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The school as a character-building agency.

The following article appeared a half century ago in the winter 1947 issue of the Humanist. It appears here abridged and slightly edited to conform to modern usage and style.

The question we face is this: does a proper concern for the moral and spiritual education of our children require that we bring religious education back to the schools?

It should be noted that the term religion is commonly used in two ways: first, to indicate a system of beliefs and practices, a creed or a code (it is in this sense that Methodists differ from Baptists, Presbyterians from Anglicans, and, more fundamentally, Protestants from Catholics, Catholics from Jews, and Muslims from Hindus); and, second, to refer to a conscious dedication to ideals and principles, an identification of oneself with specific ways of thinking and feeling and acting toward people.

Now a distinction between these two concepts of religion is all important since, as we shall see, the introduction of religion into the schools as first conceived undermines democratic education; whereas to instill religion of the second type is a primary task of the school.

To introduce religion into the school in the form of compulsory Bible reading, required prayers, and positive instruction in the tenets of religious faiths not only creates division and hostility within school and community but it is powerless to generate the spiritual development in children which earnest people hope for when they launch campaigns of this character. In support of our statement, we have the data of numerous investigations into character education. Carefully directed studies of the effects upon children of Bible reading; the recitation of prayers, the study, of the catechism; attempts, if you will, to instill fear or respect for God and his will into the hearts of children by means of verbal instruction confirm its futility.

Nor is the reason for this failure hard to detect. Faith without works is dead. Verbal instruction apart from a way of life that is grounded in daily practice and is consistent with what is taught is worse than barren, since it leads often to cynicism and hypocrisy. Consequently, a genuine concern to stem the tide of juvenile delinquency, crime, and immortality will rely less upon verbal instruction in the religious ideas and practices that set Protestant against Jew and Catholic against agnostic and more upon a way of life in the school that brings into play those common principles of conduct and behavior and those fundamental ideals of our culture which we term the democratic way of life.

Specifically, I refer to the disposition and the habit of respecting people as persons, of judging others in terms of who they are and their potentialities, and not by reference to their origin or the group into which the accidents of birth have placed them. I refer to principles of conduct, such as the habit of selecting one's goals and regulating the method of achieving these goals in sensitive response to their implications in the lives of others. I refer to common virtues such as honesty and reliability, tolerance, cooperation, temperance, self-denial, and the like -- virtues that are basic for an essential self-respect and a free communication of spirit with others.

Now the first thing to observe about these principles and virtues is that they grow out of active relationship with others. They are achieved less by talk than by the daily incidents of living. They take their character from the warp and woof of membership in a family, a community, a school, a common life. In other words, their acquisition, as their quality, derives from first-hand experience. As Dr. William Heard Kilpatrick puts it, children learn what they live and live what they learn. A parent may preach honesty to a child, but of far more importance is the way in which the former deals with family members or with his or her employees and customers. In short, actions speak louder than words in interpreting to the child both the meaning and the importance of honest behavior.

Secondly, character education is positive not negative, a creative not a repressive experience. It is something we grow into by means of consistent and persistent relationships between thought and action rather than the result of yielding to a negative and self-denying ordinance. I do not mean to say that discipline and self-sacrifice are unessential or that the road which leads to the kind of person we want to become is not strewn with don'ts; quite the contrary. But what actually happens when discipline is healthy and constructive is this: we deny one potential self one good, or one set of goods, in order to grow into a different kind of a self and to realize goods of a more appealing quality. That is to say, the negation of one desire or system of desires serves as a means for the selection and attainment of what are considered to be more worthy ends.

Often this postponement of realization, this checking of immediate desire in order to attain goals of richer meaning, is aided by verbal formulation. Who has not had the experience of resolving a difficulty with the help of a sentence pregnant with life's meaning, some well-phrased words of wisdom, or a poem that came to mind at a critical moment? The popularity of Poor Richard's Almanac and Benjamin Franklin's pen derived from this fact. When our civilization was dominantly rural and agricultural and human relationships less complex than they are today, the Bible served as a handbook of conduct to which many could turn in time of need or temptation. At such moments, the book helped people analyze a troubled situation and distinguish the less important or the ephemeral from that which abides and endures.

This use of funded experience is possible, although on occasion misleading, because not all moral experiences are unique. Much of life conforms to common patterns of conduct with which history acquaints us. Thus it is that we can profit vicariously from history and biography. We should observe, however, that this vicarious knowledge takes hold of us and transforms our own lives in an enduring way only when associated with some initial, first-hand, and interpretive experience of our own. When words stand alone, or when they run contrary to the steady stream of practice, they assume a pale and hollow look. The ideal in character education is realized when life gives meaning to verbal formulation, and verbal instruction in turn enables the individual to organize and reconstruct experience in harmony with growing maturity and an ever-changing world. Life and knowledge about life, in short, must grow up together.

Failure to recognize the necessary interrelationship between learning and living accounts in large measure for the failure of the progressive and the conservative school alike. In the early stages of progressive education, its devotees fought shy of imposing adult conceptions upon the young. Conscious as they were of the evils in an authority externally imposed, they neglected to help young people interpret and formulate clearly the far-reaching significance of the democratic principles which they were in the process of evolving through their relations with each other. On the other hand, the conservative and conventional school, in its administration and conduct, is both autocratic and undemocratic in its practices while seeking to instill through words the concepts and the principles of democracy. The remedy in each case is to take seriously Kilpatrick's injunction that children learn what they live and live what they learn!

When schools attempt seriously to create an environment in which young people learn what they live and live what they learn, they will discover that the moral qualities thus highlighted have little in common with the principles that divide Methodists from Baptists, Protestants from Catholics, or Jews from Gentiles. The principles of conduct we wish young people to live by, in other words, are common to our culture and are in a very real sense independent of religious and sectarian belief. They are rooted in the day-by-day associations of people and acquire their validity from these daily practices rather than from a connection with the creeds and tenets which divide people into religious sects. indeed, the virtues and the ideals of conduct which it is so important for our schools to incorporate into the thought, feeling, and action of the young are limited and stunted, rather than broadened, in their application when narrowly associated with a sectarian point of view.

The common notion that religion underwrites morality thus tends to put the cart before the horse. By living together, people evolve commonly accepted ways of regulating and controlling their relations with each other. Ideal and practice thus come to reinforce each other. Soon philosophical and religious theories emerge as conscious efforts at explanation and interpretation or revision of the ways of living which have grown up. These differences of formulation often divide people sharply into competing groups, and, while important for the enrichment of a culture, they are more truly viewed as the creatures than the creators and sustainers of the principles which give body and substance to the ways in which the people work and play and live together.

This means that we should cease to think of the school as primarily, if not solely, concerned with the academic and intellectual training of the young. Both modem psychology and the necessities of our common life require the abandonment of this faulty conception of the mind. We know now that we cannot effectively educate the mind of a child apart from his or her emotional nature, or teach precept and principle without practice. Consequently, a good school is as much concerned with providing the conditions for healthy personality development as it is for teaching the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Indeed, it recognizes that the one is dependent upon the other.
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Title Annotation:religion in public schools
Author:Thayer V.T.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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