American Public Education: A Brief Primer*

 Education in the Colonial Era

Colonists of English descent, including the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Anglicans, placed a high emphasis on Bible literacy.  This was a heritage of the Reformation.  Reformers taught that every Christian had a responsibility to know the Bible.  The Westminster catechism made clear that the Word of God is the authority for knowing “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”

In 1647 Massachusetts passed the “Old Deluder Law” which required grammar schools to be established in towns of a certain size to ensure children would learn to read the Bible.

In 1690 the first textbook in America was printed: The New England Primer.  It taught Bible verses and Reformation doctrines along with phonics.

By 1776, America had perhaps the highest literacy rate of any nation ever.

“There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.” John Calvin


Education in the New Republic

In 1783 the “Blue-backed Speller” was published by Noah Webster.  Webster expanded the scope of the New England Primer, and kept the tasks of teaching literacy and Christian principles.  He also shaped the language through his American Dictionary.   Education in cities and towns across the U.S. was overtly Christian in purpose and materials.

In 1836 the first McGuffey Readers were introduced.  These textbooks again inculcated Christian morals, and were the standard textbook of the 1800’s.

“The Bible must be considered as the great source of all the truth by which men are to be guided in government as well as in all social transactions.”  Noah Webster


Humanism Gains a Foothold

Jean Jacques Rousseau (France, 1712-1778) rejected the doctrine of man’s sinful nature and asserted man’s innate goodness.  Traditional education imparts corruptions; a new education free from tradition is needed to allow the child to flourish.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (Switzerland, 1746-1827) taught that children should direct their own learning.   Teachers should show much affection for children, and use tactile learning.  He opposed memorization and strict discipline.

Friedrich Froebel (Germany, 1782-1852) was the father of the “kindergarten” or child garden.  Teachers should stand back, and create a safe place for children to bloom freely.  He emphasised group learning, self-expression, and play.  Development not instruction.

These secular, modern (to that day) humanists linked their philosophies to the great humanist traditions of the Renaissance and the classical Greeks and Romans.

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Jean Jacques Rousseau


The Unitarians Advance

In 1805 Unitarians take effective control of Harvard, beginning a long and slow (but effective) intellectual influence away from orthodox Christianity to a blended religion that elevated man’s reason and  asserted his goodness.

Horace Mann (1796-1859) organized and promoted government funded, state controlled education.  He was enamored of Prussian control and socialist ideals.  He helped create the first state board of education, the first state compulsory education law, and the first state teacher training school.  He is considered the “Father of Public Education.”  His philosophy, which radically differed from traditional Christian views of education, opened the door to more aggressive humanist “reforms” in the decades after his death.

Mann successfully established the acceptance of civil government’s control over education and illumined the path ahead for those who would use education for social control.

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Horace Mann


Historic Christianity on the Defensive

The 19th Century was a time of incredibly rapid technological advances and political turmoil.   There was rapid westward expansion, wars with Mexico, Spain, and our own Civil War.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species in 1859.  Darwinism, and later full blown evolutionary theory, presented a scientific rationale for the existence of life that eliminated the need for a divine Creator.  Religion was a tribal tool.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) published The Communist Manifesto in 1848.  An ardent athiest, he taught that inevitable class struggle would usher in a final revolution that would see the triumph of human potential.

Theological liberalism tried to bring together modern science rationality and the mental comforts of old time religion.  It moved away from Scriptural authority, focusing instead on ethics and “universal” truths.  The Christian church was bombarded with major challenges from within and without.

“Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurences it cannot understand.”  Karl Marx


The Humanists Triumph in Public Education

New education theorists successfully moved control of school systems from local to state authorities.  Teacher certification became a means of controlling a new “professionalized” class of teachers.  Certification required training in new psychology and secular, socializing methods.  New college degrees in “education” were created.  The National Education Association was formed (1857).

The psychology of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) attacked the belief that children are spiritual beings needing instruction and redemption in a Savior.  Instead, behavior is determined by basic carnal instincts and children’s moral development happens naturally.  Biblical child-rearing is seen as harmful.

John Dewey (1859-1952) was the father of Progressive Education.  He was a professor and education researcher, author, philosopher, and activist.  His atheistic and humanist views had tremendous influence on American education, successfully pushing the entire system onto a more consistent pragmatist, humanist foundation.

Dewey’s teaching methods reflected his views that individual determinations of truth had to be experientially discovered.  It laid the foundation for “look-say” reading, behavior modification, and the “new math” of the 1960’s and 1970’s.



“Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now….The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.  Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.”

From the Humanist Manifesto, 1933.  John Dewey was a key signer.


Christian School Movement & Homeschooling

Though some religious schools had been maintained or established by denominations throughout American history, a surge in new Christian schools started after the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed state sponsored prayer in public schools (1962,63) and the reading of the Bible (1963).

Christian schools frequently retained many of the educational assumptions brought to the teaching profession by progressive educators.  Christian schools were often not much different than public schools.

Homeschooling, an historic and successful option for families in remote areas or different circumstances, begins to take off in the 1980’s, prompted in part by the belief that Christian schools were not demanding enough.

Classical Christian education begins with the Logos School (1981).  Douglas Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (1992) prompted many groups of parents to establish rigorous education based on the medieval trivium and proven methodologies of  Reformation era education.

In 2007, five families in Roseburg start what has become Geneva Academy.  It is one of over 240 classical Christian schools in the nation, a number which is increasing year by year.

“Is not the great defect of our education today…that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” Dorothy Sayers, 1943


The Battle Continues

Progressives (Socialists) ever strive towards a centrally controlled monopoly of American education.  1980 – The Department of Education becomes a cabinet level agency. 1993 – High stakes testing begins in Massachusetts.  2001 – No Child Left Behind Act signed.  2009 – Race to the Top funds made available to states that will adopt new standards.

The Common Core Initiative begins in 2009, funded by Bill Gates foundation and other interests.  The National Governors “origin” circumvents the constitutional prohibition on federal control.

2013 – Implementation of Common Core begins.

“Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist.”

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism


*Much of the information in this handout is from E. Daniel Schneider’s book, Education From a Biblical Worldview, published in 2005 by the Nehemiah Institute in Lexington, KY.   The Nehemiah Institute offers the PEERS Worldview test and materials for churches and Christian schools interested in a Biblical worldview.