Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Religion in American Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Religion in American Education

Article excerpt

A Historical View

If we must fall back on universalized versions of the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments in order to teach actual morals and ethical values, Mr. Wright points out, then we educators should admit the fact and revisit the merits of the "common school" philosophy.

QUESTIONS about the place of religion and the role of moral instruction in American public schools are anything but new. They date back to the beginning of the "common school" movement in the 1830s and were in many respects carried over from Colonial days. The persistence of these issues should not be in the least surprising since they concern one of society's most persistent challenges: rearing and socializing successive generations of children. The current debates swirling around religion and moral instruction indicate that a fundamental cultural shift is under way: a move away from the idea of a common culture with a generic religious content an idea at the historical root of public schools and toward an understanding of our national culture as a collective of particularities held together by . . . actually, educators are not quite sure by what. Some contemporary educators separate the issue of religion in the public schools from the issue of moral or character education. The distinction would have made no sense to Horace Mann. An assumption of the desirability of common spiritual and moral values was built into the foundations of American public education. In both New York and Massachusetts, two cradles of the public school system, the 1830s and early 1840s were marked by intense conflict over the question of how religion would be treated in an utterly new institution: a school supported and controlled by civil government. The dispute in Massachusetts focused primarily on Protestant contention over the role of theological doctrine in the curriculum; after all, up to that point the churches had run the schools in New England. In New York, the dispute focused on differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics, in part over which English version of the Bible would be read in school devotions.

An effective cease-fire, even a negotiated peace, was brought about in Massachusetts by Horace Mann through the concept of the common school a school that taught no doctrine and was outside of ecclesiastical control but was hardly the secular creature we know today. Mann assured his critics that the common school "inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible," but he did insist that Bible reading be without comment to discourage sectarian bickering.1 This pattern proved highly acceptable to the Protestant majority, which at the same time was discovering the Sunday school as the means for religious instruction. And the model would prevail across the nation, except in large Roman Catholic communities, where parochial schools also emerged.

Nineteenth-century common schools offered no course on or about religion and made no self-conscious effort to teach the role of religion in American history. They took account of religion and stressed Protestant morality throughout the curriculum, primarily through readers, spellers, and sometimes arithmetic books.2 It was a cultural thing, although it might be noted that the religious culture changed across the years, in keeping with religious trends of the day, moving from the stern Calvinism of early 19th-century textbooks to a mellow Methodism in the 1880s and 1890s.

Immigration from central and southern Europe in the late 19th century also had an impact on the assumptions that drove public school religious and moral instruction. The stringent anti-Catholicism of earlier textbooks was mitigated, and an occasional "moral tale" would feature a non-Protestant hero. Neither Catholics nor Jews were shy in expressing their displeasure with the status quo, however. Bickering between Protestants and Catholics in Cincinnati over which translation of the Bible to use for morning devotions in the schools was so intense that in 1869 the school board abolished the practice of daily Bible reading. …

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