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J. Gresham Machen on Public Education

By J. Gresham Machen


      Recognizing that "like it or not" we live in a society which is constitutionally committed to pluralism, J. Gresham Machen referred to public education as a necessary evil. As a Christian people, we must be committed to Christian Education. Yet state-run education in a pluralistic society cannot be specifically Christian (much less specifically reformed). So what do we do until that time that Jesus is declared rightful King of the United States? Dr. Machen made some suggestions regarding the public schools that might be called "modest proposals." None would disrupt society, yet each would detract from the evil of the system.

      1. The function of the public school should be limited rather than increased. The present tendency to usurp parental authority should be checked.

      2. The public school should pay attention to the limited, but highly important function which it is now neglecting -- namely, the impartation of knowledge.

      3. The moral influence of the public school teacher should be exerted in practical rather than in theoretical ways . . . the only true grounding of morality is found in the revealed will of God; but at least [this way] the school will avoid doing harm.

      4. The public-school system should be kept healthy by the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools and Church schools, and the State should refrain from such regulation of these schools as to make their freedom illusory.

      5. Uniformity in education . . . should be avoided as one of the very greatest calamities into which any nation can fall.

      6. The reading of selected passages from the Bible, in which Jews and Catholics and Protestants and others can presumably agree, should not be encouraged, and still less should be required by law . . . . Even the best of books, if it is presented in garbled form, may be made to say the exact opposite of what it means.

      7. Public-school children should be released at certain convenient hours during the week, so that the parents, if they choose, may provide for their religious instruction; but the State should refrain both from granting school credit for work done in these hours and from exercising any control whatsoever either upon attendance or upon the character of the instruction."

      Excerpted from Reforming the Government Schools (c) 1925 Trustees u/w J. Gresham Machen.

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