In its meeting last spring at Omaha, Nebraska, our General Assembly [Presbyterian Church, U. S. A.] completed and adopted a resolution upon which several years’ work had been done relative to understanding our public schools. The statement has created discussion and controversy, by no means limited to Presbyterians.

The Presbyterian General Assembly came out in strong support of our public schools. Of recent years there has been a considerable movement to revive parochial education, not only among Roman Catholics, but also among Protestants. The Lutherans, for instance, have a very extensive parochial school system, and there are even a few Presbyterian parochial schools. But, said the General Assembly, parochial schools are not the answer. The committee which drew up the statement declared, for example, “that the inclusion of an overt observance of religion does not necessarily provide any institution with a dynamic religious character.” The statement goes on to make this claim: “General superiority neither in academic achievement nor in ethical behavior has been demonstrated when elementary and secondary students of parochial schools are compared with students of the public schools. Further, it has not been demonstrated that attendance at the parochial primary and secondary school better equips persons to participate as Christians in the life of the total community. Nor is it at all certain that attendance at parochial schools prepares a person to participate more fully in the life of the religious community. The moral ills common to our society are found in student populations in both parochial and public schools.”

Now, if a religious emphasis is to be left out of public education, are we to conclude that our schools therefore are “godless,” as many people have accused? If we should not have church-related schools, and if public education is “godless,” then we are really in a jam! We become totally dependent upon one hour a week on Sunday morning for the religious training of our children, and this is scarcely enough for anyone. How did the General Assembly answer this dilemma?

It answered by saying that our public schools are not “godless.” It calls attention to the fact that many dedicated Christians are teachers—that in fact most teachers are Christian, and that their influence cannot help rubbing off on the children. On the other hand, if we set up a lot of parochial schools and leave the public schools to teachers who are not Christian, then our public education will lose a great deal of the godly character that it already has.

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And yet, even besides the Christian character of many teachers, there are other essentially religious influences at work, even though they do not parade under the name of religion. Dr. Ganse Little, in presenting the statement about the public schools to the General Assembly, spoke of these influences as the “leaven” which is hidden in the “three measures of meal” and with which “the whole loaf is finally leavened.” The most important of these religious influences are those we have already mentioned, viz., the basic commitment of our schools to the inherent worth of the individual child, and an insistence upon unfettered and dedicated search for truth. There is a religious influence again in the development of attitudes which are involved in living, learning, and growing together. “In the public school,” says the report, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, black nor white.” In other words, despite the integration problem in the South, the public school is the most democratic institution in the world. Or once again, by introducing boys and girls to literature, history, art, music, and science, the public school is giving them something that is part and parcel of Christian culture. And finally, says Dr. Little, “there are thousands upon thousands of hours devoted to skilled counseling and the supervision of extracurricular activities designed to effect the acceptance of one’s self and reconciliation with one’s brother whose only ultimate source is the commitment to a gospel of reconciliation.”

There is much more, but this is the gist of the Presbyterian General Assembly’s defense of public schools. That our schools are not perfect is freely admitted, and church people are urged to assume larger responsibility and feel deeper concern for the public school system, while at the same time keeping Church and State fully separated. It is a good statement and a heartening one. Generally, most of us can approve. Not all the criticisms that have arisen against it are fair; and yet, though to many circles there is a kind of heresy and blasphemy in criticizing education, I myself would like to raise some concerning the very points in which the Assembly’s statement makes its strongest defense.

Some Current Dangers

The values and virtues of education as cited by the Presbyterian statement may, indeed, exist (at least to a degree and theoretically). But there are two dangers against which our public schools, and we who support them, must be on guard more than I think we are. One is the indiscriminate throwing together of students in a common curriculum and system of instruction irrespective of individual ability and talent. The other is the presenting of a hodge-podge of facts and a variety of subjects without relating them to an over-all philosophy of life. What we have in consequence of these two tendencies is a standardizing and homogenizing of people into a collective mass who look for their guidance in thought and behavior to the whim of the moment and the pressures of propaganda or crowd. When that happens, we have neither the reverence for individual personality nor the earnest search for truth which the General Assembly points to as the ideal of education. When that happens, it makes little difference whether our children are brought up to believe that God really exists. And individuality that is submerged, and minds that are not disciplined to think or hold to a consistent set of values, are at the farthest extreme from anything we can call godly or Christian.

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Emphasis On Conformity

I am not saying that all schools and all students belong in this disturbing picture of things, and I have only the highest regard for many teachers who are doing a valiant job within the framework of a difficult situation, and in spite of gross underpay. Yet, are these defects not true of too many of our schools in America? For example, in regard to the first of the two dangers mentioned above, it is not individual achievement that is stressed so much as it is adjustment to the group. If an individual is different or superior, much effort is made to bring him to heel so that he does not stand out from the group. Many a superior student has been made to feel ashamed of his intellectual ability lest he be called an “egghead,” a “bookworm,” or a “square.” He is taught, if not by his teachers, at least by his schoolmates, to conform, to be part of the crowd and thus reduce himself to the lowest common denominator. There is an overwhelming fear of being different or doing anything alone. Heaven only knows how many men and women of superior ability have been lost to the world of creative work because of the very emphasis which the Assembly itself calls Christian, that of “living, learning, and growing together!” Together! Everything together! No individuality, no independence, no standing on your own feet, no self-reliance, no resistance to the crowd, no encouragement to grow to one’s fullest personal capacity. Everything together. One glorious collective, mass man! Up to a point, of course, togetherness is desirable and necessary; but in the overwhelming emphasis given to it, conformity is becoming the great and growing disease of our day. Surveys recently made in our colleges and universities reveal a glaring and disturbing contentment with things as they are, a strong disposition to let the government take care of things, and almost a pathetic satisfaction with the standards of mediocrity as against the standards of excellence. And I see too little evidence that public education and the public itself are even aware of it, much less trying to fight it.

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Lack Of Integration

The hodge-podge of subjects given to students without a central motive or an integrating core of conviction confronts us with the second danger. In Life magazine Charles Van Doren, who won fame on TV with his phenomenal memory for facts on a quiz program, presented a searching challenge. There were some who cheered his triumph by saying that at last America has an “egghead” for a hero, and some parents wrote to tell him that their children have acquired a new respect for learning. But Van Doren has concluded after careful thought about his experience that “in the long run the effect of quiz shows on education is rather bad than good.” His reason is that the so-called “knowledge” which quiz contestants exhibit is nothing but “junk”—and I am using his own word. “I can’t imagine a wise man being a bore,” he said. “Yet a contestant could answer every question ever asked on all quiz programs and still be a nincompoop. He could ‘know everything’ and still know nothing, because he knew none of the connections between the things that he knew.”

That is the chief goal of learning—to be able to tie things together into a meaningful whole that gives one a philosophy of life. Unless we can see life steadily and see it whole, we become the victims of every whim of doctrine and every puff of propaganda. What we are faced with in America is a tying of people together as a substitute for tying ideas together. How much, I wonder, are our schools really trying to engender a passion, not just for “getting by” on examinations, but for the thrill of learning? And how much of this contempt for learning is our own fault as adults for the example we are setting for the young? How guilty are we, I wonder, of being satisfied with the smattering of knowledge we picked up in high school or college? We are scarcely aware of how much there is yet to be known, and kid ourselves on how much we think we “know.”

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I recognize that these criticisms are strong. But they are intended to call attention to failures at the very points on which the General Assembly has expressed its faith in public education, namely, the supposed emphasis upon the sacredness of the individual and the unrelenting search for truth.

Edward W. Greenfield has joined Spiritual Mobilization as research director in the sphere of the spiritual foundations of freedom. Until recently he was Minister of First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, Indiana. He holds the B.A. from Linfield College, B.D. from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, M.A. from Columbia University. He will edit Faith and Freedom.

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