When Americans suddenly had to keep their children home from school last year, they got a crash course on what the schools were teaching. Efforts to keep parents from observing their children’s now-online classes notwithstanding, the cat was out of the bag. Suddenly, decades-long progressive efforts were exposed to impose a worldview drastically different from what most parents expect from schools.
The two most headline-preoccupying topics are Critical Race Theory and sex education, both of which are less academic approaches than outright abuses of young intellects. The former seeks to teach children that our society is fundamentally and irredeemably racist; the latter aims to pervert them, using materials, including images, that could not be reproduced in a newspaper or here due to their pornographic content. But even in less attention-grabbing ways, American education has become the engine of elite ideologues rather than the support of parental duty.
The irony is that most of these parents themselves endured what Antonio Gramsci called “the long march through the institutions” of Marxist ideology. (I know that my education partook in this march, and I’m a grandmother.) You would think they would remember what they themselves had been subjected to—have some sense of what they had been deprived of. Perhaps we’d be forgiven for concluding that this sort of education isn’t very effective, or at least doesn’t leave much impression on memory. But that conclusion is cold comfort, because children deserve more. They deserve—and have a right to—a good education in fundamental skills and ideas, not a bad one that instills doubt and contentiousness.
Somehow, the more people become aware that something is desperately wrong with education in our country, the bolder the government becomes in its efforts to incorporate ever more systematized versions of subversive curricula. The truly dangerous aspect of the attempt is its pervasiveness. Although progressives in the federal government, backed by teachers’ unions, have long tried to universalize their agendas, the COVID time, with its aspect of political “reset”—re-imposition of leftist ideas—has provided the momentum necessary for full imposition.
President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, the largest expansion of the safety-net social engineering efforts to date—to the tune of $1.75 trillion—has passed in the House of Representatives. It includes funds for pre-K through college, and the content will be more of what parents have been introduced to during the shutdown—and still not educate children in what parents really want, which is the ability to reason.
The ability to use logic and reason is grounded on a preparation different from what our society, with its technological and utilitarian approach, can encompass. In his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis reminds us of how the ancient philosophers viewed the formation of the child:
Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. . . . Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. . . . “All this [remarks Plato in the Republic] before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”
The ancient Greek philosophers did not have the opportunity to appreciate God’s revelation, but we know the truth that he created the family to be the complementary covenant between a man and a woman. The child is born into and nurtured by their union, and his education begins as a natural outgrowth of that origin. As he develops, his parents naturally guide him in just the way Lewis describes, to like and dislike what he ought, to recoil from ugliness and disorder and to be drawn by beauty and goodness. Since the family comes from God, it follows that the principle of the family as first educators of their children comes from God as well.
The home is the place for this early education to occur. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this point clearly:
Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. . . . The home is the natural environment for initiating a human being into solidarity and communal responsibilities. Parents should teach children to avoid the compromising and degrading influences which threaten human societies (2223-2224).
Schools are institutions that ought to assist parents as the educational needs of the children require more specialization, but they are subordinate to the family. (As the Catechism points out, “The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.”) Certainly, no one can maintain that children belong to the state and only secondarily to their family. The family “has priority of nature and therefore of rights over civil society,” as Pius XI taught in his encyclical on Christian education (12). A nation is misguided and even guilty of despotism if it tries to replace the family or to tamper with its role.
Sometimes parents feel inadequate when they consider the enormousness of the responsibility of educating children in the fullest sense of the word, but they should instead have great confidence. In his encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI says:
The blessing of offspring . . . is not completed by the mere begetting of them, but something else must be added, namely the proper education of the offspring. For the most wise God would have failed to make sufficient provision for children that had been born, and so for the whole human race, if he had not given to those to whom he had entrusted the power and right to beget them, the power also and the right to educate them (16).
Some reference broken families and two-income households to prop up government incursion into early childhood. It’s just that statist approach that brought us to this sorry state in the first place. For just those reasons, we must identify abandonment of the family as causing the trouble we’re in. We ought to remove obstacles to marriage, including tax burdens and ever-increasing incentives for dependency on the bureaucratic welfare state.
Most importantly, regardless of what the state does, parents must have the conviction that their role as primary educators of their children is worth any cost. In his encyclical to the German bishops, Mit Brennender Sorge, just before the start of World War II, Pope Pius XI said:
Parents who are earnest and conscious of their educative duties, have a primary right to the education of the children God has given them in the spirit of their faith, and according to its prescriptions. Laws and measures which in school questions fail to respect this freedom of the parents go against natural law, and are immoral. The Church, whose mission it is to preserve and explain the natural law, as it is divine in its origin, cannot but declare that the recent enrollment into schools organized without a semblance of freedom, is the result of unjust pressure, and is a violation of every common right (31).
The model and plan for childhood given by God cannot be improved upon, and our current experiment to the contrary is proving disastrous. The child, learning about the world around him in the heart of “the first society,” with its bonds of affection and sanctifying grace bestowed by marriage, has the best curriculum to achieve his purpose in this life and to be with God in heaven. As Pius XI said, “nothing discloses to us the supernatural beauty and excellence of the work of Christian education better than the sublime expression of love of our Blessed Lord, identifying himself with children, ‘Whosoever shall receive one such child as this in my name, receiveth me.’”