In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, a Catholic Frenchman and a reputable historian, visited America in order to study its political, judicial and educational institutions. In the years to follow he wrote a book called, Democracy in America. What he found was that the early Americans took it for granted that a free society depends on an education system which was inspired and managed by local communities. They instinctively knew the dangers of a State-run school system and its effects on the nation. But as the nineteenth century came to a close, American education was beginning to become centralized, standardized and impersonalized by the State and Federal governments.
Parents, who are the principal educators of their children, began to delegate more and more of their God-given duties to the public and parochial schools. As we shall see, in 1929, Pope Pius XI sought to cast his prophetic light on this unhealthy trend. He reminded parents throughout the world that they were to oversee, as much as possible, their children’s education. His concern proved to be warranted. Today, it is completely foreign to most people that the child should be educated either by his own parents or by the local community. Perhaps the early Americans, as with Pope Pius XI a century later, were on to something. Their belief was that a locally-run education system is the most effective instrument in bringing about the welfare of the child as well as ensuring political prosperity.
Again, we return to Tocqueville's historic visit to America. During his eleven month journey through the States, he interviewed many high profile citizens. J.C. Spencer, of the New York legislature, was one of them. Tocqueville asked him how the public education system was organized (in 1831). Notice that Spencer’s answer highlights the need for people to be as close to the process of education as possible. He said this:
“It is generally admitted with us that the state should always help and never do the job itself. It is thought that the individual who give their money and who are on the spot, are by interest and situation in a position in a position to give to the application of the fund a watchful attention of which a great administration [i.e. the State or Federal government] would be incapable. Besides, we want as far as possible to create local interests…The people being really King, everyone feels the need of enlightening it.”
There certainly seemed to be a consensus at the time that although the State should help fund schools, it should not do the job of teaching. The early Americans believed that the key to a successful education system was that it should be, as much as possible, the responsibility of families from the township.
Joseph Tuckerman, an internationally known advocate for the poor from Massachusetts, told Tocqueville essentially the same thing: “For God’s sake, do not create in France a fund for the support of a school…We have observed that when the towns knew that the government paid all the funds for education, they became quite indifferent about their schools. Whereas, when they put their own money into it, they took great interest in seeing that it should be well employed.” That’s right! People become indifferent to their own children’s education when they do not directly pay for the service.
About a hundred years later, as mentioned already, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical in 1929 entitled, On Christian Education. In it he reiterates the long standing Catholic tradition on education. Throughout his encyclical, he emphatically denies that the State has absolute authority over education. Rather, he said, it belongs first and foremost to parents:
“Untenable is the reason they adduce, namely that man is born a citizen and hence belongs primarily to the State, not bearing in mind that before being a citizen man must exist; and existence does not come from the State, but from the parents, as Leo XIII wisely declared: ‘The children are something of the father, and as it were an extension of the person of the father; and, to be perfectly accurate, they enter into and become part of civil society, not directly by themselves, but through the family in which they were born.’”
Elsewhere in his encyclical he quotes Pope Leo XIII as saying, “(T)he father's power is of such a nature that it cannot be destroyed or absorbed by the State; for it has the same origin as human life itself."
Indeed, God’s design is consistent. It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. It also takes a man and a woman to raise and educate their children. The Catholic Church has always seen herself as being a partner with parents in education. However, when parents forfeit their duties to educate their own children, giving full responsibility even to the local Catholic school, then the Church becomes more like a surrogate mother which it was never intended to be. I question the prudential judgment of a Catholic school when it totally takes over the religious education of a son or daughter of churchless parents. This, no doubt, is inspired by compassionate motives on the part of the local parish. Nevertheless, the unintended consequence is that it enables the parents to remain uninvolved in the education and salvation of their own children.
Unfortunately, parents of the twenty-first century have been marginalized in their children’s education. However, parents, starting in the mid-twentieth century, were willing accomplices to their own irrelevance. The State merely took advantage of what became a widespread indifference among mothers and fathers. As Americans, we slowly bought into a system where everyone but the parents was raising their children.
Perhaps, Pope Pius XI, as early as 1929, saw this trend emerging. This may be, in fact, the reason why he stated the following: “It must be borne in mind also that the obligation of the family to bring up children, includes not only religious and moral education, but physical and civic education as well, principally in so far as it touches upon religion and morality.”
You might be surprised to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court, just four years prior to Pius XI encyclical, made a strong case against the supremacy of the State with regard to education. To bolster his argument, Pius XI makes reference to a U.S. Supreme Court Decision in the Oregon School Case, June 1, 1925. It ruled that the “fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty, to recognize, and prepare him for additional duties.”
The first hundred-plus years of America’s way of thinking and carrying out her most important enterprises were dominated by the principle of subsidiarity; that is, the more local and proximate a government is, the better for the individual citizen. And what applies to citizen, equally applies to the child.
If America is to be restored, her education system, which is, today, monopolized by the State, must be saved from the State. Most people who are deeply concerned about America’s future focus almost entirely on the ballot box. But we must keep in mind, and never forget that a nation’s education is more important than its government. After all, it is the former which gives rise to the latter.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.