During the early and middle part of the 19th century, the view that children belonged first and foremost to the state was spreading among many school leaders at both the national and municipal level. Children were considered to be individuals who stood in direct relation to the state without the mediation of the family. Of course, the family took care of children’s physical care, but the mind of the child must be formed by the state. It can be quite difficult to imagine the power of this doctrine and the fierce opposition it encountered among poor and religious families.
Many parents felt an instinctive horror at the prospect of sending their children to a school where a powerful state would teach them how to think and believe. It is no wonder that some parents kept their children at home rather than submit to what they believed to be indoctrination.
While the state has an interest in the education of its citizenry, it does not have the responsibility to manage or direct that education
By way of contrast, Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and the Anti-Revolutionary Party believed that children belong first and foremost to their parents, whose duty and right it is to nurture and educate them in accordance with their own deepest beliefs. While the state has an interest in the education of its citizenry, it does not have the responsibility to manage or direct that education:
The father is the only lawful person, called by nature and called to this task, to determine the choice of school for his child. To this we must hold fast. This is the prime truth in the whole schools issue. If there is any axiom in the area of education, this is it. … The parental rights must be seen as a sovereign right in this sense, that it is not delegated by any other authority, that it is inherent in fatherhood and motherhood, and that it is given directly from God to the father and mother.
Kuyper also argued that the healthy upbringing of a child reckoned with what was already within the child, which could be more clearly discerned by parents than by anyone else. The spirit of the parents was, he argued, usually also the spirit of the child. By this he meant that the “direction” of a child’s heart (his own core beliefs, whether understood yet or not) was usually in harmony with that of his parents. There was an intergenerational harmony which was important to acknowledge and respect for the best kind of learning to occur. A secular school was simply incapable of educating baptized children in harmony with the root of their being:
The moral and religious nurture of the child can only succeed when we begin by seeking out the inclinations and tendencies within the child and bring those to consciousness. And this we can only measure according to what is in us. Just as a mother nurses her infant at her breast, so also with this nurture, our own consciousness must teach us what consciousness is in our child. … It must be our own awareness and life that we give as food to our children. This concerns the principled continuity of the generations. That which you find strange, you cannot give to your child. … The provision of this need can only be given when the treasure of moral and religious life that is in the heart of the father, is transferred to the heart of the child.
The heart of the struggle
Last, Kuyper argued for parental rights in education because he understood the state insistence on controlling the direction of the schools to be an unjustifiable use of state force in an effort to shore up its positions of power. That was the heart of the entrenched resistance to freedom of education, he insisted. If parents were allowed to establish their own schools and enabled to send their children to them, then liberals stood to lose control, not only of schooling, but also in Parliament, in the universities, in the media, and even in the churches.
Four years before the culmination of the school struggle with passage of the constitutional amendment, Kuyper continued to communicate what he understood the heart of the struggle had been. The radicalized liberals, he says,
… were not content to raise their own children as full-blooded liberals, so long as the children of their neighbor (who exceeded the number of their own children by ten percent) were raised in an opposite manner. And therefore, their state school had to reach over the entire land, and that their school have far more power. Only [… by means of] the liberal state-school in which they set the tone and inspired all the people with that tone, was their position in our land safe. … How must the child be nurtured? The answer to that question determines the lot of all of our people in the future. Now we say that you must ask God that question and that he says in his Word that the parents are the first ones responsible for the children. … But the new-modern culture workers don’t want to hear anything of this parental right.
They are directed by a heathen wisdom as with Plato. The child is the responsibility of the state, he believes, and not of the parents. You must entrust the nurture of your child to the teachers that they choose. … They are as afraid of true freedom as they are of death. … Therefore, as the old saying goes: “Stay away from our children!
Interestingly, Kuyper also claimed that the parental rights were also limited by the nature of schooling. On November 30, 1896, Kuyper wrote an interesting article in which he emphasized that the antirevolutionary motto “The school belongs to the parents,” should not be understood as granting parents the right to sovereignty within the school. The school was an independent sphere in which educators exercised their calling under God and in submission to the worldview mandated by the board. Parents had the fundamental right to establish schools according to their worldview and to freely choose among these schools, but in most cases it was not their calling to determine the specifics of curriculum.
“The school belongs to the parents,” should not be understood as granting parents the right to sovereignty within the school.
The curriculum needed to be designed by those who had spent years developing discernment for how best to teach from the life of their shared, communal core beliefs. There were issues of pedagogy which were crucial to a quality education, as I have mentioned above. In most cases, those people were the teachers, not the parents. Thus, although he believed schools should be set up by parents according to the rules for nonprofit foundations, he did not consider the schools to be subject to parents in all matters. Educators were accountable to parents for the worldview they taught but not for the way in which they did that. The school was a separate sphere that was directly accountable to God. He expressed his disappointment that in some free schools parents considered the teachers to be appointed underlings and refused to grant them the respect and authority that befit their calling.
Humanly speaking, the continuance of the church of Christ universal (the communion of all those in every country and in every time who have placed their trust in Christ alone) requires that each new generation imbibe the spiritual, moral, and intellectual lifeblood of Christianity. It was each church’s right, therefore, to require all parents to raise their children as Christians in thought, word, and deed. In Catholic and Calvinist churches, this responsibility is expressed in the sacrament of infant baptism. Calvinist doctrine taught that the baptism of infants was the public recognition that this child of the covenant was set apart to glorify God as a member of his church. Before an infant was baptized in the Reformed churches, parents were visited by the minister or elder in order to ascertain whether they were serious about raising their children in the faith. In the baptism ceremony the parents made a binding vow to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, a vow considered as holy as the marriage vow.
Kuyper argued that the fulfillment of those vows necessitated that parents provide their children with a distinctly Christian education:
Because the children have received the holy baptism, the church has the duty to make sure that the educational requirements for baptism be fulfilled and to make sure that the child’s education is not one-sided by teaching only in common grace, but also does justice to the ties of the child to particular grace.
Baptism and school belong together for by far the larger portion of our people, and you have heard what an anti-Christian and anti-national stamp countless of unbelieving and socialist teachers try to press upon the heart of the child. That may, that must not so remain.
In this respect Kuyper also argued that the church had a valid right to correct and discipline parents who neglected their duty to raise their children in a Christian worldview. He was also quick to acknowledge that such authority was limited to the parents’ continued submission to the church themselves:
The church obligates the father by means of very positive, clearly defined promises, made in the presence of witnesses, that he will raise the child, to her satisfaction, in her doctrine, thus in her whole approach to life and the world. We must certainly concede, to ease the conscience, that such promises are binding only for as long as the father remains a member of that church.
Kuyper believed that schools which recognized and articulated their core beliefs would better prepare young people for the task of influencing society for the common good. He argued that all Christians were called to be salt and light (Matt 5:13–16) in society, people who influenced the nation toward high standards of morality, the preservation of their constitutional liberties, the development of enterprise, the arts, and scholarship, as well as influencing their neighbors through their love. He was grieved that there were so few Christian schools, but he was equally grieved when Christian schools neglected the wisdom of common grace and focused exclusively on religious training, leaving their students ill-equipped for influential participation in society.
This commentary was excerpted from Wendy Naylor’s introduction to Abraham Kuyper’s On Education (Lexham Press and Acton Institute, 2019), edited by Naylor and Harry Van Dyke.