In Baltimore I attended a good private school. It was purely secular; and in it I learned nothing about the Bible or the great things of our Christian faith. But I did not need to learn about those things in any school; for I learned them from my mother at home. That was the best school of all; and in it, without any merit of my own, I will venture to say that I had acquired a better knowledge of the contents of the Bible at twelve years of age than is possessed by many theological students of the present day. The Shorter Catechism was not omitted. I repeated it perfectly, questions and answers, at a very tender age; and the divine revelation of which it is so glorious a summary was stored up in my mind and heart. When a man has once come into sympathetic contact with that noble tradition of the Reformed Faith, he will never readily be satisfied with a mere “Fundamentalism” that seeks in some hasty modern statement a greatest common measure between men of different creeds. Rather will he strive always to stand in the great central current of the Church’s life that has come down to us through Augustine and Calvin to the standards of the Reformed Faith.
My mother did more for me than impart a knowledge of the Bible and of the Faith of our Church. She also helped me in my doubts.
Whatever else is implied here, and over against the prevailing notions amongst modern religionists that certain institutions have resident within them such ordained power, Machen seems to understand just where true religion is nurtured: the home. Religio-modernists will retort that they also believe this, but they quickly qualify their agreement by maintaining that what is nurtured in the home ought not to be dismantled elsewhere (i.e. school). The presumption here seems to be that if it isn’t explicitly for us then it must be implicitly against us.
But curiously absent is any hint by Machen that his “purely secular” school by definition militated against, either explicitly or implicitly, true faith. Indeed, it was still a “good” school—good enough that he was placed there by a devout Christian mother. In point of fact, it is asserted that religious instruction was unnecessary at any point during an educational vocation. It is a popular refrain these days to hear that pagan environments have the power to deconstruct what is indelibly patterned at home. While brutally tempting, the notion is patently false. Granted, anything from television to teachers to peers can have a fairly telling influence upon a child (and the experts tell us this last group can give parents a run for their money). But influence upon is simply not the same thing as creating and shaping a human being. For better or ill, that power resides within a parent.
Often the language of “high standards” is invoked by religionists who abide the presumptions of parochial day schooling. The suggestion tends to be that anyone who takes on the project of compulsory education without religious standards likely is in the business of either, at best, promoting or , at worst, committing ”low standards.” It’s also good for conveying that adjectives like “classical” or “Christian” (or both) in the world of education are synonymous with “secret gnosis on how to make sure Johnny and Suzie learn the three Rs.” But I would hazard that “high standards” might be better understood not as insulating covenant children so as to increase their comfort and ease, but rather to demand they learn how to inhabit and navigate a wider world that is anything from apathetic to patronizing to openly hostile while at the same time remaining faithful. Just as for some Christian ethics tend to be understood as one stake or another in “red state”/”blue state” squabbles instead of leading quiet and cultivating lives (1 Thess. 4; 1 Cor. 5), high standards may have less to do with weighing No Child Left Behind versus the Trivium and a lot more to do with being in the world but not of it.