The quotation we selected for this year's Lord Acton Essay Competition—one of the Acton Institute's longest-running student programs—highlights an essential foundation of the free society: “For centuries, it was never discovered that education was a function of the state, and the state never attempted to educate. But when modern absolutism arose, it laid claim to everything on behalf of the sovereign power.”
Elaborating on Acton's insight, the first-place essay by Michiel Visser, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, deftly points out the bitter debt we owe to eighteenth-century monarchs eager to use education to strengthen their political power. In Michiel's words, “The history of modern education, then, is a history of social control.“ In this way, these monarchs violated one of the basic principles of Christian political thought: to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but to render unto God what is God's. This principle, according to Lord Acton, ”gave to the civil power … bounds it had never acknowledged“ and was ”the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.“
The only reason the state has any authority at all is because it is given such by God. The state is limited for the same reason. When politicians strive for mastery of the institution of education, not only do they usurp the God-ordained authority of parents over their children; they also intrude on prerogatives reserved for God.
The principle of appropriately limited government is part of our larger heritage of Christian social thought—a heritage about which the Acton Institute strives to educate our future religious leaders. I thank you for the support that allows us to conduct such programs, of which the Lord Acton Essay Competition is an important part.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico