The gubernatorial candidates at this week’s televised forum on public education answered, for the most part, the questions that were asked of them. But the questions themselves, particularly the big one not asked, were very educational.
The questions dealt with the usual topics: supporting teachers in the classroom and teacher pay, education spending, testing, school safety (the Kentucky school shooting was earlier that day), and other like questions, which, in my view, were intended to gauge how much the candidates loved and supported public education.
None of those are bad topics for discussion, and knowing a candidate’s views on those topics is worth knowing, but the one question not asked was this: “What is the purpose of an education” or, alternatively, “What makes one an educated person?”
You have to know what the goal of an education is to know if the answers to the other questions even make sense. You have to know where you are going to know how to get there and to know whether you’ve arrived.
In that regard, the observation of Christian theologian Abraham Kuyper comes to my mind. In the political platform he put together in 1879 and which led to his eventual election as Prime Minister of the Netherlands, he wrote, “The real motive in the interest behind [public education] is not just to educate the people, but to educate them in a specific direction.”
How true. We might say that an education without a direction is pointless.
The direction of the formal education I was given was pointed toward being able to support myself as an adult through a suitable means of employment. And, in that sense, my education was good and successful. I have been able to support my family financially. But, as a Christian, I have come to see that this is a compartmentalized way of thinking about education.
There is probably no Christian parent who does not want to see his or her children support themselves financially as adults. But our goal should be more than that.
God told His people that they were to love Him with all their heart, soul, and mind, and Jesus reaffirmed it as the “greatest commandment.” To do that, however, means that this should also be the direction in which the Christian parents want the education of their children to go.
And it is here that a great conflict with public education, as it exists today, arises. I do not say this meanly, but we have to recognize that public schools will provide a worldview education to the children they serve—a basic sense of direction for navigating their way through the world—and, today, that education, whether explicitly or implicitly, will exclude the religious principle. When I was a child in public schools, there was still a general Christian ethic, so the conflict was not as apparent as it is today.
We find examples of this conflict almost every week, even in Tennessee. For example, just this week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened Bradley County schools with legal action because a student led a public prayer before a sporting event. Last week, advocates of the “transgender” agenda went apoplectic over a proposed bill that simply protected public schools from exorbitant legal bills if the ACLU sues them for not allowing a biological boy to use a junior high girls’ locker room.
But, some might say, this is moderated in our public schools by the presence of Bible clubs and other forms of campus ministries. They do, and that is good. I was part of one of those ministries in high school.
But, to be honest, the way in which these organizations are allowed into our public schools sends a worldview message itself—Christian things are separate and apart from the regular academic day and from the understanding of history, social studies, science, and family life we’re taught in the classroom. This structure reflects the compartmentalized thinking that public education requires.
This is not to say that any candidate should call for the present and soon abolition of public education, nor is it to say that public school Christian ministries are bad or should not be supported. But, given the direction of public education, it is to say that Christians need to begin having some principled discussions about how to make educational opportunities more available and affordable to those families among us who want to live out the first and greatest commandment and to educate their children in that direction.
But they best not wait for the public education reformers to lead in that discussion. They’ve yet to ask the first, most important question there is about education. Then again, perhaps by not asking that question, they’ve told us they are okay with the current direction of public education.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.