Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Romans 1:32. The Poisoned Apple—I. Psychic truancy

It is a commonplace that one man’s education is another man’s indoctrination. So, let us concede the point from the outset: education has always consisted partly in indoctrination. Without doctrines, that is, without beliefs about the value of reason, language, and culture, there can be no education. A child does not begin learning sums on the basis of his reasoned analysis of its future utility. A child learns sums because a school board has determined that it shall. And so it is with history, language, literature, and all the other disciplines.

All these subjects are undergirded with doctrines and dogmas, many as invisible as the dogma of school itself. We make schools and send children to them, with certain expectations that may or may not be met; but we never question whether there should be a school. (Though, there is a sense in which the very dogma of school as an institution is being challenged, today, and quite successfully. The home-schooling movement has, I am told, over 2 million participants, and it is growing. I am not certain whether this movement could be the basis of a challenge to the public schools, but it will be interesting to watch it as it unfolds. One of the most important components of the home-school movement is, of course, Evangelical Christians.) As another example of unquestioned dogma, while we may disagree on the specifics of right vs. wrong, and posit doubts about the exact nature of global rules about right and wrong, no one seriously suggests that there is no right or wrong, at least in a local and immediate way.

The critique of specific content of the contemporary school curriculum I will leave for others better suited to the task. The question, for instance, of the teaching of evolution versus creation is highly technical, and I am not certain that I even understand the issues in sufficient detail to discuss it. Excellent treatments of this subject are available elsewhere (for instance, in Phillip E. Johnson’s book, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: 2000). Practical issues involving teaching technique, such as, New Math and phonics, I also leave aside in this discussion. They are interesting and vital subjects, but the only way any specific subject from within the educational curriculum comes into this discussion is for it to touch the teaching of morals and worldview.

The educational rubric that has come to us from centuries past has been subject in recent years to an increasing revision, far beyond the response that one would suppose necessary to respond to a changing society and technology. This was made possible, in part, by a lawsuit, Murray v. Curlett, eventually decided by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1963, that banned public prayer from public schools. This relatively insignificant decision was puffed up into an attack on expressions of religious conviction in every aspect of public school activity, where previously such religious expressions went unnoticed. Murray v. Curlett was transformed into a wedge, and all that follows is, in one way or another, a result of that wedge being driven into the foundations of the philosophy of education, with tragic consequences. Murray v. Curlett was not the only vehicle, but it was the best that the enemies of God had seen, and they took it.

My late father used to remark that education was the one thing that people were willing to pay for and not receive. It is a pity he did not live to see what we have now. For, today, not only do we pay for education and not receive it, but we have systematically reduced the schools’ capabilities for delivering education, while increasing our requirements of them more than ever. How clever of us to remove the organ and simultaneously demand the function!

Foremost among the organs removed is any acknowledgement of God’s authority over our physical world. Without God, the world and its organization can make no sense. It clearly exhibits a character, complexity, and intricacy, but it only suggests purpose. It does not elucidate intent or destiny. Only God can do that, and so it is not surprising if many students are puzzled as they encounter the marvels of the natural and intellectual world. In the mind of the child, the question, Why, presupposes intent. Modern education teaches causes, not purposes.

So, the initial impression that the world makes on a child is diverted somewhat by the first years of school. By the time the process is complete, the child will have concluded that the natural world is ungoverned by anything higher than nature, except for the occasional human who intrudes his intentions, usually malign, into the steady-state ecosystem. Even if the child has had some outside religious education, it is unlikely that the two competing models of the world can make much of a connection with each other in the child’s mind, particularly given that the intellectual milieu in the schools specifically excludes God at all the places where He might be included. The schools do this intentionally, by mandate, under the watchful eye of the courts. In the schools, God is an absentee.

There is, of course, the teaching of religion. Religion can be taught provided that no proselytizing takes place. An objective study of religion as a social force and historical fact is permitted and even encouraged. Religion is also granted a slice of the public school mind at times of great stress or disaster. Religion is given a room, but it is a room apart. One wonders whether this is not worse than an outright ban on all religious subjects and content from schools. To give the impression that God is a subject alongside other subjects, and that God can be excluded from some subject areas the same way that math or spelling can, is to teach, like it or not, a sub-God, a house god, a deity with purely local or sectional powers. Even the old bearded man in the sky sending down thunderbolts at his pleasure is a better vision of God than this.

Now, I would not for a moment suggest that any of this has the slightest connection with the Way of Christ and communion with the Holy Spirit of God, the Christian life. The nation should teach the Gospel and is responsible for teaching it, according to Scripture, but I do not expect it will begin to do so any time soon. If the schools do not teach the Gospel, it hardly matters what they teach about God (in the sense that whatever they teach about God, without the Gospel, is a half-truth at best; we only know God truly through the Gospel)—except that certain teachings can poison the student’s mind to the truth of God long before he is of an age to reason. Not all those poisonous teachings are specifically religious, nor even all the most important ones.

The most significant teaching that reaches students concerning God is that the intellect, the natural world, history, society, art, law, and morality can all be understood without reference to God as a living being. God as an institution or a functionary, particularly when subordinated to man’s dominion in those areas, can be useful if comprehended in the correctly limited way, as it were. But the God of the Bible is an antiquated notion that has no necessary connection with actual events in contemporary life, save at those rare times of distress or tragedy when one reverts to a traditional notion of God.

This idea, and its many variations, is propagated every day in schools in numerous ways. I suppose that it is all right to teach arithmetic without mentioning God (though He is the God of Truth, and arithmetic is about truth and the difference between truth and lies), but history and law, for instance, are both wrapped up in considerations of God, more obviously with Christianity in the West, but truly with all histories. Removing God from those subjects rips the guts out of them. The message it sends to children is that our history developed through entirely explainable mechanisms and our civics derived entirely from rationalist sources. God, if He played any part in these things, did so as a mere superstition. Art also receives this treatment. For social or economic reasons, artists of the past relied on religious themes in artistic creation; more enlightened artists of our time have abandoned the God superstition as a motivating force in the creation of works of art, so children are implicitly instructed.

Children are not stupid. They see, probably far better than we are willing to admit, that grown-ups do not believe even the limited stuff about God that they teach to children. Otherwise, why would the subject of God be dropped the instant that anything one might be tested on comes up? After all, the stuff you are tested on is, by definition, the really important stuff. And that illustrates the power of this teaching—it is part of the child’s schoolwork.

It is no wonder that children, when they reach an age to reason, often reject God completely. The Sunday God, the chapel God, the God in one section of the library, the God you cannot discuss in biology class—these all confirm the unauthentic character of God that children begin to suspect as soon as Santa Claus has been unmasked. If they can simply ignore the few feeble parts of school that tolerate God talk of any kind, they can get through the entire experience without having to confront any of the difficult and dubious issues that a powerful, uncontrollable, real God might introduce.

The main program of the anti-God movement of today is realized quite effectively in public school curricula and policy. God cannot be taken seriously as a force to be reckoned with in any context but the specifically religious, and only in certain time periods. If that were where it ended, it might be tolerable. After all, I am nervous about teachers in public schools forming a Christian curriculum, just as I wince at the idea of public school principals deciding what is an appropriate public prayer. Moreover, as a potential target of evangelization with the Gospel of Christ in the future, the typical student might be better off as a tabula rasa than an indoctrinated half-Christian. Unfortunately, there is more.



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