Among the millions of students who will attend the nation’s secondary schools this fall there is a significant minority estimated at some 100,000 who will enter non-sectarian and Protestant independent schools. Of this group some from all over the country will be headed for New England’s historic preparatory schools and academies. They will be heirs to generations of the kind of learning that produced Henry L. Stimson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert Taft, and John F. Kennedy, not to mention an impressive number of the business and professional leaders of the nation. Others will head south and west to the newer but increasingly excellent boarding and day schools that are to be found in most of the states.

Fast disappearing is the old idea that these boys and girls are either children of split families or maladjusted and chronically undisciplined progeny of the rich, white, upper-middle class. Most will be on their way for one reason: their parents want them to have superior preparation for college. Since nearly 300 of the leading preparatory schools place their entire graduating class in college each year and the average for all such schools is over 95 per cent of the senior class, the parents know what they are doing. They also know that the day of the socially elite school is pretty well past and that scholarship aid is increasingly available to all well-qualified applicants.

Those who go to these schools for the first time this fall will find differences from their former public schools. Classes will be smaller, the opportunity for personal attention from teachers will be greater, scholastic expectations will generally be higher, and there will be a heavy emphasis on the academic subjects—languages, history, mathematics, science. These students may also be surprised at religious observances: Bible reading and prayer at morning assembly or expected attendance at daily evening chapel, a midweek religious assembly, or, in many schools, required courses in Bible, ethics, or theology. If they attend a boarding school, on Sunday there will be either chapel or regular attendance at local churches. For some students all this will be a necessary chore, an undesirable part of going to an otherwise good school. For others, with church backgrounds or without, it may be the beginning of a strong faith and a new life.

Founded On Conviction

Many independent schools (the more accurate way to refer to private schools, signifying freedom from state support and control) were originally motivated by the desire to provide education with a Christian emphasis. Close to the roots of American education are such historic schools (still flourishing) as New York’s Collegiate School, founded in 1638 by the Dutch Reformed; Boston’s Roxbury Latin School (1645), with its Puritan heritage going back to John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians”; and Philadelphia’s Penn Charter School (1689), named for the great Quaker, William Penn. In 1850 there were well over 6,000 private academies scattered throughout the East, South, and Midwest, most of which grew out of Christian conviction. As a movement, the academies lost out largely through bankruptcy and through the post-Civil War growth of state-supported public high schools; but they were the precursors both of our modern system of public secondary education and of the present independent secondary schools.

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The traditional concern with spiritual values continues in most independent schools today, despite the lack of formal church affiliation on the part of the majority. There are signs, in fact, of a renewed concern among school personnel for religious commitment in education—partly a reaction, no doubt, to the increasing biblical and theological illiteracy and to the moral relativism and decay of the times. Few schools do nothing at all in religious education. Many see their independence as entailing a privilege and a responsibility to expose students to the beliefs that shaped Western civilization and American democracy and to help them to an authentic relationship to God.

Serving these schools across the country as a clearing house for religious materials, ideas, and programs and also as a catalyst to Christian concern and commitment is the Council for Religion in Independent Schools, an interdenominational voluntary association of individuals and schools (elementary as well as secondary). Its roots go back more than a hundred years to the beginnings of a Bible society at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and a prayer meeting at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. Later, at the turn of the century, when student Christian work was given great impetus by men like John R. Mott and Robert E. Speer (inspired by conferences at Dwight L. Moody’s Northfield Schools), a movement began that in time gave birth to a host of offspring. Since those days, the Council for Religion has grown into a national organization that seeks to influence the whole school program, while maintaining its primary concern for personal religious commitment.

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The council exists to serve some 500 schools within their own traditions. Its support comes from the whole spectrum: non-sectarian schools like Emma Willard School in New York, St. Louis Country Day School in Missouri, and Thacher School in California; Episcopal schools like St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, Groton in Massachusetts, and St. Mark’s in Texas; Quaker schools like George School, Westtown School, and Germantown Friends School in Pennsylvania; military schools like Culver Military Academy in Indiana; evangelical schools like Stony Brook School in New York, McCallie School in Tennessee, and the Westminster Schools in Georgia.

Through its placement service the council may assist a school in finding a chaplain or Bible teacher. It may offer aids for worship or a list of recommended chapel speakers in the school’s area. The council suggests courses in Bible, ethics, or theology, and is currently working on a religion curriculum and assisting in the production of a textbook for study of the New Testament, written by Professor Bruce M. Metzger.

The council seeks also to be a catalyst, stimulating concern where it is faint, encouraging Christian faith in students and faculty who have doubts and hesitancies, pointing out to school directors the importance of the Scriptures in our whole Western educational tradition, and exposing students and faculty to able speakers. All this is done in a variety of ways. Each year in all regions of the country the council draws some 2,000 boys and girls together for weekend and one-day conferences. Colloquia bring; together faculty and headmasters in different regions to consider such matters as the emotional and spiritual nature of adolescence, contemporary literature in the light of the Christian faith, and methods of teaching the Bible and religion. Every second year a three-week summer institute at Yale University, jointly sponsored by the council and the Yale Master of Arts in Teaching Program, seeks to draw teachers into dialogue with outstanding professors of the humanities, the sciences, and theology. The institute takes seriously the unity of all truth in God and hopes to clarify the relation of the teachers’ own subjects to the Christian world view. Triennial national conferences gather hundreds of school heads and teachers to consider such topics as “Education for Decision in the Modern World” (Colorado, October, 1962), while regular contact is kept with schools through a quarterly bulletin, Religion in the Schools, and through visits by the council staff to speak in classes, chapels, and assemblies and to talk informally with interested groups of students.

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Danger In The Grades Rush

Independent schools today face critical issues. Increasing competition for places in college and rising entrance standards are exerting pressure on them to step up their curricula and intensify their academic programs. Students and faculty frequently say that there is no “time” to stop and think about life’s great commitments and values. Yet preparedness for college involves preparedness for life, and those who neglect the latter in the feverish rush to educate an advancing generation do so to its peril. The spiritual vacuum with which many go to college shows up sooner or later in dropouts, boredom, and moral chaos. Knowledge is useless unless the never-ending stream of facts can be channeled into a total world view. The Council for Religion is convinced that the wisdom that puts earthly knowledge into divine perspective has been revealed in Jesus Christ. While avoiding the twin dangers of indifference to and overprecise definition of specific doctrines, the council (not in itself a doctrinal organization) is committed to the proposition that “God was in Christ reconciling the “world to himself,” and it encourages alignment with this broad commitment.

Skepticism is the fashion of the day. As the headmistress of a distinguished girls’ school put it: “Twenty years ago when I first arrived, the question in all the girls’ minds was ‘Will I follow Jesus Christ?’ Today it has become ‘Can I believe in God?’ ” No answer to the latter can be given in indifference to the former.

The great danger in the otherwise encouraging increase in concern for spiritual values in independent education is that the Central Person will be forgotten, that as Redeemer and Teacher and Example he will be bypassed in favor of a more pluralistic “secular” approach. The extreme of this tendency can be seen in one headmaster whose distress about moral laxity in his school led him to institute a required course in ethics based upon decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Preparatory school students see the falsity of bringing God in as a kind of deus ex machine to justify middle-class morality. But they respond to a clear and forthright portrayal of Jesus Christ, whose flesh-and-blood revelation is the only basis for Christian ethics.

The vitality of the spiritual life in any given school depends upon a number of factors. Most crucial is the director’s own commitment and concern. But individual members can by a consistent witness have a remarkable effect upon a whole school community. Curriculum time given to Bible and ethics courses is of great importance, as are chapel programs; but like a great frozen waterfall they can sometimes give the impression of mightier movement than there really is.

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Lastly, there are the students themselves. They bring to their schools either an emerging faith or a void that may quickly be covered by a callous. The independent schools may perhaps be the place where some of our future leaders will learn of him who said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” and “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” There is cause for thanksgiving that in independent education across the country there are those who see the need and the opportunity for spiritual renewal and are responding to what they see. For them Macedonia is not far.

Peter C. Moore is director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools. He is a graduate of Yale University (A.B.); Jesus College, Oxford University (B.A.); and the Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts (B.D.). He has served as the vicar of All Souls’ Episcopal Mission, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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