American Evangelicals today debate the value of one form of education over another. Some see public education as a mission field; others decry it as both intellectually lacking and spiritually eroding. Some see private Christian schools as a sophisticated effort to nurture a well-rounded Christian worldview in children; others find them overpriced or uneven in quality. Some see homeschooling as the premier form of instilling family and faith values in one’s children; others charge it with being insular or infeasible.
To some degree, all of these claims resonate with reality. One will find positives and negatives with any school system. But that doesn’t make them all equal. Wherever one stands on these issues, it is interesting that two towering evangelical figures in the 1920s and 1940s highlighted the important role of education in a society while warning of the dangers of an unchecked state-run education system.
J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) and Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) wrote in the throes of Christianity’s displacement from mainstream American society—Machen during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that led to several denominational splits and Henry during the postwar years. As Christianity’s influence in the U.S. diminished, they raised questions about the role of public education.
In his 1923 Christianity and Liberalism, Machen (pictured above) recognized the “enormous benefit” of a “public-school system,” but only if kept in check with “the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools.” He warned that “once it becomes monopolistic,” public education becomes “the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised,” even “far more effective” than the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. He explained:
Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them then to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny, supported as it is by a perverse technique used as the instrument in destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past, which despite their weapons of fire and sword permitted thought at least to be free.
“Tyranny” is strong language, to say the least. Some may charge that he overstated the case. Perhaps. But without any checks or competition, a school system in the hands of the government can subtly undermine the values and beliefs of families by molding the worldviews of young, impressionable children in ways their parents don’t expect.
Writing in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry also warned of the state’s power in education in his The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. He recalled that Christianity had for centuries sought to “indoctrinate the masses in the major doctrinal essentials of the Christian world-life view”—something he viewed as, on the whole, positive. However, things shifted with the rise of modernism: “For the past three centuries, the state has steadily supplanted the church as the indoctrinating agency, and today secular education largely involves an open or subtle undermining of historic Christian theism.”
To resist this negative influence, Henry did not call for a complete rejection of public education, but awareness mixed with activism. He offered two charges to evangelicals. First, Christians should “develop a competent literature in every field of study, on every level from the grade school through the university, which adequately presents each subject with its implications from the Christian as well as non-Christian points of view.” This kind of engagement would allow well-reasoned Christian arguments to receive a fair hearing.
Second, recognizing that the state has (rightly or wrongly) assumed the role of indoctrinating the masses, evangelicals should redouble their efforts to fulfill “the evangelical obligation to press the Christian world-life view upon the masses.” In other words, Christians need to engage fully in the broader society to vie for the hearts and minds of all people—Christian and non-Christian alike.
Interestingly, only a few generations earlier, Catholic immigrants to the U.S. were complaining about much the same problem in public education, except in their case, they worried about public schools largely saturated in Protestant ideology ruining their children’s Catholicism. Thus Archbishop John Hughes (1797–1864)—sometimes known as “Dagger John” since he signed his name with a sideways cross and feistily defended Catholic rights in America—fought vehemently for school rights for New York Catholics.
Hughes complained that in the public schools, their children are taught “false (as we believe) historical statements” concerning people in the past; that school readings were “merely against the Catholics”; that teachers made negative comments about Catholics; that school libraries were filled with “sectarian works against us”; and that public schools failed to achieve “a perfect NEUTRALITY of influence on the subject of religion.”
Hughes made the following striking conclusion: “we are unwilling to pay taxes for the purpose of destroying our religion in the minds of our children.” While New York Catholics failed in securing tax revenues for public schools that taught a Catholic perspective, their calls did help to displace any single religious group holding power in public schools (though, of course, that is not to deny that all education is taught from some ideology). Instead, Catholics devoted their money to creating private Catholic schools. . .
. . . which brings us back to the debate over public vs. private vs. home forms of schooling. To be sure, no educational system is perfect. All have benefits and drawbacks. One benefit of history is that it helps us get outside our own era to see it from a different perspective.
Taken together, these three figures remind us of the very real power of the state to influence the foundational beliefs of the children of Christians. Certainly, parents can influence their children too. But at a time when many Christians lament their children’s departure from the Christian faith as they leave the home, we can’t ignore the very real impact that education has on them. These comments caution us against unthinkingly accepting public, state-run education as the “normal” form of education.
Machen and Henry also suggest that the only way public education can work is if Christians remain vigilant. Vigilance in developing theologically informed arguments and ideas can potentially influence what gets taught in public schools—though we shouldn’t harbor any illusions about the public education system’s resistance to Christian ideas today. Vigilance is also needed in private schools; if parents do not show interest in what their children are learning, they could miss out on opportunities to shape their children’s lives and correct potential errors. Even in homeschooling, parents can rely so heavily on other curricula or activities that they fail to be vigilant in training their children.
If Christians assume that their children are theologically and ideologically safe in public school, Machen and Henry (and Hughes) would argue otherwise. In their view, only as churches and homes adopt vigilant stances on education will they be able to keep the state’s influence in check and provide their children the formative education they need for this life and the life to come.
 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1923), 14.
 Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1947), 68.
 Henry, Uneasy Conscience, 68.
 Henry, Uneasy Conscience, 69.
 John Hughes, quoted in Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark A. Noll, eds., A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 13–15.
 Hughes, quoted in Gaustad and Noll, 15.