The idea of the modern public school movement emerged in the nineteenth century. It was the era of progress, and optimism filled the air. As religion and revelation receded in the thinking of the movers and shakers, human reason took its place. Education became a significant cog in the machine that was designed to drive society into the brighter future. And the State was at the wheel.
We have questioned whether education is really a state responsibility. But rightly or wrongly, the state assumed that responsibility. Two very different responses appeared, as is seen in the following quotes:
Among those in favour, Horace Mann is a good example. He was known as the “Father of the Common School Movement”, pioneering universal public education in Massachusetts with a model that most other states would adopt. He wrote, in 1841: “The common [public] school is the greatest discovery ever made by man. Other social organizations are curative and remedial; this is a preventative and an antidote; they come to heal diseases and wounds; this is to make the physical and moral frame invulnerable to them. Let the common school be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged; men would walk more safely by day; every pillow would be more inviolable by night; property, life and character held by a stronger tenure, and rational hopes respecting the future brightened. (Quoted by Robert Thoburn: The Children Trap – Biblical Principles for Education, p.32.)
On the other side of the issue stood A.A.Hodge. He wrote in 1887,
I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen. (Quoted by R.J.Rushdoony: The Philosophy of Christian Education, p.95)
Interestingly, they both agreed on one thing: public education was not really about learning to read and write! And they both understood public education as part of the naturalistic machine which, borrowed from the disciplines of natural science, was the 19th century paradigm for social science (“let it be worked with efficiency” / “enginery”). But they differed on whether it was good or bad for the state to take the wheel of this efficient engine. As, with hindsight, we now review their futuristic predictions, who was right?