The State as Educator
The term neutral comes from the Latin ‘neuter,’ meaning ‘neither one nor the other,’ with an original application to gender (a neutered man is a eunuch). It has since come to mean an unbiased position, or an unwillingness to take sides. However, I would argue that an allegedly ‘neutral’ position concerning education necessarily entails important beliefs about reality that are anything but religiously non-committed. For the Christian, reality cannot be ‘neither one thing nor another’ if it is created by God, and thus, an ostensibly ‘neutral’ or unbiased education is an illusion.
The Purpose of Education
At the heart of the question of educational philosophy is, naturally, the purpose of education. Since all education has a purpose in view, it is obvious that education cannot be neutral – it cannot be to no purpose (neither one thing nor another). So what is it? From the Greco-Roman world to the present Western context, a liberal education has ostensibly meant education for freedom. The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘liberty’ are both derived from the Latin liber (free). But what makes a person free and what is the ground of their freedom? The philosophical progressivism of Horace Mann and John Dewey, which has shaped the whole course of public education in the West through the last century, has held that true freedom is liberation from the past, from authority or revealed truth, and ultimately from God himself. This utopian freedom, it was held, would be realised by a universal system of state-sponsored schools, nurturing loyalty to the state and realising ‘free expression’ for the individual, eventually ushering in a golden age. Here the locus of freedom is the state, not God.
The Nature of Freedom
If the goal of education is liberty, then liberty must be defined, and clearly it cannot mean license. If all people are free to do as they please then no one is truly free, because freedom requires law by which our mutual freedoms are defined and circumscribed. If I am free to steal, then other people are not free to possess their goods in peace. However, law cannot be ultimately identified with any institution because it is a universal aspect of the human condition, of our existence in God’s created order, and of the revealed will of God. When a human institution like the state seeks to reduce law to an aspect of itself, it steadily destroys true liberty - which is grounded in an appeal to a higher authority than any human order - and instead creates a new tyranny. Laws then become the pragmatic instrument by which the bureaucracy enforces policy and protects itself, not the interests of justice and truth for all people. Education ceases to be the art of freedom in terms of God’s purpose and law, and is redefined by a divinized bureaucracy through its social scientists and planners. State control then means little more than people-control as the new purpose of education – freedom is what the state says it is.
Education as Cultural Conditioning
The massive emphasis on state education over the last century (despite declining standards and the growing illiteracy it has produced)[i] is an aspect of the Enlightenment belief that the human mind is a clean slate to be written on, rather than an aspect of a fallen creation in rebellion against God. The human person is thus malleable and transformable in terms of a controlling environment. That environment, the modern state insists, must be the state school to facilitate the realization of a future manufactured in terms of humanistic man’s ordained purpose – creating loyal subjects for the state and its vision of the great society. God’s purpose, his law and the gospel are not a matter of concern and the faith is that the state’s diffusion of knowledge will banish ignorance and crime once its education is enforced. Here the human problem is not sin and the remedy salvation in Christ; rather, the problem is the environment and the cure is state education.
The Educational Battleground
Education today is thus a battle for the minds of the young and a conflict regarding the shape of the future; it is a conflagration in which there can be no neutrality. The Old Testament tells of a particular siege in the northern kingdom of Israel, when Ben-hadad, King of Syria, surrounded the capital, Samaria. The King of Israel, Ahab, was hemmed inside the walls of the city, vastly outnumbered. As was common in cases of overwhelming odds, Ben-hadad offered the besieged Ahab terms of surrender; they were not palatable. He required that the gold and silver, and the wives and children of Ahab be delivered to him. These terms carried enormous significance. To surrender his wealth would leave Israel asset-stripped, with no ability for future resistance. To surrender his wives to be raped and placed in Ben-hadad’s harem would humiliate and shame Ahab and greatly undermine what was left of his power with the people. The biggest and most significant demand, however, was that his own children be handed over. His sons and daughters would be taken and re-educated in terms of an alien faith, religion, and morality. When they were returned to succeed to the throne of Israel, they would recognize and serve the foreign imperial power that had indoctrinated and raised them.
Christian Education under Siege
Compulsory state education today, with increasing restrictions, controls, and monitoring of private schools and home schools, is a practice that likewise enables state indoctrination of our children in terms of a foreign morality and faith.The compulsory age in Ontario is six through eighteen years, which borders on the ridiculous, given the normal aspirations to pursue skilled labor among many young adultsIn a time like our own, dare we pretend to ‘neutrality’ and hand our children over to the Ben-hadad’s of our age, to be alienated from us and God’s calling?
[i] According to The National, May 24th 2006, with reporter Dan Bjarnason, Scott Murray crunched numbers on illiteracy and administered two major international surveys at Statistics Canada. And what his numbers say is that Canada's situation is particularly shameful when you look at the two worst categories:
- Nearly 15% of Canadians can't understand simple medicine labels such as that found on an Aspirin bottle, a failing that could seriously limit the ability of a parent, for example, to determine the dangers for a child.
- An additional 27% can't figure out simple information like the warnings on a hazardous materials sheet, the kinds of warning that set out workplace dangers such as risks to the eyes and skin.
In total, 42% of Canadians are semi-illiterate. The proportion is even worse for those in middle age. And even when new immigrants and attendant language barriers are excluded, the numbers remains pretty much the same.