Has education become the new religion of secular America?
For Americans today education means, above all, schools, and we have elevated schools into something of a secular religion.[i]
—Robert N. Bellah
There are few subjects concerning which Americans can find so many different reasons to disagree than education. Public or private? Whose morality? Politically correct or traditional? Values clarification or family values? More funding or more accountability? Core curriculum or high-tech? Arts and sciences or just sciences? No child left behind? And on and on.
We put a lot of stock in the education we give our children. Perhaps Robert N. Bellah is correct: Is good schooling, as the secular religion, the way to salvation? Our American forebears would heartily have endorsed the importance of education for a properly functioning society. But they recognized both a broader scope of responsibility and a firmer foundation for education than what characterizes education in America today.
Aspects of a Biblical approach to education
Let’s begin by looking briefly at some aspects of a Biblical approach to education. In the Biblical idea of education, the family and the community together shared the responsibility for preparing their members for life in society under God.
Primary responsibility for the education of children lay with parents. We can see this in a number of passages that have a bearing on the education of children. In Genesis 18:19, for example, God commended Abraham, as the head of his household, because he instructed all the members of his household – a considerable community – in the knowledge of God and how to keep His Word.
The family played a central role in the instruction of children in ancient Israel, as family heads were commanded to make the most of both formal and informal opportunities to teach their children the commandments of God (Deut. 6:4-9). Fathers and mothers alike took a hand in shaping their children for virtuous living, in the Old Testament as well as in the New (Prov. 1:8, 9; Eph. 6:4).
The almost-universally abandoned doctrine of en loco parentis – that teachers in schools stood in the place of parents to do their bidding – was based on this Biblical ideal of the central role of the home in the education of the young.
The Bible also has much to say about the role of the believing community in this important work. Psalm 78:1-8, for example, represents a kind of community covenant to take responsibility for teaching the children the Word and works of the Lord.
The same commitment is identified in Psalm 145:4. Spiritual leaders bore the primary responsibility in the New Testament for shaping the lives of those in their care (2 Tim. 2:2; Eph. 4:11-16; Titus 2:1-10, 15), but all members of the community were responsible to teach, admonish, and encourage one another in the life of good works (Col. 3:16; Rom. 15:14; Heb. 10:24).
In the Biblical model of education, therefore, family and community share the responsibility of instructing children and one another in the ways and works of the Lord, so as to fit their offspring and themselves to take a responsible role in securing the blessings of God – righteousness, peace, and joy – for themselves and the community as a whole. These ideals played a prominent role in the shape of education in pre-revolutionary colonial America.
Education in colonial America
Robert N. Bellah observed that, in colonial America, “It was the whole community that educated: the home, the church, the voluntary association, and local politics had an educative function at least as important as that of the school”.[ii]
The training and shaping of children in colonial America was not left to some elite caste of educators who were presumed to know best concerning how such endeavors should be pursued. The education of children was of interest to the whole community, beginning with the family, for the wellbeing of the whole community depended on the proper instruction of the young.
We have already seen something of the role of the family in the education of children during the colonial period. The family’s role was based on the educative role of the church. The church stood at the center of the colonial community as the touchstone of truth and wellspring of moral instruction. And, in the church, the sermon was the supreme instrument of teaching and learning. Harry S. Stout writes, concerning the New England experience,
Twice on Sunday and often once during the week, every minister in New England delivered sermons lasting between one and two hours in length. Collectively over the entire span of the colonial period, sermons totaled over five million separate messages in a society whose population never exceeded one-half million and whose principle city never grew beyond seventeen thousand.
The average weekly churchgoer in New England (and there were far more churchgoers than church members) listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime, totaling somewhere around fifteen thousand hours of concentrated listening.
These striking statistics become even more significant when it is recalled that until the last decade of the colonial era there were at the local level few, if any competing public speakers offering alternative messages. For all intents and purposes, the sermon was the only regular voice of authority.[iii]
Today, all manner of media compete with the preaching of the Word as sources of opinion and instruction. Further, the role of preaching in churches these days has been greatly reduced, as pastors and church leaders give into congregational pressure for fewer, shorter, and “lighter” messages, and more variety of instructional venues (Sunday schools, Bible studies, etc.).
It is almost impossible to think of a congregation of Christians today enduring for more than a week or two a sermon such as was typically preached to farmers, shopkeepers, mothers, children, and small town professionals by such Puritan lights as Jonathan Edwards.
Lest we should think that it was only in New England that the local church was expected to play a central educative role, here are some statutes from the colony of Virginia. Each gives us some insight into the way community leaders thought about the role of the church in the wellbeing of society and, as part of that, the education of future generations:
– March 5, 1623/24
Whoever shall absent himself from divine service any Sunday without an allowable excuse shall forfeit a pound of tobacco and he that absents himself a month shall forfeit 50 pounds of tobacco.
– February, 1631/32
That the statutes for coming to church every Sunday and holy days be duly executed. That is, that the church wardens do levy one shilling for every time of any person’s absence from the church, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent.
Every minister in this colony having cure of souls shall preach one sermon every Sunday in the year, having no lawful impediment.
It is also thought fit that, upon every Sunday, the minister shall, half an hour or more before evening prayer, examine, catechise, and instruct the youth and ignorant persons of this parish in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief, and in the Lord’s prayer and shall diligently here instruct and teach them the catechism, set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, and all fathers, mothers, masters, and mistresses shall cause their children, servants, or apprentices which have not learned the catechism to come to the church at the time appointed, obediently to hear, and to be ordered by the minister until they have learned the same.[iv]
We may wince at the idea of local government enforcing church attendance and ministerial and parental educative duties, but such was the norm in early America. Church, family, and state cooperated to ensure that instruction in spiritual values was conducted and observed by all responsible parties.
Similar statutes to those from Virginia exist throughout the 17th and 18th centuries for all the colonies. Moreover, the colonists seemed to find no problem incorporating religious instruction into the formal schooling they provided their children. Here, for example, is a qualification for a teacher for a New York City school (City of New York, November 27, 1702):
Be it enacted by his Excellency the Governor, Council, and Representatives convened in General Assembly, and by the authority of the same, that there shall be hereafter elected, chosen, licensed, authorized, and appointed one able, skillful, orthodox person to be schoolmaster for the education and instruction of youth…[v]
And here is an earlier (1682) teacher’s contract for the schools of New Amsterdam:
When the school begins, one of the children shall read the morning prayer, as it stands in the catechism, and close with the prayer before dinner; in the afternoon it shall begin with the prayer after dinner, and end with the evening prayer. The evening school shall begin with the Lord’s prayer, and close by singing a psalm…He shall instruct the children on every Wednesday and Saturday, in the common prayers, and the questions and answers in the catechism, to enable them to repeat them the better on Sunday before the afternoon service, or on Monday, when they shall be catechised before the congregation.[vi]
When the colonists turned to building colleges, they incorporated their Biblical view of education into the work of higher education as well, as we can plainly see from the following:
– From Rules of Harvard College (1643):
Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17.3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.[vii]
– From the Statutes of 1728 concerning the purposes of the College of William and Mary:
There are three things which the Founders of this College proposed to themselves, to which all its Statutes should be directed. The First is, that the Youth of Virginia should be well educated to Learning and good Morals. The Second is, that the Churches of America, especially Virginia, should be supplied with good Ministers…The Third is, That the Indians of America should be instructed in the Christian Religion, and that some of the Indian Youth that are well-behaved and well-inclined, being first prepared in the Divinity School, may be sent out to preach the Gospel to their Countrymen in their own Tongue…[viii]
– From student rules of Yale College, 1745:
All Scholars Shall Live Religious, Godly and Blameless Lives according to the Rules of Gods Word, diligently Reading the holy Scriptures the Fountain of Light and Truth; and constantly attend upon all the Duties of Religion both Publick and Private.[ix]
There can be little doubt but that our colonial forebears, in seeking to provide education for their children, turned to the Biblical model of family and community involvement in helping to shape children, through all levels of instruction, for godly living in community. How far we have drifted from that vision and those early landmarks!
Education as salvation
The education of children in America today pursues an entirely different vision – equally religious, but immanentistic rather than transcendent – from that of our colonial forebears. Daniel Boorstin summarized what has come to be state of American education today: “If there was to be a new American religion of education, the universities were its cathedrals, just as the high schools later would become its parish churches.”[x]
What is the “message” of this new religion? Educational philosopher John S. Brubacher writes,
Salvation by the acquisition and application of knowledge is on the way to becoming the religion of modern man. Hence, in the long run, it is to such studies as biology, psychology, and sociology that students will have to turn for the answers they formerly found in the church.[xi]
Brubacher continues, “In its capacity as a secular church, the university can continue to be what the church has always been – the conscience of society”.[xii]
When we consider the Darwinian, postmodern, deconstructionist, and even Marxist tendencies prevalent among so many members of the higher education caste, the idea that secular education should serve as the conscience of our society should be troubling to all believers in Jesus Christ.
As in so many other areas of life, the ancient vision has been set aside, and the ancient boundaries of the field of education, set down by the Founders of this country, have been moved. It falls to the members of the Christian community to consider the present state of our work in educating future generations, and to ensure, to the best of our ability, that the vision and boundaries of education, revealed in Scripture and practiced by our forebears, come once again to characterize our own work in this field.