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Richard J. Elliott, Professor Emeritus
EDFR 6400--History of American Education
April 1, 1997
From your study so far, do you think it is fair to say that the development of a non-sectarian religious outlook was important in the development of a non-sectarian public school system?
It can be fairly said that education in the United States has developed unevenly. Considering the whole of the US, the northeastern states lead other areas in a commitment to public education. Today, inner-city schools are generally perceived to be inferior to their counterparts in the suburbs. Many consider private, sectarian or non-sectarian, schools to be superior to public schools. Since most public schools are funded by local property taxes, wealthy school districts appear to have far superior schools to those of poorer districts. These observations can be made because schools in the US are a reflection of their neighborhoods.
If one considers the United States as a neighborhood, then non-sectarian public schools are a development of its non-sectarian religious outlook. The US is a young democratic country built by peoples from many heterogeneous cultures. Most of these cultures have strong religious beliefs. In a democracy, we find that the only way to protect ones beliefs is to protect the beliefs of others. In the US, this is codified by the First Amendment to the Constitution--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ." Equally important to the development of public education as we know it today is the Tenth Amendment--"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States." Since education is not mentioned the US constitution, public education is reserved to the States.
In a very real sense, the United States has a non-sectarian system of public education because of its religious pluralism. Religion is a part of culture. Religion is a central component of the process of adaptation to change as societies evolve. Religion helps people to decide, in a collective way, what changes will be accepted into the culture and which will not. In this sense, religion fulfills a role very similar to the social function we commonly refer to as "education." Religion's educational functions are not limited to those people formally associated with religions traditions. Religion helps to culturally educate non-members by its impact on customs, rituals and holiday observations. Mardi Gras in South Louisiana and Spring Break in Florida are both cultural festivals with ritual roots.
The history of US education is the history of religious education, even in public education. Public education, society's prime disseminator of secular information, developed into a social institution separated from religion only in the twentieth century. Historically, religious organizations shouldered the bulk of society's perceived responsibilities toward the education of children. This was true in the South, and especially true in Louisiana. Louisiana was (is) culturally divided--Protestant north, Catholic south. Because of this, (until the 1960's) non-denominational private, and many public, schools tended to function as Protestant parochial schools. This explains the relative absence of Protestant denominational schools compared to the abundance of Catholic schools. Until 1891, Louisiana was the only state in the Union with laws that forbade the use of any public monies for support of private schools. These battles were peculiar to Louisiana, but are indicators of the struggle public education faced throughout the United States.
Even with Louisiana's unique cultural divide, the accommodation of public education to the development of a non-sectarian religious outlook was the same as in the rest of the United States. These changes may have taken longer in Louisiana, but the outcome was the same.*
Another way to look at the development of a non-sectarian religions outlook and its effect on public education is to simply consider that public education became the purveyor of civil religion. It became the state's agent in educating people to participate in desired economic change. Religious education expanded in order to co-opt the economic and political influences of a modern society. The symbolism behind civil religion is supplied by the glorification of the deeds of great Americans of the past. Mythology is supplied by distortion and simplification of American history. Ritual is evident in everyday life--in the form of observance of holidays, displays of the flag, and oaths of allegiance or other pledges of national loyalty. The importance of civil religion is its unitary character. It appeals to all, and nothing prevents adhering of any religious denomination to the American creed. After all--we are indivisible, one nation "under God."
Today, public education is non-sectarian. But, eduation is a wider process of socialization and adjustment to change that is not entirely within the scope of the public school systems to successfully guide and accomplish. Religion still plays a major role in the process of educating society's members.