He begins with two questions: who should control education and what is a proper education. Historically, the first question has been answered as either the State or the Church (specifically, the Roman Catholic Church), but Dabney sees each of these institutions as largely unsuccessful. Dabney blames Roman Catholicism for confusing Church education with Christian education, the latter being found only in the Scriptures adjudicated by the rule of truth, guided by (rather than lorded over by) ordained ministers. Ultimately, then, Dabney answers the first question by acknowledging parents as those who should control education, under the guidance of the Church, according to the authority of the Scriptures.
On the State side of the question, Dabney is skeptical of the altruism posed by humanism because it denies the Biblical doctrine of human depravity. Clergymen and secular humanists alike are capable and often tempted to usurp power for selfish ends, and to abandon truth for irrational coercive power. In a State led education, Dabney recognizes that there can be no place for religious authority or instruction, for to give one religion or several sway would pose a power struggle for the others. The State is supreme in its authority and is therefore the institution that must determine all matters of philosophy and theology, to whatever extent it pleases. Moreover, the State cannot function atheistically, and therefore theology cannot be avoided entirely, but will be grounded in the natural theology of the current regime. Dabney gives four possible solutions to the struggle for religious representation, none of which favor Christianity in any Biblically sound fashion.
As for what is a proper education, Dabney recognizes the general requirement that the whole person must be in view and some end or purpose toward which the education drives, as well. The State does not simply claim to provide a skill, but to educate, which touches upon the souls of men, resulting in what Dabney claims is "a general revolt from the Christian faith, even though the country is full of churches, preachers, and a redundant Christian literature" (13). Those words are far reaching and can be confirmed by the most recent Barna polling data to the effect of a majority of children abandoning their faith in college and ceasing church attendance. Because education teaches the soul, it is fundamentally moral. Since God is the only Lord of the conscience, argues Dabney, it is the Lord's obligations that the soul must be taught to know and obey--theology is inseparable from education. Whatever education that denies God and His commands must replace Him with an alternative authority and alternative moral requirements. A contemporary example would be the exaltation of man as the final authority, and the moral requirement to accept every man as autonomous--a law unto himself--free to be whatever he pleases, while being answerable to no other standard. Blasphemy is no longer speaking against God's name, but speaking against those things God abominates, like the murder of infants or the porneia of fornication both heterosexual and homosexual (and perhaps soon to be added, pedophilial and bestial).
Dabney is unwilling to accept that there can be content in education that is taught neither for nor against Christianity. He asks, "Why can't a teacher just present secular subject matter, without maiming either his subject or Christianity?" and answers, "If his teaching is more than dabbling in some corner of education, it will be found to be tacitly anti-Christian. Overt assaults are not made [though many assaults are, in our own day, overt], but there is a studied avoidance which is in effect hostile. There can be no neutral position between these two extremes, which have a 'great gulf fixed' between them." Nor is the supposedly positive moral instruction given in secular education innocuous. Moral obligation requires some justification for the authority by which it is commanded, and the sole justification for moral obligations is the will of God. Any other appeal is teaching the student to ground his motives in some other source, be it his own self-interest, or fear of governmental power, or something else.
Dabney goes on to address several objections to his thesis, but concludes that the present spirit of the age is such that the complete removal of prayers, catechisms, and Bible from schools is but a logical implication of secularized education. Dabney concludes his essay by defending parental authority as that primary earthly authority over the education of children and does his best to distinguish how the powers of Church and State honor the power of the family to accomplish their God-given responsibility.
On the whole Dabney's essay is a trenchant defense of the historic Protestant position and provides a good deal of intellectual fodder for contemporary families who find themselves having to defend their decision to home school or seek our Christian schools rather than choose the cheaper and more socially accepted path of public education. It is also a great book for those who are largely ignorant of the problems of public education in principle, and are willing to have a look.