The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 8, 2022

It’s Thursday, September 8th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Big Question Now More Urgent: How Long Will Christians Let Their Children Stay in Public Schools?

We’re told now that America’s school children are on average between one and two years behind where they should be academically and in terms of educational progress, and that’s blamed on the school shutdowns in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple avenues of research and authorities underlying the reality that a significant setback has occurred, and then there’s a lot of conflict and controversy about how this might be overcome.

That’s going to be a very interesting conversation to follow, but there’s something else we need to observe and that is the fact that many parents are now looking back to the behavior of the schools in many cases during the pandemic, government authority, school boards, and in many cases, school teacher unions where you had opposition to reopening the schools. There’s no question that it is largely children who have paid the price for the decisions that were made then. But it’s also clear, and you have to dig a little bit deeper than the headlines to see this underlined. It’s also true that the effect on students is disproportionate and that’s actually predictable. It’s predictable that where parents remained very much engaged with their children in the educational process, they did better, where parents were unable or unwilling to be actively engaged with their children in making academic progress during the shutdown of the schools while those children got particularly behind.

Again, that is entirely predictable and it just gets down to the fact that family structure matters. It matters hugely, and in so many ways Christians understand this, it matters much more than the structure of the schools, but school structure does matter. The context of schooling, the understanding, the worldview of that schooling and that takes us to a very big issue in the United States and we come to it again, and that is the future of the public schools because one of the other facts coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the retreat from the public schools has just intensified. An awful lot of the families that have been sending their children to public schools have made different decisions on the other side of the pandemic.

Now, still, still right now, the vast majority of America’s school-aged children are attending classes in the public schools, and the numbers can be as high as nine out of 10. But the fact that you could talk about, say, nine out of 10 means that you’re talking about at least one out of 10 of those school-aged children being educated outside the public schools. Just a matter of a few decades ago that would’ve been unimaginable in the United States of America. As you’re looking at the trend lines, the trend lines become increasingly clear.

Again, COVID just accelerated that trend line and its progression, but at this point, I want to acknowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of teachers involved in the public schools and multiple thousands of those teachers, thanks be to God, are believing Christians. And you’re also looking at the fact there are many believing faithful Christians in school administration, county by county, system by system. And you’re looking at the fact that millions upon millions of American Christian families are still sending their children into the public schools.

But for decades now, I’ve been warning as clearly as I can that the time is coming when that idea is going to be implausible, when the public schools are going to be so hostile to Christian conviction and are going to be so given over to Progressivist ideologies and the Secularist agenda, it’s going to be extremely difficult for any Christians to continue working in the schools, even serving in the administration of the schools or sending their children to these schools.

Now, I’m not saying that all school systems, public school systems, in all locations are at the same point in this line of regression. I’m not saying that. Where there is greater local control and the local school board holds to far more traditional, educational values, not to mention morality, well, you still have a bit more time perhaps, but school district by school district, the time ran out and has run out and is running out and school by school and system by system, the issues are becoming more stark and more clear.

But there’s a background here that I just want Christians to think about a bit, and there’s a history here that’s actually very revealing because as you think about the public schools as we know them today, in many cases, they actually bear little resemblance to the public schools of say just two or three generations back. Now, one of the interesting signs of this is actually an opinion piece that ran over the weekend at the New York Times by Anya Kamenetz. She’s the author of the book, The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives and Where We Go Now.

But the interesting thing about her article is that she offers a history of the public school movement in the United States, argues that the public schools should be the great common experience of school-aged children in the United States. And she basically warns against any compromise of the public school principal. You ask, Well, what is that principal? Well, she actually starts out in a very interesting place. Kamenetz writes, “For the majority of human history, most people didn’t go to school.” She then says, “Formal education was a privilege for the Alexander The Greats of the world who could hire Aristotles as private tutors.”

But then she goes on, and she’s right about this, “Starting in the mid-19th century, the United States began to establish truly universal compulsory education. It was a social compact. The state provides public schools that are free and open to all and children for most of their childhood are required to receive an education.” She goes on to say, again, this is accurate, “Today, nine out of 10 do so in public schools.”

Now, that’s an interesting little historical survey and it’s not wrong. It leaves a lot out, but of course, she’s just written a few sentences there. Going back to say, classical antiquity when only the wealthiest could actually afford an education and that came by private tutors. And you’re also looking at the fact she skips over the rise of, say, European models for educating children. Most of those were explicitly for educating boys throughout most of those centuries, and most of them were under the direct control of the church.

The idea of the public schools as we know it in the United States goes back to the idea that the nation required a bonding common educational content, that it required children who were raised in the knowledge and in the consciousness of the new nation in the 19th century and we’re ready by education to take their place on the front lines of world leadership. And that was over against the fact that similar movements towards universal education were taking place in nations such as Germany and in England. The United States understood that to be a great power along the lines of Germany and England, the United States also needed a system of public schools, but there was a huge problem.

First of all, we’re not Germany and we’re not England. The thing that marks England more even than Germany is the fact it’s a relatively small island nation, and you could talk about a system of schools the way you really couldn’t talk about a system of schools in the first half of the 19th century. You couldn’t even have something like fast communication in America, which was then experiencing growth along an expanding frontier.

Furthermore, the conception of public education, say, in a place like Georgia might be very different than in a place like Massachusetts. There will be commonalities, but there would be remarkable differences. In this case, you had the rise of the public schools, but it was explicitly under the control of local school boards. Eventually, the organization of the public schools was expanded, say, to county systems, but most importantly to come under state control. The states were recognized for a matter of long decades in American history as the primary legal entity responsible for the oversight of school systems in their own state.

But again, it was the local school boards that had primary control and primary responsibility, and the local control of the schools became a cherished American principal until it wasn’t. Truth be known, there are many people in communities today who actually assume that their schools, the public schools, are under some kind of local control. In some cases, there’s a good deal of local control. But increasingly, this is just the way government works, the larger circles, concentric circles of government authority and government control and government supervision means that eventually there are mandates that are driven down. You could say from the county, you could say from the state, and then eventually from the federal government.

In the last half of the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter basically caved to pressure from teachers unions, and of course, electoral success for the Democratic Party has long depended upon keeping the teacher unions happy. He went ahead and asked for legislation, which he got establishing a Federal Department of Education. It was previously in what was known as HEW, the Department of Health Education and Welfare. But by the end of the Carter administration, there was a Department of Education.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that Ronald Reagan running for the presidency in 1980 pledged to eliminate the Department of Education if he were elected. Well, he was elected and the Department of Education long survived him. That’s just the way government works. The administrative state almost never suffers a casualty.

But something else we need to note is that the public schools were never neutral when it came to ideology. For one thing, there was a common ideology assuming that a new national identity for the United States needed to be inculcated in the young people in the children of the land. There were certain democratic rituals, there were certain kinds of patriotic patterns that took place in the schools as a part of helping those children to grow into American citizens with an understanding of what it meant to be an American.

In the last half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, there was something else, and that was a huge influx of immigrants, particularly from Europe and often from Eastern Europe. They would come in and some of them would speak Italian, some of them would speak German, an awful lot of them in the American Northeast came from Irish backgrounds. The question for the nation at that point was, how do we assimilate all these children into one nation? And that’s where we run into some very interesting and troubling developments.

Part II

How Long Before Your School Defies Creation With New Pronoun Rules? Big Developments as the Sexual Revolution Comes to a School Near You

Two men loom large in this consideration. The first of them was Horace Mann. Horace Mann had the idea of building a system of common schools in the United States to create a common culture. These would be what we now call the public schools. It was then referred to as a common school system. Horace Mann was an educational innovator. He had grand ideas about how America’s children could be forged into a new nation by the public schools, educated to be a great productive workforce, and educated for life in the new nation and for leadership.

Horace Mann was also a liberal Protestant holding to an understanding that a certain kind of civil religion should be inculcated in and through the schools, a certain kind of American, basically religious but not too religious patriotism. But the net effect of Horace Man was the direction of the secularization of American public education because if you are going to be trying to assimilate all these children coming from different families, some of them Catholic, some of them Protestants, some of them Lutheran, some of them this or the other, well, the idea is you need them to understand to themselves first and foremost as Americans. The morality they would hold, the understanding of civic identity they should hold should be common, not religiously distinctive.

And so that inevitably meant a minimization of theology and of Christian or religious authority. The public schools, whether intended or not, actually became engines of a certain kind of secularization. But the first wave of that secularization wasn’t one that acknowledged any kind of secularism. It was rather just a minimalization, a reduction of all theological issues, identities, denominational and Christian backgrounds into one great amalgam known as the public.

The second man who plays such a huge role in this is John Dewey, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. John Dewey was a secularist. He was one of the signers of what became known as the Humanist Manifesto. And John Dewey known as a philosopher, as a pragmatist that is who denied any knowledge of objective truth and just said that truth is basically, as his colleague William James said, “Whatever happens to an idea.” John Dewey had a far more ambitious idea of using the schools basically to secularize the nation.

Now, that wasn’t a message that was sent out to all local school boards as if that was to be their goal. It just turned out that there were other ways of bringing about that change. One of them was the emergence of teaching as a profession. You say, well, of course teaching should be recognized as a profession, but here’s the thing, people don’t recognize the fact that the professions actually take on a very new identity. They consider themselves to be self-regulating and self-defining, and in many cases, they simply replicate the same worldview or at least attempt to over and over again.

John Dewey was a leader in what became the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. He had a role in other major American universities. He had more influence directly on the training of teachers than any other single individual in the 20th century. Remember, he saw himself as something of an apostle for a secular worldview.

The interesting thing about the Kamenetz’s article in the New York Times is that she openly laments the loss of the Horace Mann vision. She says that Mann’s “inclusive vision is under particular threat right now. Expanded school closures during the Coronavirus pandemic effectively broke the social compact of universal compulsory schooling.” Now in her book, Kamenetz may go much further toward outlining this history and acknowledge the rise of the public schools, the private schools, the Christian schools, and eventually homeschooling. But what she’s doing here is just offering a lament of the Horace Mann vision that is now gone into eclipse. That’s the way she sees it.

She writes this, “Students left public schools at a record rate and are still leaving, particularly in the blue states and cities that kept schools closed longer.” Hint, hint, she goes on to say, “Scores on the national assessment of educational progress drop significantly this year. Nine year olds lost ground in math for the first time since the test came out in the 1970s and scores in reading fell by the largest margin in more than three decades. The drop in math was much worse for black students than for their white peers.”

She then goes on, and again, she’s lamenting this, “Homeschooling is on the rise. Private schools have gained students and an unknown number have dropped out all together.” She also says ominously, “Meanwhile, a well-funded decades old movement that wants to do away with public school as we know it is in ascendants.”

Well, the point I want to make is that school by school, system by system, family by family, parents are going to face some very difficult choices. And it’s true, the COVID-19 pandemic rather fast forwarded some of those choices in some areas. But the reality is that you just take issues such as the speech that’s going to be used in schools, the kind of worldview that’s going to be taught in schools, even the kind of, say, gestures and issues of politeness in the culture that are required in the public schools. They are indicators of a vast ideological chasm, a vast ideological conflict into which all the schools are now thrown.

Just take for example, the fact that you put boys and girls in school, does the school recognize them as boys and girls? Now, here’s something else we need to understand. If you’re going to have a public school system, someone is going to have to decide what will be the policy, what will be the curriculum, what will be the rules, how will the funding be structured in those schools? And inevitably, once you put this in a system where there is a Federal Department of Education, and once you get an administration as activists for LGBTQ issues and so many other liberal causes as we currently have in Washington, and you’re going to see some very, very interesting, indeed I think, frightening developments coming in the near future.

For one thing, what about the pronouns? What pronouns are and are not going to be used in schools? Now, here you have some counterexamples. You have the state of California on the one hand and say the state of Florida on the other. We’ve talked about that before because you just can’t look at a political, cultural, or for that matter, electoral map of the United States without recognizing, well, there you have two counterexamples, but you have to wonder how much difference there will be in the public schools, say, in Florida versus California for long.

For one thing, just look at the fact that so many moral causes particularly, say, connected to the LGBTQ revolution, go to court as fast as they can. If they don’t go to court, they go to the administrative state. When you’re talking about the Department of Education, and when you look at the current leadership in Washington, let’s face it, at every turn, the Biden administration has chosen where it can and even where I believe constitutionally it can’t to put the federal government behind the LGBTQ agenda using mechanisms such as Title IX when it comes to higher education and athletics. For that matter, just looking at things such as federal funding mandates given to the states.

How long will it be before our federal government under this kind of administration, if not, this administration says, look, if you’re going to continue to receive federal funding, and by the way, not one of the states would operate without it because for one thing, much of the tax money is now taken from the states, sent to Washington in order to be redistributed after a significant financial loss, back to the states. How long will it be before an administration, this one or another one, simply says, you will not receive those funds unless you use the pronouns that an individual student may dictate at any particular time for however long the student may prefer that pronoun. If you violate the pronoun rules, then say goodbye to federal funding.

How long would it be before teachers are hired or promoted, retained or not, depending upon how they cooperate with this kind of revolution in language, not to mention a denial of biology? How long is it going to take until the teaching profession says, you simply can’t really be considered a good teacher unless you are an enthusiastic sponsor of and supporter of the entire LGBTQ revolution.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Christian teachers have found themselves in trouble. By the way, in this case, you don’t even have to be a Christian believing in Genesis one. All you have to do is say, believe in conventional biology as was taught in the public schools until, oh, I don’t know, yesterday. We’ve seen several cases in the United States, mixed result there thus far, but notice it won’t stay mixed. And you’re also looking now at news coming from Ireland that one teacher there has been jailed because he was fired for refusing to use a preferred pronoun that didn’t match the biology. He said he didn’t resign, so he kept coming to work. So they basically put him in jail for something like trespassing.

Part III

The Public School Idea in America: How Did it Happen? Who Was Driving It?

Here, of course, there may be more than is reported in this story, but there’s not less, which is to say there may be other issues related to this story, but the fact is just about everyone recognizes already that the pronoun collision is here and the pronoun collision is not something that affects only language. This gets down to absolute representation. We are deciding who we believe people are by how we refer to them and what pronouns we use.

Now, this is going to be a difficulty for every single person in modern society. Make no mistake, it’s going to be difficult whether you’re in an airport or just ordering at a table in a restaurant. It’s going to be increasingly complicated, but where you have children being taught, hearts being formed, minds being shaped, understand the Progressivists have always seen the public schools as where they have their greatest opportunity.

By the way, the fallback as one professor at Northwestern University said several years ago, the fallback is if we fail to get them in the public schools, they bring them to us in their minivans in the first day of college orientation. It’s interesting that Anya Kamenetz understands exactly what’s happening. She said, “This country has seemingly never had a harder time embracing a shared reality or believing in common values.” Well, whose fault is that? It’s not Conservatives who change the game. It’s Progressive as who change the game.

Conservatives actually face little hope of marching into the halls of academia, say, in the Ivy League, and demanding that professors and administrators there use only pronouns that correspond biological reality. But the fact is, it’s the opposite that is being now force fed to the American people by every means available. The Hollywood is a part, the culture at large, the corporations are now a part and make no mistake, political coercion is coming.

Kamenetz then writes, “The parents who are showing up at school boards yelling about critical race theory and pronouns are trying to get public schools to bend history, reality, and values to their liking.” Now, let me just note something. Opposing all those things doesn’t require Conservatives to bend anything to reality. It basically refers overwhelmingly to reality.

But then notice this next paragraph. This is absolutely crucial for parents to hear: “It would be far worse if these parents went home and created their own schools because their children would then grow up with one set of unchallenged beliefs while my children and the children of like-minded people would grow up with another, emerging as adults who have no hope of understanding one another, much less living together peacefully.”

Now, what I want to underline there is that you could look at that and say, well, that’s an interesting argument. Maybe that’s a common sense argument, until you understand that the schools are going to go one way or the other. Make no mistake, as you read this essay and as you look at this argument, what she really means is the Progressivists control the schools and eventually shape the children and Conservatives learn to just live with it and go home and be quiet.

Unless you wonder if that’s really the agenda here, let me just go backwards in this article and read you from this paragraph: “In the eyes of Conservative activists, public education is the enemy of the people, alongside the deep state and the mainstream media, and they are working hard to make the American people believe it too.” She then continues, “Mann’s,” that means Horace Mann’s, “vision of the public schools is at stake right now. Not only his vision of school as the great equalizer, the place where disadvantaged groups gain access to social and economic capital, which is important enough.” But also she writes, “His view of the school as the place where Americans can give up ignorance in exchange for freedom.”

Now, just to understand how she set up that sentence, and that will be our closing thought. Understand clearly what she believes is ignorance as contrasted with what she believes is freedom. And then you understand what she means in the context of this article when she refers to the vision of the common school as “the place where Americans can give up ignorance and exchange for freedom.” Now, there’s a lot loaded into that argument, but at least in the background of all of that we have to understand is the frontline crushing inevitable issue that the question as to overcoming ignorance includes overcoming the fundamental belief that, say, male and female are fixed identities and not interchangeable.

But I’ll simply end with this. You know we are in a moment of cultural crisis When say the knowledge of male and female, boy and girl, man and woman is now considered an ignorance that must be overcome in the name of freedom. Institution by institution, the radicals are increasingly in control and where they’re not in control, they’re trying to gain control. If you want to know what they would do when they’re in control, just consider this kind of argument. It’s not like they’re hiding it. They’re publishing it in the New York Times.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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