Dabney on Public Education—"a non-Christian training is an anti-Christian training"


A couple years ago, I provided an outline of Robert Lewis Dabney’s great essay on education, “Secularized Education.” That essay is worth reading in full, which is why I included it in my book Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. This book includes four excellent essays by one of America’s greatest theologians.

I would like to provide some quotes from this essay, “Secularized Education,” to give you a taste of just how helpful this essay is for Christian parents. It also provides a devastating critique of the American public school system, attacking it at its inception in the mid-19th century.

Below Dabney comments on the very nature of education, showing it is a spiritual task:

True education is, in a sense, a spiritual process, the nurture of a soul. By spiritual, the divines mean the acts and states produced by the Holy Ghost, as distinguished from the merely ethical. The nurture of these is not human education, but sanctification. Yet education is the nurture of a spirit which is rational and moral, in which conscience is the regulative and imperative faculty; whose proper end, even in this world, is moral. But God is the only Lord of the conscience; this soul is his miniature likeness; his will is the source of obligation to it; likeness to him is its perfection, and religion is the science of the soul’s relations to God. Let these statements be placed together, and the theological and educational processes appear so cognate that they cannot be separated. Hence it is that the common sense of mankind has ever invoked the guidance of the minister of religion for the education of youth; in India the Brahmin, in Turkey the Imam, in Jewry the Rabbi, and in Christian lands the pastor . . .

It is the Christian ideas which are most stimulating and ennobling to the soul. He who must needs omit them from his teaching is robbed of the right arm of his strength. Where shall he get such a definition of virtue as is presented in the revealed character of God? Where so ennobling a picture of benevolence as that presented in Christ’s sacrifice for his enemies? Can the conception of the inter-stellar spaces so expand the mind as the thought of an infinite God, an eternal existence, and an everlasting destiny?

Every line of true knowledge must find its completeness in its convergency to God, even as every beam of daylight leads the eye to the sun. If religion be excluded from our study, every process of thought will be arrested before it reaches its proper goal. The structure of thought must remain a truncated cone, with its proper apex lacking.

If education is a spiritual task, then it is highly problematic that the government is educating children. Dabney says:

This is the conclusive argument. The rejoinder is attempted; that Christians hold this theology as church members, and not as citizens; and that we have ourselves urged that the State is not an evangelical agent, and its proper business is not to convert souls from original sin. True, but neither has it a right to become an anti-evangelical agency, and resist the work of the spiritual commonwealth. While the State does not authorize the theological beliefs of the Christian citizens, neither has it a right to war against them. While we have no right to ask the State to propagate our theology, we have a right to demand that it shall not oppose it. But to educate souls thus is to oppose it, because a non-Christian training is an anti-Christian training. It may be urged again, that this result, if evil, will not be lessened by the State’s ceasing to teach at all, for then the training of youth will be, so far as she is concerned, equally non-Christian. The answer is, that it is one thing to tolerate a wrong as done by a party over whom we have not lawful control, but wholly another to perpetrate that wrong ourselves. For the State thus to do what she ought to condemn in the godless parent, though she be not authorized to interfere would be the sin of “framing mischief by a law,” the very trait of that “throne of iniquity” with which the Lord cannot have fellowship.

The entire essay of “Secularized Education” can be found in my book, Dabney On Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. In addition to my introductory chapter to Dabney’s life and thought, this includes four of the man’s greatest essays on these relevant topics.