Education and the Much Needed Debate

The debate

“We urgently need a public debate about the purposes of education,” so says David Green, the director of the Think Tank Civitas, in his book Individualists Who Co-operate. His main concern is the role of the government in education. That is because, “the primary responsibility for education,” he says, “should lie with parents.” The government on behalf of the whole society is to “provide a reliable helping hand when necessary.” But, he argues, sadly the government is now going further than it should. A similar debate over who has primary responsibility for the education of children - parents or the State - has been going on in America. Richard Baer, in his paper American Public Education and the Myth of Value Neutrality writes: “Americans have traditionally assumed that this responsibility should be placed on parents. Public schools have been understood to function in loco parentis, but recent trends suggest that the State is expanding its power over children at an increasing rate.”

Of course it is not being argued that the freedom of parents is seen as absolute. On the one hand, children need to be protected from parental neglect or abuse. On the other hand, the State has a legitimate interest in making sure its citizens become economically competent to function in the modern world. It does not want them to become wards of the State and dependent on public welfare payments and provisions. It also wants them to be sufficiently knowledgeable to become effective citizens in modern society. But all these objectives can be met by the State corporately setting minimum standards for instruction in the basics that all can agree on (obviously including reading, writing, and mathematics – something that cannot be taken for granted at the moment) and setting other agreed reasonable standards for schools. Where that is achieved parental choice should trump any central State dogmas so that tax-payers money should follow parental choice, as with British Free Schools (assuming there is no wrong discrimination in agreeing to Free Schools) or as with the Swedish system of school vouchers.

The urgency of the debate in England

In England the debate is now a matter of some urgency. The debate is significantly more than the current presenting problem for Christians of marital and so sexual morals. But with the English and Scottish Governments proposing to redefine marriage, unavoidably discussion regarding parents and the State will touch on questions regarding what should be taught to the young about marriage, sex and the family. It was the 19th century John Stuart Mill (a man with a range of conflicting views but he was one inspirer of the 1960s permissiveness) who, in his Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St Andrews, 1867, said this: “It is a very imperfect education which trains the intelligence only, but not the will. No one can dispense with an education directed expressly to the moral as well as to the intellectual part of our being.” He went on to say that “we must keep in view the inevitable limitations of what schools and universities can do. It is beyond their power to educate morally … It is the home, the family, which give us the moral … education we really receive; and this is completed … by society, and the opinions and feelings with which we are there surrounded.”

In England, the UK as a whole and the West generally things spiritually and morally came to a head for education (and much else) in 1989 with the end of the Cold War. A vacuum was then created regarding our common social vision. We had not realized how much we had been relying on the spiritual capital from centuries of the Christian faith. Until that point for many the defence of democratic capitalism against totalitarian socialism had provided a sufficient national purpose. Certainly a common foe created sufficient national unity; and where necessary, inherited Christian spiritual capital could still be drawn on. That happened the previous year with the 1988 Education Reform Act, which required (and still requires) in maintained schools a daily act of worship “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character;” and religious education was (and still is) to “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practice of the other principle religions represented in Great Britain.” However, since 1989 in place of a Christianly informed public and educational philosophy we now have in England too frequently publicly endorsed secular humanism together with public denigration of overt Christian faith and morals.

Of course cracks in the democratic West had already been widened by the 1960s erosion of the public Christian consensus. Contributing to this erosion were the radical student movements in Europe and the US. Interestingly, the students involved were the product (in the UK) of the 1944 Education Act. This was when the government took full charge of education in a quite new way; but it seemed reasonable because it was to ensure education for all.

Previously from Anglo Saxon times and the great school at Jarrow, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, to the beginnings of a universal school system in the 19th century, schools in our islands had been Church or voluntarily initiated and controlled. Some government help came in 1833 and there was significantly more State involvement in 1870. But in 1944 it was almost total with an Education Act that was the result of a remarkable level of agreement in the UK. For what was proposed was still Christian education. Indeed, many saw the 1944 Act as strengthening the historic Christian educational tradition. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was one of its “architects”. In his 1942 book Christianity and the Social Order he had already argued that to avoid the evils of Hitler and Nazism currently being experienced “we must take steps to secure that the corporate life of the school is Christian.” So what has gone wrong since those days?

The Crisis of Western Education

The Crisis of Western Education is the title of a book by Christopher Dawson. It is now seen as something of a prophetic book. Originally published in 1961, it was republished as being still relevant in 1989 for the centenary of Dawson’s birth. In it he had argued that universal education, as it was evolving in the West, was itself a serious problem. In fact it was not only coinciding with the secularisation of modern culture; it was very largely responsible for it. Dawson genuinely feared a universal education that “involves the creation of an immense machinery of organization and control which must go on growing in power and influence until it covers the whole field of culture and embraces every form of educational institution from the nursery school to the university.” But in the UK there was supposed to be, as promised in 1944, a partnership between Church and State over education. However, this had turned out (even by 1961) to be an unequal partnership. “This is not merely due to the disproportion in wealth and power of a religious minority as compared with the modern State. Even more important is the all-pervading influence of the secular standards and values which affects the whole educational system and makes the idea of an integrated religious culture seem antiquated and absurd to the politicians and publicists and the technical experts who are the makers of public opinion.”

There will always be some secular standards and values advocated by “dissidents” opposed to a Christian consensus. If they can secure a place in the educational empire, they have huge influence disproportionately to their numbers. This is because of the new “immense machinery of organization and control”. John Dewey, a US humanist philosopher and educationalist, was one such “dissident” in the first half of the 20th century and with his influence lasting throughout the century. He basically followed the French atheistic Enlightenment tradition of a “general will” where everyone helps define a society’s values. So “democracy” becomes for Dewey a primary value but not as a form of government; it is rather more as a religion and spiritual community. Education is then subordinated to servicing this democracy rather than to communicating knowledge. Dawson high-lights Dewey because his educational influence has been world-wide. Many have absorbed his views through politically correct policies of whose origin they were unaware. For example, seeing universal education as a basic instrument for “democratically” creating a “common mind” or “general will” (whether it does or not) requires “inclusivity” without qualification as another supreme value in education.


Because Dewey’s secular humanism is “religious”, it is obviously not neutral. A lack of neutrality in schools, however, can mean intolerance towards Christian parents when they act on their God-given duty - a duty under the Anglican Book of Common Prayer - to ensure that their children are “brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name”. That duty, of course, is an echo of Ephesians 6.4 where Fathers are told, “do not exasperate your children, instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” But fulfilling that duty is getting more and more difficult, when their children have to spend thousands of hours between the ages of four and eighteen in an increasingly humanistic, and sometimes contra-Christian, teaching environment. Over the same years, however, they only spend hundreds of hours in a church youth teaching environment.

All this is why there must be a new national debate on the relationship of education to parents, to the State and to the Churches and then some (peaceful) action.

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