A good education is a religious endeavor

Editor’s note: Craig S. Engelhardt is a former teacher and school administrator who directs the Waco, Texas-based Society for the Advancement of Christian Education. His new book is “Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal.”



Public education reflects some of America’s highest ideals and is based upon a belief in the value of both the individual and American society. Its existence reflects the belief that all children – regardless of their demographic status­ – should have the opportunity to grow in and pursue their potential. Its curricula reflect the belief that prosperity, liberty, and peace are rooted in individuals who are knowledgeable, skilled, reasonable, individually reflective, morally responsible, and socially supportive.

I support public education as both an ideal and a “good.” However, I claim public education harbors a systemic flaw that hinders and often prevents our public schools from fulfilling their ideals. Further, I claim this flaw has survived virtually unrecognized and unchallenged for over a century. Is it possible a scientific, astute, experienced, and democratic people could have missed a “flat world” sized flaw in a system so close to their lives and communities? I maintain we have. I have extensively written about it in “Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal.”

In this scholarly book, I attempt to “tease out” the roles religion has played in education from America’s conception to the present. To do this, I start with a functional definition that describes religion as a coherent and foundational set of beliefs and values that provides a framework for reason and a source of motivation for life. Defined functionally, religions are worldviews that may or may not have a deity.

Working from this definition, I discover pre-modern (roughly pre-20th century) public and private education leaders consciously held religion to be central to their efforts. In other words, they believed individuals were shaped by their religious beliefs and the educational nurture of individuals relied upon teaching the foundational beliefs of their communities, extrapolating from pre-existing beliefs, and integrating new facts with those beliefs. The question within 19th century common schools was not whether schools should be religious, but which religious tenets were most integral to and supportive of the American way of life. This educational discernment was not merely due to prejudice or self-centered majoritarian preferences (though these played a role), but to a reasoned, experiential, and historically evident understanding of the roles of religion in society. The exclusive public support of common education seems to have been an attempt to educate non-Protestants toward many of the morals, beliefs, and perspectives considered to be “American” and indebted to the Protestant faith.

So how did secular public education become an “ideal”? First, I note it never was the ideal for the majority of the U.S. population. Even now, given a choice, I believe most parents would likely prefer to send their children to a school reflecting their “religious” views. Secular public education developed in America as a result of the confluence of two mutually supporting public commitments and a national trend – all were philosophically based, but one carried the overwhelming force of law. I believe the complexity of their interplay and the slow pace of change allowed the “flaw” of linking public education with the secular paradigm to survive to our present day with little challenge.

The public commitments noted above, neither of which held secular education as an ideal, were 1) America’s legal commitment to liberty of conscience, and 2) its attachment to the common education paradigm. Though early public common schools reflected a Protestant worldview, the legal protection of the rights of conscience of all children under the common school umbrella would eventually force public education to secularize. The secularization of education was more a function of ideological conflict and court edicts mandated by the common education paradigm than it was a public choice to strengthen education. Finally, the national trend that eased the transition from religious to secular education was the scientific paradigm of 20th century modernity.  As increasing religious diversity challenged the Protestant perspectives within the common school paradigm, the supposedly non-religious paradigm of scientifically based education seemed to provide a needed alternative that was acceptable to most faiths. Thus, by the 1960’s, when court decisions mandated the removal of faculty-led prayer and Bible reading, this final step to secularize public schools merely complemented the secularizing trend begun with the first commitment to the common school paradigm.

And here we get to the crux of my concern. Has the secularization of public education complemented or opposed the public’s educational ideals? I find it has opposed them. While our American ideals prevent the state from aligning with any religious perspective, virtually every individual holds to a worldview that helps provide meaning to education knowledge, motivation for educational attainment, and value to educational claims and endeavors. Separated from (and frequently in conflict with) the religious beliefs of attending families, the secular education day has difficulty motivating students, providing meaning to facts, building morality, building community, and inspiring parental support.

Rather than being a vital support to our public education ideals, I claim the secular education paradigm carries significant blame for our inability to close the achievement gap, our frustrations with low test scores, and our sense of declining morality and civic support. To what degree do even “successful” schools reach the ideals of public education? I find little evidence to suggest that even concerned and skilled teachers are able to facilitate the nurture of the public’s education ideals under the current system of public education. Many a public school teacher wishes they could cross the church-state divide to address the deeper needs of their students or to engage the deeper meanings, values, and contexts contained within the subjects they teach. Yet they are left with merely technical tools, standardized curricula, external consequences, and distant parents.

Summarily, I claim the ‘secular/common’ education paradigm lacks the resources to provide an education capable of supporting the ideals for which we support public education. In other words, our public education paradigm is required by law to be secular, whereas a good education is a very religious endeavor. I must end here leaving the reader with unanswered questions, but in “Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal,” I address the criticisms of religious education and the manner in which a religious paradigm of public education complements the school choice movement. I also delve more deeply into how religious schools are better suited to support the public’s education ideals than their secular counterparts. Perhaps I can address these in future posts.

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