Opinion
Education Commentary

Real Losses

By William A. Proefriedt — January 17, 2001 8 min read
We have diminished the prophetic religious tradition, which defined schooling as an essentially moral enterprise, and substituted for it the vulgar chatter of political and educational leaders about the economic purposes of education.

Mention religion and morality in the context of public education today and what comes to mind are battles over the teaching of creationism, demands that the Ten Commandments be tacked up in school buildings, calls for prayer in classrooms and at high school football games, attempts to include religious schools in voucher plans, and sectarian efforts at home schooling as an alternative to the “secular humanism” of the public schools. The mood is combative, and the religionists are seen as a loud and threatening disturbance operating, for now, on the periphery of the secular culture, challenging what we take to be our long tradition of separation of church and state.

There are some concerns expressed within the mainstream that the schools ought to include moral education as a part of the curriculum, but these concerns are lost in the noise of the two central anxieties of American education: parental apprehension about the “worldly success” (the phrase itself seems old-fashioned, out of place) of their own children; and the public concern that the schools help the nation in the race to dominate world markets. Our educational leaders speak the language of standards, high-stakes testing, career paths, the connection between schooling, knowledge, and America’s place in the global economy. The private fear is that one’s own child will not qualify for the right nursery school, the elite college, not thrive in the American marketplace.

‘Twas not always thus. The notion that religion and a morality largely derived from it have not previously been a part of public education in this country is very bad history indeed. In the 19th century, Catharine Beecher trained the women of New England to teach in the one-room schoolhouses of Ohio and Illinois and further west. They marched under the banner raised aloft by her minister father, Lyman Beecher: “A Bible for every family, a school for every district, and a pastor for every 1,000 souls.” These women, the mothers of public education in America, preached Protestant Christianity and republican virtue.

Horace Mann, usually credited with being the father of American public education, also illustrates this connection between religion and education in the 19th-century public school establishment. He helped create the Massachusetts state board of education and, from 1837 to 1848, served as its first secretary. Mann used his post as a pulpit from which to preach the gospel of the absolute importance of the role of education in the salvation of the individual and the Republic. Though he saw himself as moving away from the harsh Calvinism of his forebears, his educational lectures, writings, and reports surely had more in common with the Puritan divines of the 17th and 18th centuries than with the public statements of educational leaders in our own day. He fought against various sectarian versions of Christianity but, make no mistake about it, his vision of the essentially moral purpose of schooling was rooted in a larger religious tradition.

“And, finally,” he said, “by the term Education, I mean such a culture of our moral affections and religious susceptibilities, as, in the course of Nature and Providence, shall lead to a subjection of all our appetites, propensities, and sentiments to the will of heaven.”

His argument for the religious and moral purpose of public schooling, repeated over and over again, in lectures before education groups throughout Massachusetts at first, and later in many of the other states that invited him to preach his public education crusade, was this: All of us were brought into this world with natural propensities necessary for life—needs for food and clothing, a love of wealth or acquisition, the desire of the goodwill of others, and feelings of self-worth. These natural and necessary propensities provided us with the energy to survive and prosper, but were often disastrously carried to excess, and hence, in his words, “require some mighty counterpoise to balance their proclivity to wrong.”


These excesses were for Mann the very embodiment of evil, and he feared their destructive power: “What ravening, torturing, destroying, then, must ensue, if these hounds cannot be lashed back into their kennel.” His lecture/sermons, devoted to the historical details of what happened when man’s natural proclivities were carried to excess, rival Quentin Tarantino’s films in their employment of lurid detail. "[A]ll history cries out, with all her testimonies and her admonitions, proclaiming to what excesses these innate and universal appetites may grow, when supplied with opportunities and incitements for indulgence,” Mann declared.

Napoleon’s brutal military conquests, Innocent III’s Inquisition, Marc Antony’s obsession with Cleopatra, and Herod’s murder of the male children are all attributed by Mann to the distortion of our natural desires and energies. Only the tyrants and monsters of our history have kept the rest of humanity in check. “The Neros and Napoleons have prevented others from being Neros and Napoleons.” The American Revolution freed us from the dictators, but the Hobbesian world he depicted remained. Only public schooling, Mann insisted, could save the individual and the Republic from the energies unloosed by the revolution. “Already the tramp of this innumerable host is sounding in our ears,” he warned. “They are the men who will take counsel of their desires and make it law.”

Horace Mann would find no work in today’s educational hierarchy. Over and over, he emphasized the primary place of moral ends in educational practice.

Horace Mann saw education as a bulwark against the dangerous misdirected energies of individuals growing up in freedom. He worried about persons, heedless of others, seeking their own self-aggrandizement. He worried over the clash of political parties and religious sects, over the possibility of national fragmentation due to the arguments over slavery. And education was his answer.

Our fears today seem quite different from Mann’s. We worry instead about the success of our children and the pre-eminence of our nation in the global marketplace. Could we imagine what might happen to a state superintendent of schools or other educational leader who, in his public pronouncements, gave primary focus to the place of public schooling in ensuring individual salvation, or in creating a citizenry that placed the good of the community above its private needs? Mann counseled teachers and parents not to use competition or rewards as methods to encourage learning because such strategies corrupted young people and created selfish adults devoid of a concern with the common good. “The intellect may grow wise while the passions grow weaker,” he said, “The pupil comes to regard a successful rival with envy or malevolence; or an unsuccessful one with arrogance or disdain.”

Horace Mann would find no work in today’s educational hierarchy. Over and over in his public proclamations, he emphasized the primary place of moral ends in educational practice. He decried what he called Mammon, avarice, as undermining the good of the person and of society, and saw the school not as the road to riches, but as the institution designed to check the distortions of individual desires.

We cannot return to the schools or the culture of the 19th century. We are now, more than then, a religiously pluralistic country. “The old order changeth yielding place to new.”

We secular humanists ought to recognize that with the long breaking of the connection between religion and public schooling ... we have suffered a very real loss.

Even in Mann’s day, orthodox Congregationalists challenged his religious vision of public education. They argued that one’s moral practice was tied to specific doctrines about the nature of God’s relation to man, about baptism, about original sin. They found his liberal Protestantism unacceptable. Catholics, too, found Mann’s Protestantism, as practiced in the schools, unsatisfactory.

Mann insisted that there were ethical principles common to all men, and that these were to be taught in the schools. His fudging of real differences in religious and moral beliefs worked for a while, but it has been followed by a period of the continued withdrawal of religious and moral content from public schooling. We secular humanists ought to recognize that with the long breaking of the connection between religion and public schooling carried out between Mann’s day and ours, we have suffered a very real loss.


As a young child, I attended a Catholic elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y. More than once during any given week in our overcrowded classrooms, while we diagrammed sentences or practiced long division, we paused to listen to the church bells tolling next door to us during a funeral mass for an older parishioner. Such an experience led this young student, at least, to think more seriously about how to lead my life.

So I sympathize with the concerns of Stephen H. Carter, the distinguished commentator on religion and public life, expressed in his book The Culture of Disbelief. He opposes organized prayer in public schools because of the impact on impressionable youngsters not of a major faith, but tells us he sends his own children to a religious school because he wants a place supportive of rather than hostile to religion.

We have diminished the prophetic religious tradition, which defined schooling as an essentially moral enterprise, and substituted for it the vulgar chatter of political and educational leaders about the economic purposes of education, and the anxiety of parents about the worldly success of their children. We have suffered a real loss here, and we ought to acknowledge it.


William A. Proefriedt is a professor emeritus at Queens College, City University of New York, where he regularly teaches a course in the history of American education.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Real Losses

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