Opinion

The battle over Betsy DeVos started more than 100 years ago

Abraham Kuyper, left, and John Dewey. Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) Betsy DeVos’ Senate confirmation as education secretary was the narrowest approval of a Cabinet nominee in U.S. history. The 50-50 tie had to be broken by the vice president, following fierce opposition from Democrats.

Why do liberals hate DeVos so? So much so that Mother Jones published an article titled “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom’”? (Yes, with God’s Kingdom in scare quotes.)

To answer that question, we have to understand people are operating out of two profoundly different worldviews, especially regarding children, education and the government’s role in both.

And those worldviews can be traced back more than a century to two men: John Dewey and Abraham Kuyper.

Dewey was a humanist philosopher and one of the intellectual forces behind progressive education in America in the early decades of the 20th century. Seeking a reconstruction of society through a reformation of education, he wanted children to discover knowledge for themselves, with the teacher as a kind of social engineer. Dewey’s progressive design removed children from the home, the church and the control of parents and centralized their education under the control of the government. Why? Because Dewey didn’t believe parents — particularly religious parents — could be trusted to appropriately educate their own children. Nor could religious institutions. He believed religious and other traditional forms of education that relied on rote learning and an authoritarian view of the relationship between teacher and student were detrimental to society.

Dewey’s worldview could not be more diametrically different from that of Kuyper, another educational reformer.

Kuyper, a Dutch Calvinist theologian, founded the first political party in the Netherlands, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, which rejected the principles of the French Revolution. As prime minister from 1901-1905, he railed against liberal influences both in the Dutch Reformed Church and in education, and he sought to improve the financial situation and the quality of Christian schools.

In 1880 he delivered the inaugural address of the Free University of Amsterdam, a Protestant institution that he helped found, and declared, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Betsy DeVos testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of education. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Betsy DeVos testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of education. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Herein lies the fault line between the Dewey Democrats and DeVos, who is steeped in the Dutch Calvinist Christian tradition.

Reformed Christians like DeVos understand the universe — all of it— to be under God’s sovereignty, with no dividing line between secular and sacred. Yes, there are distinct spheres of life: family, social, vocational, recreational — but God is sovereign in all times, in all places, over every thought, every deed, every decision, every policy, everything.

That does not mean that Reformed Christians believe in theocracy, nor that DeVos and others are looking to deny religious liberty to anyone. It does mean that those who call themselves Christians have a unique responsibility to bear out God’s sovereign will in every sphere in which they have influence.

Kuyper emphasized Christ’s all-encompassing authority and set out the philosophy called “Sphere Sovereignty,” which posits that there are different spheres of life – for example, state, church, family and work— and that each is equally under God’s authority and design.

And to honor God in our work, we don’t need to become a full-time vocational pastor or missionary. To be a doctor or teacher or secretary of education is equally Kingdom work.

So, when DeVos says, as quoted by Mother Jones, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education. … Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom,” she is speaking an utterly foreign language to secular humanists who are disciples of Dewey. DeVos is simply articulating that God is sovereign over all.

Mother Jones warned that DeVos’ appointment might result in “a radical redirection of funds from traditional public schools to private schools, many of which are Christian.” What the publication missed is there was already a tradition of private and Christian education in America before there were public schools and that it was the Dewey disruption of that traditional educational model that radically redirected funds to the present model.

So, Mother Jones, it’s worse than you think. For anyone who believes education is rightly dominated by government with the goal of socially engineering citizens to serve an elitist vision of society, the new secretary of education is going to force them to think again.

(Carmen LaBerge is host of the daily Christian talk radio show The Reconnect)

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Carmen LaBerge

13 Comments

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  • “That does not mean that Reformed Christians believe in theocracy, nor that DeVos and others are looking to deny religious liberty to anyone”

    What a load of dishonest garbage!

    DeVos is seeking state subsidized sectarian religious education at the expense of the public. By definition it is discriminatory. Government favor of a given faith translates to discrimination of others. Your god doesn’t need my tax dollars, ever. Christian schooling doesn’t ever require government support or funding.

    One certainly should not destroy public schools to support it, as the author suggests.

    “Reformed Christians like DeVos understand the universe — all of it— to be under God’s sovereignty, with no dividing line between secular and sacred.”

    Meaning she has no respect for religious freedom or. democratic principles. The very notion that people do not share her religious beliefs still deserve respect doesn’t factor in here.

    DeVos is attacking public schools to enrich cronies in a privatization scam. She cares nothing of the notion that all American citizenry are entitled to education. She cares nothing of the notion that American citizenship must encompass all faiths. That nobody ever had to be compelled to accept or promote sectarian religious indoctrination.

    Carmen LaBerge, why do you hate American values and the freedom it stands for so much?

  • There is no likelihood that we ever will accomplish such universality of agreement (before Christ returns.)

    But it doesn’t look like such agreement is necessary anyway. What is needed now, is for those who can agree on the Bible’s teachings relating to “advancing God’s Kingdom”, to just say ’em out loud (consistently), do ’em out loud (consistently), and then teach ’em out loud (consistently). Things will likely get done or improved, in that manner.

  • The Catholics say (and apparently even Pope Francis agrees) that the universe is “under God’s sovereignty”. They teach this generalized, broad principle in their Catholic parochial high schools, as you know.

    And yet, as I mentioned before, the Catholic high school in my hometown carries biology, physics, chemistry, and earth-science classes that are FULLY competitive with the secular schools, even though the Catholics teach about God.

    The Catholic kids graduate with just as good a shot for big ACT-SAT-National-Merit scholarships as the public school kids, and Non-Catholic parents have lined up on an actual waiting list just to get in. They want the rigor, the discipline, the quality.

    So stop being fearful & bigoted against religion-based charter schools, Spuddie. (Or even the secular charter schools for that matter.) They work hard to put the kids on the same competitive College-Prep and “STEM” tracks as the public schools. They also fight for the at-risk and over-looked kids. So let’s get those Charter Schools some federal money; help them to help your local school-children.

  • So you saying religious freedom means nothing to you. Everyone has to be educated in your sectarian christian belief using tax dollars.

    Private schools and charter schools which serve working class to poor families are effective because they have no mandate to teach an entire community. They can eject students to keep stats high. Public schools must teach everyone. What you are saying is that education is not a right for every child in a community. There is nothing inherent to private or charter schools which makes them superior to well funded public schools.

    We do not need to divert public money meant for maintaining public schools to enrich for-profit cronyism or subsidize sectarian religious faith. Your god doesn’t need my tax dollars, neither does a political crony with his hand out.

  • I’ve got an idea: the purpose of education to teach students facts and technical skills—including reading, writing, and arithmetic, how to draw, how to play a musical instrument, how to argue and how to assess the arguments of others, etc. The purpose of education is NOT to instill ‘values’—whether religious or secular, conservative, liberal, populist or ‘elitist’. Education is NOT social engineering for moral development or good citizenship. Education can (yes, really!) and should be value free.

  • I agree with Teddie Roosevelt (I think it was him) that to educate someone in knowledge and not in morals is to create a menace to society. Beyond that, educated citizens are fundamental to a properly functioning Republic or Democracy, and so society has a strong interest in creating them.

  • The overwhelming majority of “Christian” schools are anti-democratic in nature instead pushing for a theocracy. This is much more frequent in the “Christian” schools founded in the US post Brown V Board of Education.

    Charter schools tend to lean this way as many are run by the alt-right.

    Bottom line Dewey is and was correct. Anther truth is the corner stone of a free democratic society is free public schools protected from the evangelicals/dominionists/fundamentalists.

    The current administration and their allies are focused on the elimination of a democratic USA and the establishment of a theocracy. Trump is most likely blind to this or just does not care as his family will never be impacted by the destruction of a democratic USA.

  • There’s a difference between teaching ethics, that is getting students acquainted with a variety of ethical theories and assessing arguments for various moral (and political) claims and attempting to inculcate ‘values’. Ethics is an academic discipline, concerned with the critical assessment of ethical theories and moral claims: learning it means acquiring factual information and technical skills (in argument). In addition to Logic, LogicGuru occasionally teaches Ethics. Students are not graded on their virtue or good citizenship; they are graded on factual knowledge and, most importantly, technical skill in argumentation. Certainly ethics is something a student should learn. LogicGuru, however, is a professor, not a priest or scout leader, and is not in the business of making students better people.

  • It’s too bad for students that Republican controlled states have reduced financial support of public schools so greatly. However, it has served the Republican purpose by enabling two things: 1. Tax cuts for the rich. 2. Deterioration of public schools so the right wingers can claim a need for religious schools.

    Republicans in Congress have tried awfully hard to do the same with federal support for public schools. It’s a nasty nefarious plan to use America’s children in that way.

  • “For anyone who believes education is rightly dominated by government with the goal of socially engineering citizens to serve an elitist vision of society, the new secretary of education is going to force them to think again.”

    There it is again. Why do so many want to cast people who support religious diversity or secularism as “elites” or “elitist”? As if you must be some sort of an elitist if you don’t believe in the imposition of one religious worldview upon everyone. As a religious person that supports the values of religious freedom and secularity this country was founded upon, I am opposed to DeVos. She simply was not qualified for the job. Additionally, I fear this country (in particular this new administration) is leaning perilously towards a state-sponsored religion.

  • I notice that my post suggesting that DeVos’ ineptitude is the real issue behind her near rejection was not allowed posting status though it was respectful and entirely factual. I direct the readers here to go to Youtube and view the videos there of her congressional interviews to determine whether or not the real problem with DeVos is her “reformed viewpoint” or her ignorance, dishonesty, and political gerrymandering. As a Christian, I find her interviews before congressional leaders very embarrassing.

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