History of Education: the 1800s

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently looking at the history of Christian thought on education using D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). As we move into the modern era, Lockerbie focuses in a little more specifically on education in the United States. Last time we saw that while in its earliest days colonial America set a high priority on education that this was quickly replaced by a strand of anti-intellectualism, albeit with Christian roots. During the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards made some headway, once again presenting an argument for an educated populace and an educated clergy.

The 1800s saw two big trends in education, one with Christian roots and  one distinctly non-Christian. Lockerbie covers these in two chapters, “The American Reformers” and “The Deification of Democracy.”

If you haven’t heard of Lyman Beecher, you may at least have heard of his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is said to have ignited the Civil War. Lyman was himself quite an activist and headed a circle of activists and thinkers whose main causes were the abolition of slavery and equality for women and African Americans. Lyman’s other daughter, Catharine Beecher, was a major proponent of education for women. She, among others, called for giving women and girls not just an education  but a full education. The Grimkes, Sarah and Angelina, and Thomas Weld (who married Angelina) did much as well to advance the education of African Americans. Though these were good impulses, my impression from Lockerbie is that there was a kind of lowest common theological denominator to this movement. In discussing Catharine Beecher, he says that: “Together the women of America would encourage a new national unity centered around the common interests of the schoolhouse rather than the factional and divisive interests of the church” (p. 247). In other words, we begin to see a common Christian culture or value system which bypasses the church.

Though he seems to have been a solid Christian, William McGuffey also contributed to this common culture with his famous readers. These “children’s textbooks” with well-curated stories which promote biblical truths had such an influence on generations of young Americans that Lockerbie compares them to television. They were the shared cultural experience.

McGuffey himself has some interesting things to say on the hows of education. He paints a high role for the teacher whom he sees as a vital shaping influence in the life of his students:

“All that they [the students] shall hereafter think, will in great measure, be the results of what we [the teachers] have previously thought, and inculcated. With us rests the tremendous responsibility of laying the foundation of a nation’s literature; and of saying what shall be its future character, for morality and religion.” (from “The Relative Duties of Parents and Teachers,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 269) 

He did not, however, paint parents out of the picture, but urged them to “discharge the high responsibility that heaven has laid upon them” by choosing “suitable instructors” and “superintend[ing] the whole process of their mental, moral, and religious training” (ibid., p. 272).

There is again a least common denominator aspect to all of this. “The Christian religion,” McGuffey says, “is the religion of our country” but teachers must avoid “the inculcation of all sectarian peculiarities in religion” (ibid., p. 271). In the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, the religious culture was fairly uniform, at at least uniformly controlled. Those who seriously dissented were ousted and went on to form other colonies. As the country expanded, both geographically and in terms of the make-up of its population, public schools had to make  choices. If you teach the religious views of one group, you necessarily exclude those of another. Hence this lowest common denominator appeal. There is a shared Christian culture, but it becomes a kind of “mere Christianity” with the “sectarian peculiarities” removed. Whether such an environment is sufficient is a question that needs to be answered.

At the same time there were other ideas infiltrating the world of education which did even more to strip it of its Christian presuppositions. Horace Mann is known as the founder of the American public school system. Lockerbie argues that he has, to some degree, gotten a bad rap. He was not against religion in the schools. His primary concern was that the schools not be carried away by the winds of change which in our country blow in quite regularly with every election cycle. By reducing the religious part of the  curriculum to its lowest common denominator, he sought to protect it from these changes which he feared would undermine the education of the children they were meant to serve. He allowed the Bible to be read in schools, but only without comment. This, he believed, would still provide a moral education as God’s Word could speak for itself. Even this basic Bible reading was not non-sectarian enough for Catholic parents who objected to the use of the King James translation over their own.

There is another element to Mann’s philosophy which Lockerbie doesn’t draw out, though it comes through in the selection he quotes. The purpose of education for Mann was to equip the child to be a “free agent”:

“So the religious education which a child receives at school is not imparted to him for the purpose of making him join this or that denomination when he arrives at years of discretion, but for the purpose of enabling him to judge for himself, according to the dictates of his own reason and conscience, what his religious obligations are, and whither they lead  . . . ” (from “Report to the Massachusettes Board of Education, 1848,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 290)

The world Mann assumes here is one in which each person essentially elects his own religion. It is not passed down from his fathers nor it there necessarily any right or wrong choice. Each votes for himself, not just in the realm of politics, but on his God and his truth.

With Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey, who was an admirer of Emerson’s, we move firmly away from Christianity. For Emerson, who denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ, nature is the supreme teacher and the goal of education to to know oneself and to become a “Man Thinking.” He was skeptical even of books which were merely the thoughts of other men. They are to inspire, he tells us, but not to get knowledge from.

John Dewey brings science to bear on education. His approach to education is a matter of scientific experimentation; what gets the desired result is what we must do. His approach is Darwinian and pragmatic, rejecting any God as outdated. The goal is “personal and communal growth, ever moving forward” (p. 302). Though, as Lockerbie notes, there is little definition of what constitutes “forward.” Though Dewey says some things about balancing the psychological and the societal, education for him seems to be mainly social indoctrination. There is no talk of knowledge here, only the social process:

“The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences . . .” (from “My Pedagogic Creed,” article II, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 306)

In the end, each child must fulfill his own destiny, a destiny he finds only after years of societal molding by trained teachers.

Not surprisingly, there was some backlash in the Christian community to this progressive de-Christianizing of the schools. The Roman Catholic Church, as we have said, had long sought to establish its own school system, recognizing that non-sectarian Christianity presented in the schools was still not quite non-sectarian enough (I discussed this previously here). In 1847 both the Presbyterian Church, USA and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church decided that they could not rely on the public schools to give the kind of Christian education which they desired for their member children. Thus a new wave of Christian schooling began, though it was cut short of the Civil War.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] « History of Education: the 1800s […]


  2. […] The basis of thought in the public schools is not and cannot be neutral. Neutrality does not exist. (History of Education: the 1800s) […]


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