Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/February 1891/Editor's Table
RELIGIOUS TEACHING IN TEE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.
FOR good or for evil, education is now very generally regarded as a function of the state, and has, in point of fact, been assumed by the state to such an extent that private enterprise in the matter of education is reduced to an altogether secondary rôle. One drawback to this is that questions of school management have now become, in the main, questions of politics. When we ask, "What should the schools teach?" we mean, as a general thing, "What, as parties and votes are balanced, is it practically possible and desirable for the schools to teach?" We are strongly of the opinion, for our own part, that this is not a satisfactory position of the question. Had education been left untrammeled by state interference, we should have had many different types of schools, and many different experiments made by different teachers. Instead of discussing the question as to what the schools should teach in a good deal the same way as a political convention would canvass the merits of rival candidates, we should content ourselves with noting what the schools were teaching, and with laboring individually to bring this or that special conviction of our own on the subject of education into practical recognition. Under the present system we do not inquire what makes or would make for full intellectual and moral development, but merely what courses of study will be free from objection on the part of this, that, or the other section of the electorate. This is part of the price we pay for state education.
Well, there is nothing to do but to make the best of things as they are, and it was perhaps a wise thing on the part of the Presbyterian Synod of New York to summon a conference of representatives of the different Protestant churches to discuss the question as to the extent to which religious instruction might and should be imparted in the public schools, regard being had to all the circumstances of the case. Now that the conference is over, it is sufficiently evident that the views of those who would introduce more or less of theological doctrine into the schools can not prevail. They can not prevail, simply because the conditions necessary to their success are absent. "The stars in their courses fought against Sisera," and the stars in their courses, or at least the influences of the time, are fighting against those who would make the state the teacher of any system of theological doctrines however elementary or fundamental whatsoever. The most striking address delivered in support of religious teaching was that of Dr. William A. Butler, who took up the position that, while in this country there is an absolute divorce between church and state, there never has been any divorce "between Christianity and the state, or between the state government in its administration and the Christian religion, as revealed in the Scriptures." The inference which the speaker drew was that it was entirely lawful and proper for the state to sanction "the reading of the Scriptures in the public schools, without note or comment, as also the use of the Lord's prayer, and the inculcation, under proper safeguards, without admixture of human doctrine, of Christian morals."
This view of the case was vigorously combated by Dr. Ward, editor of The Independent; and, we must confess, it seems to us amazingly weak. Far be it from us to argue against religious teaching in schools under private control, or to assert or imply that the religious element is not a most important one in education generally. That was not the question before the conference, nor is it one with which we should think it right to concern ourselves. The question is, Can the state teach religion? Dr. Butler thinks it can, because there has never been any divorce between the state and Christianity. The reason is glaringly insufficient. A "divorce" means a tearing asunder; there has been no divorce between the state and Christianity for the excellent reason that there never was any union of a formal or legal kind to sever. A majority of the population, it may be assumed, are professed adherents of Christianity, but it does not follow from that that they have authorized the Government to give effect in any practical shape to such convictions as they may have on the subject. Before the Government can act, it must have a very clear mandate; and manifestly the people could not give the Government a mandate on this subject without stating clearly what they understood by Christianity, and with what degree of detail they wished its doctrines to be made matter of instruction in the schools. The idea of a government deciding such questions for itself is simply ridiculous. In certain cases, where technical knowledge is required, the state can call experts to its aid—architects, engineers, chemists, electricians; but imagine for a moment the Government calling for expert assistance in a question of theology! But to come down to facts, the people do not want the state to undertake any theological or religious business on their behalf. They know, they deeply feel, its utter incompetency in that sphere. They know that it is as much as they themselves can do in their several churches to avoid causes of dispute and separation; and they have not the most remote idea of inviting the politicians whom they have elected to office to make amateur theologians of themselves for any purpose whatsoever. The very idea is so incongruous with the spirit of the time that it is hardly worth while to insist on the fact that the Christian community is itself divided by the most serious differences of opinion upon various theological questions—so much so that, in the eyes of certain Christians, others who claim the name have no title to it whatever. The differences of opinion, for example, between Trinitarians and Unitarians, and between Universalists, who look forward to the salvation of all, and those who, as the Scotch woman said, "hope for better things," or between Roman Catholics and those who think that Roman Catholicism is "the beast" of the book of Revelation and the Papacy the "scarlet woman," are fundamental, and any religious teaching that was meant to gain equal approval from these and all other sections of the Christian community would have to be very vague and non-committal indeed. The whole merit and force of a religious system consist in its teaching authoritatively that which would not otherwise be conveyed to the mind at all; while the essential character of any religious instruction which the state could give would be found in its vagueness and conventionality.
Well, therefore, did the Rev. Dr. W. H. Ward declare that "we may consider it as settled that religion is not to be taught in the public schools—that the American people will not trust the state to teach religion." Manifestly, to give a thing in a weak and diluted form which, to have any virtue, must be given in a strong and concentrated form, is to do more harm than good; and it may safely be said that, if through unwise legislation the formal teaching of religion were begun in the schools by such agencies as the state can command, the result would be disastrous to the cause of religion itself. Dr. Ward took what probably most of his hearers must have regarded as an extreme and dangerous position when he said that "morals do not depend on God"; but, as he meant it, we do not doubt that he expressed a truth. His meaning we take to be that the principles of morality are as capable of formulation without the help even of the theistic hypothesis as those of any other subject of human study. What, after all, are our ideas of God but the highest ideas which our human experience has enabled us to frame? There is no difficulty, then, in teaching morals in the schools without theology—no difficulty, that is to say, in laying down the rules of right conduct as a thing to be practiced here and now for reasons of present validity. But, as Dr. Ward judiciously observed, the best moral teaching will result from the observance of order and discipline, honor and justice, in the management of the school itself. Direct preaching is of doubtful utility; but example tells, and facts are powerful persuaders.
It is possible the late conference may lead some to perceive, as they never did before, the disadvantages connected with making education a branch of politics. In discussing education we should not have to canvass a political situation, but at present that is just what we have to do. And when we engage teachers for our public schools we engage them to follow a prescribed routine, not to throw all their original force and all their deepest convictions into their work. That the highest type of education is not to be had on this plan is evident; and whether the wider diffusion of education, due to state agency, is sufficient to make up for the deterioration in the quality of the article is a most serious question, which we believe the experience of each succeeding year will force more and more on the attention of the community.
Every day is adding to the number of those who believe that ethical standards are the safest guides in the conduct of men's affairs. All such will find good reason to rejoice at the evidence of a dawning conscience in political circles afforded by the recent passage of the copyright bill in the House of Representatives. For nearly a century those citizens of the United States who believed in honest government have been more or less actively striving to obtain for the foreign author some sort of effective recognition of the principle embodied in this measure. Property in ideas, when these have been materialized in the form of books, has long been practically recognized, as well in the copyright laws of our own as in those of other countries. Yet for years, and in the face of this fact, we have suffered the disgrace of being about the only civilized nation on earth mean enough to refuse to make the principle international in its application. Whenever it was proposed to do this, the enemies of the reform have raised the cry of "expediency," "the needs of the reading public," "the advantages of cheap literature," and other similar catch-words intended to mislead, while the ethical questions involved have been contemptuously brushed aside as unworthy of serious notice.
By its refusal to legislate on the subject in accordance with well-known principles in force in other countries, our Government, it is not unfair to say, tacitly maintained that, after all, stealing was quite the thing, or at least not to be interfered with, as long as it served the interests of a numerous class, and could be carried on without peril and to the profit of the thief. To plunder the foreign author became an innocent occupation: he was not one of us, and we stilled our consciences with the pretense that moral obligations were limited by geographical boundaries.
The decisive majority in favor of the new bill sharply discredits this belittling view of our duty as a nation. It also marks a most encouraging advance in public sentiment which is daily growing more and more appreciative of that rare variety of legislation which is founded on right and justice. There is good ground to hope that the bill will meet with equal success in the Senate, while the President, with his well-known devotion to principle, is already committed in its favor.
Yet, bright as the prospects for the early triumph of the measure appear to be, its friends and promoters can not afford to relax their efforts until the bill becomes a law Signs are not wanting that its enemies, so far from being discouraged by the present attitude of Congress, have rather been stimulated by it to renewed exertions in their desperate opposition to the reform. They are trying to create dissensions among its supporters, hoping by this means to weaken their influence in its behalf.
In view of this it should be remembered that few measures of the kind can be perfected until they have had a practical trial. It would be the height of folly to imperil the essential principle of the bill merely because some of its minor details did not exactly meet the views of all its supporters. The greatest need now is, that those more directly interested in the welfare of the measure should sink their differences, and, uniting with the friends of justice and honest legislation everywhere, should continue to urge the matter upon the attention of Congress until success has been achieved, trusting to time and experience, when need arises, to bring the several features of the law into closer harmony with the public interest.