More than 70 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christians. Of those, some surveys show up to 90 percent send their children to public schools. Does that affect the faith, worldview, and future church participation of these children? This article looks at the evolution of education in America—its original intent through its reformation into the modern public school system— as well as the outcome for Christian students and the important role that Christian education plays in the future of the church.
As many well-meaning Christian parents send their children to public school believing that the curriculum is neutral, if the education system forbids even a mention of God, isn’t such secularism, as renowned Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has said, just an illusion of neutrality?
Still, many well-meaning Christian parents attend church on Sunday with their children who may attend Sunday school classes and participate in youth group and assume this will be enough. While church is of paramount importance in the life of a Christian, the statistics don’t play out and young people are leaving the church in droves as they enter their 20s. In the book Already Gone, the authors reveal research that indicates more than 60 percent of twenty-somethings who were churched as teens are now disengaged from the church. With so many Christians raising their children in public schools, is it possible that the public school in its “illusion of neutrality” has played a role in putting our children on a path that leads them away from faith and into relativism, where there are no absolutes which, ultimately, dismisses God?
Public Education’s Path from Christian Roots to Progressivism
To fully gaze the great distance public education has come, one has to pinpoint where it started in America and how the seeds of secularism were sown. Public schools were first contrived by the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1647 as it took shape under the Old Deluder Satan Act. The very purpose of the 1647 act was to ensure children would be able to read Scripture. It states, in part: “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors. It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read. . . .”
And, so, public schooling in America was underway. This was the foundation from which the founding generation of our nation was educated. Chief among them would have been Noah Webster, author of the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language and Founding Father of American scholarship.
Webster stated: “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed. . . . No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
Webster first published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, otherwise known as the Blue Back Speller, in 1783. His intent was to provide educational tools such as the Blue Back Spellerand his 1828 dictionary for children to provide a uniquely American, Christ-centered approach to teaching. The Blue Back Speller, which is rife with biblical references, became the staple for parents and educators for more than 100 years and helped to build the most literate nation in the history of the West.
Further, The New England Primer was the first textbook ever printed in America and was used to teach reading and Bible lessons in schools until the 20th century. In fact, this too was so widespread in colonial America that many of the Founding Fathers and their children learned to read from The New England Primer.
Another Founder, Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, in his publication titled A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook, wrote: “Before I state my arguments in favor of teaching children to read by means of the Bible, I shall assume the … following propositions: First, that Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopt its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy; Second, that a better knowledge of this religion is to be acquired by reading the Bible than in any other way; Finally, that the Bible contains more knowledge necessary to man in his present state than any other book in the world. . . .”1
This way of thinking was pervasive in the founding era of our nation. Samuel Adams, who is considered the father of the American Revolution, in 1790 wrote: “Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies, great or small; in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system . . . .”
This Founders’ generation was educated in biblical principles as an intrinsic and expected element of their education. They reasoned from biblical principles and applied them to every area of life. Their biblical worldview informed their moral compass and permeated their thinking. Indeed, this thinking shaped our Founders, it shaped the ideas of liberty that made America unlike any other nation.
Progressivism Pushes into Schools
It was, perhaps, inevitable that efforts to erode that biblical foundation would come. Many credit John Dewey as being the father of modern education in America and those who laud his reformative exertions hail Dewey as “a philosopher, social reformer, and educator who changed fundamental approaches to teaching and learning.” His work in education, however, is credited with ushering the Progressive Movement into schools in America.
Because of the progressive nature of his reform, there is plenty of criticism of Dewey’s educational intentions. Why? The roots of secularism in public schools today are linked to Dewey’s toiling in educational reform. According to Dan Smithwick, president of the Nehemiah Institute, “atheist John Dewey, signer of A Humanist Manifesto, was the chief architect of a secular school system with the intent of removing the ‘myth’ of the existence of God and the inerrant Word of God (the Bible) from the classroom.”
A Humanist Manifesto
It is significant that a man who crafted education as it is today in America signed on to A Humanist Manifesto and was part of the American Humanist Association. The manifesto itself had just 34 signers and 15 brief points.
So, to what did this educational architect sign his name? The document itself was published in the 1933 edition of The New Humanist and states in its first point: “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” Point two finishes that thought by saying: “Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.” It stands to reason, then, that Dewey would celebrate today’s public school science classrooms that narrowly teach the theory of evolution, while intelligent design has been barred from classrooms by the U.S. court system, in cases such as Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover.2
Other tenets of the manifesto to which Dewey signed his name include: “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of ‘new thought.’” One final point of the manifesto states that “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.” Never mind the apparent contradiction in that statement, what it implies is Socialism.
Given Dewey’s declaration, it should be no small wonder then what Smithwick has found in his testing of Christian high school students around the country today. It seems this last point of A Humanist Manifesto is realizing fulfillment in public schools.
Christian Students in Public Schools Grounded in Socialism
Smithwick’s Nehemiah Institute annually administers the PEERS test among high school students. It consists of a series of statements carefully structured to identify a person’s worldview in five categories: Politics, Economics, Education, Religion, and Social Issues (PEERS). Each statement is framed to either agree or disagree with a biblical principle. Students’ scores will place their worldview in four categories: Biblical Theism, Moderate Christian, Secular Humanism, or Socialism. In 2015, the test showed that 90 percent of students from Christian homes attending public schools score in a range that indicates that their views are firmly grounded in basic tenets of secularism.
What is a Secular worldview according to the PEERS test?
“These results mean that the students have intentionally rejected the basic tenets of Biblical Theism in favor of the basic tenets of Humanism/Secularism,” Smithwick said. “In short, it means that the secularization of our culture has more successfully captured the hearts and minds of our youth than has the efforts of the Christian home, the church, or even the traditional Christian school.” (Editor’s note, students from traditional Christian schools score in an area similar to public school students on this test. However, students at biblical worldview schools, such as Dayspring Christian Academy, score significantly higher with many testing in the Biblical Theism range.)
Smithwick then asks, “Do we, as Christians, want our children schooled in a system with those foundations? John Dewey labored a lifetime in de-Christianizing America’s classroom.”
Dewey had a worldview that he signed on to, and he used the public education system to disseminate it. Court case after court case has upheld the removal of God from schools. Prayer in school, the reading of the Bible in school, prayer at football games, and more have been banned from public schools.
Seeds Are Planted and Watered
So, Christian students are in public schools. Do those seeds of secular humanism matter, if the children attend church on Sunday?
It’s a good question. One must consider the amount of time spent sowing and watering or teaching and learning. By the time children graduate from high school, they will have spent 14,000 hours in school classrooms. If you spent 14,000 hours developing a skill, would you have mastered it? Would you be able to teach others the skill? The answer to both of these questions likely is yes. The same is true of worldview. A child will spend 14,000 hours in school where he or she will develop a worldview.
While the child may be exposed to the principles of the Bible through home and church, a child will spend an average of just 1,325 hours over his school years in church if he or she regularly attends. Compare that with being educated in a secular setting for 14,000 hours over many years.
What Is the Parents’ Role in Educating Their Children?
While many parents cite the Bible verses that command Christians to be salt and light, parents’ primary role is to raise their children to be followers of Jesus Christ. Too, the Bible clearly instructs parents on the proper education of children. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
It should, then, give pause to Christian families to hand over the education of their children to the State.
E. Ray Moore, a retired chaplain from the U.S. Army and co-founder of Frontline Ministries, has launched a project called the Exodus Mandate, which focuses on prayer, revival, and Christian education. “Education is not religiously neutral,” Moore stated. “It is either based on sound biblical truth or it is based on a secular foundation. To build a sound Christian educational program, the foundation for that program must be a biblical worldview . . . and a biblical worldview should always cause a person to search the Scriptures and to ask, ‘What does the Bible say about this issue? What does God want me to do?’”
Moore was also executive producer for the film Indoctrination: Public Schools and the Decline of Christianity in America. “We’re losing our children because of the extreme indoctrination going on,” Moore noted. “We have LGBT teachings now in the schools, evolution — you can’t teach intelligent design or creation — they’re doing a revisionist form of American history, they’re not even learning basic, rudimentary education anymore in a lot of our public schools.”
“Today, public schools don’t offer much in the way of values education, and if they do, it’s often wrong,” said Dr. James Dobson, the author and psychologist who hosts the popular radio program “Family Talk” and is considered an influential evangelical leader in America. “Particularly today, so much of what goes on in public schools is really harmful.”
Moore went even further. “We believe you can make a case with data that the main reason the culture and the next generation are turning away from traditional values, from the Gospel, from Christianity, is primarily because of the indoctrination of the public-school system,” said Moore. “We’re losing about 70 to 80 percent of Christian children. They’re abandoning the church and the Christian faith in their early adult years. And people will ask why this is happening. Well, you put them in a public school, you didn’t give them a Christian education.”
An online article titled “Students Abandoning Faith: Why It Happens and What We Can Do” published by Summit Ministries, urges Christians to understand that “the battle is for the hearts and minds of students.” It goes on to say that it is essential to equip students with a biblical worldview to explain God’s truth in areas from philosophy to science, from economics to politics, and more. This not only enables them to understand how to think and reason from biblical principles and apply them to every area of life, it enables students to discern when college professors may present an anti-biblical bias and to explain that to their peers.
Outcome for Those Attending a Christian School
Finally, the way children are educated does have lifelong effects.
In 2011, a comprehensive study was done by Cardus, which calls itself a “think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.” It surveyed graduates of public schools, Protestant Christian schools, Catholic schools, non-religious private schools, and homeschool settings. The results of the Cardus Education Survey shed light on these graduates and their habits later in life.
From Cardus: “The Cardus Education Survey accessed the most reliable and representative sample of religious schoolers in the United States, age 24-39. And unlike other studies in the field, the statistical analysis—controlling for over 30 variables known to impact development, such as the closeness of one’s relationship to parents, religious service attendance, race, and educational attainment—was better able to isolate the effect of school type on the spiritual, sociocultural, and educational outcomes of students six to 21 years after high school graduation.”
Below is an outline drawn directly from the Executive Summary of the Cardus Education Survey.
Outcome 1: Protestant Christian school graduates are uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly focused individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches, and larger society. Graduates of Christian schools donate money significantly more than graduates of other schools, despite having lower household income. Similarly, graduates of Protestant Christian schools are more generous with their time, participating far more than their peers both in service trips for relief and development and in mission trips for evangelization.
Outcome 2: Protestant Christian schools, however, are more likely to make family the top-ranked emphasis than any of the other options given. This emphasis seems to be taking hold in Protestant Christian school graduates, who are having more children and divorcing less frequently than their peers from public and Catholic schools.
Outcome 3: Protestant Christian school graduates are the only private-school graduates more thankful for
what they have in life than their public school peers. In addition, Protestant Christian school graduates are the only private school graduates to report greater direction in life than their public school peers, with non-religious private and Catholic school graduates feeling statistically the same as their public school peers.
Outcome 4: Protestant Christian school graduates are more committed to their churches, practice spiritual disciplines more frequently, and are following church teachings at much greater rates than their Catholic, public, and non-religious private school peers.
Outcome 5: Christian schools have a very distinct impact on their graduates’ beliefs in religious and moral absolutes. While Protestant Christian school and homeschool graduates hold more strongly to the belief that morality is unchanging and absolute, the Catholic-school effect trends negative on this measure, but after controls is effectively the same as public school results.
Outcome 6: On other measures, such as the belief that the Bible is infallible, Protestant Christian school and to a lesser degree homeschool graduates are distinct in their belief in the traditional teachings of the church, with Catholic and non-religious private schools’ graduates no different than public schoolers on this measure.
Outcome 7: Protestant Christian school graduates are distinctively different from their peers in their belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. Protestant Christian school graduates are also far less likely to report having doubts about their faith. On every measure of traditional religious beliefs, Protestant Christian school graduates show significantly more adherence to the church teachings than their peers, findings that hold up after rigorous controls, indicating the impact of the Protestant Christian school on the long-term religious beliefs of their graduates.
Outcome 8: Charity and financial support of the church are important values in both Catholic and Protestant churches; however, Protestant Christian school graduates are distinct in their giving habits, with Catholic school graduates practicing this discipline no more than their public school counterparts. Protestant Christian school graduates feel significantly more obliged to tithe, a behavior that translates into these graduates tithing three times more often than their public school counterparts. The graduates of Protestant Christian schools give significantly more money than all other school graduates. While some of these donations are congregational in nature. Protestant Christian school graduates are also giving significantly more to other religious causes despite having a lower household income.
Outcome 9: One of the most significant findings in this study is the long-term commitment of Protestant Christian school graduates to stay within the Protestant faith. Attending a Protestant Christian school seems to impact graduates’ choice to stay into adulthood within the Christian faith. Other schooling types, including Catholic schools, have no impact on the religious affiliations their graduates choose as adults. Again, it is helpful to note that these findings are significant after controls for parent religion is added; this finding supports the notion that Protestant Christian schools should be considered an important part of the childrearing equation.
Outcome 10: Graduates of Protestant Christian schools also seem to be more committed to their churches, volunteering more and giving more money to their congregations. The graduates of Protestant Christian schools are also committing to mission trips in their adult lives significantly more than their peers in every other sector. These graduates are committing their time and their money to both evangelism and relief trips.
(Editor’s Note: If you would like a complete copy of the Cardus Education Survey, please email Lisa Becker at Dayspring at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Given this important information on education in America, it may be time for Christian parents to prayerfully consider the matter of education in the lives of their children. Looking at the roots of modern education in America, the removal of God from classrooms, and the outcomes associated with a Christian school education tell this story: the way we educate our children matters.
This article originally appeared in Awaken Magazine (Volume 7. No. 1 Fall 2017), a publication of Dayspring Christian Academy. If you would like more information about Dayspring Christian Academy, please register for our Open House on March 15, 2018, at 6 p.m. using the button below. Alternatively, you can call Karol Hasting at 717-285-2000 with your questions or to set up a personal tour.
1Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806) pp. 93-94.
2(Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., Case No. 04cv2688)
This article is reprinted with permission from Dayspring Christian Academy, Mountville, PA.