Religion and the Philosophy of Education


By F. ERNEST JOHNSON, Teachers College, Columbia University

Delivered at the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, held in New York, September 11, 1940.

This is one of a Series of Talks on the Same Subject Published by the Conference

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 35-39.

THE purpose of this paper is to examine the relation between religion and education as broad cultural concepts and to consider the implications of that relationship in terms of educational philosophy and policy. It is necessary first, therefore, to explain the term "cultural concept" as I shall use it with reference to religion and to education.

The word culture is, of course, used in a variety of ways. We speak of Western culture, American culture, New England culture, the culture of the South; we even speak of culture as "pluralistic," implying that the culture of a single community is not a unitary thing, but rather that different groups have different cultures. Thus we speak of Christian culture or Jewish culture. Again the word is used by some as more or less synonymous with civilization, and by others as distinguished from civilization just as the spirit of a people or an age is distinguished from its tools and devices. In the present discussion, which is intended to have practical relevance to American life, the word is given its most inclusive connotation. At the risk of seeming to evade the task of definition—should anyone suppose this to be incumbent upon anyone undertaking such a discussion—I will say that I mean by our culture whatever is indicated by the familiar phrase, the "American way of life." That the phrase has meaning is attested by the fact that our people so generally have recourse to it in order to designate something belonging to us as a nation, something which it is very important to preserve.

It should go without saying that this phrase, "American way of life," is of variable content. It tends to define itself with reference to its own vicissitudes, and especially to what at any time it finds itself opposed to. As Spinoza said,"omnis definitio est negatio." At the present moment, Americans are inclined to define their culture with particular reference to what threatens it most, and what they therefore are most eager to negate; hence they identify their culture in considerable degree with that of the democratic nations of the West. This tendency, which frustrates all attempts at precise definition, nevertheless does not render the concept of an "American way" any less valid, for preoccupation on the part of a nation with the maintenance of a cultural tradition is a self-attesting characteristic of nationhood. However broadly or narrowly the culture complex may be conceived at any particular time, it remains as a social control and operates selectively in the choice between alternative policies. In other words, the general character of any activity and the fate of any group interest will depend ultimately on the relationship it bears to the culture as a whole.

It is for this reason that public education has been the subject of so much controversy in recent years as to whether it must be essentially conservative or may be a force in social reconstruction. Are the schools an instrumentality for "transmission" only or have they the functions of social criticism? Or, as some one has put it, does public education pass on the culture, or pass on the culture? The answer is, I think, that it does both. For the identification of education with the culture, which is inescapable in a durable society, necessarily includes not only the more static but the more dynamic aspects of the culture and, in particular, the disposition toward self-criticism which a relatively dynamic culture must possess in high degree. Thus our schools are on the one hand rooted in the culture, and on the other hand a selective instrumentality in the process of cultural change. Indeed, they are, except in times of abnormal social stress, a majorfactor in giving direction to cultural change. For in the nature of the case they tend to standardize value attitudes— the appraisal of the old and the new—for a whole generation at a time. We depend on our schools to condition each new generation with respect to responsibilities of citizenship, the worth of democratic ideals, and a manner of life that is socially acceptable. Not only so, but we expect the schools to initiate our children into the exercise of responsibility, the practice of democracy, and the living of that good life for which, we insist, America stands.

All this means that not only is education bound to the culture, but the culture is bound up with education; and, in a society which educates its children chiefly at public expense and under public control, the culture is bound up with public education. This is not to assign exclusively to the State the right to educate. Our basic law gives the State no exclusive educational functions except the determination and enforcement of minimum requirements. The parent remains the arbiter as to what fend of school—public or private, ecclesiastical or secular—his child shall attend. But in practice the acceptance of responsibility on the part of the State for educating "all the children of all the people" means that the vast majority of the young will go to the public schools. Private and parochial schools render fundamental services in experiment and demonstration, and in enabling any group that can support a school to explore and propagate its own philosophy of education and of life. They implement the ideal of "cultural pluralism" by fostering diversity within a unified society. But what the basic qualities of the culture are to be in the next generation is determined in the first instance by the public schools. I say "in the first instance" because in a democracy the schools no more than the government can be totalitarian. The functions of home and Church cannot be absorbed by the schools. But the fact is that they can be in large part nullified by the schools if there is no continuity between the functions of these three types of institution. There must be a basic cultural unity, albeit a unity that admits of diversity; otherwise the differentiation of function will make for cultural disintegration within the nation as a whole.

What has been said thus far was intended to indicate the dependence of the national culture on public education. It may be summed up by saying that in a democracy the educational system is the chief repository of cultural values and the most important single instrumentality for modifying existing culture patterns. We have now to consider the place of religion in the culture. And at this point I wish to lay down two fundamental propositions. First, that from the earliest times until the modern era man's religion has been inseparable from his daily affairs and related to every phase of his life, and that our age has made a sharp break with the past in this respect. Secondly, that this secularization has occurred during the period that has witnessed the great effort in the West to build democratic states—one of the great anomalies of history, because democracy depends for its validity and permanence upon the sanctions of religion.

The first of these propositions might perhaps go without the offering of evidence. But the force of it is often missed because we ourselves are so drenched in secularism that we cannot imaginatively reconstruct the past. Consider what all the students of primitive culture have to say about the extent to which religious ideas and moods were bound up with crucial social situations and elemental social concerns. Consider also how intimately fused in the life of the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks were religious and political ideas and customs, how utterly lacking among them was anything corresponding to our separation of Church and State. Recall how the unity ofreligion and politics in the Roman Empire led to the persecution of Christianity because the non-participation of Christians in the worship of the gods was regarded as a threat to the public weal. Imagine how alien to the medieval mind would be the modern notion that religion is a private affair, unrelated to the public life. The idea of a secular society is a modern creation.

The point here, of course, is not that there is anything wrong in the existing separation of Church and State in America. The fragmentation of American religious life has rendered this inevitable. It is probably safe to say that only a return to a condition of religious homogeneity—which has never been remotely approached in America—could make possible a fusion of Church and State. Rather, the point is that in accommodating ourselves to the fact of religious heterogeneity, we have abandoned the principle that men must seek an ultimate spiritual sanction for even their most "secular" acts. To be sure, we still give lip service to a theocratic ideal. We open the sessions of our legislatures with prayers. We have our Thanksgiving proclamations. Men who run for high office are considered to have a higher availability if they are men of religious faith. Probably the majority of Americans would be alienated by any declaration in high places that the ultimate rule of human conduct is not the will of God. I am not suggesting that this is hypocritical. On the contrary, I think it is very real. But it is illustrative of a tragic split in our culture which causes men to cling with a spiritual nostalgia to ideal sanctions which have ceased to have any adequate implementation in human affairs.

In order to see the extent and significance of this modern secularism in sharper relief let us refer to the characterization of the Middle Ages given by Etienne Gilson at the Harvard Tercentenary. "Some historians," he said, "have attempted to describe mediaeval Europe as endowed with a political unity of its own. It is partly true, and partly an illusion. In a way the Holy Roman Empire always remained a more or less abstract myth; it was a dream that never came fully true, except, perhaps, much later, in the books of its historians. In the same way, it would be just as correct to say that even mediaeval Christendom never quite succeeded in becoming a concrete and tangible reality. Christendom, that is to say, a universal society of all Christians, tied together, even in the temporal order, by the bonds of their common faith and common charity; men thinking, feeling, and behaving as true Christians should do, loving and helping each other as true children of the same Father who is in heaven—all those magnificent virtues were perhaps not much more common in mediaeval societies than they are now. The main difference between our mediaeval ancestors and ourselves does not lie there, it rather rests with their belief in the absolute value of those virtues. The best among them were fully convinced that there was an order of absolute religious truth, of absolute ethical goodness, of absolute political and social justice, to which differences had to submit and by which they had to be judged. In other words, besides being members of various political and racial groups, those men felt themselves both members of the same Church and fellow citizens in a temporal community whose frontiers were the same as those of Christian faith itself. Irrespective of their various countries, two Christians were always able to meet on the same metaphysical and moral grounds, with the result that no national considerations could ever be allowed to interfere with such questions. Religious life being the same for all, there was no reason why John of Salisbury should not have been appointed as a bishop of Chartres; and why indeed should French people have been appointed as Professors at the University of Paris, since better mencoming from foreign countries were at hand? They were not asked by the University to teach what was French, but what was true. Thus did it come to pass that, viewing themselves as members of the same spiritual family, using a common language to import to others the same fundamental truth, those mediaeval scholars succeeded in living and working together for about three centuries, and so long as they did, there was in the world, together with a vivid feeling for the universal character of truth, some sort at least of Occidental unity."

This, of course, was written by a Thomist scholar, but the essentials of the picture he has drawn are recognized by non-Catholic writers of widely different interests.

The breakdown of the mediaeval synthesis of temporal and spiritual, sacred and secular, may well be regarded as the most significant fact of modern history. It is reflected in the a-religious if not the anti-religious orientation of our schools and institutions of higher learning; in the contemporary disregard of the classics and the complacent unconcern for historical perspective and the time dimension in human life; in the mechanistic assumptions of modern science; in the fundamental irreverence of the modern mood. Santayana defines piety as a "reverent attachment to the sources of one's being and a steadying of one's life by that attachment." The conspicuous absence of this quality in contemporary life is perhaps as good a key as any to what has happened to the modern world.

The effect of this spiritual revolution upon business and economic life generally is one of the gravest aspects of the phenomenon we are considering—a phenomenon which I call the secularization of the mind. For however completely one may reject the classical theory of the "economic man" on the one hand and the Marxian doctrine of economic determinism on the other, the crucial importance of economic relationships may not be disregarded without doing gross violence to history. The passing of mediaeval sanctions in the realm of business and industry has been well characterized by Canon Lilley, in contrasting the 15th with the 13th century. He says that while "in a simpler state of industrial life the Church had been able to assess directly the conditions which governed the application of justice in secular life and to legislate directly about those conditions, she found that, with the growing complexity of the life of secular business, the conditions which determined the application of strict justice became more elusive and obscure. She could indeed, and did consistently proclaim the traditional principles of Christian ethics in these matters, as, for instance, the condemnation of usury or the definition of the elements which constituted the real value of commodities. But these principles had no longer their old immediacy of application. The yard-measure of the traditional Christian ethic was fast becoming an abstraction for this concrete world where industry depended from day to day upon the possibility of borrowing and where market-price too frequently failed to coincide with even the most liberal interpretation of the just price. In short, industry and commerce, in extending the range and complexity of their operations had unconsciously developed an autonomy of their own. All that the spiritual authority could do was to accept that autonomy and to humanize or Christianize it in the widest measure of its power."

I regard the word "autonomy" as the key word in this passage. Secularization is precisely the yielding of autonomy to the several departments of life so that they become independent of any inclusive spiritual sanction. It is a fragmentizing of life, a negation of spiritual unity.

Now, a Protestant writer would be less than candid if he did not admit that the Reformation played a considerablepart in this fragmentizing process. One need not accept— probably should not—the extreme thesis of Max Weber concerning the responsibility of the Protestant Reformation for the rise of capitalism in order to recognize that Protestant doctrines were in considerable measure congenial to capitalist ideology; nor the fact that the Calvanistic form of Protestantism helped to defeat its own theocratic aims by contributing to the development of a secular autonomy in economic life—just as Lutheran Protestantism helped to defeat its own intention by supporting the autonomous political State. There would be no point, perhaps, in dwelling on these facts were it not that the Protestant communions, constituting a plurality of the population in America, must accept the major responsibility for restoring religion to its true place in the culture. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting sectarian pressure. What I have in mind is the reverse of that, as will later appear.

If what has been described were merely a trend occasioned by a shift of interest from religious to secular sanctions one might be content—might have to be content—with recording the melancholy fact. But what has happened in this secularizing process has a tragic quality, in the authentic sense of that word. For it is of the nature of man as a personal spirit to seek ever to unify his world on a level of interest and action that seems to him worthy. His life therefore, lived in a world of autonomous fragments, holds an inner contradiction, a frustration, that is of the essence of tragedy. Competent observers attribute the rise of totalitarianism in large part to this spiritual strangulation on the part of entire populations. Our own people are experiencing in increasing measure the same distress of soul. True, I have used the word "complacent" to describe the secular mood, but there is a contradiction in that complacency. Mr. Will Durant has well characterized what one may call—paraphrasing Mr. R. H. Tawney—the sickness of a secularist society. "Ever since Copernicus," says Mr. Durant, "Western man has been struggling to re-conceive deity in terms worthy of the universe that Copernicus revealed. It is an epochal task, laid upon man only every two or three thousand years; in the light of its burden we may understand and forgive the disorder of the modern soul. Generations must pass before the transition will be complete, before man will live again, as in the thirteenth century, on some steady level of conduct and belief."

Now for the second proposition. I have said that this secularizing process has gone on concomitantly with the effort to establish and perfect democracy. This is shown most dramatically, of course, in French history. But it is true essentially of British history, in spite of the continuance of an ecclesiastical establishment. The dominance of a secular outlook in England is strikingly illustrated in the following characterization of the English educational system in a recent editorial in the London Times. "In every other subject the educational authority rightly demands a high standard of competence from its teachers. But if those who give religious instruction have had no training for the work, or if a head teacher is openly antagonistic to Christianity, the state regards such matters as outside its purview, and does not interfere. . . . Again and again the odious fallacy recurs that education is one thing and religious instruction quite another."

In America the shift in education from a religious to a secular basis was so complete that a historian's account of the aims of education in the Colonial period has today an almost weird sound. Says Cubberly: "The most prominent characteristic of all the early colonial schooling was the predominance of the religious purpose in instruction. One learned to read chiefly to be able to read the Catechismand the Bible, and to know the will of the Heavenly Father. There was scarcely any other purpose in the maintenance of elementary schools." The contrast between this and the contemporary scene needs no comment. The secularizing process was actually regarded as all of a piece with the development of democracy. The Civil War was fought, as Lincoln said, to test the enduring power of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Yet the years following that war were marked by a vigorous growth of American capitalism in accord with the principle of secular autonomy which we have been considering.

Now, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that the development of American democracy has been an aspect of the growth of a political economy which stressed free enterprise, the priority of individual rights and the superiority of individual initiative. In other words, if we accept the celebrated slogan of the French Revolution as definitive of the democratic ideal, we must recognize that our democracy has thus far expressed itself chiefly in terms of liberty—an expansive, assertive, essentially individualistic concept, and but meagrely in terms of equality a restrictive, disciplinary, social and ethical concept. We rightly stress, in contrasting America with totalitarian nations, the absence of the grievous restraints from which they suffer. But we slur over the tragic inequities in our social and economic system—the devastated areas in our national life. This failing is documented in the current efforts on the part of representatives of vested interests to convince us that the future of democracy is bound up with the preservation of the "enterprise order." The point here is not how true or false that assertion may ultimately turn out to be, but rather that this kind of defence of democracy is quite in line with its history in America as one phase of politico-economic liberalism, and rests on no real understanding of democracy as a spiritual principle. I submit that to link the ideal of democracy as an "American way of life" to anything so uncertain, so changing, as the laissez faire theory of economic enterprise is to give democracy a very precarious status. The only secure support for democracy must be found in a synthesis of the individualistic, assertive principle of liberty with the disciplinary, ethical principle of equality—a synthesis expressed in the third term of the democratic triad, fraternity. And fraternity will never realize itself in human life except as man is seen as a being who transcends his existential form —is seen under the aspect of eternity as a child of God. In the final analysis our secular culture can give no adequate support to the democratic ideal. Only a noble humanism which sees beyond the existential creature that is "mere" man to the divine image that is essential man—only such a philosophy can give democracy a sure and permanent support.

I have tried to indicate, first that our culture is bound up with the quality of our public education; secondly that the secular character of our culture—the absence of a religious orientation in our common life—gives it a tendency toward disintegration, and particularly that it gives no enduring support for what we call the democratic way of life. I am now ready to offer my principal proposition, that the divorcement between religion and education is the most basic defect in American life, the correction of which may be reasonably expected to do more than anything else to overcome the sickness of a secularist society.

I do not believe that the separation of Church and State is necessarily involved in this issue. Sectarian religious teaching is banned in our schools and I think it should be. I do not believe that those who shaped our public school policy in America were bent on cutting off the religious roots of education as it developed in Post-Reformation Europe and became a part of our cultural inheritance. The urgentnecessity to preserve the schools from sectarian strife was ample justification for eliminating divisive religious teaching. I believe that the American people as a whole are dissatisfied with the results of an educational system which does not consistently foster a mood of reverence, does not accept responsibility for making boys and girls familiar with our major classic, the English Bible, does not teach the significance in human history of that most elemental of all man's group activities, which we call worship; that they are dissatisfied with a system that undertakes, quite properly, to make the educative process continuous with the life of the community—and therefore puts into the curriculum industry, labor, civics, art, social welfare and the like—and then halts this process abruptly at the church door. All this is anomalous, not to say absurd, in a country in which, in spite of the secular pattern of its life, people place a high value upon religious faith. Evidence of the dissatisfaction of which I speak is seen in the many proposals, some of them ill-considered, to restore religious teaching in the schools or in connection with the public school system. Failure to deal with the basic problem—the orientation of public education as a whole—is bound to lead to sporadic and haphazard attempts dominated by sectarian preconceptions.

I have said that Protestant Christianity must bear the heaviest responsibility for the needed change in educational policy. In very large part Protestant indifference to the secularizing process—which logically the sons of the Reformation should have resolutely opposed—has been due to hostility toward the parochial school idea and suspicion of Catholic intention with reference to the public schools. The result has been that the schools have grown increasingly secular and Catholic citizens sincerely convinced that education must have a religious foundation have had to contribute to the support of two school systems, while Protestants are coming belatedly to see that a secularized education means an increasingly secular culture—in a word that the Catholic philosophy of education as resting upon religious assumptions is fundamentally sound. The secularist policy is one for which a dominantly Protestant religious community is responsible.

Yet haunting fear remains. No salutary change can be effected unless all groups are satisfied that the intention is not to traverse the boundary between Church and State by making the public schools instrumentalities of sectarian teaching, or to impose on the schools some form of ecclesiastical control. An interfaith comity must be realized in communities of mixed religious population—not for the purpose of telling the schools how or what to teach, but in order to remove the suspicion and fear which now effectually prevent educators from correcting an evident defect in a system that professes fidelity to the entire cultural tradition. The numerically dominant group must convincingly renounce all intention to use the schools for sectarian purposes. The smallest of the three major faith groups, the Jewish community, has a major claim to such assurance. The history of the Jews gives abundant support for the position I have tried to defend, but the weight of this history is offset by the burden of fear, entailed by centuries of injustice patiently suffered, that a Gentile majority will destroy the religious liberty of the Jews. This fear is understandable and must be respected. There can be no solution of the problem created by secularism in education which does not offer full and complete protection to every person from the imposition of a sectarian creed.

Admittedly the difficulties are great, much too great to warrant the effort unless concern over the existing situation is greater than reluctance to undertake something that is not easy. Much of the difficulty, however, will disappear if  and when we apply in the field of religion the modern concept of teaching as something other than purveying doctrines. Doctrinal teaching is the prerogative of organized groups— churches, political parties, and societies of various types. But in general education, indoctrination must be limited to broad and basic assumptions which have their support in the culture as a whole. When we teach economics or political science in public institutions we do not—or should not—indoctrinate in the interest of any of the rival systems or parties. Rather, we bring students face to face with the facts, forces and human concerns that are revealed in an analysis of the culture. It is for the inclusion of religion in education on this basis for which I am contending.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that what is here urged is in no sense a transfer of the responsibility of church and synagogue to the school. It is no substitute for what is being attempted under the name of weekday religious education as a project of the churches. Their functions remain distinct from those of the common schools of all the people. Theirinfluence will be greatly enhanced when public education has laid a foundation in knowledge, interest, outlook and mood upon which organized religion can build in its own chosen way.

Religion and education are alike integrative forces in human life. They cannot be divorced without disaster to both. Public education in America should be informed with the faith of the Hebrew-Christian tradition to which our culture owes so much. We cannot conduct our major educational enterprise without a religious orientation and expect that what is regarded as a marginal interest can be rehabilitated by specifically religious agencies after the dominant pattern of life has been set. Secularization has been accomplished in the mistaken belief that it meant "religious liberty." That great ideal has been largely nullified by this negative interpretation. To the Fathers it meant liberty in religion, not immunity from it. There can be no religious liberty if the basic faith of our people is destroyed by the "acids of modernity" in a secularist society.