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Acton Commentary

Look to the Dutch for true educational pluralism

    During the seven-decade political struggle in the Netherlands to allow parents to select schools corresponding to their religious convictions, Abraham Kuyper articulated a concept of “sphere sovereignty” that translates, in policy terms, into principled structural pluralism. That Dutch experience, and its resolution in the “Pacification” of 1917, is highly relevant for the present situation in the United States: popular revulsion against the condescension and intolerance of a liberal elite toward the values and interests of many of their fellow-citizens, leading to deep political and social as well as cultural divides.

    Popular schooling is often a primary focal-point for attempts to make effective the hegemony of the sovereign state over every aspect of society, to achieve not only obedience to laws and policies but also an inner disposition immune to alternative or partial loyalties. Employed in a monopolistic manner as under totalitarian regimes, it poses the profoundest threat to freedom. Educational pluralism, of the sort that emerged spontaneously as the American nation developed but has been under growing threat in recent decades, is the best protection against this profoundly undemocratic abuse. 

    The School Struggle in Western Europe

    While town support for schooling as early as the Late Middle Ages had been motivated by economic motives, such as the advantages of literacy and numeracy in commercial enterprises, the more recent adoption of central-government measures was almost always intended to promote among the common people a shared loyalty to a national project, to turn “peasants into Frenchmen,” as historian Eugen Weber put it. Thus it was as Prussia absorbed territories in other parts of Central Europe that Prussian leaders made popular schooling a matter of state policy, an example followed with more or less success by centralizing governments in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries a century later. 

    What we combat, on principle and without compromise, is the attempt to totally change how a person thinks and how he lives

    A primary concern in elite circles throughout the nineteenth century was thus to use schooling and other instruments of socialization to remake the common people, to achieve what François Guizot called “a certain governance of minds.” Insistence on the uniquely civic role of government-managed public schools and on the dangers represented by schools not under direct government control, especially if they had a religious character, developed over the course of the nineteenth century. Increasingly-assertive national states grew unwilling to continue to allow religious organizations not under government control to play a role in shaping the loyalties and mores of the rising generations.

    Kuyper saw this claim of the state to a monopoly on the schooling of youth as a fundamental threat. “What we combat, on principle and without compromise,” he wrote in laying out the program of his political movement in 1879, “is the attempt to totally change how a person thinks and how he lives, to change his head and his heart, his home and his country—to create a state of affairs the very opposite of what has always been believed, cherished, and confessed, and so to lead us to a complete emancipation from the sovereign claims of Almighty God.” 

    In the twentieth century, of course, such attempts to remold the loyalties and ways of thinking of a population through schooling took much more sinister forms under Fascist and Communist regimes. Stalin put it bluntly in a conversation with H. G. Wells in 1934: “Education is a weapon whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and who is struck with it.”

    We would recognize this as a totalitarian project, and want to insist that American public education has no such intention. A recent book by the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko argues, however, that liberal democracies in the West have surprisingly much in common with totalitarian systems: “Both systems strongly and—so to speak—impatiently intrude into the social fabric and both justify their intrusion with the argument that it leads to the improvement of the state of affairs by ‘modernizing’ it.” The elites who form opinion and shape administrative policy under today’s liberal democratic regimes, Legutko argues, have the intention that “the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations.”

    The Dutch School Struggle and Pacification

    In the Netherlands, schooling has come to be seen as primarily a function of civil society rather than of the state; educational pluralism is the unchallenged norm. This structural pluralism was not arrived at through abstract appeal to principles of liberty, but as the result of a political and cultural struggle that came to a boil in 1878, when a new generation of Dutch Liberals came to power, committed to government intervention in popular schooling and explicitly hostile to confessional schools. They enacted legislation providing that the state would pay 30 percent of the cost of local public schools, and under some circumstances even more. Other provisions of this law increased significantly the costs of all schools, whether government-supported or not. The legislation was opposed by supporters of unsubsidized confessional education, since it would make their schools much more expensive to operate. Confessional schools would remain free, Kuyper noted, “yes, free to hurry on crutches after the neutral [school] train that storms along the rails of the law, drawn by the golden locomotive of the State.”

    It was in opposition to this claim on the part of the state to shape the minds and hearts of youth, to be sovereign over the most intimate aspects of family and individual conscience, that Kuyper and his allies, as he wrote, “focused all our fight on the school struggle. For there the sovereignty of conscience, and of the family, and of pedagogy, and of the spiritual circle were all equally threatened.” Kuyper’s distinctive contribution was, in the name of God’s sovereignty over all aspects of life, to give his confessional political party a strong agenda of social policies going well beyond explicitly “religious” concerns—to associate Calvinism with social reform. This was the first party program in Dutch history and, in the very year when the Liberals achieved their goal of enacting legislation to place new burdens on confessional schooling, their opponents achieved the nationwide organization that enabled them to reverse the Liberal program. 

    Kuyper insisted on an alternative understanding of the nature of sovereignty as ultimately belonging to God

    Kuyper and other Dutch Anti-Revolutionaries defined their political program in conscious opposition to the French Revolution with its assertion of the unlimited sovereignty of the nation-state. Kuyper insisted on an alternative understanding of the nature of sovereignty as ultimately belonging to God and attributed in only limited fashion to different spheres of the created order, including government. “Sphere sovereignty defending itself against State sovereignty,” he wrote in 1880, “that is the course of world history…. It lay in the order of creation, in the structure of human life; it was there before State sovereignty arose.” Contrary to the common stereotype about religious leaders in politics, Kuyper did not seek to dominate the society and culture of the Netherlands, but to make room for institutional pluralism. 

    The Liberals had overreached. This threat against the schools that many of the orthodox common people had labored and sacrificed to establish aroused and created a movement that, in a decade, reversed the political fortunes of the Liberals and brought state support for confessional schools. Together with the orthodox Protestant Anti-Revolutionary Party, the Catholic party gained a majority in Parliament by 1888. This was made possible as a result not only of mobilization around the schools but also of a revision of the election law the previous year, which greatly extended the franchise among the (male) population, thus bringing the religiously-conservative common people of the countryside and small towns into political participation for the first time.

    Emancipation of the “little people,” for whom their Catholic or orthodox Protestant beliefs were central, and their emergence into public life, bringing their convictions with them, required intensive organization. The passions and the habits of cooperation developed during the long struggle for confessional schooling, then found expression across the whole range of social life. The state’s role became one of coordination, of support, of intervention only when local efforts failed. 

    The American “School Struggle”

    Something similar to the Dutch school struggle has been happening in American politics recently, as evident not only in the populist resentment leading to the 2016 election of Donald Trump but also in the political shifts in many states, and—with respect to education—the growth of thousands of alternatives to the district public schools that, fifty years ago, seemed an unmovable and central institution of American life. 

    Already, nearly three million students attend public charter schools and nearly four hundred thousand are taking advantage of programs making it possible for them to use public funds to attend private schools; these numbers are growing sharply each year. What we have been hearing again and again from the supporters of Donald Trump —though it by no means began with them—is resistance to what they perceive as the overbearing power of the national government and of the liberal “coastal” elites who are thought to set the agenda of that government and to impose it on society in general. The conservative media have been full of examples of the over-riding of local and parental concerns, of which the issue of transgender use of bathrooms and locker rooms is only the latest sensation. There can be no denying the political potency of such grievances, however exaggerated they may sometimes be. 

    Nor is it very different from what Abraham Kuyper wrote in 1874, with similar exaggeration: “Can it be denied that the centralizing State grows more and more into a gigantic monster against which every citizen is finally powerless? Have not all independent institutions, whose sovereignty in their own sphere made them a basis for resistance, yielded to the magic formula of a single, unitary state?” But Kuyper, unlike today’s populists in the United States and in Europe, offered a conceptual framework for thinking about and prescribing for this over-inflation of central government authority. He was able to do so by drawing upon the Calvinist tradition of focusing on the fundamental significance of God’s sovereignty for every sphere of human life. Without such conceptual clarity, it is doubtful whether a solution could have been reached in the Netherlands, or can be reached in the United States today.

    By asserting the unique sovereignty of God, Kuyper relativized and limited all other sources of authority and thus provided a basis for a democratic pluralism protecting the freedom of faith-communities as well as of individuals. Is it too much to hope that we Americans can abandon the winner-take-all mindset that embitters our political discussions, and accept instead the principled pluralism that served as the basis of a lasting “pacification” in the Netherlands? 

    Opponents of allowing publicly-funded schools to be autonomous and, in some cases, to have a religious character, often argue that the effect of such policies will be to further divide society. They have been arguing that for nearly two hundred years, only to be proved wrong again and again by actual experience. Most other nations with advanced levels of universal schooling provide such public support, with no evident harm to their social fabric and with considerably less conflict over schooling than occurs in the United States. Surely the time has come for a similar American “pacification,” through adoption of principled pluralism as the fundamental structure of our education system.

    Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University. This commentary is excerpted from his article, “Democratic Pluralism in Education,” which appears in the most recent Journal of Markets & Morality.