Raiders of the Lost R

"Documentary on School skips religious history, giving a skewed account of American education."
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 ...

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