Bad Influences in the Public Schools—Dabney’s Third Letter on the Virginia State School System

This is the third of a four-part series on R.L. Dabney's letters to Dr. W.H. Ruffner in opposition to the public school system in Virginia. Here are the articles on Dabney's first letter and second letter. The full letters can be found in Dabney's Discussions


In his third letter to Dr. W.H. Ruffner on the Virginia state school system (dated April 25, 1876), R.L. Dabney attacks the public school system on the basis that it will bring bad influence on good children. He says, “If a system of universal common schools is to be carried out in good faith, there must be a mixture of the children of the decent and the children of the vile in the same society during the most plastic age” (p. 254). This will then corrupt the decent children.

The Influence of Other Students

Students have great influence on one another, to which teachers can attest. As Dabney says,

Every experienced teacher knows that pupils educate each other more than he educates them. The thousand nameless influences—literary, social, moral—not only of the play-ground but of the school room, the whispered conversation, the clandestine note, the sly grimace, the sly pinch, the good or bad recitation, mould the plastic character of children far more than the most faithful teacher’s hand (p. 255).

Dabney of course thinks Christians should seek to have a good influence on the unbelievers around them, but it ought to be when they are mature. Children are not ready for such a task. As he says, “While we fully recognize the Christian duty of seeking the degraded and of drawing them up to purer associations, we beg leave to demur against employing our innocent and inexperienced children as the missionaries” (pp. 256-257).

Children should be protected from bad influences, but unfortunately, no teacher can protect children from all the bad influences of other students. Dabney argues, “It is claimed that it is the teacher’s part to prevent those ‘evil communications’ which corrupt good manners. We reply that it is impossible” (p. 257). So who then should protect the children? It should be the parents, and they do this by choosing where to school their children. However, this freedom is diminished in a compulsory state school system.

Objections Anticipated

Dabney anticipates the objection that parents can still choose a private school in a state compulsory school system:

It is said that if a fastidious parent does not like the social atmosphere of the common school [public schools] he may pay for a more select private one. But he is taxed compulsorily to support this school which parental duty forbids him to use; so that the system in this case amounts to an iniquitous penalty upon him for his faithfulness to his conscience. What clearer instance of persecution could arise? (p. 257).

Yes, parents still have the freedom to choose a private school. But they are paying double tuition, as they are taxed to pay for something they do not use or support (public school) along with private school tuition. 

Dabney anticipates another objection—“Have children’s morals never been corrupted in private schools?” (p. 257). Dabney responds that they certainly have, but this “proves that parental vigilance as to the moral atmosphere of the children’s comrades needs to be greatly increased; while this system insists upon extinguishing all such conscientious watchfulness” (p. 257). In other words, the fact that even private schools face the influence problem makes compulsory public schools all the more dangerous. The state system removes parental discernment in choosing which schools the children should attend, forcing many parents to expose their children to the bad influences of the public schools. And for that reason, we should oppose a compulsory state system. 

 Robert L. Dabney, “Another Dabney Bolt for Dr. Ruffner’s Benefit” in Discussions, Volume 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), pp. 254-261.