Many US schoolboard elections take place in the coming week, yet many of them have become battlegrounds.

One critic writes of “the Balkanization of the US population into distinct and rigid political groups that fight for control over what content ought to be taught in their public schools.” “Bizarre hysteria about Critical Race Theory” and bitter opposition to mask mandates are seen as proof of alarming agendas at work. 

Others see democracy at risk. Institutions which teach civics are hosting shouting matches. Community participation is at risk because board members are demonised.

The New York Times sees school boards as a new Vietnam where parents have become proxies for Republican imperialists seeking to snuff out truth, justice and the American way. Parents, it argues, have become unwitting pawns of political interests.

Incredibly, the White House helped to politicise this issue. One month ago the executives of the National School Boards Association colluded with the Biden Administration to send a public appeal to the President for intervention. This triggered a (subsequently rescinded) direction to the FBI to clamp down on “domestic terrorism and hate crimes” by parents and others against school board members. Parents have become enemies.

Despite the Washington Post railing against parental overreach, parents might indeed claim the opposite, that they are opposing the infiltration of woke values and calculating incompetence. In recent weeks parents’ rights colour debate in the  gubernatorial elections for Virginia and New Jersey that come to a head on November 2. In Virginia, education is polling as the second most important election issue. Yet in Virginia a prominent parents’ rights advocate has been suspended  by Twitter in the past week. Who is surprised?

What is to be made of all this?

Any proposal that parents should not be the primary figures responsible for the education of children ignores the lessons of history.

Quickly one glimpses the mischief wrought when parents are sidelined. In Australia there is the tragedy of the stolen indigenous generation when, over a period of the first 70 years of the 20th Century the state forcibly removed half-caste children from their parents and institutionalised them. Often this was with the best of intentions!

And when intentions are less than noble, what evil follows! Think of the stern words of warning to German parents by Pius XI in the face of the Hitler Youth and the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the League of German Girls, a parallel group to Hitler Youth):

“From the bond of responsibility established by God that binds you to your children, no earthly power can loose you. No one … will be able to answer for you to the Eternal Judge when he asks you the question, ‘Where are those I have given you?’ May every one of you be able to answer: ‘Of them you have given me, I have not lost anyone’.”

Inge Scholl was the elder sister of Hans and Sophie Scholl, university students who were executed for spreading treason against the Nazi regime. Based on her own experience of the Bund Deutscher Mädel wrote of the power of collective indoctrination to challenge parental values:

“We entered into it with body and soul, and we could not understand why our father did not approve, why he was not happy and proud. On the contrary, he was quite displeased with us; at times he would say, ‘Don’t believe them – they are wolves and deceivers, and they are misusing the German people shamefully.’ Sometimes he would compare Hitler to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who with his flute led the children to destruction. But Father’s words were spoken to the wind, and attempts to restrain us were of no avail against our youthful enthusiasm.”

Think of the evils wrought by Chinese children waving the Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution. The radical Brazilian educator Paolo Freire also looked to education to sow ideologies of revolution. And in Victoria we see this repeated in the gender ideology spruiked by the Safe Schools and similar programs seeding the upsurge of teenage girls with rapid onset gender dysphoria.

“Just another brick in the wall” sings Pink Floyd.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

Never was this more brought home to me than in my second year of teaching. From the staff room I could hear all too clearly in the adjoining classroom a disillusioned recently-divorced teacher advising the 16-year-old girls in her care never to get married.

Insights from philosophy and theology

As noted by Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom among many others, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was deliberately satirical in his proposal in The Republic that children be removed from parents. The key passage is 592b where Plato reveals that his political proposal is not possible. In another dialogue, the Laws, he explicitly upholds the role of the family.

But this is not just a question of opinion, or competing policies, but of compelling social principles. At the heart of the mutual obligations that bind us to one another in society are the five timeless principles of social justice: human dignity, common good, solidarity and participation, and subsidiarity. It is subsidiarity that recognises autonomy to be a feature of human dignity and that therefore all matters should be handled by the competent authority at the lowest level, in ways most respectful of the rights and autonomy of the individual.

It is parents who are responsible for their children and it is reasonable for them to outsource tasks in which they need assistance. Parents need experts to teach their children calculus or Shakespeare. It is not reasonable to outsource moral and character formation, sex education, and religious education to the state.

Pope John Paul II wrote that “the right and duty of parents to give education … is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others.” This is a direct consequence, the 1983 Catholic Code of Canon Law argues, “since they have given life to their children”.

The heart of the issue

It is the height of foolishness to reduce education to purely pragmatic questions, or for parents to entrust the formation of their child’s heart to someone other than themselves. It is the height of arrogance for bureaucrats or school boards to require this.

And there is one simple reason for this. A family is a school of love. Alvaro del Portillo, now beatified by the Catholic Church, coined this expression:

“It is precisely in the family – a communion of persons among whom reigns a free disinterested and generous love – the place, the context in which, more than anywhere else one learns to love. The family is a true school of love. “

Happiness in life comes down to whether or not we have successfully learned to live for others. The family is the natural place where such love is learned because it is in a family that help is given without seeking anything in return. No institution can ever offer this.

Dr Andy Mullins now works with parents and university students in Melbourne and teaches the Formation of Character course at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. He is the author of Parenting for Character...