern will be with those books and with one that came later, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (1981).
Intellectual Schizophrenia was Rushdoony’s first book on education. It was subtitled Culture, Crisis and Education. Rushdoony describes its goal as “the understanding of the schools and their basic philosophy as cultural manifestations.”4 Rushdoony’s critiques of statist education are aimed at philosophy, not method or product. There are no statistics and few anecdotes. There are some brief but important excursions into theology, including a discussion of the heart of man and the nature of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs.
The last chapter of the book is entitled “The End of an Age,” another mark of Rushdoony’s cultural orientation in this book. Rushdoony points out that the death of one age is necessarily the birth of another and that the opportunities such a transformation entails are enormous. He writes, “The end of an age is always a time of turmoil, war, economic catastrophe, cynicism, lawlessness, and distress. But it is also an era of heightened challenge and creativity, and of intense vitality. And because of the intensification of issues, and their world-wide scope, never has an era faced a more demanding and exciting crisis.”5 Rushdoony saw the coming age as one of incredible opportunity for Christian education.
The Messianic Character of American Education
Rushdoony’s most thorough critique of statist education appeared in his The Messianic Character of American Education. Here he delves into the basic assumptions, or presuppositions, of the leading humanist educators from Horace Mann through John Dewey. He devotes a chapter to each educator and lets them speak for themselves. We see their presuppositions in no uncertain terms, presuppositions born in the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment had its roots in Renaissance humanism and in classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Enlightenment humanists shared with their earlier counterparts a religious belief in autonomous reason; that is, they believed that reason was man’s final authority, a god to replace God, a power to reshape the world. The Enlightenment modeled itself after Newtonian mathematics and fancied itself “scientific.” Everything else was superstition and tradition. The Enlightenment wanted to wipe away the past and begin afresh.
Enlightenment humanism, following John Locke, reckoned the human mind a blank tablet, wholly passive in the educational process—innocent, until violated by a corrupting environment. Since man was passive in his education, any flaw in his character must be the fault of his educators (his parents, in the first place), either in method or in the information communicated. But given money and time enough, methods could be improved and misinformation corrected. A rigorous, rational approach to education, funded and enforced by the state, was thus the obvious solution to man’s flawed character and to all of society’s ills.
And so the men of the Enlightenment, willfully misunderstanding the nature of man’s problem, just as willfully set up a new savior in terms of their premises. The sovereign state would so condition its citizens through education and external order that folly and ignorance, war and poverty, would simply vanish away. Statist education would save us all—whether we liked it or not. Such would be our predestined utopia, the “Brave New World of the Enlightenment.”6
American progressive educators were the heirs of this mindset, and American educators have become increasingly statist in their orientation and goals. “Statist education increasingly assumes that (1) the child is the child of the state or the property of the state, which can therefore interfere extensively with parental authority. (2) The state ‘priesthood’ of educators is best able to rear the child and prepare him for life, viewed as statist life. (3) Statist education is alone ‘objective’ and hence true, the state having the impartiality and transcendence of a god. Statist education is thus entrance into the true catholicity of the civil religion of the modern state. It is the religious ideal of the French Revolution realized.”7
But as the French Revolution has shown us, Enlightenment thought was and is inherently self-destructive. There is a logical inconsistency in conditioning (forcing) men to be free. Who will do the conditioning, and by what right? What will be their motives and goals? By what standard will they educate and condition the rest of us? In fact, “Who will condition the Conditioners?” becomes a question worth asking.8
No Neutral Ground
In contrast to a sovereign state, the Christian faith confesses a sovereign God. In contrast to a passive, innocent human nature, Christianity declares the radical wickedness of the human heart. These are two radically different theologies and worldviews, and each carries with it world-changing implications.
No man is objective in his outlook. “There is no neutral ground in God’s universe. Every theory, every policy, every transaction within human society springs either from a heart committed to the Creator God or from one in rebellion against Him. Science, art, and industry either serve God or war against Him. The antithesis between light and darkness is complete: the natural man is at war with God on every front.”9 That war reaches to man’s basic assumptions about life and reality. “Man’s entire outlook is colored and determined by the fact that he is either a covenant-keeper or a covenant-breaker with God.”10 We walk in light, or we walk in darkness. As the song says, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.” But not everyone understands that.
Epistemological … What?
In his discussion of Christian education, Rushdoony makes free use of the words epistemological self-consciousness. The words describe that state in which a man fully realizes his own presuppositions and where they must inevitably lead. It is a state relatively few attain. Most men are content with a dozen conflicting philosophies spinning around inside their heads. Even those who take thinking very seriously may find themselves caught in a sort of intellectual schizophrenia.
The secular educator, for example, believes in an impersonal universe born of time and chance, yet he tries to act as if his studies have some sort of objective meaning and value. But the Christian educator who baptizes a secular curriculum with a few Bible verses or devotional thoughts is likewise schizophrenic. He has not taken the claims of Christ seriously. He is not epistemologically self-aware. Similarly, the Bible teacher who adopts a moralistic approach to the sacred text will find that he is at odds with himself. His thinking will be torn between a semi-Pelagian reliance on human goodness and an evangelical reliance on the grace of God in Christ.11 Being of two minds where the gospel is concerned, he lacks epistemological self-consciousness. There is no unity in his understanding or in his ministry.
But the Christian faith upholds the unity of truth. God created all things, and all things cohere in Him. The ontological Trinity is thus the source of all truth and meaning. “For us all facts are concrete and personal facts created by God; they have the meaning God gave them.”12 Whether we consider Columbus or winemaking or linear equations, we must begin with the triune God to make any sense out of the facts at hand. When we approach any subject, we must listen to what God says about it, either concretely or in principle, if we are to make any godly progress in our teaching and learning.
By What Standard?
Christian education, then, comes into its own only when we, as teachers and students, submit ourselves wholeheartedly to the Word of God. “Biblical integration” is not enough. We must take Scripture as our foundation, our starting point: we must presuppose the truth of God’s Word at every point and in every discipline. We must admit no neutral ground. This means that we must build both on the broad doctrines of Scripture and upon the specifics of the text. We must, for example, confess God’s sovereignty and providence; we must also confess a six-day creation, a universal Flood, and 480 years from the Exodus to the Temple. We must speak of justice and compassion; but we must also insist that debasing currency is theft (Isa. 1:22) and that killing a baby in the womb is murder (Exod. 21:22–25). In other words, we must embrace all of God’s Word as law.
Law and Liberty
For Rushdoony, law is basic to education. He writes: “Christian education must assert at all times the absolute law of God. For autonomous critical thought, the only absolute law is man’s freedom from God. For the Christian, every sphere of life, the family, church, state, economics, agriculture, science, mathematics, and all things else are under God’s absolute laws as manifested in their sphere. Christian education is a study of God’s grace, of God’s realms of law.”13
God’s law marks out His Kingdom, the realm of His grace. To walk in God’s law is liberty. To flout His law is to despise His grace and reject His blessing. Only as we bring every thought captive to the Word of God, only when we receive God’s Word as law, can we properly understand God’s world or exercise dominion over it. And yet that is precisely our calling: “We are called in Christ to be a royal and priestly people (Rev. 1:6). This means exercising dominion in every area of life and thought under God. As prophets in Christ, we declare the meaning of God’s word for all of life. As priests, we bring all things to the Lord and dedicate them to the service of His Kingdom. As kings, we exercise authority and dominion in every sphere of thought and activity in the name of Christ our King.”14 This means that “the purpose of education is not academic: it is religious and practical. Man’s purpose is to build the Kingdom of God. This was Adam’s calling, the creation mandate, the call to man to know, subdue, and use the earth under God.”15 Man’s call is to liberty in Christ in service toward God. We are not our own, and therein lies our true freedom and the goal of Christian education. We teach and learn for the glory of God. Christian educators are disciplining and equipping their students for God’s service.
Education should not center on the child or the parents or the needs of society. The child belongs to God, not to the parents, and certainly not to the state. But God has commanded parents, particularly fathers, to nurture and admonish their children in terms of God’s revealed Word (Eph. 6:4). This is nurture and admonition that should know no boundaries of subject, time, or occasion. We should never have to shift mental gears or adopt a special holy demeanor to talk about God’s Word or to relate it to what we’re doing. God says that parents are to speak of His commandments to their children when they sit in their houses, when they walk by the way, when they lie down, and when they rise up (Deut. 6:7).
But God requires more than mere instruction: He requires discipline. “The word discipline is close to the word disciple. It means to make a disciple of someone, to drill and educate them, and to bring them into effective obedience to someone or something.”16 The word teach in the Great Commission literally means “make disciples of.” The margin of the Authorized Version renders “Teach all nations” as “make disciples, or, Christians of all nations.” Before Christians were called Christians, they were called disciples (Acts 11:26).
“Christian discipline is a necessary part of sanctification. Basic to it is regeneration. It is the regenerate man who is best disciplined because he has the foundation, a new nature, which is in full harmony with the discipline required of him. The more he grows in terms of that discipline, the more useful he becomes to his Lord.”17 We must be careful lest Christian education take on Messianic pretensions. Godly discipline is rooted in a godly heart, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel. The life of godly discipline is the life of faith. But admonition, chastisement, structure, example, love and kindness, the sharing of food, work, and worship, all work together to effect useful discipline in a child’s life.
The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum
We come now to Rushdoony’s last book on education, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum. As the title suggests, Rushdoony is still more interested in philosophy than specifics, though he does make some important observations and suggestions about methods and content. Here are a few:
The Bible, of course, should inform all of our studies. But it will not do to pick it up as we go along. Nor may we read it as a mere curriculum manual or encyclopedia of general knowledge.
“[T]he Bible should be read and studied as the word of the living God, an infallible and inerrant word, because no other word is possible from the sovereign and omniscient God. It is this book that governs Christian education and the Christian School. The teacher must grow in terms of that book in order to teach it properly. If our understanding of the Bible does not grow continually, we are not competent to teach the Bible. Only those who feel its power and excitement can communicate it, and only those who know the God of Scripture can teach the truth about it.”18
Rushdoony, of course, insists that the study of law is a necessity. “We live in a world governed by law, and yet our modern curriculum still reflects the Greek curriculum’s disinterest in law. The Roman approach treated law as a product of the state, and the highest law was the health or welfare of the people. True law was thus relative to man, pragmatic, and hence subordinate to the state. Thus any reference to law, and obedience to law was a branch of political studies, of civics or of government, because the state was above the law … But, for the Christian, law is not under the state or a product of the state but an expression of God’s holiness and order. The state is subordinate to law and the meaning of law must be central. And a man is not truly educated in our modern world if he is ignorant of the nature and meaning of law.”19 Rushdoony’s own The Institutes of Biblical Law would be an excellent place to start learning.
Today, social science has largely replaced history in the curriculum. But history and social science rest on different presuppositions and have very different goals. History is the story of creation, sin, and redemption. It is God’s story and reflects His glory. Social science is the scientific study of society, of corporate man, without reference to God. Its purpose is control and re-creation. The dedicated social scientist wants “to pull [society] to bits and put something else in its place.”20
In the Christian curriculum history replaces social science, and the Bible is our basic textbook for studying history. The Bible gives us the true meaning, purpose, and direction of history—and a chronology as well, something the pagan world generally ignored.
Rushdoony’s three chapters on science are largely a critique of secular philosophy as it hides behind the facade called “modern science.” Positively, he suggests that we need a better understanding of how the natural sciences are related, historically and practically, and he points out their importance in man’s task of dominion.
It may seem odd that Rushdoony would include ecology in the Christian curriculum. We usually associate ecology with left-wing extremists. But man does exist in covenantal relationship with the earth that God has given him. Man is a steward of creation: he is to guard and improve it, but only in terms of God’s law. “Man cannot usurp the role of God in his relationship to the world, but neither can he treat himself as a creature of his environment, since he is created in God’s image.”21 Christian man needs a better understanding of his relationship in Christ to the world around him, his obligations toward it, and his authority over it.
Actually, Rushdoony’s most important contributions to the construction of a Christian curriculum are not in his books on education, but in his books on theology, philosophy, and history. I speak from experience. For more than twenty-five years I have used his Foundations of Social Order as the text for my systematics class—and with great success. The One and the Many and This Independent Republic have provided both content and recurring themes for my history and literature classes. The Institutes of Biblical Law has filled in many of my lectures in ethics and government. Even his shorter works regularly make significant contributions: my critique of Freud in World History comes largely from his monograph.
One of Rushdoony’s continuing themes in his discussion of curriculum is practicality or relevance. While the Christian faith provides a unity and stability to the curriculum, we must not abstract ourselves from historical change and development. “The sound curriculum will be the relevant curriculum, and relevancy requires two factors, a world of absolutes, and a world of change. It is not enough to hold to God’s absolutes: they must be continually and freshly related to the changing times.”22 At times, “Why do I need to learn this?” may actually be a very good question.
When I was in school, I wrote with a fountain pen and used interpolation to get data from logarithm tables. My students do neither. They use word processors and calculators. My students are learning how to maintain websites and stream video, but mostly on their own. We simply make use of their services. Technologies change, so do the demands of the market place.
But as Rushdoony reminds us: “Relevancy is more than subjects: it is also a faith which makes connections, establishes relationships, and grows by its ability to bring things into meaningful and useful relationships. This involves the personal element.” Love and understanding are basic to making education useful and relevant to all concerned.
I was educated in a school heavily influenced by Dr. Rushdoony. He spoke at my high school graduation as a favor to my headmaster. Today I teach at another school heavily influenced by Dr. Rushdoony. We’ve just begun an online program featuring my systematics class. My textbook is still Foundations of Social Order. Time will tell what sort of an impact we will have. Meanwhile, Rushdoony’s legacy continues and grows on many other fronts and among many who don’t even know his name. Only God knows the full extent of his legacy.
A few days ago I looked up and saw my goddaughter Talitha sitting in my class. As a junior high student she can take Latin I, something I’d forgotten. I felt old for a moment. You see, she’s third generation. Her father was one of my best students.
Dr. Rushdoony’s influence is already evident in this young woman’s life and thinking. So, what will the fourth generation look like? And the fifth? And the hundredth? And where will we be? Talitha would like to pilot the first starship; her father is working on the physics. I think Dr. Rushdoony would approve: optimism and dominion to the glory of God. Such is the fruit of godly education.
1. Email from Mark Rushdoony, 9/17/07. In a private interview (1997) with Wendy Farschman, Rushdoony said that his court appearances took place “in the late seventies and continued into the eighties for a few years.” Several Internet sources have the dates a decade too early.
4. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1961), xi.
5. Ibid., 114.
6. See Louis I. Bredvold, The Brave New World of the Enlightenment (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1961).
7. R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1976), 323.
8. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947), 72–80.
9. Greg Uttinger, Dominion: A Biblical Primer (2006).
10. Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1981), 32.
11. Rushdoony’s critique of the modern Sunday school should be understood in terms of this conflict. Too often, Sunday school instruction aims at inculcating goodness, rather than declaring grace. See Intellectual Schizophrenia, Appendix 2.
12. Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books), 46.
13. Ibid., 24.
14. Ibid., 152.
15. Ibid., 25.
16. Ibid., 121.
17. Ibid., 122.
18. Ibid., 47.
19. Ibid., 10.
20. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1945), 71. Lewis’ protagonist in this novel is a sociologist, howbeit a naive one.
21 Rushdoony, The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, 10.
22. Ibid., 14.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.