The Elephant in the Classroom
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
An audio version of this post is available on YouTube, Spotify, Anchor.fm, and elsewhere.
There is an elephant in the room - the public school classroom and the living room of most homes in the West. And it has to do with a book that has gone missing.
In recent years loud voices have decried what they claim are serious omissions in our teaching of history. What none of them realize, or perhaps simply ignore or deny, is that one single book is most responsible for the very best of our past and present: the rights we demand, the prosperity and advancements we cherish, and the freedoms we often take for granted - and that one single book has long been removed from our teaching of history and civics - and it shows.
We cannot both ignore this book and retain our rights, prosperity, and freedoms because it, and the thinkers it inspired, contain the keys to perpetuating what is most precious to us. Any other books or ideas we want to add to the curriculum must first get in line behind this one. This one book holds the key to the progress those loud voices yearn for.
Modern-day Book Burning
"It is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations."
Those words were written by Robert M. Hutchins in his introduction to Brittanica's 1952 publication of the 50+ volume "Great Books of the Western World" series - an attempt by the faculty of the University of Chicago to identify and make available the most important ideas that made our civilization possible. They may sound familiar - they are paraphrased in Ray Bradbury's classic on censorship, Fahrenheit 451, published the following year. (Adler & Hutchins, 1952)
The specter of book burning, or banning rather, erupted into popular consciousness again last week with a Tennessee county school board's 10-0 decision to eliminate the graphic novel Maus from its middle school curriculum because it contains objectionable language and nudity. Sales of the book on Amazon subsequently skyrocketed, making it the #3 bestseller in nonfiction. An online furor ensued over what opponents denounced as yet another effort to hide uncomfortable parts of history.
Much of the attention was focused on actions in red states and by conservative parents (see Google's page 1 search results nearby).
To its credit, The New York Times pointed out that the situation isn't isolated to one side of the political spectrum:
"In the [~60% Democrat] Mukilteo School District in Washington State", the Times reported, "the school board voted to remove 'To Kill a Mockingbird' — voted the best book of the past 125 years in a survey of readers conducted by The New York Times Book Review — from the ninth-grade curriculum at the request of staff members. Their objections included arguments that the novel marginalized characters of color, celebrated 'white saviorhood' and used racial slurs dozens of times without addressing their derogatory nature." (Harris & Alter, 2022)
Technically, of course, none of these books are really being "banned." They are simply being removed from required reading lists in schools, or in extreme cases, from an isolated school library. They are readily available for purchase online and at local public libraries.
The debate over curriculum and what to include and exclude has become increasingly contentious in just the past few years. Some voices accuse parents or educators of wanting to "white-wash history" or omit the dark and painful aspects of our past.
Much attention has been focused on parental rights vs. the state's interest in providing a broad education. After all, it was none other than John Locke, in his seminal Second Treatise on Government, who articulated the duty and right of parents to "inform the minds" of their children:
"The power, then, that parents have over their children, arises from that duty which is incumbent on them, to take care of their offspring, during the imperfect state of childhood. To inform the mind, and govern the actions of their yet ignorant nonage, till reason shall take its place, and ease them of that trouble, is what the children want, and the parents are bound to: for God having given man an understanding to direct his actions, has allowed him a freedom of will, and liberty of acting, as properly belonging thereunto, within the bounds of that law he is under. But whilst he is in an estate, wherein he has not understanding of his own to direct his will, he is not to have any will of his own to follow: he that understands for him, must will for him too; he must prescribe to his will, and regulate his actions; but when he comes to the estate that made his father a freeman, the son is a freeman too." (Locke, 1952, emphasis added)
Yet, it was Aristotle who said, "legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them", though there is much to say about what is meant by "make" and what is meant by "good." (Aristotle, Ethics, Book II, 1103b:5)
I suspect most Americans favor a broadly inclusive view of what must be read by citizens in a free country, while also favoring caution and judgment about what material should be introduced at what age.
As a STEM professional, I think our K-12 standards focus far too much time on, say, certain minutiae of mathematics that virtually no student will ever use and glaringly exclude core concepts of history and philosophy that are essential to citizenship, i.e. every single student.
Read More, Not Less
Liberty for the common man and woman is a historical aberration. An open and vigorous exchange of ideas is essential to maintaining the freedoms that "cost oceans of blood and treasure" to win. Our anemic approach to history, the spirit of book banning, the moves to deplatform content creators, and the cancel culture in our broader society that has snowballed in the past few years are counterproductive to that end.
Hutchins, who I quoted earlier, had this to say:
"The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race." (Adler & Hutchins, 1952)
Hutchins argued that a broad liberal education for all citizens is essential and decried its decline beginning, in his estimation, at the onset of the 20th century.
He cited it as the cause of "the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western Civilization seems to be taking" and warns that "the disappearance of great books from education and from the reading of adults constitutes a calamity." He continues:
"Education in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in material comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone." (ibid)
The result, Hutchins laments, is a citizenry that:
"assumes that we can leave all intellectual activity, and all political responsibility, to somebody else and live our lives as vegetable beneficiaries of the moral and intellectual virtue of other men. The trouble with this assumption is that, whereas it was once possible, and even compulsory, for the bulk of mankind, such indulgence now, on the part of anybody, endangers the whole community." (ibid)
"Vegetable beneficiaries?" Ouch.
The antidote, Hutchins pointed out, is that "reading and understanding great books will give [the reader] a standard by which to judge all other books." He then goes on to warn that:
"...the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. ... The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall a prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves." (ibid)
Everything I shared above by Hutchins was written seventy years ago when the amount of information and the number of voices the regular citizen is exposed to was minuscule compared to today. How much more applicable are his words now?
Let us turn our attention then to two inconvenient truths.
First, both sides of the political spectrum appear to struggle with participating in and allowing the full-throated debate required to perpetuate a liberal democracy. How many of us have read Maus? Or for that matter, Plato, Aristotle, Montesquieu, Locke, Gibbon, or Marx? How many of us have discussed their ideas with our peers? Our children? Might it be more advisable to read and discuss more, instead of insisting that ideas we disapprove of be made less available?
The Single Most Important Book
Second, there is one book that more than any other is foundational to western democracy and yet is taught in few of her classrooms. The Judeo-Christian Bible is where our present notions of human dignity, human rights, self-evident truths, natural law, equality theory, due process, jurisprudence, and even science come from.
For example, it is the Judeo-Christian doctrines of mankind being created in God's image, the duties he imposes upon his creations, and the prohibitions he places on our actions towards one another that give us dignity and rights. Without those doctrines, we are nothing more than meat sacks hurtling through space with no more dignity or rights to speak of than a goat, chicken, snail, or pebble.
Christianity expanded on the Greco-Roman concept of natural law by tying it to God's created order in nature by which he made man aware of right and wrong. Christian theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and others, continued to build on and further articulate and spread these ideas.
In the late 17th century, Locke tied natural law to government and natural rights - and cites scripture throughout in support of his claims.
Thomas Jefferson leaned heavily on Locke in his authoring of The Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, arguably a deist in the 18th-century sense, said of the teachings of Jesus, "a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen" and "I am a real Christian." (Jefferson & Mayo, 1998)
The Declaration refers to the God of Christianity not only as Creator, but to His roles as supreme executive, legislator, and judge. Montesquieu's notion of the separation of these powers was based on the idea that only God was capable of performing all three without being corrupted.
James Madison, called "the father of the Constitution," borrowed heavily from Montesquieu who said, "[W]e shall see that we owe to Christianity, in government, a certain political law; and in war, a certain law of nations; benefits which human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge." (Montesquiey & Nugent, 1949)
John Adams, second president of the United States and one of the signers of the Declaration, saw the American government as "grounded on reason, morality, and the Christian religion." (Adams, 1856)
Historian Ellis Sandoz said that Christianity has been given the "short shrift in recent political discussions," yet, "it constitutes the deepest bases forever asserting that there ought to be democracy or self-rule by the people."
Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the brilliant and sweeping 18th-century tome, Democracy in America, said, "Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other."
None of this is to say that the Declaration or Constitution are Christian documents or that America is a Christian nation, per se, but rather that the civil liberties we enjoy today were only possible because of the Christian values that influenced the authoring of these documents and the founding of our nation.
Separation of Church and State
What about the separation of church and state? It is Christianity itself that insists on freedom of religion and thought. In Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, he states that "toleration [is] the chief characteristic mark of [Christianity]" and that:
"The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ...that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light."
"I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care for the commonwealth."
So we see that the separation of church and state is both impossible and essential. Impossible in that our moral foundations always dictate our political structures. Essential in that Christianity relinquishes any insistence on coercion as the means to convince men and women how they should live or govern.
One of the Great Books
If the Bible is so important, why then did Hutchins and the rest of the University of Chicago faculty who selected the 50+ volumes of the "Great Books of the Western World" not include the Bible? To this Hutchins responded:
"Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unnecessary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already. References to the Bible are, however, included...under the appropriate topics in the [2,400+ page] Syntopicon [a topical index in two volumes]." (Adler & Hutchins, xvii)
It bears repeating that the notions of personal freedoms and individual responsibility are heavily influenced by Christianity. Malcolm Muggeridge, the socialist English journalist who converted to Christianity stated, "We must not forget that our human rights are derived from the Christian faith." Without that foundation, rights must necessarily be granted by the state - and the state can take them away. (Muggeridge, 2003)
Beyond the Political
Christianity's influence is not limited to the West's political institutions. In his foreword to Alvin J. Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World (which I highly recommend), Paul L. Maier, professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, said this:
"Even knowledgeable believers will be amazed at how many of our present institutions and values reflect a Christian origin. Not only countless individual lives but civilization itself was transformed by Jesus Christ.
"In the ancient world, his teachings elevated brutish standards of morality, halted infanticide [such as the throwing of unwanted babies into lakes and latrines], enhanced human life, emancipated women, abolished slavery, inspired charities and relief organizations, created hospitals, established orphanages, and founded schools.
"In medieval times, Christianity almost single-handedly kept classical culture alive through recopying manuscripts, building libraries, moderating warfare through truce days, and providing arbitration. It was Christians who invented colleges and universities, dignified labor as a divine vocation, and extended the light of civilization to barbarians on the frontiers.
"In the modern era, Christian teaching, properly expressed, advanced science, instilled concepts of political and social and economic freedom, fostered justice, and provided the greatest single source of inspiration for the magnificent achievements in art, architecture, music, and literature that we treasure to the present day." (Schmidt, 2004)
Maier points out that even our vaunted "secular morality could hardly have been possible without a prior Judeo-Christian ethic that influenced generation after generation." He concludes:
"No other religion, philosophy, teaching, nation, movement - whatever - has so changed the world for the better as Christianity has done." (Schmidt, 2004)
And yet, how many of our public schools incorporate the Bible in their teaching of history and civics? It has been effectively banned by being removed from the curriculum almost universally. Left unread.
The omission is anything but benign. Untethered from the source of our most cherished ideals, the human heart and mind easily and naturally wander. Unfamiliar with how many iterations of the civilization game have already been played, we are guaranteed to repeat old errors and pay again the price paid by previous generations to learn lessons we're discarding.
Sans Bible, Babel
Just last month, Dr. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist and college professor turned worldwide phenomenon declared:
"Culture is a structure...that we all share. We see things the same way. That's why we can talk... Roughly speaking, we have a bedrock of agreement. That's the Bible, by the way." (Peterson & Rogan, 2022)
I'm not calling for the preaching of religion in public schools any more than admonitions to include the Aeneid, the Illiad, or the Odyssey is preaching the religion of Virgil or Homer, but if we really want to know our history, the Bible cannot be excluded.
Without the Bible as our cultural foundation, we literally begin speaking different languages. Already we see different, even opposite, definitions of words confounding our public discourse. Words like critical, justice, equality, equity, diversity, inclusion, racism - even man and woman.
Dr. James Lindsay, an atheist, progressive, liberal has gone as far as to publish Translations from the Wokish to help people navigate the change in our language.
The Imperfect Christian Past
But what about the grievous abuses and man's inhumanity to man during the past two thousand years? What about the terrible things done in Christianity's name? Every good thing can be corrupted and abused. Moreover, historically, inhumanity is the norm, not the exception. What's exceptional is mankind's rise above inhumanity as a result of the ideas taught in the Bible and the other great works of the West.
For all its flaws, the West has been the greatest civilization ever. Slavery, poverty, hunger, and ignorance have been drastically reduced in the space of just a few lifetimes. Freedoms and rights have been expanded for greater numbers of people and for longer than at any other time in history. The Bible and Christianity are central to that success.
A Cultural Canon
Perhaps Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom said it best, "Aggressively policing books for inappropriate content and banning titles could limit students’ exposure to great literature, including towering canonical works." (Harris & Alter, 2022)
Canonical? An interesting choice of words. A canon is:
a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged
a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine
If we don't understand and perpetuate the ideas that form the basis of our civilization, the loss of that civilization is inevitable. And not only inevitable but purposely sought by those who seek to replace classical liberalism with a different worldview - those who seek a different world altogether.
What's the Alternative?
Karl Marx, for one, sought such a world and so have the proponents of ideologies that Marxism spawned, such as Leninism, Stalinism, Gramsci's Cultural Marxism, the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory, Maoism, Derrida and Foucault's Postmodernism, Collins and hooks' Black Feminism, Crenshaw's Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory, and Kendi's Anti-Racism. Arguably, it is these ideas that are, at present, in greatest competition with the traditional liberal ideals of the West. Pro-CRT authors, Delgado and Stefanicic, wrote, for example:
"Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law."
In other words, CRT, like the other ideologies rooted in Marxism, seeks to replace the Greco-Roman-Christian-based foundations of society with something very different. Their primary tool is not an appeal to individual responsibility and effort (as was advocated for by the Stoic Greeks and Christians), but criticism - relentless criticism of the shortcomings of society and the insistence that others change.
Most ironic, perhaps, is that the shortcomings they vilify are the very inequalities that the ideals of Athens and Jerusalem have already done so much to correct - more than any other worldview especially those based in Marxism. Christianity, based on persuasion, recognizes that changing human hearts is a centuries-long process. Marxism insists on the revolution now and allows for, even insists on, coercion.
Much has been said in the past several years about the need to teach more of our history. Let's start with the history that is grounded in liberty, choice, responsibility, equality, charity, and a common humanity. Let's start with the history that has benefited billions in the past, every single one of us living now in the West (and beyond), and has the potential to benefit billions more.
We have left the Great Books - especially the Bible - unread for far too long. Too many of our citizens assume that the world those ideas built is the historical norm. It is not. We must teach more of history, not less, and we must include the ideas that made our world possible. Then, at least, we'll be able to meaningfully participate in The Great Conversation and better evaluate the alternative ideas pounding at our doors.
Where do We Start?
If you're wanting to take the next step but aren't sure where to go, there are some excellent resources online to help you get started. Hillsdale College, for example, has
free online courses to help guide you through the classics. Here are just a few:
Adams, J. (1856). The Works of John Adams. Little, Brown & Co.
Adler, M. J., & Hutchins, R. M. (1952). The Great Conversation (1952 ed., Vol. 1, Ser. Great Books of the Western World). Encyclopaedia Britannica. A later version is available online here, but has been revised since the 1952 print version.
Adler, M. J., & Hutchins, R. M., Aristotle (1952). The Works of Aristotle (1952 ed., Vol. 9, Ser. Great Books of the Western World). Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Adler, M. J., & Hutchins, R. M., Locke, John (1952). A letter concerning toleration; Concerning civil government, second essay; An essay on human understanding (1952 ed., Vol. 1, Ser. Great Books of the Western World). Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Delgado, R., Stefancic, J., & Harris, A. P. (2017). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Harris, E. A., & Alter, A. (2022, January 30). Book ban efforts spread across the U.S. The New York Times. Retrieved February 9, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/books/book-ban-us-schools.html
Jefferson, T., & Mayo, B. (1998). Jefferson himself: The personal narrative of a many-sided American. University Press of Virginia.
Montesquieu, B. D., & Nugent, T. (1949). The Spirit of the Laws. Hafner.
Muggeridge, M. (2003). The End of Christendom. Wipf & Stock Publ.
Peterson, J. B., & Rogan, J. (2022, January 25). Jordan Peterson's realization about the Bible. Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. Retrieved February 9, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt9K6kmpx44
Sandoz, Ellis. (1990). A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding. Baton Rouge: Louisianna State University Press.
Schmidt, A. J. (2004). How Christianity changed the world. Zondervan.
Tocqueville, Alexis de (1851). The Republic of the United States of America and Its Political Institutions, Reviewed and Examined, trans. Henry Reeves. New York, NY: A. S. Barnes.