Keep Divisive Forces Out of the Schools
“It cannot be doubted that in the United States the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic; and such must always be the case, I believe, where the instruction which enlightens the understanding is not separated from the moral education which amends the heart.” - Alexis de Tocqueville
“The public school is the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny. In no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools . . .” – Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter
These two statements by themselves make a compelling case for churches to provide an explicitly Christian education for God’s people. Tocqueville is essentially saying that a certain type of education is necessary to the well-being of a nation like ours. An education that mostly passes on information and technocratic skill will fail to create a people who are capable of governing themselves toward the ends of “establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Not to mention glorifying God. Moral education cannot be properly separated from education in general, because all human life is suffused with moral reality. We are moral and spiritual beings by nature, and are therefore lamed when our education is reduced to the acquisition of facts and technological competence, as it so often must be in public schools, lest we offend.
Which points up Justice Frankfurter’s statement. I do not know whether he is correct in saying that “the public school is the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,” but if not, he is close to the truth. On any reckoning, Christians should take his words with great seriousness and reflection, for he at least has a grasp of the central importance of education to our individual and national destiny. Any education worthy of the name is indeed trying to promote a “common destiny,” but the essential question is: Which one? We must ask ourselves: Is the common destiny which our public schools are seeking to realize the kind of destiny we desire for our Christian children and the nation in which they live? Or are we going to have to continue seeking in our homes to inculcate in our children a different destiny than the one that is promulgated at school? In other words, will our children be taught in public schools, explicitly and implicitly, that their Christian faith is somehow “divisive” and best left out of education and genuine social life? Will they be learning that thinking well has nothing to do with faith in Jesus, and that perhaps is antithetical to such faith? And then will we, as Christian parents, have to continuously contradict this at home, leaving the impression perhaps that Christian faith is a kind of “add on” to real learning, something privatized and extra-curricular? Leaving in our children the question of why their families and churches send them to a place that must be so often contradicted at home and at church?
Indeed, why does Justice Frankfurter seek to keep “divisive forces” like Christianity out of public schools? Because, as he says, the public schools must be kept “as a symbol of our secular unity.” Got that. This is our “common destiny.” Secularism is what binds us together. The public school “requires strict confinement of the State to instruction other than religious, leaving to the individual’s church and home indoctrination in the faith of his choice.” Thus, according to Justice Frankfurter, what we Christians are doing at home is “indoctrination,” a word with entirely negative connotations, and what the schools are doing is “instruction,” a good thing. The Justice’s words blow away the fog of ambiguity that so often clouds our judgments about the public school project, about what the government schools are really after. Can things be sorted out “at home?” I’ve no doubt they can be, in many instances. But that is not the question. The question is: What is education for? Tocqueville, Frankfurter and the public schools have given their answer. What is ours?