Abraham Kuyper was a remarkable man. He lived from 1837-1920. He was Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905.
He founded the Dutch Reformed Church, De Standaard (a newspaper) in 1872, the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in 1879, and the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880. He kept busy.
One thing he advocated for in his time with the ARP, as Prime Minister, and in his many newspaper articles was school choice for all.
His rationale was complex and revolved around ideas of “neutral” schools, parental rights, and perhaps most surprisingly, national unity.
The idea of neutral schools is certainly attractive. Who wants their child to be indoctrinated into a wrong belief system? What progressive wants their child to constantly hear about the glories of conservatism? What conservative wants their child to be constantly taught as if the progressive worldview was the truth?
This idea runs deep in America. We typically support the idea of neutral schooling as the way to build a peaceful democracy within a diverse society.
The problem is that it is philosophically impossible for there to be a neutral schooling system. Any teaching of morals, any having of rules removes the possibility of neutrality. And, to problematize the idea to a neutral school even further, how can a neutral school possibly justify its stance? Any appeal to natural law, public consensus, God/s, etc takes a stance, removing neutrality.
Kuyper sees this, and calls the idea of neutral schools out for the farce it is.
“How can a teacher nurture and form character,” he asked, “and at the same time be neutral?” After all, “there is no neutral education that is not governed by a spirit of its own. And precisely that spirit of the religiously neutral school militates against every positive faith.” (p47-48)
And, because the principles enacted by neutral schools are not in fact, neutral, they have an unequal impact on society.
When we look at Galston’s statement, a contemporary of Kuyper, we see how easy it is to apply this to the American schooling system.
“Galston points out, “the more one examines putatively neutral liberal principles and public discourse, the more impressed one is likely to become by their decidedly nonneutral impact on different parts of diverse societies. Liberalism is not and cannot be the universal response, equally acceptable to all, to the challenge of social diversity. It is ultimately a partisan stance” (p55).
Neutral schools attempt to be acceptable and non offensive to everyone, but in doing so, neutral schools minimize the importance of our differences.
“Thus, so-called neutral schools, which sought to please all by separating instruction from a child’s particular religious experience, had hindered thousands of children from developing the mindset, initiative, and skills needed to sustain a strong civil society.” (p35)
Kuyper viewed education as primarily the responsibility of the parent,
“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.” (p28)
One large problem with having a single schooling system is that the system only serves one group of parents and children well. For example, the “neutral” system only serves parents who believe in neutrality. A Christian education system only serves Christian parents well, a Muslim system Muslim parents, and so on. So, in order for most parents to educate their children in line with their beliefs, they are required to pay twice, once in taxes to the state system and once in fees to their private school.
“The crucial point was that when the government now provided an education which was suited for only one part of the populace, it violated the conscience of all others: “Wherever we recognize a fundamental right for our citizens to provide their children with an alternative means of ‘enlightenment,’ then it becomes clear that requiring those citizens to pay for education twice, while others only have to pay once, is unjust.” (p37)
With this approach to school choice, Kuyper was not advocating for a partisan school system, he was advocating for a system that would provide choice for all beliefs and socioeconomic levels where it would be possible to honor the rights of all parents.
“Some men…want to work to expand freedom for the middle class but…they leave unmet the need for freedom of conscience among the poor…. But it seems to me, Mr. Chairman, that there is no nobler struggle than for the freedom of conscience, particularly for the poor. Government money is well spent for that.” (p36)
In addition, this approach to education helps the development of the child. Personal growth and academic growth happen concurrently and are interconnected. It is not helpful for the child to have one foundational set of rules and morals at home and a completely different set at school.
“Life itself requires that both the personal formation and the academic learning happen at the same time. Both are so interconnected; and thus not only the family, but also the school is called to help complete the general formation of the child as a unity. The child is not divided into compartments; an intellectual compartment, a moral compartment, a religious compartment, a compartment of character, and a compartment for practical skills. The child is one, and must be formed in this unity. Otherwise the left will tear down what the right has built up and there develops in the child the hopeless and unnerving confusion which prevents the development of all firmness of character.
From this comes the requirement that there be agreement between the nurture in the school and the nurture in the home, and that they fit together. The school must not only build on the foundations that have been laid in the home, but also stay connected with the nurture that continues to happen in the home.” (p23)
We can move towards greater national unity when schools and parents work together to ensure a child’s personal and academic growth happen in unity, with the same foundations.
That school choice could promote national unity may be perplexing to most Americans. Many of us have only seen how school choice is divisive. How it has been used to promote segregation by race and class. Like any tool, school choice can be abused in these ways. But, do we really want to pretend that our traditional public schools are great integrators? That public schools do not create their own significant divisions between various races and classes?
I’d rather not lie to myself.
According to Kuyper, what makes public schooling divisive is that its “neutrality” actually picks a side and causes inequitable outcomes as mentioned earlier. This creates a “winner takes all” atmosphere, making only one group happy with the system’s philosophical approach. As he put it,
“When an elite clique is allowed to impose a worldview on all schools, is it any wonder that a deep animosity and anger results? Kuyper argued that the strongest kind of national unity was one which made room for a multiplicity of communities of faith. Pluriformity, not uniformity, must be the goal, the beauty of a natural forest with all the variety of vegetation and species, rather than that of a garden in which poplar trees were uniformly planted in straight rows.” (p39)
With pluriformity, Kuyper is getting at an old way of seeing diversity, he is emphasizing diversity of thought. Later in the book, he has another, more succinct quote, “Unity must not be sought in uniformity.” (p346)
Echo chambers are no friend of critical thinking.
School choice for all could achieve this because there would be schools for people of different faiths and beliefs. In Kuyper’s theory this would bring about greater national unity because the children would receive an education much more inline with what their family believes and values. This would reduce the bitterness that develops between parents and children because it is removing a likely source of tension. It would also reduce bitterness between parents and the state because the parents would not feel that the state is actively against their deepest beliefs.
“Unity of the nation is not brought into danger by having children attend different kinds of schools but by wounding the right and limiting the freedom so that our citizens are offended not in their material interests but in their deepest life convictions, which is all-determinative for the best of them. That sows bitterness in the hearts and that divides a nation.… Instead of asking what the state school will receive and what the free school will receive, as sons of the same fatherland we should commit to raising the development of our entire nation. Then … the feeling of unity will grow stronger and more inspired.” (p38-39)
Kuyper isn’t advocating for some sort of siloing of society where everyone hides out with their own like minded clique. According to Wendy Naylor and Harry Van Dyke, Kuyper demanded that children communicate with people of other beliefs. He demanded that they both talk and listen to each other. This helps make it apparent that differences in political or social views needn’t be moral failings, but that the differences are caused by different starting points (p34).
Questions to Ponder
“Ask them, he declared,
•whether the moral calling of the Netherlands allowed us to remove religion from the national schools,
•whether requiring teachers to teach historical facts devoid of interpretation was an acceptable methodology for schools,
•whether the Netherlands, known for the strength of its domestic life, should now exclude the family’s identity from the school,
•whether a free and self-governed nation like the Netherlands could tolerate the complete state control of how children were educated,
•whether the Dutch people could, in good conscience, deny the lower classes the freedom of conscience that the upper classes enjoyed?” (p40)
Quotes are from “On Education” which is a collection of writings and speeches by Abraham Kuyper. It was edited by Wendy Naylor and Harry Van Dyke. If you are interested in Kuyper, a Christian approach to education, or school-choice, I would highly recommend this book.