Free Minds & Free Markets

Sloppy History in The New York Times

Who was against "government schools"?

public domainpublic domainKatherine Stewart has an op-ed in today's New York Times that purports to expose the sordid history of the phrase "government schools." The "attacks on 'government schools,'" she claims, "have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism."

How reliable a historian is Stewart? Not very. Take this passage, for just one example:

One of the first usages of the phrase "government schools" occurs in the work of...the Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge....Hodge decided that the problem lay with public schools' secular culture. In 1887, he published an influential essay painting "government schools" as "the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen."

Here's a fun fact about Archibald Alexander Hodge: He wasn't opposed to government schools. His great fear was that the schools would be secularized, and to prevent that end he wanted to keep them under strictly local control. But he didn't want to detach them from the government. As he wrote in his 1887 essay "Religion in the Public Schools," he wanted legislators to

let the system of public schools be confined to the branches of simply common school education. Let these common schools be kept under the local control of the inhabitants of each district, so that the religious character of each school may conform in all variable accidents to the character of the majority of the inhabitants of each district. Let all centralizing tendencies be watchfully guarded against.

Since Hodge is supposed to be Stewart's example of "anti-Catholic sentiment," I should note that his article actually speaks rather respectfully of Catholics. If you're looking for a cause with a special appeal to anti-Catholic bigots, look not to the critics of consolidated public education but at the public schools themselves: In that era they were often deliberately used as tools of Protestantization.

So what about those quotes in Stewart's op-ed? They appear to come from a lecture Hodge wrote around the same time, titled "The Kingly Office of Christ." The phrase "government schools" appears in it precisely once: "The Protestants object to the government schools being used for the purpose of inculcating the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and Romanists object to the use of the Protestant version of the Bible and to the inculcation of the peculiar doctrines of the Protestant churches." The other phrase that Stewart quotes comes several pages later:

I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ's reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, would be the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.

So it's not government schools per se that he thinks are the problem; it's "a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion." He's not criticizing the idea of public schools; he's criticizing centralized, secularized schools. If you're searching for someone who said "government schools" in a sneering way, this is a dead end.

As it happens, I do know of a 19th-century figure who used the phrase "governmental schools" sneeringly. What's more, he did it in 1858, three decades before the lecture that Stewart called "one of the first usages of the phrase 'government schools.'" Here's what he said:

Question.—Are you in favor of common schools being supported by government?

Answer.—I am opposed to all governmental schools. Compulsory schools are absurd and oppressive. Government should have no concern with education or religion. I would upset the system of governmental schools entirely, if I could. Schools should be supported voluntarily, as churches and ministers are. Compulsory schools are especially oppressive to Catholics.

The speaker? The prominent abolitionist Gerrit Smith, in an exchange published in William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. His sentiment shouldn't be a surprise, given the strong currents of antistatist thought in the abolitionist movement. Stewart did say something about "roots in American slavery"—does this count?

Photo Credit: public domain

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  • WakaWaka||

    Good article. You forgot to add the obligatory 'but Betsy DeVos is probably racist, nonetheless'. FYI

  • Entelechy||

    Libertarians should recall that Despair is a sin, and keep on voting.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    An historian who can't be bothered to do her research?
    Katherine Stewart should have stuck to acting in cheesy teen movies about shiny vampires. It's better to be mediocre at something than a dismal failure at something else.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is!

  • Bra Ket||

    "have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism."

    Can we work Hitler in there too?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    You know who else had an older, darker heritage?

  • BYODB||


  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Aren't ALL heritages older?

  • Red Rocks Baiting n Inciting||

    Katherine Stewart is the author of "The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children."

    Looks like we found shriek's more masculine counterpart.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I've noticed a rise in these articles purporting to link some libertarian idea to a racist or seedy origin. And I can't help but wonder, why does it matter either way? Attacking the history of an argument over the argument itself is fallacious.

    Also, more and more attacks on libertarians. Which I think is so strange considering how marginal we are.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Maclean is secretly leading a conspiracy against libertarianism.

  • Adam330||

    I've noticed this too. And it's almost always an argument made by progressives, which is particularly strange given the explicit racist origins of progressive ideology.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    It's called "projection".

  • loveconstitution1789||

    There are more and more of these "historians" and they tend to be frauds who hope nobody checks their work. Thanks for checking her work Jesse.

    Libertarianism is very dangerous to both lefties and Republicans when they think about it. To lefties, we represent strictly limiting the government they will use to force higher taxes, social programs, etc. To Republicans, we represent social freedoms and real fiscal responsibility which foils their plan to use government for their religious and social conservative agendas.

    Libertarians are really a group both the left and Republicans can unite to hate.

    If the Democratic Party really falls apart and its the GOP and the LP left standing, watch the Republican fangs really come out.

  • BYODB||

    Progressives have been re-writing history for almost 100 years now, why expect them to stop now that they're winning in every arena?

  • JFree||

    It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.
    It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.
    And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.

  • Paul Sand||

    I'm old enough to remember when it was us right-wingers who saw Commies under every bed. Today, the lefties are seeing John C. Calhoun there.

  • Mark22||

    Yuck. John C Calhoun is so ugly, I wouldn't even keep him under my bed.

  • Rebel Scum||

    "government schools"

    What else would you call schools operated by the government?

  • Longtobefree||

    "The saving grace of the nation, designed to produce proper thinking citizens who can vote as directed, and support the glorious and proper role of the federal government in controlling their lives."

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    It's funny that people who see the government as the source of all that is good--as a god--are so touchy about the word "government". It's almost as if they're aware of the stench of failure that surrounds the word.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its like the word Socialist. The left wants it to be a "good word" but there are too many pesky Libertarians pointing out why socialism is bad.

    My favorite is to point out that the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (acronym: NSDAP; English: National-Socialist German Workers' Party) Nazi.

    The Nazis were socialists and that makes lefty heads explode with anger that people point this out.

  • BYODB||

    Well they claimed to be socialists, that's for sure, although Hitler eventually had to have all the socialist leaders murdered so they would shut up about socialism. Just saying.

  • Longtobefree||

    He had all the communists (that he could find, plus a few for good measure) killed, not so sure about the socialists, because that word is hard to pin down. In terms of the national government running things, I think he was all the way there.
    However, the economic foundation of fascism is state control over the national production, with a patina of private ownership. That fits a certain US party. Specifically in healthcare, by regulation in energy.

  • Mark22||

    Well they claimed to be socialists, that's for sure, although Hitler eventually had to have all the socialist leaders murdered so they would shut up about socialism. Just saying.

    It's rather like Catholicism and protestantism: they both are pretty similar, they both claim to represent true Christianity, yet they killed each other with wild abandon.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    I like to point out that sociologists are socialists.

    And I'm happy to be labelled an anti-socialist.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Indoctrination centers?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Wretched hives of scum and villany?

  • Longtobefree||

    "Sloppy history at the New York Times" - great headline.
    how about "Sloppy New York Times", and it fits any and all items?

  • Anomalous||

    "Sloppy New York Times" sounds like a perverted sex act.

  • Longtobefree||

    For sure if the NYT is the only participant.

  • gah87||

    I'm picturing the Gray Lady in a very compromising position....

  • Mark22||

    I gather the writers at the NYT consider themselves to be cunning linguists, but can a woman actually do that to herself?

  • Principal Spittle||

    Sloppy Times in New York, "Stuffing in Anything That Will Fit"

  • geo1113||

    It isn't sloppy. It is deliberate.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its like people already forget how the media was during and after the election of 2016.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    I stopped at "anti-Catholic sentiment."

    Good catch at the end there, Walker.

  • ||

    You know you're out of good arguments when you're citing shit people said 100 years ago as an argument against opponents position.

  • Chili Dogg||

    Actually, part of the history of government schools is anti-Catholic sentiment, as proponents of government schools used their power to try to shut down Catholic schools.

  • Trainer||

    And they have pretty much succeeded.

  • Mark22||

    They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism."

    So, all progressive and Democratic causes then?

  • atheistrepublican||

    I read the article and it was nothing but ad hominem attack based on the assertion that some users of the term were once supporters of the Jim Crow South, hence opponents of government schools today must be segregationists too.

    Terrible that such poor logic finds its way to the Times's op-ed page.

  • Paul E||

    What?! The NYT purposely misrepresented a conservative in an attempt to pretend that it isn't the liberals and progressives who want to keep people in chains (literal before and figurative now)? Say it isn't so.


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