History – American Education

History of American Education

by David Barton

The Founders believed – which the first federal education law acknowledged – that schools and education systems were a proper means to encourage "religion, morality, and knowledge" that was so "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind." The framers of our government did not believe that encouraging religion in schools was unconstitutional; rather, they believed the opposite; only in recent decades have courts ruled otherwise.

The effect of that first federal law was quite evident in early State constitutions, for compliance with that law was a pre-requisite for the admission of a territory as a State into the Union. Therefore, when Ohio adopted its first State constitution in 1802, that document declared:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being essentially necessary to the good government, and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of instruction shall forever be encouraged by legislative provision.

In fact, at the university level in 1860, 262 out of 288 college presidents were ministers of the Gospel – as were more than a third of all university faculty members. And in 1890, James Angell, President of the University of Vermont and the University of Michigan, reported that over 90 percent of the State universities conducted chapel services; at half, chapel attendance was compulsory; and a quarter required regular church attendance in addition to chapel attendance. Well into the 20th century, this remained the practice of State universities – a practice that was simply the continuation of the philosophy of education that had caused America to become the most successful and prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Early Educational Pioneers

Many of America's early educational leaders were patriots who had been directly involved in the American Revolution. They understood that if America was to endure beyond the Revolution, then the principles on which she had been birthed, nurtured, and developed must be successfully transmitted to future generations; and it was for this reason that so many of them became directly involved in writing educational plans, authoring textbooks, or starting universities. In fact, there were more universities established in America in the ten years following the Revolution than in the 150 years before.

One such early educational leader was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who also served in three presidential administrations. Dr. Rush had helped found five colleges (three of which still exist today); he was also a university professor, authored numerous textbooks, and was among the first Founding Fathers to propose nationwide public schools, for which he may be titled "The Father of Public Schools under the Constitution."

Like most of the other Founding Fathers, Dr. Rush was a prolific writer; and one of his educational policy papers was titled, "A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook" (1791). At the beginning of that work, Dr. Rush first declared:

"Before I state my arguments in favor of teaching children to read by means of the Bible, I shall assume the five following propositions: I. – That Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy; II. – That a better knowledge of this religion is to be acquired by reading the Bible than in any other way; III. – That the Bible contains more knowledge necessary to man in his present state than in any other book in the world; IV. – That knowledge is most durable and religious instruction most useful when imparted in early life; and V. – That the Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life."

Dr. Rush next set forth nearly a dozen reasons why the Bible should always remain the cardinal textbook of American education; he then closed his piece with a succinct warning on what would happen in America if the Bible were removed from schools: "In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that [if we remove the Bible from schools] we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them…For this Divine Book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and these sober and frugal virtues which constitute the soul of [our government]."Dr. Rush correctly saw the Bible as the only sure means to prevent crime, for it dealt with the heart – the source of all crime; he therefore accurately forewarned that if America ceased to teach the Bible in schools, then not only would crime increase but great quantities of time and money would be expended in fighting crime.

The New England Primer (the first textbook ever published in America) was originally printed in Boston around 1690 and was reprinted frequently over the next two centuries – including the 1762 reprint by Samuel Adams. Well into the 20th century, The New England Primer remained a common text from which American students learned to read. The Primer was the equivalent of a first-grade textbook. (Even though there were no grade levels in early American education at that time, the Primer was the beginning reader – it was where students began their reading lessons; so today it would be called a first-grade textbook.)

Over its two centuries of use, the cover page of the Primer would change from edition to edition, but the Primer itself maintained three core elements: the "Rhyming Alphabet," the "Alphabet of Lessons for Youth," and the "Shorter Catechism." Notice the content of the first core element – the "Rhyming Alphabet" – and recall that for two centuries this alphabet was a key part of public education in America:

A – In Adam's fall, we sinned all.
B – Heaven to find, the Bible mind.
C – Christ crucified, for sinners died.

The second key element of the Primer was the "Alphabet of Lessons for Youth." This section was the ABC's in a bold column running vertically down the page, with each letter of the alphabet accompanied by a Bible verse:

A – A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother [PROVERBS 10:1].
B – Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith [PROVERBS 15:16].
C – Come unto Christ all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and He will give you rest [MATTHEW 11:28], &c. 103

The third section common to the Primer was the "Shorter Cathechism," and it contained questions such as:

"Which is the fifth commandment?"
"What is required in the fifth commandment?"
"What is forbidden in the fifth commandment?"
"What is the reason annexed to the fifth commandment?"

(It is noteworthy that for centuries, the Ten Commandments were taught in America's public schools.)

Not only was The New England Primer reprinted by Samuel Adams for students in Massachusetts but it was also reprinted by Benjamin Franklin + for students in Pennsylvania. The fact that Franklin was directly involved with personally distributing such an overtly religious schoolbook might surprise many Americans today, for Franklin is considered to be one of the least religious of our Founding Fathers. (While Franklin certainly is one of the least religious Founders, ironically, he was definitely more religious than many so-called devoutly religious individuals today.) Franklin had long demonstrated his overt support for teaching Christian principles in public education.

Franklin helped found schools in the 1760s in which African American students were taught not only academics but also the principles of Christianity. And two decades before that, in 1740, Franklin had helped found the University of Pennsylvania for the explicitly declared purpose of instructing youth in the knowledge of the Christian religion. Then in 1749, Franklin authored the famous piece entitled, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania in which he discussed the content of the academic curriculum of the State's new university, noting that in its history classes: "History will…afford frequent opportunities of showing the necessity of a public religion from its usefulness to the public [and] the advantage of a religious character among private persons and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern." Franklin – one of America's least religious Founding Fathers- was a strong advocate of teaching Christian principles in public education.

If there is any famous American from the Founding Era considered less religious than Benjamin Franklin, it certainly is Thomas Paine; yet it is striking to see what even Thomas Paine believed should be taught in public education. For example, in a lecture in Paris in 1797, Paine attacked the French public school system because of the secular anti-religious manner in which it taught science. Paine protested: "It has been the error of the schools to teach…sciences and subjects of natural philosophy as accomplishments only whereas they should be taught…with reference to the Being who is the author of them: for all the principles of science are of Divine origin. When we examine an extraordinary piece of machinery, an astonishing pile of architecture, a well executed statue or a highly finished painting…our ideas are naturally led to think of the extensive genius and talents of the artist. When we study the elements of geometry, we think of Euclid. When we speak of gravitation, we think of Newton. How then is it, that when we study the works of God in the creation, we stop short and do not think of God? It is from the error of the schools… "[T]he evil that has resulted…has been that of generating in the pupils a species of atheism. Instead of looking through the works of the creation to the Creator Himself, they stop short and employ the knowledge they acquire to create doubts of His existence."

Not even Thomas Paine – probably the least religious among the American Founders – believed that public education should be so secular as to exclude religious and moral teachings. America's first colonial educational laws, its first federal laws, and the declarations of many early American statesmen confirm the fact that the unique American approach to a successful education integrated religious and morals lessons with academic instruction. Subsequent textbooks demonstrate that this philosophy of education remained intact and unaltered for centuries.

It would not have surprised Dr. Benjamin Rush to learn that our academic achievements have fallen significantly since the secularization of public education, for he had long ago observed:

"[T]here is the most knowledge in those countries where there is the most Christianity…[and] those…parents or school-masters who neglect the religious instruction of their children and pupils, reject and neglect the most effectual means of promoting knowledge in our country."

The successful philosophy of education that characterized America for centuries clearly has undergone a radical revolution in recent years; yet it is a revolution caused not by citizen action or legislative interference but rather by judicial activism, with courts and judges suddenly prohibiting what had been permissible for centuries. Secularization of education is the new paradigm; but recent decades clearly demonstrate that the more secular education becomes, the less successful it is academically.

Apparently, many today are unaware of the massive and dramatic changes that have occurred in American education in recent decades; and too many others are simply complacent about the changes. Yet, it is important that every citizen today – regardless of whether they have students in school – be concerned and informed about the condition of education. As educator Noah Webster long ago warned: "The education of youth should be watched with the most scrupulous attention…[I]t is much easier to introduce and establish an effectual system…than to correct by penal statutes the ill effects of a bad system…The education of youth…lays the foundations on which both law and gospel rest for success." Every citizen should exert the time and effort necessary to ensure that schools are teaching sound content and providing a good education, and that those who teach in classrooms – as well as those elected to school boards and legislatures – are individuals who respect, honor, and embrace the time-tested principles of a sound education. And if the leaders and schools you work with do not embrace these ideals, then replace the leaders – or start new schools.

Imparting mere academic knowledge should never be a sufficient final objective for learning, nor should the secularization of education ever become acceptable. A sound education should instill the three elements long proven to be the basis of a successful education: religion, morality, and knowledge. These elements should be instilled not only in our schools but also in our homes, churches, and throughout our communities. For four centuries in American education, the three essential elements of religion, morality, and knowledge formed the basis of character and achievement; experience and common sense demonstrate that these elements still provide the foundation that will enable today's students to be the solid citizens and the great leaders of the future. It is our responsibility as citizens not only to protect the proven educational philosophy that made and has kept America great but also to do everything that we can to transmit that successful educational philosophy to future generations, just as our forebears did throughout the first four centuries of American education.

History of American Education was adapted from the book:
"Four Centuries of American Education" by David Barton.