In 1879 Robert Lewis Dabney penned an essay fittingly named “Secularized Education” for Libby’s Princeton Review. Dabney’s essay addressed his concerns about the changing nature of education during the nascent Gilded Age. He served as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia before moving to the University of Texas in 1883. Dabney ‘s body of work and his teaching prowess made their mark in his own time and his voluminous works continue to be read by historians and some theologians; his Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology ran to 887 pages of text. Dabney’s support for the Confederacy and comfort with biblical defenses of slaveholding understandably cause modern historians and theologians to treat his works with caution. Nonetheless his erudition and vision of education deserve consideration in an era when educational institutions are fighting for mission, stability, and even their existence in the face of growing societal iconoclasm and increasingly ossified ideologies that control state universities.
The late international studies professor Angelo Codevilla argued that the modern Western ruling class had been formed by “an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits.” The taste and habits that inculcated university students over the last half-century “amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints.” The use of certain appropriate terms and the avoidance wrong ones when referring to important cultural or social matters–what Codevilla called speaking the “in” language–ultimately “serves as a badge of identity” to maintain proper socio-cultural credentials in the regime.
Dabney, like Codevilla after him, understood that true liberal education was not credentialization in the service of maintaining a regime, but something entirely different. State education, warned Dabney, increasingly became education in the service of a faction. Buzzwords and faddish intellectual constructions were not transcendent or oriented towards the permanent things, but instead relied on unstable and quixotic societal moments and the state’s official approbation to maintain their place in intellectual life. The permanent things that underpinned a true liberal education—goodness, beauty, and truth—all had divine origins, and so the truly educated person must understand the divine and theistic origins of learning. State-paid teachers who scrupulously avoided affirming or denying divinely-created good, truth, and beauty would ultimately reduce their teaching to mere rudiments of what constituted an education. An education regime that rejected or was agnostic on the question of the divine ultimately would have to be silent on the very foundations of liberal education. And the state, said Dabney, would mandate that silence. Liberal democratic societies, he warned, would become more censorious than despotic Rome ever was.
Codevilla and Dabney believed that that the best way to mitigate the power of the state to censure intellectual life was to keep parents involved in their children’s educations. “Natural families,” wrote Codevilla, represented affections “into which government has difficulty intruding, and natural families educated the children they produce.” Because of this, the modern state and its education bureaucracy subaltern has done “its best to undermine marriage and to take as much authority from parents as it can.” Robert Lewis Dabney argued that while both parents and state educators were imperfect, the state could not feel parental love and would never be as self-denying and self-sacrificing as a parent. State-education, therefore, had no right or reason to assume the duties or prerogatives of parents.