In 1840, Horace Mann, the first Secretary of Education in the State of New Hampshire (and anywhere else in the United States), wrote these words in an article for the third volume of the newly-founded Common School Journal, on his beloved and controversial Whig project, The Common School Movement:
Let the common school be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked to 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; all rational hopes respecting the future brightened.
He was referring, of course, to what would become today’s compulsory schooling system. His appeal was rooted in fear. Mann conveyed Whig anxiety over what the combined forces of Irish-Catholic immigration, British-styled industrialization, and the subsequent urbanization would do to their Republic. The uncertainty of this period of history had other factors, too: The election of Andrew Jackson, that dogged populist Democrat; the Western expansion option, that left the doors of law and order ajar.
These were times of change, with more to come on the horizon. The compulsory school was invented as a preventive measure to control and console. It was — and still is— defensive, born from fear. To this day, secular discussions of schooling are dripping with the language of business: risk management and looming economic apocalypse. Survival.
The State asserts a now unquestioned right to act as a parent, in loco parentis, in advance of any parental mistake, through schooling. This logic is one in which the parent is equipped with a safety net, to protect the child — but, most of all, to protect the State — and to ensure security in an uncertain and changing world.
The history of catechetics is not my academic specialty, but I find New Advent‘s précis of the matter both accessible and comprehensive. It is not controversial, however, to assert the Church’s clear teaching on the primary function of parents in the education of their children, which includes catechesis.
There is an odd and ideological interpretation of this teaching that needs to be addressed plainly from the outset: To say that parents are the primary educators of their children, it does not follow to claim that they are the sole educators. The Church has been blest with great teachers, none greater than the Rabbi himself, who were not parents of anyone in a biological way.
For this reason, American-styled libertarian homeschooling school-choiced conservatives, who sometimes fawn over this idea as supportive of their political project, are simply wrong about it. It’s a stretch.
After all, Augustine was most directly converted and taught by Ambrose, not Monica, and certainly not his father.
For Roman Catholics, there is a primary and positive role and obligation of the parents (and, by extension, the entire nuclear family), to be sure, but there is also room for the parish and the neighbor and more. Community. Subsidiarity need not be pitted against solidarity in the crude and stupid ways that the Left and Right have become accustomed to undoing.
The questions raised by deschooling, then, cannot be reductionistic, sending everyone home to their often unwitting parents, cloistered and calloused. We need not create a culture of parental distrust, but let’s not romanticize parenting either: most of us are not very good at it.
But here is the beautiful truth. Our dignity and integrity as fathers and mothers is not threatened by admitting what is obvious: our failures and fears and weaknesses, our projections and scars, left behind by our own imperfect parents, and others.
Regardless of the quality of the parent, despite the axiomatic deficiencies of any parent, no matter the moral upstandingness of Mommy or Daddy, the Church teaches us that the parent remains and retains a special place, with a primary role, in the education of their children.
Think about this. Even the orphan and the bastard are educated firstly by their parents — even in absentia.
We are born of a Divine womb, we call out, “Our Father…”
As parents, we share in that Divine role, not because we are good or evil, but because we simply are. Being a parent is, in this educational sense, sufficient.
Freud’s sexualized psychoanalysis was surely wrong about a great many things, but it was right about the fundamentality of the earliest and most primitive familial bond.
An education this foundational and radical, rooted in an ancient rabbinic tradition of teaching and the mystogogy of religious faith, cannot be transplanted willy-nilly into the more recent political paranoias of the modern nation-state.
Deschooling religious education cannot be an overreaction. We keep the baby and the bathwater; we only lose the ideological bucket and return to what is. In this sense, deschooling is ontological; it is first about being, not knowing, and certainly not learning.
To deschool religious education, then, is simply to decouple education from the political economy of the compulsory school, and be circumspect about the ways that schooling has seeped into religious education. Reclaim an education that is religious. That is all.
It is not an answer or a solution because that is not the point. Mann and his Whiggish reformers were motivated by fear. Reform is metaphysically corrupt. In this sense I am an unabashed conservative.
We cannot catechize out of fear. The Gospel is not a strategy or a plan. The Church is not a school.
Augustine, perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most prolific, catechist of the Early Church, ended his earthly vocation in the twilight of Christendom in North Africa. To this day, that region of Christianity has been lost, in spite of all attempts to recover it.
When Fr. Conrad Harkins, OFM, my sophomore honors professor and a medieval historian, told me that, I was shocked to even consider it.
“The Gospel failed?,” I asked.
“I don’t know, Sam,” he replied, “We do not measure the Good News — it measures us and we live by it, in grace and love.”
This is the final of three posts on the subject of deschooling religious education; read the first two here and here. If you want to read more, you may be interested in my short book, A Primer for Philosophy and Education.