They’re Coming for your Children

Beware!  The State is coming for your children.

That is the reminder recently from some conservative Christian commentators.

As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, the struggle for control over children between parents and the state has a long and bitter history.

The cover of Sam Blumenfeld's 1981 Is Public Education Necessary depicted a teen being forcibly abducted from his home by agents of the State.  His crime?  Learning outside of government schools.

The cover of Sam Blumenfeld’s 1981 Is Public Education Necessary depicted a teen being forcibly abducted from his home by agents of the State. His crime? Learning outside of government schools.

Recent warnings have come from Elizabeth Mitchell of Answers in Genesis and Roger Kiska of the evangelical Alliance Defending Freedom.

The lesson from Germany is stark, both insist.  In that country, homeschooling parents have had their children taken away by the government.

Mitchell tells the story of the Wunderlich family.  By German law, the four children of this homeschooling family were arrested for violating a school-truancy law.  Mitchell warns that such threats are not limited to Germany.  “Those of us,” she insists,

who maintain that the Word of the Creator of the universe can be trusted from the very first verse work to provide answers to equip children and adults to understand science as well as the suffering in the world in the light of God’s Word. At the same time, we as Bible-believing Christians must not take for granted our freedom to speak the truth. . . .  we need to remain vigilant to guard against encroachments that chisel away at the freedoms we have in our own country.

Writing for the Alliance Defending Freedom, Kiska similarly warns, “today, the suppression of parental rights to teach and influence their own children isn’t restricted to overtly fascist regimes.”  In Sweden and Germany, “a land once shrouded under the Nazi flag,” homeschooling families have been attacked by government forces.  Such threats are not limited to Europe, Kiska insists.  He asks,

So, could Europe’s degree of intolerance and crackdown on homeschooling reach American shores anytime soon? It all depends on how vigilant we are in opposing decisions like the one in New Hampshire—and it’s precisely why ADF is fighting to protect parental rights in that case and abroad so that a very nasty cancer is not allowed to grow.

For outsiders like me, this anti-state rhetoric can seem strangely hyperbolic, even a “paranoid style.”  But dismissing these fears as mere social neurosis misses the point.  For many Americans of a conservative bent, the dangers of government aggression are of primary concern.  So, for instance, when pundits such as Allison Benedikt make an aggressive case for public education, many conservative writers express alarm.

This is more than just a paranoid style.  This is a thorough-going distrust of government power.  This distrust lies at the heart of conservative thinking in the United States.  Many conservatives still relish the pithy expression of this central idea by Ronald Reagan.  As Reagan put it, the most terrifying words in the English language are these: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

For some conservatives, that government “help” might include the forcible abduction of children.  Folks like me might scoff at the extreme paranoia of such ideas, but we will be wise to understand that such warnings resonate with large numbers of Americans.


Private Schools Are Only for Bad People

Send your kids to your local public school.  Even if the school sucks.  Even if it won’t teach your child anything but how to get drunk.  Even if you have better options.

That is the provocative manifesto offered recently by Slate editor Allison Benedikt.

If you follow the latest, you’ve probably seen it by now.  Since I can’t keep up, I didn’t hear about it until this morning, and then only from the heated reaction it sparked among conservative commentators such as Ross Douthat, Erick Erickson, and Rod Dreher.

Benedikt’s diatribe was meant to poke the conservative bear.  She opens with the bear-poking line, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”

Her argument, in a nutshell, is this: only if all parents send their kids to their local public schools will those schools improve.  If you send your kid to a private school, you are hurting everyone for the sake of your own perceived benefit.  Ipso facto, you are a bad person.

She proudly proclaims that she went to crappy schools and turned out okay.  She didn’t learn anything about history, literature, science, or math, but she did get drunk behind the bleachers with kids from different social backgrounds.

In fact, she promises that your children will do fine in bad public schools, if you are the sort of person who cares enough to pull your kids out of public schools.

Predictably, conservatives couldn’t resist such low-hanging ideological fruit.

Rod Dreher proclaimed, “This is one of those things that only a left-wing ideologue can possibly believe.”

Ross Douthat tweeted, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Erick Erickson twisted the knife, declaring that Benedikt only holds this outlandish position because her husband told her to.

But Benedikt’s position, minus the blogosphere-riling rhetoric, is nothing new or strange.  Indeed, for anyone who has studied the history of American education, even at a public school, Benedikt’s call for full enrollment in public education sounds traditional, even boring.

It was Horace Mann, after all, in the years before the Civil War, who midwived our system of public education.  In those years, our notions of “public” and “private” had not yet taken hold.  Parents or sponsors paid out of pocket for most formal education.  Those schools that required no tuition were commonly known as “charity” schools, fit only for the lowest class.

Mann realized that tax-funded education could only work if it received the endorsement, and the children, of the emerging affluent business classes.  This is why he made a powerful two-pronged appeal.  First, Mann argued that tax funds must be used to pay for tuition-free education, an education available to all.  Second, he argued that everyone should send their children to these schools.  These would not be “charity” schools, Mann argued.  They would not be “church” schools, or “dame” schools.  In today’s lingo, he would have insisted that these would not be “government” schools.  Rather, the name Mann promoted was the name Benedikt and other commentators would use for generations, even centuries: Public Schools.

Benedikt’s essay is intentionally provocative.  But its central idea is as old as American public education itself.  Our public schools can only function if they have the full-throated support of the public.  That support, as Mann argued and as Benedikt repeats, will come most easily if everyone sends their children.