Though Americans today demand all sorts of programs and services from the education system, we still expect children to be schooled in the three R's—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. But many people have forgotten that, until very recently, nearly everyone in this country endorsed a fourth R in education: religion. This week's PBS documentary School: The Story of American Public Education did little to jog their memory.

(Full disclosure: Due to stiff competition from Grand Slam tennis, only part of the four-hour film made it into my living room. Thus much of my information on the film comes from its Web site.)

School divides the history of American education into four historical blocks. The first block spans the years 1770-1890, the Common School era. The next block covers 1900-1950 and examines schools' response to issues such as urbanization and immigration. The third block celebrates steps toward equality taken between 1950 and 1970, including Brown v. Board of Education, bussing programs, Title IX, and efforts to accommodate disabled students. The last block, 1980 to the present, gets into current debates on academic standards, alternative schools, and vouchers.

Among subjects given little or no treatment are colleges (a high proportion of which began as Christian institutions), church-state educational partnerships throughout the nineteenth-century West, and the 1963 school prayer decision. Of the innovators profiled at the Web site, just two come from religious traditions: Catherine Beecher, whose Calvinist roots (her father was minister Lyman Beecher) are not discussed, and Catholic Archbishop John Joseph Hughes, who merits attention because "his struggles and the fiery debates between Hughes and members of New York's prominent Protestant establishment helped to set in motion the secularization of American public schools."

I can think of three reasons for religion's small role in this drama, not counting a few mostly negative cameos. One, it's PBS, so what do you expect? Two, by skipping the colonial period and cropping colleges out of the picture, the producers eliminated significant areas of Christian influence. Three, because this is the story of American public education, religion isn't really part of the narrative. But rather than whine about reason one (a popular but overbroad charge), I'll quibble with the other two.

Starting a documentary on American education at 1770 distorts the story. This framing gives the impression that our education system sprang fully formed from the mind of Thomas Jefferson, and that learning was not pursued before the Revolutionary War. The School Web site states, "In the aftermath of the Revolution, a newly independent America came face-to-face with one of its most daunting challenges: how to build a united nation out of 13 colonies with little in common. Many citizens believed that education held the key."

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In fact, several colonies were more than 100 years old in 1770 and had already put serious, though not always well-organized, effort into childhood education. As people of the Word, northern Puritans had been filling their kids' heads with Scripture and sermons for decades. Southern, mostly Anglican, colonists lagged in literacy, but they did establish some schools and receive teaching missionaries. As a result, by the 1770s, a majority of Americans could read the Bible and the newspaper. The film may regard this minimum standard as barer than a dirt floor, but America was doing just fine by eighteenth-century standards.

Excluding colleges from the film, though a valid editorial choice, also gives a skewed picture because it suggests that Christians cared little for education beyond the level of a basic catechism. Actually, all major colonial colleges except the College of Philadelphia (now Penn) were founded by Christian groups: Harvard by Puritans, William and Mary and King's College by Anglicans, Yale and Dartmouth by Congregationalists, Princeton by Presbyterians, Brown by Baptists, and Rutgers by Reformed Dutch. Secularization grew as time went on, but Christian influences persisted longer than many people realize. For example, athletic teams at church-founded University of Southern California were proudly called "Methodists" until 1912.

Colonial and college material aside, plenty of religious people and ideas would have appeared in School if the producers hadn't imposed the current definition of "public" education on the past. The story of schools in which religion receives no preferential treatment and all funding comes from secular government agencies would have been a short one indeed, so instead the film highlighted only secular aspects of a much broader narrative.

From the Revolution era to the end of the nineteenth century, Common Schools moved west with the population. Though ostensibly supported with public funds and required by state laws to eschew sectarian instruction (the documentary makes much of this), they needed teachers, administrators, facilities, and other resources that new communities often could not or would not provide.

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So churches stepped in. Where public schools existed, ministers served on school boards or worked as superintendents. Christian laywomen took on one-room schoolhouses as mission fields. Some church-state partnerships were even more overt. In 1885 the federal government hired Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson to start schools in Alaska; three years later, short of cash, the government split his salary with his mission board. Common Schools certainly educated citizens to strengthen America's democracy, as School portrays, but no one pretended that was their only function—until recently.

Public and religious education are pretty well delineated today, but to apply current assessments of the fabled "wall of separation" to the era in which that phrase originated, or any era in between, is anachronistic and misleading. The real story of American education includes Puritan piety, missionary teachers, state-funded church schools, devout parents, and instruction in heavenly citizenship. A documentary that misses all of that while arguing, "Contemporary issues cannot be reasonably discussed outside the context of history," and "To understand where we want to go, we need to first understand how we have come to this point," deserves the mark, "Needs Improvement."

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

PBS's School site offers information about the program itself as well as essays and images on educational history.

Helpful books on this subject include A History of Christian Education, by James E. Reed and Ronnie Prevost, and Quality with Soul, by Robert Benne.

Other interesting perspectives on the history of American education can be found from the Civic Education Network, William J. Gilmore-Lehne of Richard Stockton College, and Vermonters for Better Education.

See more in Christianity Today's education, history, and television areas.

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:

Explaining the Ineffable | In Heaven Below, a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (Aug. 31, 2001)

Eyewitness to a Massacre | The bloodbath that started on August 24, 1572, left thousands of corpses and dozens of disturbing questions. (Aug. 24, 2001)

Live Long and Prosper | Though a recent survey raises questions, the health benefits of faith have been documented for centuries. (Aug. 17, 2001)

Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (Aug. 10, 2001)

Thrills, Chills, Architecture? | The most exciting adventure at St. Paul's Cathedral would be a time-traveling jaunt through its history. (August 3, 2001)

Deep and Wide| A dive into Reformation imagery yields striking new insights, while a drive-by church history overview largely disappoints. (July 27, 2001)

Shelling the Salvation Army | If William Booth's church could handle sticks and stones in the 1880s, it should withstand the recent barrage of hateful words. (July 20, 2001)

Historical Hogwash | Two books—one new, one newly reissued—debunk false claims about the "real" Jesus. (July 13, 2001)

Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)

Endangered History | The National Trust's list of imperiled places gives unnoticed gems a chance to shine. (June 29, 2001)

The Communion Test | How a "Humble Inquiry" into the nature of the church cost Jonathan Edwards his job. (June 22, 2001)

Visiting the Other Side | The Israelites spent time on both sides of the Jordan. Now tourists can, too. (June 8, 2001)
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