Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools

Robert Lewis Dabney

There is a strain of conservative reformed Christians who admire the 19th century Presbyterian Confederate Robert Lewis Dabney. In particular, some have looked to his writings on education as inspiration for their opposition to public schools, and in favor of private Christian schools or homeschooling. From R. J. Rushdoony and the Reconstruction movement (see “A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999), to Douglas Wilson (see “Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools“), to more recent figures like Zachary Garris (see his website “Teach Diligently”), Dabney is viewed as almost “prophetic” in his vision of what would happen to public schools in America.

Rushdoony, Wilson, Garris

Probably the most cited piece by Dabney is “Secularized Education” (1879), which has been reprinted by Douglas Wilson’s Canon Press, and was recently included as a chapter in Zachary Garris’s Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. Occasionally, other works on education by Dabney will also be cited, but almost never do any of these admirers acknowledge the white supremacy embedded at the heart of Dabney’s view of education and his opposition to public schools. Rarely, too, do they consider any of the counter arguments in existence in Dabney’s own time, counter arguments made by fellow Christians, and even fellow Presbyterians. In order to better understand Dabney’s views on education, it is necessary to situate them in context and consider all the sources.

“Civis” in the Richmond Religious Herald (1875)

Dabney’s first article on education was titled “The Negro and the Common School” and on the very first page, he says this:

You may conceive, therefore, the satisfaction with which I saw “Civis” take up the cause of truth in the columns of the Religious Herald, and subsequently in the Planter and Farmer, and my admiration for his moral courage, eloquence and invincible logic. 

Bennet Puryear / “Civis”

“Civis” was the pen-name for a Baptist professor from Richmond, Bennet Puryear. In 1875, Puryear wrote “a much-discussed series of articles opposing mass education on principle” (Maddex, The Virginia Conservatives, 211). I have not been able to locate these articles (yet!) but they seem to have appeared in the following issues:

Objections to Public Schools Considered” (1875)

Barnas Sears

Barnas Sears was one of the most influential Baptists of the nineteenth century. After serving as a professor at the Newton Theological Institution, he took over for Horace Mann as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and during Reconstruction, was General Agent of the Peabody Fund. In 1875, in response to “Civis”’s attack on public schools, Sears delivered an address defending public schools at the Annual Meeting of the Trustees of the Peabody Fund. This piece is important for demonstrating another way to approach Church/State relations and public schools from a Baptist perspective:

Objections to Public Schools Considered (October 7, 1875)

“The Public School in its Relations to the Negro” (1875–76)

Bennet Puryear followed up on his earlier articles, which had opposed public schools “on principle,” with three more articles in the Planter and Farmer opposing the education of Black people. The articles are filled with Puryear’s white-supremacist views, and it is not surprising that Dabney expressed his “satisfaction” and “admiration” for them. They originally appeared December 1875, January 1876, and February 1876, and were collected and printed in a pamphlet:

The Public School in its Relations to the Negro (1877)

Rev. Dr. John Miller (1875–76)

In “The Negro and the Common School,” Dabney also references another set of articles by fellow Presbyterian John Miller. Miller was born in Virginia, the son of Princeton professor Samuel Miller. Like Dabney, Miller too had served in the Confederacy, before moving back to the north to pastor in Princeton, NJ. Here’s what Dabney said:

With equal satisfaction I have seen the Rev. Dr. John Miller, long an honored citizen of Virginia, and a gallant soldier in her army, arguing the same truth in the Tribune, with even more than his wonted terseness, boldness and condensed logic. 

James G. Blaine

John Miller had written two articles to the New York Tribune opposing public schools. He was responding to a letter by ex-Speaker of the House James G. Blaine that had been published in the Tribune December 3, 1875 advocating for a Constitutional amendment (“The Blaine Amendment”) requiring “non-sectarian schools”:

“The Negro and the Common School” (1876)

In February 1876, Dabney finally joined the fray directly and wrote a letter for the Planter and Farmer which was published in April 1876:

“The Negro and the Common School” (1876)

The piece contains Dabney’s characteristic venomous white supremacy, but goes further and attacks the “satanic” effort to establish public schools to teach Black people in Virginia. Zachary Garris has claimed that William Ruffner, superintendent of public schools in Virginia, “attacked” Dabney after he published this piece. In fact, Dabney was the one who attacked Ruffner, in bitter and vehement terms, as we can see in Ruffner’s response.

“Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner” (1876)

William Henry Ruffner

William Henry Ruffner was a fellow Presbyterian minister, and after the Civil War, he “was the designer and first superintendent of Virginia’s public school system,” and served as state superintendent for twelve years (“William Henry Ruffner (1824–1908)“). After Dabney’s attack in “The Negro and the Common School,” Ruffner wrote a four-part series in the Richmond Enquirer and the Dispatch in April 1876, responding to Dabney’s article point by point.

  1. “Dr. Dabney and Dr. Ruffner” (April 5, 1876)
  2. “Public Schools and the Public Debt” (April 8, 1876)
  3. “Dr. Ruffner and Dr. Dabney. Educated Labor” (April 12, 1876)
  4. “Dr. Ruffner and Dr. Dabney. IV. The Negro” (April 13, 1876)

The series was later reprinted in a slightly revised and condensed version in The Educational Journal of Virginia:

“The Public Free School System: Dr. Dabney Answered by Mr. Ruffner”

Ruffner also took to the pages of the Central Presbyterian to issue an open letter to his “Dear Brother” in a more “in house” setting among fellow Presbyterians:

“Letter from Dr. Wm. H. Ruffner” (April 5, 1876)

In these letters, Ruffner references a number of articles that had been published in previous years. The first was an article he had written anonymously in The Presbyterial Critic in 1855 criticizing public schools, but he claimed he had given up those views after a rejoinder was published the following year:

In his reply to Dabney, Ruffner also references a section of his “First Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, for the year ending August 1, 1871,” addressing Black education:

Ruffner, “Emancipation and its Historical Consequences”: 92–131

Ruffner had also delivered an address in 1874 at the Grace Street Church, which was reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia:

Ruffner, “Religion in the Public Schools,” (April 1874)

Last, in his article addressing the cost of public schools, Ruffner referenced a recent article that had been printed in the Richmond Enquirer, and had been reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia

Southall, “The Cost of the Free School System in Virginia” (1876)

Dabney’s Rejoinder (1876)

Dabney, never one to walk away from a good fight, responded in kind. He published another volley of articles in the Richmond Enquirer, April 18, April 22, April 25, and May 4, 1876:

“The State Free School System Imposed Upon Virginia by the Underwood Constitution” (1876)

Ruffner’s Surrejoinder (1876)

Ruffner responded again to Dabney’s articles with a seven-part series, also in the Richmond Enquirer, throughout May 1876. These were also reprinted in The Educational Journal of Virginia. The seventh article “failed to appear in the Enquirer, because the MS. was lost in the office of that paper; and now, after an interval of three weeks, I must hurriedly reproduce it for the Journal”:

  1. Virginia School Doctrines
  2. Virginia Doctrines (continued)
  3. Illiteracy
  4. Religion in Schools
  5. The Bible in Public Schools
  6. Education and Crime
  7. Miscellaneous Points

Commissioner of Education (1877)

The Dabney/Ruffner exchange was high profile enough, that the Federal Commissioner of Education referenced it in his 1877 Report (page xxxiii):

“Education of the Colored Race”

Additionally, The Educational Journal of Virginia also carried an article addressing the controversy in general:

T. M. Logan, “The Opposition in the South to the Free School System” (1877)

More Dabney Articles (1879–80)

Virginia proceeded with their public school system, and thus Dabney “lost” that particular battle, but he would not give up the war. He continued to publish additional articles in the Princeton Review and the Southern Planter repeating many of his arguments against state involvement in education, though his Princeton Review articles (perhaps because he was publishing in a northern journal?) he left out his tirades against “the negro.” His (now) popular “Secularized Education” is largely a reprint of Letter 4 to Ruffner from 1876. His “Free Schools” article, written for a southern audience in the Southern Planter, again contains a section explicitly opposing educating Black people.

More Responses (1879–80)

In the 1879 volume of The Educational Journal of Virginia, William N. Nelson responded directly to Dabney’s article on “Free Schools,” and an unknown author responded to his “Secularized Education” in “Christianity in Public Schools.”

The next year there was a meeting of the Department of Superintendents belonging to the National Educational Association in Washington, February 18-20, 1880. In his address, Ruffner made reference to the way the old “defenders of slavery” now denied “the power of common school education” to improve the lives of laborers, especially Black people.

Dabney on State Education in Texas (1884)

It is interesting to compare Dabney’s views on State involvement in public schools for children, versus his views on State education at the college level. In 1883 Dabney moved to Texas and took a position at the University of Texas. In a letter to E. M. Palmer which was published in the Southwestern Presbyterian in 1884, Dabney defends the State’s involvement with education as not inconsistent with Christianity at all. This directly contradicts some of his earlier positions expressed in Virginia — perhaps the difference here is that State sponsored education is acceptable for well-bred white men, but not for Black children:

R. L. Dabney, “Letter to Dr. E. P. Palmer” (1884)

Conclusion

A few brief observations in conclusion. 

First, anyone who wishes to praise Dabney’s insights in education needs to reckon with the white supremacy that was at the heart of his objections to public schools. It is telling that most have not even acknowledged this.

Second, those who think Dabney was “uniquely prophetic” in his stance against public schools, should realize that Dabney was not unique, in fact, this was just one more aspect of Southern resistance to reconstruction. As the Blaine Amendment was being debated in congress in 1875, the whole country was intensely debating these questions. Dabney was just one of many, especially in the south, who opposed public schools in the midst of this debate. 

Third, before you swallow Dabney’s “insights” whole, you really need to read Barnas Sear’s perspective, and the various rebuttals, especiall William Ruffner’s. There is not one single “Christian” perspective on public schools, whatever certain very confident voices would have you believe.

Finally, as with every historical inquiry, there is always far more below the surface than you initially realize. When one sees an isolated quote, or a high-profile endorsement of Dabney’s views of “Secularized Education,” it can initially sound compelling until you dig below the surface and see what else is there. As usual, there is quite a bit of context to be reckoned with.

For Further Reading:

W.E.B. Du Bois on Separate Black Institutions

For centuries there have been Black institutions in America (Black churches, Black schools, Black organizations) which have existed in complex relationships to white institutions and the broader white society as a whole. An early example that captures some of the dynamics is Richard Allen, the white Methodist church, and the founding of the African Methodist Episocopal (AME) church:

By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.

The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen

The question of “segregation” is complex, and it really does matter whose vantage point you view it from. When wealthy and powerful white institutions enforce segregation as a means of excluding minorities from access to those resources, segregation is an evil injustice.

But when Black people voluntarily chose to leave the “white table” in order to “build their own tables” where they would be free from the dehumanizing discrimination pressed on them in these white institutions, this kind of “segregation” is a necessity, not an evil, and creates the necessary spaces for Black people to flourish, free of unjust restrictions or the white gaze. Recent years have seen a proliferation of Black-centric organizations who have grown weary of the resistance in white churches, seminaries, and organizations. The Witness, A Black Christian Collective, The Front Porch, and The Crete Collective come immediately to mind as examples who have moved away from proximity to white evangelicalism. Some have questioned this: “If having a white church is bad, then why is it okay to have a black church?” When considering this question, it’s important to note that “segregation” must viewed from at least two angles (maybe more!) and the two are asymmetrical. Who created the separation and who is responding to the separation created? Who is creating resistance and who is responding to that resistance?

In 1935 W.E.B. Du Bois published an article in the The Journal of Negro Education titled “Does the Negro need Separate Schools?” (available on JStor here). In it, Du Bois defends the existence of separate schools, but does so with a deep awareness of the complex realities facing Black people. I would suggest that many of these factors exist today, and that Du Bois’s observations are helpful for those considering, not just separate schools, but churches, seminaries, and other organizations as well.

Here are a few choice quotes:

The question which I am discussing is: Are these separate schools and institutions needed? And the answer, to my mind, is perfectly clear. They are needed just so far as they are necessary for the proper education of the Negro race. The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pupils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education in equipment and housing, and the promotion of such extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.

There are many public school systems in the North where Negroes are admitted and tolerated, but they are not educated; they are crucified. There are certain Northern universities where Negro students, no matter what their ability, desert, or accomplishment, cannot get fair recognition, either in classroom or on the campus, in dining halls and student activities, or in common human courtesy. It is well-known that in certain faculties of the University of Chicago, no Negro has yet received the doctorate and seldom can achieve the mastership in arts; at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Negroes are admitted but not welcomed; while in other institutions, like Princeton, they cannot even enroll.

Manifestly, no general and inflexible rule can be laid down. If public opinion is such in Montclair that Negro children can not receive decent and sympathetic education in the white schools, and no Negro teachers can be employed, there is for us no choice. We have got to accept Negro schools. Any agitation and action aimed at compelling a rich and powerful majority of the citizens to do what they will not do, is useless… the futile attempt to compel even by law a group to do what it is determined not to do, is a silly waste of money, time, and temper.

Recognizing the fact that for the vast majority of colored students in elementary, secondary, and collegiate education, there must be today separate educational institutions because of an attitude on the part of the white people which is not going materially to change in our time, our customary attitude toward these separate schools must be absolutely and definitely changed.

It is difficult to think of anything more important for the development of a people than proper training for their children; and yet I have repeatedly seen wise and loving colored parents take infinite pains to force their little children into schools where the white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and resented the dark child, made mock of it, neglected or bullied it, and literally rendered its life a living hell Such parents want their child to ‘fight’ this thing out,–but, dear God, at what a cost! Sometimes, to be sure, the child triumphs and teaches the school community a lesson; but even in such cases, the cost may be high, and the child’s whole life turned into an effort to win cheap applause at the expense of healthy individuality.

We shall get a finer, better balance of spirit; an infinitely more capable and rounded personality by putting children in schools where they are wanted, and where they are happy and inspired, than in thrusting them into hells where they are ridiculed and hated.

Lack of faith in Negro enterprise leads to singular results: Negroes will fight frenziedly to prevent segregated schools; but if segregation is forced upon them by dominant white public opinion, they will suddenly lose interest and scarcely raise a finger to see that the resultant Negro schools get a fair share of the public funds so as to have adequate equipment and housing; to see that real teachers are appointed, and that they are paid as much as white teachers doing the same work. Today, when the Negro public school system gets from half to one-tenth of the amount of money spent on white schools, and is often consequently poorly run and poorly taught, colored people tacitly if not openly join with white people in assuming that Negroes cannot run Negro enterprises, and cannot educate them- selves, and that the very establishment of a Negro school means starting an inferior school… but why attribute this to a defect in the Negro race, and not to the fact that the large white colleges have from one hundred to one thousand times the funds for equipment and research that Negro colleges can command?

Conceive a Negro teaching in a Southern school the economics which he learned at the Harvard Business School! Conceive a Negro teacher of history retailing to his black students the sort of history that is taught at the University of Chicago! Imagine the history of Reconstruction being handed by a colored professor from the lips of Columbia professors to the ears of the black belt! The results of this kind of thing are often fantastic, and call for Negro history and sociology, and even physical science taught by men who understand their audience, and are not afraid of the truth.

Does the Negro need separate schools? God knows he does. But what he needs more than separate schools is a firm and unshakable belief that twelve million American Negroes have the inborn capacity to accomplish just as much as any nation of twelve million anywhere in the world ever accomplished, and that this is not because they are Negroes but because they are human.

So far, I have noted chiefly negative arguments for separate Negro institutions of learning based on the fact that in the majority of cases Negroes are not welcomed in public schools and universities nor treated as fellow human beings. But beyond this, there are certain positive reasons due to the fact that American Negroes have, because of their history, group experiences and memories, a distinct entity, whose spirit and reactions demand a certain type of education for its development.

Negroes must know the history of the Negro race in America, and this they will seldom get in white institutions. Their children ought to study textbooks like Brawley’s “Short History,” the first edition of Woodson’s “Negro in Our History,” and Cromwell, Turner and Dykes’ “Readings from Negro Authors.” Negroes who celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, and the worthy, but colorless and relatively unimportant “founders” of various Negro colleges, ought not to forget the 5th of March,-that first national holiday of this country, which commemorates the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks. They ought to celebrate Negro Health Week and Negro History Week. They ought to study intelligently and from their own point of view, the slave trade, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and present economic development.

In history and the social sciences the Negro school and college has an unusual opportunity and role. It does not consist simply in trying to parallel the history of white folk with similar boasting about black and brown folk, but rather an honest evaluation of human effort and accomplishment, without color blindness, and without transforming history into a record of dynasties and prodigies.

I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate “nitwits” as a plea for segregated Negro schools and colleges. It is not. It is simply calling a spade a spade. It is saying in plain English: that a separate Negro school, where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black in the year of salvation 1935, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers, whose sole claim to superiority is ability to kick “n*****s” when they are down. I say, too, that certain studies and discipline necessary to Negroes can seldom be found in white schools.

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Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

(NOTE [2022-06-21]: a version of this post was originally written while the author was on staff at Bethlehem College & Seminary, as part of a request for the school and its leadership to reconsider their affiliation with Douglas Wilson; see “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson.” The material has since been significantly expanded in the form presented here. Since the original posting, the ACCS appears to have updated their website, re-organized, and even removed some of the previous content. Original links are provided via Wayback Machine where possible)

The Association of Christian Classical Schools is a national organization headquartered in Moscow, Idaho. It was founded by Douglas Wilson in 1994, and “provides accreditation for CCE [Classical Christian Education] schools” (see “Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson” and the Christianity Today September 2019 cover story “The Rise of the Bible-Teaching, Plato-Loving, Homeschool Elitists“).

As of March 2021, there were over 300 schools listed in their nationwide directory. A number of colleges are listed as “affiliates” of ACCS, including Bethlehem College & Seminary, Colorado Christian University, Grove City College, and Reformation Bible College. Affiliate businesses include The Davenant Latin Institute and Veritas Press. Additionally, a number of prominent evangelical figures “stand with ACCS” including Albert Mohler, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, Eric Metaxas, John Piper, and Rod Dreher, as well as ministries like the Nehemiah Institute, and Desiring God.

Background: “Christian Reconstruction,” Neo-Confederacy, and Education

Douglas Wilson founded Logos Classical School in 1981 in Moscow, Idaho. Though Wilson has resisted adopting the labels of “theonomy” or “Christian Reconstruction,” his views fit squarely within those movements, especially on education, history, and race (for more on this movement, and their views on education, history, and race, see “A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999” and the works cited there).

Thomas Roche recounts how in the 1980s, while Wilson was developing a number of idiosyncratic views, it was his role in the “classical Christian school” movement that exposed “him and his teachings to a wider audience of Christians” (Roche, “Meet the Theonomists” (2000); to find the sections devoted to Wilson, do a page search: “Wilson”). Roche notes the prominence of neo-confederates in the Christian Reconstruction movement, including PCA minister J. Steven Wilkins, who served as a leader in the League of the South, and hosted a number Confederate Heritage Conferences in the 1990s. Wilson and Wilkins were closely affiliated in those years, and their neo-confederate views were propagated through the Classical Christian School network:

…in recent years, the two men’s association has grown quite close, with all the signs pointing to a wholesale, uncritical acceptance by Wilson, of Wilkinsism. Wilson is already co-hosting Wilkinsite “American History” conferences in Moscow/elsewhere, heavily promoted to his C/A and Canon Press as well as his “Classical Christian School” clienteles.

Indeed, during the same years that Wilson was publishing his first books on education (Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning : an approach to distinctively Christian education, (1991); Repairing the Ruins : the classical and Christian challenge to modern education (1996)), he was also a featured speaker at the “Confederate Heritage Conference” which included fellow neo-confederates Michael Hill (president of The League of the South) and Steven Wilkins.

https://web.archive.org/web/20090105182211/http://www.pointsouth.com/southernheritage/5th.html

At this conference, Wilson gave a talk on “Why the War Never Ended” (see “CONFEDERATE HERITAGE CONFERENCE REVIEW: REVIEWING AND RENEWING OUR SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN HERITAGE“). In the talk, Wilson connected the themes of neo-Confederacy and education:

Mr. Wilson rejected the notion that history as recorded by men is unbiased. This is no less true in the history of the War Between the States…

He said that remembering God’s faithfulness in the past not only gives hope in the present but also provides us with a link covenantally to our fathers – one we need to pass down to our children. They need to be anticipating God’s hand in their lives through the study of history.

As his lecture title suggested, he argued that the War, in its real issues (i.e. state sovereignty vs. strong central government, etc.), is still being waged. He pointed out the “Tenth Amendment Movement” in many of the Western states and said that the federal government is weakening under its own weight.

As you can see already, the contemporary relevance of the meeting became clear from the beginning. The ideas presented as the speeches went forward grew into a living vision with potential to reshape the country into what our forefathers planted.

In his second speech., “The Blue and Grey in Black and White,” Mr. Wilson delineated the issues of the War and how the War should be fought today. Our battle is now a battle of ideas, he said.

Though Douglas Wilson has often protested that he is not a “neo-confederate” preferring instead the label “paleo-confederate.” See, for example, his interview with Molly Worthen at Christianity Today (“The Controversialist”):

Although he believes that “the South was right on all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the war,” Wilson has repeatedly declared that he is no neo-Confederate. He prefers the label paleo-Confederate.

“You’re not going to scare me away from the word Confederate like you just said ‘Boo!'”Wilson says. “I would define a neo-Confederate as someone who thinks we are still fighting that war. Instead, I would say we’re fighting in a long war, and that [the Civil War] was one battle that we lost.”

Worthen, “The Controversialist” (2009)

Note again the title of Wilson’s lecture at the Confederate Heritage Conference: “Why the War Never Ended.” By Wilson’s own definition, this is neo-confederacy.

Back in 2000, Thomas Roche made a prediction that has since proved true:

If I had to call odds on it, I would say that Wilson and his associates, being somewhat more mainstream and very much more connected to a mass audience through his Christian education work, will end up the most powerful player, and will not use the term “theonomy.”

“Most Parents Aren’t Aware”

In 2002, Preston Jones, professor of history at John Brown University, published an article on classical Christian schools (“Christian Classical Learning” pp. 12–13). Jones noted Wilson’s role in the classical Christian education movement and the founding of ACCS, but suggested that “If the Christian classical schools movement is going to be taken seriously in the academic world in the long run, its members would probably do well to distance themselves from some of their current leaders.” He noted Wilson’s views on southern slavery, and the book Southern Slavery as it Was, co-authored by “a neo-Confederate Presbyterian minister and League of the South leader named J. Steven Wilkins.” This book, published by Wilson’s publishing house Canon Press, “maintains, among other things, that the antebellum South was, literally, a holy land and that slavery bred mutual respect between the races— indeed, that relations between blacks and whites were never better than in the South before the Civil War.” (For a detailed refutation of Wilson/Wilkins, see “Southern Slavery as it Wasn’t: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation“; see also the references to Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins in Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward Sebesta, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (University of Texas Press, 2008).

Jones noted that “Wilkins has been a speaker at major conferences of the ACCS, and at their national conference in Memphis last June were featured the wares of a neo-Confederate vendor.” He did note that “most of the parents who send their children to schools affiliated with the ACCS aren’t aware of the nature of some of the leaders’ views.”

ACCS Denied Accreditation (2016)

In 2016 ACCS was denied accreditation in the state of Tennessee specifically because of Douglas Wilson and his views on race, slavery, and other issues (“Bill yanked after school group founder’s views on slavery, homosexuals, adultery revealed”). However, it appears that in 2019, Tennessee reversed course and granted accreditation to ACCS member schools (Tennessee HB1392).

In 2016, the current president, David Goodwin, tried to address some of the controversy surrounding Wilson and create some distance between the organization and its founder (“A Response to ‘Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson’”). Though Rachel Miller’s article explicitly references Wilson’s views on “theology, history, slavery, patriarchy, marriage, and sex,” Goodwin chose to sidestep these issues, referring only generally to the “theological debates that have involved Mr. Wilson” and noting that “Mr. Wilson certainly offers food for thought.”

Goodwin says that Wilson, “takes specific care not to exert influence on the ACCS.” However, it is interesting to note that:

  • Wilson was listed as an “Educator in Residence” at ACCS until October 2021 (Wayback Machine: “ACCS Leadership“)
  • Wilson is featured as a plenary speaker every year at their national “Repairing the Ruins” conference (here’s the 2022 lineup, which includes Voddie Baucham, Carl Trueman, Joe Rigney, alongside Douglas Wilson; past and future speakers include Al Mohler, Rosaria Butterfield, and Joel Beeke)
  • Three out of their top five  recommended books are by Wilson, more than any other author on the page. 
  • If you wish to know “What is CCE [Classical Christian Education]?” and click “Read About It” one of Wilson’s books is considered “Foundational for new teachers and parents.”
  • At least as recently as May 2021, Douglas Wilson’s affection for the white-supremacist Robert Lewis Dabney was also reflected in ACCS book recommendations (see Wayback Machine: “Recommended Readings”), which includes the Canon Press republication of Dabney’s “Secularized Education.” (For those needing to get caught up, here’s “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?”). However, some might think “just because someone has bad ideas in one area (white supremacy) doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas in another (education).” Unfortunately, Dabney’s views of education were thoroughly influenced by his white supremacy (see “Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools“). Sean Michael Lucas notes in his biography of Dabney that after the Civil War, Dabney opposed public education and particularly the education of the formerly enslaved people of the south. He thought public education was “heretical” because of its “leveling impulse” because “God had ordained a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors.” He also objected “for fears of racial mixing” and opposed the philosophy that “claims to make the blacks equal, socially and politically, to the most respectable whites” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 182–86). It’s disturbing to see Dabney’s work on education recommended by the ACCS, though I’m sure this has been edited of any overtly racist sentiment before republishing (NOTE: as of this date [2022-06-21] it appears that ACCS has removed all references to Dabney from their site).
  • Douglas Wilson’s Omnibus curriculum is used in a number of ACCS schools (a quick search [in 2021] of of the school listing found schools from California, to Minnesota, to Missouri, to Maine using this curriculum). Consistent with Wilson’s views of southern slavery, the curriculum includes an assignment asking students to: “Write a letter to a friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well.” (Omnibus III).

Conclusion

Nearly twenty years after Preston Jones wondered if the Classical Christian Education movement might want to “distance themselves from some of their current leaders,” there are no signs of that happening. In fact, ACCS has become more and more mainstream and has found support from several prominent figures. Back in 2002, Jones assumed that Wilson’s views “aren’t widely taught in ACCS schools.” That may be true. Parents, however, may wish to do a little homework of their own, asking about the level of affiliation and influence of Douglas Wilson before entrusting the formation of their children to an ACCS school.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)

Review: The Messianic Character of American Education

The Messianic Character of American Education by Rousas John Rushdoony

A presuppositional critique of the history of philosophy of education in America

This is a thick book: 400 pages, every one densely packed with names and philosophies of education covering the last 200 years in American education. This book appears on several reading lists (for example in Douglas Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning), as a devastating critique of the philosophy of the American education system.

This book is “an historical and analytical study of the philosophies of education in state education in the United States.” (x) He starts out with a couple of chapters of historical introduction, stretching all the way back to Rome and then later Scholasticism, and explains how “the university gradually developed its concept of academic freedom, that is, an independent authority for reason and scholarship which made it responsible to none other, and its concept of the redemptive, authoritative and power-endowing nature of knowledge, of reason, of university and school.” (17)

He then jumps into the American history of the philosophy of education, and doesn’t come up for air until the end of the book. 21 of the 28 chapters are each devoted to a particular figure in this history, starting with Horace Mann, and including men like William Harris, Francis Parker, Wiliam James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey.

Each chapter is heavy on original source quotes, so you can read for yourself the sort of language and philosophy that has shaped education in America. This is important, because if you couldn’t see it with your own eyes, you would be tempted to write Rushdoony off as a crackpot conspiracy theorist. His title “The Messianic Character,” put me on guard initially, that maybe he is taking this a little too far, but page after page, quote after quote, from figure after figure and eventually you cry out “Okay! I get it! your point is incontrovertible.”

This history of American education has been shaped by men and women who believed in the innate goodness of man, and his ability to reach utopia through education. They themselves use religious, messianic, salvation language when describing the process of education, specifically apart from the God of the Bible. When you see how these men were the professors of teacher’s colleges, and held positions in federal and state Education departments, you see how we have reached our present condition.

I appreciate the hardcore presuppositionalist reconstructionists for this: they boldly take on ungodly philosophies from the foundation up, and spare nothing in exposing them for what they really are. The Bahnsen/Stein debate is another classic example of this. While I don’t agree with the solution that they posit (theonomy, reconstructionism), their critiques are devastating and extremely helpful, and pave the way for a more truly Biblical solution. I want them on my demolition team, even if I don’t ask them to help me rebuild 🙂

One final note, Rushdoony is hard to read. His sentences are often tangled syntactical messes, and his paragraphs often extend for 3-4 pages in length. Here’s an example that I noted for it’s sheer convolutedness:

“In Idealism, God, however exalted in rhetoric, nevertheless, especially since Hegel, labors mightily merely to bring forth the new universal, man. In Horne, this strange “God” was still on the stage; in Dewey, having brought forth the child of destiny, man, this “God,” like a salmon whose life ends with spawning, faded quietly out of the picture.”

Dozens of names, dates, places, and quotes, combined with the difficult style of Rushdoony’s writing, makes this a laborious read. Nevertheless, if you want to understand the history of the philosophy of American education, this is the book to tackle, if you must!