Letters to the Editor

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Harry A. Dawe Headmaster The Harvey School Katonah, N.Y.

In the interest of sanity and perspective, it seems appropriate to speak to the hysterical inaccuracies continually generated by the "secular humanism in the schools" debate, and expressed so blatantly in Beverly K. Eakman's Commentary, "Religion Packaged as Psychology" (Nov. 20, 1985). At issue is not only historical accuracy, but also an almost Orwellian misuse of politically loaded words.

Humanism is one such word. For most educated people, humanism emerged during the late Middle Ages in a movement traditionally called the Renaissance, when Greco-Roman culture blended with medieval Christianity, thereby bringing together two strands that then formed, and continue to form, our cultural heritage.
In the 19th century, Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, identified these two components as Hebraism and Hellenism; more simply, as faith and reason, ethics and intellect; or more romantically, as "sweetness and light." At different periods in history, one aspect predominated and then another, in a pattern of mutual compensation. The Protestant Reformation, striking a note of faith and man's dependence on God, emphasized one side of this polarity. The Enlightenment stressed reason and science and emphasized the potential of man.

In the form of Protestantism and the Enlightenment, both strands went into the formation of the American republic. This fact gives our history and our society many of its special qualities, and a history of tension between these two traditions. Our most valued principles, which Ms. Eakman identifies as "standards of fair play," "respect for the individual," and "free speech, free press, and right of assembly," are products of both traditions--theism and humanism--not just of one.

These virtues come from multiple sources. Solon, Aristotle, Cicero, the Italian humanists, and the thinkers of the Enlightenment--humanists all--had as much to do with the formation of the American ethos as did the writers of the Old Testament, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is but one element in our culture, and it is fortunate that the American republic was founded during the Enlightenment, so that its humanistic values could serve as a corrective to the repressive and pessimistic elements of Calvinism, which are part of our heritage. Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were not overly concerned with "standards of fair play" and did not believe that "man is sensible and basically good-natured"; nor did the writers of the U.S. Constitution, as Ms. Eakman suggests. Any serious student of the founding fathers knows that they had a pessimistic, almost Hobbesian, view of human nature and motivation, and hence they devised an ingenious instrument of government to check and balance the selfish instincts of men.

Fortunately, the founding fathers were classicists as well as Protestant Christians, and as good British subjects had been as familiar with the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers as they were with Calvin's Institutes. It was a unique synthesis of these two traditions that brought about what might be called the American civic religion, which until now has sustained our polity.

Our public schools and national holidays carried on and celebrated this tradition. Now, in the late 20th century, with the demise of mainstream Protestant cultural hegemony and the emergence of a genuinely pluralistic culture, the Enlightenment side of the polarity has gained the ascendancy in the state schools. In Arnold's terms, Hebraism has given way to Hellenism.

The result has been a reaction of Hebraism in the form of a 20th century "Great Awakening" of Protestant Christianity, including the founding of separate fundamentalist Christian academies. Jonathan Edwards has Tom Paine on the run.

In observing the unraveling of this American cultural synthesis, we must realize that our fundamental values are sustained by more than one tradition, and we must be careful in our choice of words to identify the enemy of those values.

Ms. Eakman knows the enemy and she is correct, but she is dangerously unclear as to what to call it; she tosses around phrases like "collectivism," "global awareness," and "physical gratification," all of which she associates with humanism. This she contrasts with "the bracing, risk-filled venture of freedom," which is somehow associated with "theistic religious values."

The enemy she is trying to define is, I believe, etatism, the granting of power to the group over the rights of the individual. But theistic religion can be as etatist as any other cultural tradition.

Books can be burned and freedom of inquiry suppressed in the name of Christ, as well as in the name of Caesar. There may well be some dreary products of behavioral psychology in the schools masquerading as humanism, but it would be equally foolish to substitute Sunday-school tracts of bland optimism. If the school curriculum is to be purged of the seamy subjects Ms. Eakman finds inappropriate, what would become of Dickens, Shakespeare, and the Bible?

In its deepest and broadest sense, the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the great sources of our concept of individual freedom, but so is the tradition of Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment philosophy. Unalloyed, each can become destructive of the individual and the rule of law.

Vol. 05, Issue 16

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories