In chapter 3 of The Case for CCE author Douglas Wilson catalogs and analyzes various attempts at reforming the current educational system under the chapter title “Healing the Wound Lightly.”
And I need to make an observation at the outset. Much of what Wilson has to say is offensive to many people. It is seen as the equivalent of walking up and poking a stick in someone’s eye. No civil person does that sort of thing. But consider for a moment the value of being told the truth.
If you and your son were going mountain climbing, and I told you your knots were all wrong and would surely unravel, imagine how you might respond. “How dare you criticize my knots? These knots are the same knots that have been used in our community for generations. They are approved by a panel of experts and funded by the official mountain climbing association. And furthermore, I am insulted that you would suggest that my knots are faulty. These are ‘our’ knots. How dare you!”
Is that a measured and rational response? What if you just went and took a close look at your ropes and knots and considered that maybe there really is a problem rather than finding insult at the suggestion that there might be danger? It seems to me that falling off a mountain is a great enough peril to justify humbling yourself and seeing if everything is safe.
It’s a bit of an inelegant comparison perhaps, but I think the point holds. Rather than being offended by the suggestion that a long and fatal fall might be coming, maybe Christians should consider the point being made. And that in turn might lead to repentance. That would require humility and desire for the truth. But if our faithfulness to the Lord God and the safety and well-being of our children are at stake, shouldn’t we just listen to the one telling us the knots won’t hold?
That said, Wilson is telling us that the various educational knots we have tied won’t hold us. And it’s a tall mountain we’re climbing.
Wilson points to two basic groups who want to reform the schools: those who would reform from within and from without. What both have in common is a fundamental commitment to some form of tax-supported school system. “As unquestioned assumptions go, this one ranks near the top.” He quotes Mortimer Adler again, who sees government-sponsored schools to be as essential as a government-sponsored police force. So the question is not whether there should be government-supported education but “how our ‘public schools’ should be managed.” Wilson obviously is challenging the very legitimacy of a government-sponsored educational system.
Reformers from within want to re-institute prayer in schools or eliminate textbooks or raise standards or make the schools safer. Christians can support any effort to make society safer, even the hallways of the local schools, but what about the way Christians, “as participants in this vast democracy . . . want to use their presence to influence events in a particular direction”? The problem here is that the Christian faith is not well-suited as “a condiment to be used to flavor the neutral substance of secular knowledge.” The Scriptures call us to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5), Christ tells us that whoever does not gather with Him scatters (Matt 12:30), and Christ called us to disciple the nations so that if we see anything out of line with His Word, we are to call it to obedience (Matt 28:18-20). In other words, “the Christian faith does very poorly as decorative material.”
Take prayer in school for instance. Let’s say we have prayer in school. To whom will it be offered? To the God of Abraham, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? But if prayer is being offered to some other god, then why are Christians pushing for it? In fact, “the ‘god’ being addressed in all such prayers is the generic god of American civil religion. Christians assume that this is not idolatrous prayer because the word god serves as a holding tank in which members of different faiths can put the content of their individual theologies.” But the god of American civil religion is a being “who has been defined in multiple court cases as non-triune — he is not the God of the Scriptures. Therefore, Christians have a moral responsibility not to offer incense on that altar and still less to try to get others to do so.”
Hmph. That knot won’t hold. I had better check my gear.
Reforms from without include experiments such as vouchers and charter schools; these are attempts “to use private sector pressure to make the government schools straighten and fly right.” Wilson criticizes these programs as movements toward fascism. Currently our educational system is socialistic — “the government owns and controls the means of educational production.” If this were done with a commodity such as steel, we would surely call it socialism. But fascism “as an economic system occurs when the government does not ‘own’ the means of production but to a large measure controls them. Private ownership is still allowed but in this case does not mean what it used to mean.” So vouchers and charter schools are the first steps toward fascism in education. And Wilson (and the Association of Classical and Christian Schools) encourages schools to have nothing to do with vouchers because “he who takes the king’s coin becomes the king’s man.”
Parents may view charter schools as “hybrids” that give benefits of both public and private schooling but “such avowed hybridization should arouse more than a few suspicions.” The only way to make the system work philosophically is to affirm the myth of neutrality, which is impossible for a consistent Christian.
The last issue that Wilson addresses is the matter of accreditation. There are reformers who are not interested in the money but want to maintain contact with the state because “they are insecure about their ability to produce an outstanding education on their own.” So schools do not detach completely from the current system because they fear they will be scorned “for their lack of educational expertise, certification, or accreditation.” Parents have a deep sense that accreditation ought to mean something. Yet they are interested in private schools because “they are thoroughly unhappy with the school they are leaving, which has been accredited for a hundred years.”
The point is that “excellence is not guaranteed by a piece of paper. Excellence in education is the result of vision, hard work, parental love, and a clear sense of mission. It does not depend on bureaucratic accreditation.”
The course for us is to be radical — in the sense of the Latin root radix, meaning “root” — we need to go to the root of the problem, not just heal the wound lightly.