The State of Education & How We Move Forward

John Dewey, one of the fathers of progressive education in the public school system, is said to have famously claimed, “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.” He described a truly beautiful sentiment, inspiring us with a utopian ideal. The quote illustrates an endlessly curious mindset and a life lived solely in search of personal development and truth. Who would not want to live life in that manner?

Unfortunately, while uplifting, Dewey’s statement is also deeply flawed and unrealistic. After all, what is education if not preparation for life? We study mathematics and science so we can be prepared to live in a world that operates according to certain rules. We learn grammar, writing, and foreign languages so we are ready to interact with people from around our increasingly interconnected world. We endeavor to develop the hard and soft skills necessary for gainful employment so we can provide for ourselves and our families. We learn art, music, and the humanities so we can appreciate life’s beauties and wonders, while we study philosophy and ethics in order to know how to critically evaluate its troubles and flaws.

What is education if not preparation for life?

Given that education truly is preparation for life, when we send our children off to school this fall for another year of learning, we are entrusting administrators, teachers, aides, and other school employees with a weighty responsibility. It follows that, as Christian parents, we must regularly ask if the school system is preparing and shaping our children with ideologies we support. If we find that it is not, then we must find ways to address our concerns and guard our children against the influences of secular culture.

What Controversial Systems and Ideas Influence Public Education Policies Today?

Progressive Education
As referenced earlier, progressive education finds its roots in the late 19th century under leaders such as John Dewey. In many ways a reaction to traditional and classical education principles, progressive education seeks to teach students to think rather than to memorize, utilizes hands-on learning rather than recitation, and, ultimately, allows students a greater say in what they learn and how. Accordingly, many of the tenets of progressive education are noble, and its proponents genuinely desire students to learn more effectively. Furthermore, one would be hard-pressed to find a public school classroom that solely implements progressive practices.

The issue, then, is not so much with progressive education as a whole as it is with some of the other ideals associated with it and embraced by its proponents. While Dewey was its main creator, George S. Counts played a role in its development, pushing its boundaries and becoming a vocal critic of where progressive education fell short. Specifically, Counts believed public education should be utilized to support Social Reconstructivism. In 1932, he delivered a speech to the Progressive Education Association which later became the pamphlet entitled, Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? Counts believed the classroom was the place to encourage a social revolution that would upend the established systems of the United States, thereby creating something better. As Dr. Terry Stoops summarizes, in his pamphlet, Counts “asked and answered two fundamental questions: what should replace capitalism, and how do you replace capitalism in a nation that celebrates it?”1 One can argue, then, that Counts began a trend within public education: to consider the classroom not as a place to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and long-held ethical and political ideals, but as a laboratory in which students should be encouraged to develop their own philosophies or to embrace new, anti-traditional beliefs.

Progressive Political Ideologies
It is in the push for acceptance of progressive ideologies that we see the politicization of the American classroom on full display. The new beliefs being promoted in education today often are representative of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideals, including elements of Critical Race Theory and radical gender ideology. What are those, exactly?

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic concept asserting that racism is not simply a belief that individuals hold, but rather is systemic in nature–an influential element embedded in the American culture and legal systems. CRT is somewhat difficult to define, and, like progressive education, is not so much present full-scale in classrooms as it is taught in pieces. These pieces include “color blindness,” or the tendency to ignore the existence and significance of racism, thereby propagating racism, as well as “interest convergence.” This is the belief that majority groups (for example, whites) will support racial justice practices that benefit minority groups (non-whites) only as long as those practices advance their own interests and positions of power and authority.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic concept asserting that racism is not simply a belief that individuals hold, but rather is systemic in nature

Radical gender ideology, like CRT, is a combination of various individual beliefs. In particular, proponents advocate for gender as a social construct rather than a result of biological sex, and for the legitimacy of nonbinary, genderqueer, and transgender identities.

Although left-leaning critics claim conservatives exaggerate the frequency with which Critical Social Justice ideologies are taught, the evidence indicates otherwise. In fact, according to a 2023 study of 1,505 18 to 20-year-olds presented by the Manhattan Institute, 93% reported having been taught at least one CSJ concept during high school, with 70% noting that the concept was taught as truth, not theory.2 Clearly, parents who do not hold those beliefs have much to be concerned about.

How Should Christian Parents Respond to Progressive Education and Progressive Political Ideologies?

When it comes to protecting our children from secular outside influences, we cannot afford to be apathetic. A few approaches to turning the tide come to mind.

Pursue Academic Transparency and Inspect What is Being Taught
Protecting your children begins with knowing what is happening inside the classroom. Most states have laws in place that require public schools to grant parents access to information about curriculum, assessment practices, and student performance data. These regulations vary state-to-state and even by school district, so you should familiarize yourself with what your local policies are. Once you know how you can access the information you need, take time to review it and note any areas of disagreement. Finally, get to know your child’s teachers and the school’s administrators so you can voice concerns when you have them and pass along praise for jobs well done.

Protecting your children begins with knowing what is happening inside the classroom

Advocate for Curriculum Bans
Many states have successfully implemented classroom bans on ideologies such as CRT, so you can contact your local legislators if you feel a ban is required. However, as Matt Beienburg of the American Enterprise Institute notes, banning curriculum is only a “partial bandage,” since organizations regularly rephrase, rebrand, and repackage banned curriculum to avoid legal challenges.3

Remember That Preparing Your Children for Life is Your Responsibility and Privilege
The Bible clearly states that teaching children to believe in God, love, and follow him are among parents’ chief responsibilities. We are reminded in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (NASB): “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” This is not a biblical requirement to abandon the public school system in favor of homeschooling, but rather an encouragement to utilize the influence we have over our children to train them in what matters most–godliness, regardless of what other messages they may receive. When children are rooted in truth, they are equipped to recognize and resist lies.

Dr. Jason Barker (MDiv, DMin) has served as a pastor and educator for twenty years. He is the Dean of Academics at Oak Valley College in Rialto, California, and serves as an adjunct faculty member at four other colleges and seminaries. He, his wife, and their four children live in Southern California.