Children Belong To The State, Not The Family

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Lew, your post reminds me that Horace Mann, the pioneer of government schooling in the U.S., considered the government the source of salvation.

John Swett, who was California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction during the late 1860s, insisted that children belong to the state, not the family – and that was the basis of his argument for government schools. Here below is the rest of the story from my recent column in the Wanderer Catholic Weekly.

Virtus Versus the Family

When I was growing up in Indiana, our pastor routinely berated Catholic parents who sent their children to public schools. Perhaps his generation was more familiar than ours with the history of education in America. Few Catholics today realize that the public school movement began 150 years ago as part of an attack on the Catholic Church.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant “Know-Nothings” railed against the millions of newly-arrived Catholic immigrants – “criminals” who had a lot of kids and were starting their own schools, complete with armies of foreign nuns and papist priests. According to Rousas Rushdoony’s history, Horace Mann, the founder of the public school movement in Massachusetts, believed that “the [public] schools are the means, instruments, vehicles, and true church by which salvation is given to society.” Given that goal, Mann “changed the function of education from ‘mere learning’ or religiously-oriented education to ‘social efficiency, civic virtue, an character” (by the twentieth century, character “ceased to be a concern” in the public schools, Rushdoony notes). Mann also demanded that control of community schools be transferred into state hands.

A decade later and a continent away, another pioneer took up the cause. John Swett was responsible for “framing the basic legislation of the state system” as California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction during the 1860s. Swett made his goals perfectly clear: “Children arrived at the age of maturity belong not to the parents but to the State, to society, and to the country,” he insisted – so children should be educated not according to the beliefs of their parents, but those of the government. The “civil religion” taught in government schools was designed to neutralize the papist heresies taught in the parochial schools. For the Know-Nothings, Catholic families were not only the competition: they were the enemy. Catholics were inferiors that had to be raised to the level of civic virtue expected of everyone else.

Ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver observed, and the ideas of Swett and Mann still haunt America today. In Massachusetts, Judge Mark Wolf has told outraged parents that mandatory grade-school courses celebrating homosexuality are “reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to become engaged and productive citizens in our democracy.” In California, the powerful government schoolteachers union (CTA) – which has 340,000 members – strongly opposes homeschooling, and has now found a friendly judge who has virtually outlawed homeschooling in the state.

No wonder the CTA names one of its “prestigious” annual awards after John Swett. As public schools decline and home-schooling becomes more popular, teachers unions and their allies in the bureaucracy have reacted fiercely. They even charge that parents who home-school their children for religious reasons are actually child abusers who want to hide their victims from school authorities. Unfortunately, that attitude seems to prevail in bureaucracies nationwide. I once interviewed our local Child Protection Services staff when I was working on some related treaty issues at the United Nations. “We love the public schools,” one of them told me. “we can inspect the children there without the parents interfering. They don’t even know we’re doing it – and of course, we don’t need their permission.”

These people, whose sole prior experience was working in day-care centers, can take children away from parents on the basis of one anonymous allegation of abuse.

1:19 pm on June 15, 2008