Sometimes the most conspicuous things are the easiest to overlook, precisely because they are taken for granted. In modern America the public schools are considered normative, private schools a deviation, a view that is held even by some people who support private schools. Often such people are required to justify the schools’ existence—why are you not supporting the schools that belong to everybody? Why have you set up a parallel system?
The obvious point, here overlooked, is that in a sense it is the public schools that need to justify their existence, not the private ones, if the question is looked at from the perspective of history.
For all practical purposes, public schools in America began in the 1840s. Before that, some towns sponsored schools, but it was in no way systematic, and most schools were set up either by churches or by teachers acting as independent agents.
The idea of an entire system of public schools arose from concerns, some of which were laudable and others not. The good motive was that all children should get a minimum education, both for their own sakes and for the welfare of the country. The bad motive was a deep suspicion of foreigners, especially Catholics.
Probably most immigrants wanted to be Americanized, in the sense of learning the language and discovering how to function in modern society. But trying to wean the immigrants away from their Catholicism was also part of Americanization. Catholics were not the only targets of public education. Horace Mann, who in Massachusetts set up the first comprehensive public-school system in the nation, also wanted to destroy the influence of traditional New England Puritanism, so he arranged for the public schools to be centers of liberal Protestantism.
Faced with a public-school system that targeted their religion, Catholics responded by establishing their own system, while most targeted Protestants, whatever misgivings they may have had, ended up acquiescing. The revolutionary nature of the idea of universal compulsory education is no longer recognized. But among other things, it gave rise to a fundamental question—who is the primary educator of the child—the parent or the state?
Not until 1925 did a Supreme Court decision declare that students could not be required to attend public schools, and from time to time it is still urged that the very existence of private religious schools is “divisive,” a threat to democracy.
Since education is largely controlled locally, the character of public schools differed widely until the 1960s—often secular, perhaps just as often vaguely Protestant, Catholic in a few places where Catholics dominated the local community. But beginning in the 1960s, the Supreme Court issued a series of rulings requiring that public schools be “neutral,” which is to say secular.
The first big elephant that is seldom noticed is the fact that religious schools predate the public schools. Indeed it can be said that schools imparting religious instruction have been in existence as long as there has been education of any kind. It is thus the innovation of non-religious schools that needs explaining. The idea of non-religious education was radical when first proposed, and our ancestors, from ancient times until as late as the 1950s, would have found the idea of such education perplexing.
For secularists, secular education is of course perfectly adequate, even essential. But how can people who profess to be religious believers accept a system in which religion has no place? Throughout most of history, people would have said that this leaves out of education precisely what is most important.
If education is viewed as mainly practical—teaching skills that students can use in the world—then perhaps a religious education is unnecessary. But if education is what educators usually say it is—an attempt to give students access to truth in its many forms, to instill in them wisdom and virtue as well as knowledge—then it becomes impossible to explain how religion can be left out, for the learning of wisdom and virtue is not a practical question but a religious one. Education without the goal of wisdom and the aim of making virtuous citizens will produce a society that is, well, unwise and without virtue. Those who wonder how Columbine could have happened should ponder this.
—James Hitchcock, for the editors
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Normal Schools” first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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