Kuyper fought for a national system of free schools for the entirety of his public life. He firmly believed that free schools were the best way to serve all parents, not just Christian parents because “it was best for all children to experience a unity of world view and values between school and home” (361). In 1917, his Antirevolutionary Party won a great victory. “As a culmination of these efforts, the Dutch constitution was amended to guarantee this right, and in 1920, the year Kuyper died, a new education bill was passed which put that amendment into practice” (xii). Although Kuyper made three substantial, albeit pragmatic, compromises to his ideal, he believed they were ultimately successful since compromise is always necessary when working in an imperfect political system. Nevertheless, while their own struggle culminated in a victory for free schools, Kuyper also recognized that the “struggle of the spirits” behind the struggle of the schools was far from over.
Well-known for the doctrine of “sphere sovereignty, ” Abraham Kuyper once famously declared: “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!” Kuyper is also notable for delivering the 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton’s Theological Seminary in which he offered a profound and lasting treatment of Calvinism which remains relevant to us who are living in the postmodern era. But it is his significant work of educational reform in the Netherlands spanning nearly fifty years (1869-1917) that features in On Education.
On Education is a substantive anthology of Kuyper’s thoughts on Christian education, published as part of a twelve volume series of Kuyper’s works, produced by the Abraham Kuyper Translation Society, the Acton Institute, and Kuyper College. And it is precisely because of Kuyper’s “unique gifts, experiences, and writings” on Christianity and education that On Education is more than just a helpful resource; it is a uniquely prescient guide for everyone concerned with the education crisis plaguing twenty-first century North America (vii).
The volume is divided into four parts, tracing Kuyper’s involvement with the Netherlands’ seventy-year political battle over parents’ rights to choose schools representative of their religious convictions. Part One introduces the beginnings of the struggle: in 1868, the Society for the Common Good issued a manifesto stating what it perceived was a need to protect its gains of having achieved “the religious neutrality of the public school;” Kuyper responded that his party was not attempting to take back the Society’s perceived gains but, instead, to “make it possible for more children to receive the religious education desired by their parents” (9). This section further treats Kuyper’s grave concern about Dutch public schools “teaching the immortality of the soul,” something he contends is not “safe in the hands of the state school teachers” (22).
Part Two consists of four chapters dedicated to Kuyper’s antirevolutionary vision of sphere sovereignty which, when properly applied, would protect Christian schools from the revolutionary spirit of “false mingling,” whereby the state “sought to mix together precisely what God had separated” (53). Kuyper argued that it is only by properly distinguishing between the boundaries and bonds ordained by God that Christians can keep their schools from falling prey to the state and resist those secularists who would use the public trough to take away their freedom to preach Christ.
Part Three consists of six chapters of parliamentary addresses, journalistic articles, public speeches, and theological writings that address Kuyper’s pluralistic program for national education. At the time, the Netherlands was a nation that consisted in near equal measure of Rationalists, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics. In short, it was Kuyper’s position that, “The state may not use its supremacy to favor one part of the nation over another. All spiritual compulsion by the state is an affront to the honor of the spiritual life and, as an offense to civil liberty, is hateful and abominable” (xi).
Finally, Part Four consists of five chapters that treat Kuyper’s appeal to the public conscience, his concern for the injustice done to the poor of the nation, the political struggle, and ultimate victory—albeit a compromised victory. Kuyper sought a political policy of “principled structural pluralism”(xlii). And his Antirevolutionary Party “worked diligently to establish the right of all parents to provide their children with a quality education in accordance with their deepest convictions and values” (xii). Directed by his motto, “Free schools the norm, state schools a supplement,” (361) and by the foundational Christian principles of “freedom of conscience, equal treatment of religion under the law, and the place of schools within civil society” (365), Kuyper fought for a national system of free schools for the entirety of his public life.