Whose Children? Rethinking Schools and Education

A review of Frank Schnorbus’ 2014 article, by Brian Ray.

Many Americans are too busy watching “the big football game” or working two jobs to make ends meet to think about why certain things are being done to their children in public – state-run – schools.

Frank Schnorbus, however, in his recent journal piece “Whose Children? Rethinking Schools and Education,”[1] brings a pithy and thought-provoking explanation of government schooling to parents and scholars. What does his whirlwind historical and philosophical overview tell us? Many things. Here are just a few.

The scholar’s opening excerpt sets the stage:

  While our American school system may have the appearance of a static and unchanging institution, it is not. “Fix our failing schools!” has been the steady mantra from school reformers of all stripes for more than one hundred years. Convinced that the Civil War would not have happened if there had been a public education system to help us understand one another, public school advocates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries lobbied state legislatures to fund schools and also to pass laws to compel attendance at those schools. Inspired by the success of school reformers of seventeenth century totalitarian Prussia, these visionaries successfully reproduced the government-controlled German system that appeared to render obedient citizens with morals and academics. Government, however, was the latecomer in education (p. 1).

State vs. Church vs. Parents

The author then traces the origins of the modern state school system. He shows that because of the incongruent objectives of parents, the Church, and the state a satisfactory balance of their interests can never be attained. Schnorbus argues “… that the system must be replaced, not repaired, for true education to occur” (p. 1). To do this, he explains that education and schooling are not the same. Along these lines, he quotes Mark Twain as saying, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” (p. 1). Further, all “… 50 states compel school attendance, but not one has a law requiring an education for a child. The debate we have today over schools and education has not occurred spontaneously” (p. 1).

The reader might be surprised that we can trace our modern compulsory public school system to “… pre-Enlightenment Prussia (current-day Germany) when Martin Luther considered popular education to be a crucial component to the success of the Reformation. Protestant town councils passed ordinances forming schools of religious indoctrination, and Catholic princes followed suit, shocked by the rapid spread of Protestantism” (p. 1-2). These schools, however, merely provided instruction in the articles of faith, “religion,” with much reliance on music, oral recitation, and memorization. With literacy less than 10% in many places, many parents responded by forming small “… secret schools that were both non-franchised and illegal. Teaching utilitarian ‘three Rs’ academics, these popular ‘corner’ or ‘hidden’ schools taught both boys and girls alike, and by the late 16th century were competitive with the state-sanctioned religious schools “ (p. 2).

Eventually, much Christian education spread throughout Prussia. The Pietist Christians believed that education should be offered and encouraged “… voluntarily and through conviction, not mechanically or through coercion” (p. 2).

The State Cannot Trust Parents

It was not long, however, before state officials became very interested in “education.” “The king’s officials felt that while the traditional concerns for the instillation of morality by the school was important, even more important to the government for their economic and political values were the Pietist work ethic and social conduct outcomes” (p. 2). The next step and sentiment, which is heard repeated today in the United States and beyond, was natural:

 [t]hough … Joseph Sonnenfels … professor of cameralistics at the University of Vienna, admitted that “the education of children is to be sure a parental duty,” he also stated, “but because education is so important to the common good, the state cannot afford to leave it solely in the hands of the family. (p. 2)

To follow through on this, many then argued that the state must have the authority to take children from the home and family and place them in institutions controlled by the state.[3] The following then happened:

 When Frederick the Great signed the very first comprehensive compulsory school law in 1763, he also assumed responsibility and authority over all schools within his kingdom, including church schools. The transition of educational responsibility from the parent to the church and then to the state, was complete. (p. 2)

Soon thereafter, school reformers all over the world were admiring this German system. “Horace Mann, the ‘father of American public education,’ said Prussian children were ‘taught to think for themselves’ …, whereas Massachusetts children were ‘taught NOT TO THINK’ …” (p. 2). Other Americans, including a U.S. president, thought these strong-state practices in education could be safely enacted on U.S. soil. Others such as economist Friedrich Hayek, however, disagreed and said “… that such a government ‘would inevitably become totalitarian in character’ …” (p. 2).

History progressed with arguments between those who wanted government control of children’s education and those who did not. Schnorbus then discusses the interests of the church, the state, and the family in a child’s education. Eventually, by about 1900, most U.S. children were in state schooling for large portions of the year.

The Contradictory Concept of Compulsion in a “Free Society”

The author bring his piece to a close by saying that he has alluded to “… the impact of a Prussian-style compulsory school system on individual rights and liberties in a free society” (p. 5). He also points out that many “… people have questioned the contradictory concept of compulsion by the state in a free society, including John Holt, an advocate for home education in the 1970s and 1980s …” (p. 5).

Mr. Schnorbus’ conclusion is succinct and clear.

The crisis in American education today is the result of blindly throwing money and legislation at an institution that does not serve the parents of children, the Church, the state, and most importantly the children themselves who are compelled to participate. Nobel prize winning physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who was born and schooled in Germany, said the following in 1946:

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty (p. 5).

The author leaves the reader with a final challenge. Pulling together the coherent conclusion of liberty-loving people, he concludes that the schools into which U.S. parents place 87% of their children should not be supported. “Compulsion and coercion, the trademarks of totalitarian governments and our government public school systems, are anathema to true education” (p. 5). One should keep in mind, however, this applies to far more nations than the United States.

The history and clear thinking of Mr. Schnorbus should help bolster the courage and resolve of every parent and citizen who values the concept of “a free nation” and biblical thinking.


–Brian D. Ray, Ph.D.

National Home Education Research Institute


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[1] Schnorbus, Frank. (2014). Whose children? Rethinking schools and education. Home School Researcher, 30(1), p. 1-6.

[2] Every person, whether a researcher, journalist, academic, policymaker, judge, carpenter, or nurse, has a worldview or weltanschauung. Examples of worldviews are atheism, Buddhism, Christianity/scripturalism, communitarianism, critical theory, Islam, metaphysical naturalism, Mormonism, queer theory, Roman Catholicism, scientism, socialism, and statism.

[3]  Some still argue today, as pointed out before in these messages from NHERI, that no education/schooling should exist that is not controlled by the State.