Report from America: The Progress of Education

by Terence Harrison

The bewildering array of successive education policies in the United States over recent years betrays one great, sad fact. Man without God does not know where he is going.

It was not always so. Education in America began with the early settlers, the Puritans soon taking the lead. Many of their leaders were graduates from English universities, particularly Cambridge. They gradually established primary and secondary schools across New England, and Harvard College was founded in 1636 for the training of ministers. Other European immigrant groups settled the Colonies and brought a Christian influence to America, but the Puritans ultimately became the dominant force in the development of education for the New World.

Some schools were built at a very early date following the first settlements, but initially education was conducted in the home. In fact, for the first hundred years of settlement schools were considered to be less important than family and church education. A Massachusetts law of 1642 actually required parents and guardians to be the principal educators of their children. If they failed to fulfil their spiritual, moral and vocational training obligations, they could be fined or punished. Whatever we might think of this, it is interesting to note that the first law concerning American education underlined the Biblical principle of bringing up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)

The Puritans believed in teaching their children the Bible at a very early age. The idea that they were `too young' or `not ready' was not a problem. As soon as a child gained the ability to understand anything, they began to communicate `good things' from the Scriptures. From the age of three, children were taught more `systematically' from the catechism and other sources. The Puritans simply followed God's command to talk of His ways `when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up.' (Deut. 6:7, 11:19).

Many of the early primary schools consisted of one room, one teacher and a scanty supply of educational materials. The curriculum was based mainly on the Bible, and reading was taught so that children could study the Scriptures and other good books. Writing, arithmetic and moral training were also included. Secondary schools provided more advanced instruction and an introduction to the classical languages of Latin and Greek. This provided a foundation for those wishing to go on to higher education and the Christian ministry. Children were also taught civil law, so that they would not grow up ignorant of what was required of them as citizens.

Schools varied in quality and teaching and organisation, and farm labour and other duties kept many children absent, especially during harvest time. But overall, students received a good basic Christian education in which their lives were related to the Bible, and thus to God.

It is worth noting that teaching in those days was not nearly as `primitive' as is sometimes alleged. Some schoolmasters did earn reputations as being harsh disciplinarians and school conditions were generally poor. But most teachers were carefully examined as to their faith, knowledge, character and aptitude.

The Dorchester School Rules of 1645 required schoolmasters to pray morning and evening with their pupils, and at 2pm each day they were to be catechised in the principles of Christian religion. Later, even stricter requirements for teachers were brought in. Applicants were required to submit certified records of age, temper, prudence, learning, sober and pious conversation, diligence in calling and written testimony as to their Christian zeal.

As the various settlements developed, the teaching of Christianity continued to be a central feature of the early school system. The Massachusetts Puritans endeavoured to establish a Theocracy, while those who `agreed to differ' formed their own churches and schools in the other emerging Colonies. In spite of these variations, the Bible and its application remained the backbone of American education for many years.

But not all new Americans shared the Christian view. Objections eventually began to surface, and with the vast increase in immigration from Europe in the late 1690's came the rising voice of secular humanism. This was the age of Enlightenment, with its new-found freedoms of thought, development and morality. Modern man no longer needed the old-fashioned religious education with its emphasis on the Bible and `dead' languages. A revitalised, broader-based curriculum was needed to meet the challenge of a developing Democracy.

The real reason for this clamour for change was not ultimately rooted in these things. Rather it came from the heart of fallen man. Once again the old antagonism against God, Christ and His Word had appeared. `We will not have this Man to reign over us.' (Luke 19:14). Man at his core still rejected God.

And so in place of a godly education came the `enlightened' philosophy of learning, with Democracy the new religion. The result was that the Christian school with its `extremist' view of the Bible began to be gradually edged out of the picture.

The great spiritual awakenings of the 18th and early 19th centuries had a widespread, transforming effect upon large sections of society. But inevitably, the subtle tide of secular humanism, far from being eradicated, began to sweep back in ever-increasing power.

By 1827, reforms were well under way and Massachusetts passed its first-ever law restricting religious education in schools. Christianity was not excluded altogether. It was simply evacuated of its doctrinal content to provide `freedom of conscience' in religious preference. The move marked the beginning of a new and darker era in education as other States began to enact similar laws. The subsequent reforms of Horace Mann, a Unitarian who became secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, had a broad influence in the educational world and effectively cemented the new liberal approach in the mind of American society.

Two other important factors contributing to this change of direction were the rapid advances in science and the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution. In the late 19th Century, Thomas Huxley greatly influenced education by lecturing and writing on scientific developments, while Herbert Spencer pronounced a theory of mental and social evolution in addition to the physical. Wide public acceptance of these new theories soon led to the introduction of the physical and biological sciences into the school curriculum. Scientific observation and investigation had become the only rational and sure guide to truth.

By the turn of the century, America had begun a national system of education, and several new ideas were being developed. In the early 1900's Professor John Dewey of Columbia University introduced his well-known scheme of "Progressive Education". Based on the humanistic progressive education movement begun by Jean Jacques Rousseau in Europe, it emphasised a `natural' approach to education in terms of `learning by doing'. More freedom was brought into the classroom; children were encouraged to initiate their own projects and allowed to learn at their own speed. Unfortunately, while some elements of Dewey's system were useful, it failed to take into account the child's fallen nature. Dewey believed in the intrinsic goodness of humanity and the principle that all is relative. There are no absolutes and no such thing as original sin.

This radical departure from the older methods had tremendous influence on American education. Here at last was the child-centred school, free of that irritating religious bias and a true education for Democracy. Dewey's theories are still studied in many colleges of education today, and incorporated into various educational systems in America and around the world.

Two of the most recent developments in American education are Outcome Based Education (OBE) and `Goals 2000'. Both are currently running side by side in yet another valiant attempt to improve the standard and utility of modern learning. National columnist Paul Greenberg, asking for an explanation amid the confusion, queried, `What is OBE, if anything?' After seriously studying all the material sent to him on the subject, he was left with just one question: `What is OBE, if anything?'

On March 31st 1994 President Clinton signed into law the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, part of a trio including Improving America's Schools Act and the School-to-Work Opportunities Bill. This combined legislation, among other things, effectively serves to remove ever more local and parental control of education and place it in the hands of the Federal Government. These authorities are to work together to determine future work-force requirements and to recommend how students should be educated accordingly.

Although couched in `easy' language, the new legislation will undoubtedly strengthen centralised control of education. It will also impose long-term Government objectives over what parents may desire for their children. The Government funding to implement these national goals also places enormous power in the hands of those who make such speculative forecasts. Goals 2000 may stress the importance of `meaningful parental involvement', but nowhere is it stated that parents will have the right to decide what and how their children will be taught. Local and parental control over education is an American heritage. Socialised education tied to political Government agendas is not the American way. Yet already children are being taught to accept alternative lifestyles and practice `safe sex' by liberal-minded educators operating under Government blessing, and supported by taxpayers' money.

The latest innovations threaten families with a potentially reduced quality of education under OBE and less freedom to choose private or Christian schools under Goals 2000. Parents may well find themselves coming into conflict with Government objectives for their offspring. The big question will then be, whose children are they anyway? Are they to be brought up in the fear and admonition of the politically correct Department of Education, or of the Lord? The answer is simple for the Christian. But the going may be tough.

Christians on both sides of the Atlantic, who live in free societies, must lift their voices against the humanistic liberal education agendas being foisted upon them in the name of Progress. They must also make every effort through representational governmental means to get corrupt education policies changed to a more traditional and God-honouring format. They must learn to write respectful but firm letters to their elected representatives, and phone their offices if need be. Christians may be few in number, but their voice must be heard and God is on their side. Church history clearly shows that God has achieved far more through single individuals with a passion for that which is right than a multitude of armchair well-wishers.

At the same time, Christians must pray without ceasing for a mighty revival in the Church and a great awakening in society. They must come to see that nothing less than a mighty intervention of God can effectively and lastingly transform a corrupt and man-centred society. They must pray hard and work hard. And they must not do so for their own satisfaction and ease. They must pray and work that God may be glorified and Christ exalted in many hearts. And that children may be brought back to the only true and vital system of instruction - the knowledge of God in all things, and how to live in the light of it. Therein will be the progress of education.

Copyright © Family Matters 1996