Dabney’s First Letter on the Virginia State School System

This is the first 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 second letter and third letter. The full letters can be found in Dabney's Discussions


R.L. Dabney, the great 19th century Southern Presbyterian minister and professor, was a strong advocate of Christian education. Dabney wrote an article in the Southern Planter in opposition to the public schools that were being advocated in Virginia in his day. Dabney’s article was then attacked by Dr. W.H. Ruffner, another Presbyterian who was also the first superintendent of Virginia’s public schools.

The Problem of Compulsion

Dr. Ruffner obviously advocated state education in Virginia and thus criticized Dabney. Dabney then fired back with four letters that can be found in his Discussions. His first letter, titled, “The State Free School System Imposed Upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution,” was written on April 18, 1876. Dabney comes out swinging in this letter:

Your “free schools,” like not a few of the other pretensions of Radicalism, are in fact exactly the opposite to the name falsely assumed. The great bulk of those who pay the money for them do it, not “freely,” but by compulsion. They are virtually thrust down our throats by the bayonet. And the exemplars you most boast and imitate not only make the payment compulsory, but the attendance also, as your consistency will doubtless cause you to do in Virginia also in a few years. The only freedom of your system is your freedom to compel other people’s money (239).

Dabney is asserting that the state schools advocated by Dr. Ruffner require compulsory taxation and would soon require compulsory attendance of students. Dabney, of course, would be correct in his prediction. Next Dabney attacks the idea that the children belong to the state.

It is the teaching of the Bible and of sound political ethics that the education of children belongs to the sphere of the family and is the duty of the parents. The theory that the children of the Commonwealth are the charge of the Commonwealth is a pagan one, derived from heathen Sparta and Plato’s heathen republic . . . The dispensation of Divine Providence determines the social grade and the culture of children on their reaching adult age by the diligence and faithfulness of their parents, just as the pecuniary condition of children at that epoch is determined . . . Now, by what apology does the State justify itself in stepping in to revolutionize that order? (241)

Children do not belong to the state but to parents. So how does the state justify its interference in the family? The state wants to prevent ignorance. But as Dabney says, “The morality of the citizens is far more essential to the welfare of the State; and the only effectual basis for morals is the Christian religion. Therefore the State would be yet more bound to take order that all youth be taught Christianity” (241).

The Prediction of the Welfare State

Dabney then proceeds to argue that if the state will provide education for all, consistency requires the state also provide welfare programs. Dabney sounds all too prophetic in this regard:

Physical destitution of the citizens is as dangerous to the State as ignorance; therefore the State would be entitled to interfere for her own protection and repair that calamitous condition of destitution which their own and their parents’ vices and laziness have entailed on a part of the people, by confiscating, for their relief, the honestly-earned property of the virtuous and thrifty and their children . . . The friends of this principle will in due time become consistent, and claim at least the last inference, along with the first (241-241).

In other words, if the state justifies compulsory state education because it is for the good of society, the state will also justify redistributive welfare programs because they also are for the good of society. This prediction has proved to be accurate. Dabney said that teaching Christianity to all youth could also be justified under this same principle. However, Dabney said, “They are not likely to adopt” this “because the culture and ethics of the ‘common school’ will leave them, after a time, too corrupt and atheistic to recognize the value of morality or its source—the Christian religion” (242).

Public Schools and Crime

Dabney counters an argument in favor of public education—“They say: ‘It costs less money to build school-houses than jails.’ But what if it turns out that the State’s expenditure in school-house is one of the things which necessitates the expenditure in jails?” (242). Dabney cites numerous examples of education increasing the level of crime and corruption in a society, including the higher crime rates in the North as compared to the South in his day.

Dabney’s basic argument here is that education cannot be forced upon people. Education is a moral process that requires hard work. If all parents had the “intelligence, the virtue, the aspiration” to educate their own children, then “it would be superfluous for the Government to interfere.” So the state is left educating children from bad families—“Parents who remain too poor and callous to educate their own children are so because they are ignorant, indolent, unaspiring, and vicious.” Though Dabney believes there are exceptions, in general, “The parents are the real architects of their children’s destiny, and the State cannot help it” (244).

This explains the trouble with public schools in inner cities today. The schools can do little to overcome the problems of the homes from which the children come. As Dabney says, “The home education is so much more potential than that of the school, that the little modicum of training which a ‘common-school’ system can give to the average masses is utterly trivial and impotent as a means of reversing the child’s tendency. That which costs nothing is never valued” 244).

Dabney does care for the minds and hearts of the destitute. But he offers a different solution than public school:

The work must be done by laying hold of the sentiments, hearts, and consciences of parents and children together—not through their grammatical and arithmetical faculties. The agents for this blessed work are the neighbor and the church. Christian charity and zeal, with the potent social influences descending from superiors to inferiors, in a society which is practically a kindly and liberal aristocracy; these may break the reign of ignorance and unaspiring apathy. The State cannot; the work is above its sphere (245-246).

In other words, the state cannot do what the church and the gospel do. To that we say, Amen.