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J. Gresham Machen on the Unique Nature of Education

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MachenTestifying in 1926 before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Education, the great Reformed theologian, J. Gresham Machen, had this to say while addressing his opinion about the role of the federal government in education:

I think that when it comes to the training of human beings, you have to be a great deal more careful than you do in other spheres about preservation of the right of individual liberty and the principle of individual responsibility; and I think we ought to be plain about this — that unless we preserve the principles of liberty in this department there is no use in trying to preserve them anywhere else. If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else as well.

Amen! Oh, and the bureaucrats know all this, which is why they guard the public schools with venom and jealousy.



Written by Michael Duenes

May 30, 2013 at 7:18 pm

The Nature of Education Means Education Is Spiritually Unique

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Touchstone coverEducation is not like other things in life. If the politicos of Podunk, U.S.A. decide to put up a Nativity display this Christmas, they will of course be promoting something decidedly Christian. Yet the local chapter of the Atheists Association, despite its protestations, is not much harmed by it. Teaching the Scriptures in the local public school, however, is another matter, and a moments reflection shows why. It also shows why the atheist group will likely get more hot and bothered by the public school problem than by a ceramic Jesus on the steps of City Hall. They realize that education is unique among human endeavors. Would that more Christians realized it.

One Christian who clearly does is Ken Myers, one of the most perceptive and insightful commentators on culture generally, and the founder and host of Mars Hill Audio. In the current issue of Touchstone magazine, Myers discusses a book called Poetic Knowledge, which “refers not to a knowledge of poetry but rather to ‘a poetic (a sensory-emotional) experience of reality.'” Importantly, he prefaces his remarks by noting that “the work of education is at root the transmission of culture – of a body of knowledge and a way of situating ourselves in the world so as to seek understanding and live well.” Though Myers does not say so (no doubt he believes so), this “living well” presupposes a standard of what constitutes better or worse ways of living. Myers adds that “[o]ur schools thus transmit the cultural values of individualism, progress, and relativism,” yet I’m not so sure about the relativism part when it comes to actual practice. Sure, secular schools officially decree that they inculcate no standards about which ways of living are better or worse, but in practice, this cannot be true, for some kinds of cultural values for living and acting – for “being” in the world – will be transmitted, as Myers observes. This is the nature of education.

Myers is certainly right about the “individualism and progress” aspects of education when he says that “we tend to think of schools as places where individuals acquire dispositions and skills to live out their idiosyncratic dreams and remake the world to satisfy their desires.” Indeed, we teach them to become little technocrats who can then bend the natural, political and social world to their wishes. Little Michael Bloombergs. Education in the government schools has largely instrumental value, namely, helping one “get a good job,” which itself becomes mostly a means to the radically individualistic end of “being happy.” All of which needs to generally conform to the pragmatic, politically-correct, statist-leaning ideals of the modern world as well. This was reinforced by a “Frontline” episode I watched recently called Dropout Nation. The show followed four troubled teenagers through their lives at an inner-city Houston high school. There were many notable aspects to how the school teachers and administrators handled these students, but an overweening emphasis came across that these kids simply must finish high school and go to college or their lives were going to be ruined. So these administrators were standing on their heads for the students – trying to play the part of parent, counselor, psychologist and social worker – all because the students “gotta go to college.” Yet what does this tell the students about the nature of education? About themselves as human beings?

Myers quotes James K.A. Smith, who says that “[b]ehind every constellation of educational practices is a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons – about the kinds of creatures we are.” To which Myers adds: “Pedagogical models also convey a set of assumptions about the nature of the cosmos – about the kind of world we inhabit and about the ultimate origins of its order. How we teach, how we approach the conveying of knowledge, is shaped by assumptions about the nature of human knowing and the shape and source of human well-being.” This is phenomenal stuff, and articulates the reality of what education is and does better than I ever could. But it should at least give the lie to any notion that the “education” of human beings can be a kind of neutral conveyance of facts and ideas, simply to be spit out upon standardized tests. I suspect that those who rule the roost of public education know this better than their Christian counterparts. All education operates from some understanding of what is true, what is good, what is just, what is beautiful, what leads to human flourishing, and therefore, proceeds accordingly. This is true across all subjects, not just the humanities.

What is so great about Myers’ argument is that it takes the uniqueness of education down to the very level of pedagogy, that is, to the methods of teaching themselves. These also are not neutral. Sitting kids in classrooms, in rows, where they are largely indoors for 6-7 hours a day, having them interact more with computers than with the natural world around them, and generally giving them 50 minutes of this and 50 minutes of that each day (at least after elementary school) says something about how we conceive of human beings, human aspirations, and the purpose of human knowledge. It is not enough for Christian educators to parrot most of what the secular schools are doing, and simply “teach it from a Christian perspective.” For the “perspective” is often as much in the pedagogy as in the facts being taught. There’s a worldview being conveyed in the methodologies.

Yet I wonder how many “educators” are seriously willing to re-think the whole educational enterprise from the ground up. Perhaps there are more of them than I think. I hope so. It is one of the needs of the hour. Christians, of all people, ought to be the ones doing such re-thinking. We have wisdom from God and the illuminating power of His Spirit. We also have the history of education, most of which in the western world was conducted by Christians. Moreover, we believe that the education of our children has an eternal purpose, of which “getting a good job” is only one feature, and likely not the most important one. I hope there will be more who see the cause of Christ and the glory of God as the central, indispensible components of education. Not of Christian education. Of education.


Written by Michael Duenes

May 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Memorial Day: Bravery That Deserves to Be Remembered

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FDNYI was watching PBS’s “American Experience” series on New York, and the final episode is devoted entirely to the life of the two World Trade towers, from their conception to their destruction. Of course I had known that many firefighters died on 9/11, but I did not know how many. Of the approximately 2,800 people killed in the attack, some 340 or so of them were NYFD. One of the commentators in the documentary articulated something I could not, but about which I have thought many times since 9/11, namely, that all of those people hanging out of the burning windows in the towers could see civilization below them, but could not get to it. And he wondered what that must have been like for them. It is a haunting thought, to think of oneself in that situation, likely realizing that you will never again see anything of what you are looking at in the world below, all that you have held dear. I cannot help but think that many of those firefighters, as they entered the towers, knew they were not coming out again, and yet they went in anyway.

Speaking of 9/11, let me again make a plug for the film, United 93. The film was criticized for re-opening the wounds of the victims, and perhaps, for making Muslims look bad. No one in my family was a victim of 9/11, so I cannot speak to that, though I would not fault someone for skipping the movie if that’s the case for him or her. As for the film portraying Muslims in a bad light, it does no such thing. It is entirely dispassionate in its dramatization of what happened on that flight, and therein lies its power. It memorializes the bravery of the men and women on that plane who came to realize what was going on, and who took action, well knowing they too were most likely going to die that day. One wonders again what goes through the minds of men and women who exercise such selfless bravery.

killedatnewtownWe do well to remember the bravery of the six teachers killed in the Newtown massacre. Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto. President Obama rightly said of them that their bravery “captures our belief in something bigger than ourselves – our willingness to accept certain obligations to one another and to embrace the idea that we’re all in this together.” In the hum-drum of our ordinary days, one rarely imagines that she will be called upon to give her life for someone else, and when a murderer is upon you with a gun, your reaction is simply what is in you, in your character, at that moment. Rachel D’Avino was only 29 and well on her way toward earning a PhD. Dawn Hochsprung apparently saved the lives of other teachers while she confronted the murderer. She had children and grandchildren. Anne Marie Murphy, 52, was apparently found dead covering students. She had four children of her own. Lauren Rousseau was 30 and trying desperately to become a full-time teacher. She was substituting for a teacher on the day of the shootings. Apparently Mary Sherlach, along with principal Hochsprung, moved toward the killer, rather than away. Victoria Soto, 27, apparently hid students in an attempt to save them.

Of course, we have all been reminded of ordinary bravery in the aftermath of the recent tornado in Oklahoma. I remember the story of one teacher at an elementary school in the tornado’s path who apparently piled mattresses on top of students and then got on top of them in an attempt to protect them from the storm. Fortunately they all survived. There were countless such acts along the path of devastation.

skutnikFinally, my mind goes to the 1982 crash of Air Florida, flight 90, into the icy Potomac River. I was in middle school when it happened. The Washington Post tells the story: “As a blinding snowstorm gripped the region, Air Florida Flight 90 clipped the 14th Street bridge on takeoff and plunged into the river, killing 74 passengers and four people on the bridge. Amid the chaos and sadness, several acts of bravery stood out: a helicopter pilot who plucked survivors from the freezing river; a medic who climbed out to grab a victim too weak to help herself; two bystanders who could no longer bear to watch helplessly from the sidelines. One of the injured passengers, later identified as Arland Williams Jr. of Atlanta, drowned after passing the lifeline repeatedly to others. They saved five people.” One man’s bravery, Lenny Skutnik, is worth recounting. (See video)


Written by Michael Duenes

May 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Follow the Wall of Separation to It’s Logical Conclusion

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laycockRegarding the establishment of “secular agnosticism,” the Supreme Court has said that “the State may not establish a ‘religion of secularism’ in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus ‘preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.’”[1] Professor Douglas Laycock argues that the Establishment Clause should uphold “the principle of most nearly perfect neutrality toward religion and among religions.”[2] That is, the government should attempt to “neither encourage[] nor discourage[] religious belief or practice.”[3] Yet Laycock also holds that “[f]or the issues that are most controversial, nonpreferential aid is plainly impossible. No prayer is neutral among all faiths, even if one makes the mistake of excluding atheists and agnostics from consideration.”[4] Moreover, for Laycock, “[g]overnment-sponsored religious symbols or ceremonies, whether in schools, legislatures, courthouses, or parks, are inherently preferential.”[5]

The problem with Laycock’s view is that he holds a hidden premise that he has not proven, and that I believe he cannot prove, namely, that there is such a thing as religious neutrality in the public square and in public education. The atheist or agnostic is certainly not religiously neutral, for he or she believes either that there is no God, or that if God exists, God is unknowable or incomprehensible. These are not non-religious views about which some court can remain “neutral.” If the government scrubs the public square clean of all religious symbols, will that constitute “religious neutrality?” The devout Muslim who walks down the street and sees that no government-sponsored religious symbols may be present anywhere will not conclude that her religion is being treated “neutrally” along with all other worldviews. She will rightly conclude that her worldview has been marginalized and privatized by the government in favor of an overweening secularism, which is itself a kind of religion, by the Supreme Court’s own admission.[6]

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the educational context. If, as Laycock rightly points out, our society is suffused with “Catholics and Jews, and significant populations of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Haitian voodooists . . . Sikhs and Rastafarians . . . Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Scientologists,”[7] how will officially agnostic, secular, government-sponsored public schools be religiously neutral toward all of them? The public school that teaches that sex is mainly a health issue and has little if anything to do with marriage is not promulgating a religiously neutral viewpoint to the Christian sitting in the classroom who takes the Bible’s view on sexual practices. The public school that, by law, must exclude all rival theories to Darwinian evolution as an explanation of how the universe and humankind within it arrived here[8] is not speaking in a religiously neutral way to the Muslim who believes that Allah created everything and upholds everything by His power. The public school history teacher who teaches that God is not active in history and intimates by silence that God has nothing to do with history’s ultimate course and destiny (if it even has a “destiny”), is not conveying a religiously neutral “truth” for the Hindu who believes in endless cycles of Karma or for the Christian who believes that God “made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”[9] As one columnist has concluded: “When school systems deal with issues of sexuality, religion, politics, or the family, there is always an overriding agenda – the agenda of whichever side has greater political clout. . . . and there is no way a government-run, one-curriculum-fits-all education system can satisfy all sides. The only way to end the political battles over schooling . . . is to separate school and state.”[10]

Thus, at least when it comes to education, I disagree with Laycock’s principle of governmental neutrality toward religion, for I argue that no such thing is possible, or even desirable. School is one of those “most controversial issues” where government aid of any sort will not be religiously neutral.[11] Hence, if advocates of the strict “wall of separation” between church and state view are serious about that view, then I believe they should follow its implications to their logical conclusion, particularly in the educational context, though there may be other relevant contexts.


[1] School District of Abington Tp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963).

[2] See Nonpreferential” Aid to Religion: A False Claim About Original Intent, 27 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 875, 922 (1985/1986).

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 920.

[5] Id.

[6] See Schempp, 374 U.S. at 225.

[7] “Nonpreferential Aid to Religion, at 919-20

[8] see Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 709 (M.D. Pa. 2005)

[9] Acts 17:26.

[10] Jeff Jacoby, A Call for Separation of School and State, The Boston Globe, Mar. 4, 2007,

[11] See Laycock, “Nonpreferential” Aid to Religion, at 920.

[12] See Id. at 915.

Jason Collins: Winsome, Public Testimony For Sexual Faithfulness to Christ

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This is one of the best examples I’ve heard by a Christian making a public testimony for God’s truth about sexual holiness and faithfulness. ESPN Senior Writer, Chris Broussard, was questioned on New York’s POWER 105: “The Breakfast Club” radio show about his take on Jason Collins’ “coming out,” and here is his response. It’s winsome, it’s gentle, it’s persuasive, and it’s true. Notice in particular that Broussard does not shy away from making biblical arguments from the text of Scripture. This is exactly right. The Bible is public truth, and it should be used in public arguments as we have opportunity. Take a listen.


Written by Michael Duenes

May 20, 2013 at 6:54 pm