Recently, National Review published an article with an intriguing and terrifying title, “Why American Children Stopped Believing in God.” It discusses the effects of public education on the faith-life of children. The last line is blunt. “But the only real road to religious revival is the one that begins with each parent’s first step out of the public school’s doors.”
The End of School Prayer
As a now-retired teacher who spent all but a dozen years of his life in public schools, I would love to argue against that conclusion. However, as a traditionalist Catholic convert, I know that it is true.
I am barely old enough to remember prayer in a public school. My kindergarten year was 1961-1962. Every day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and then a short prayer. That school year ended about three weeks before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Engel v. Vitale on June 25, 1962.
The following year, the school day began with the Pledge, sans prayer. If I noticed, I didn’t think much of it. I still went to Sunday School every week. My mother made sure that I said my bedtime prayers. The lack of prayer in the school day didn’t feel very important.
My lackadaisical attitude was shared by many in society. Most “mainstream” protestants took little notice after the initial shock went away. Catholics had never been comfortable with the “protestant-lite” aspect of school prayer. This was just one of the many social changes that typified the sixties.
Religion and Intelligence
By the fall of 1984, I was a teacher in the Miami public school system. Sometime during my first half-dozen years of teaching history, I noticed a clear difference between the students from religious families and most whose upbringing was thoroughly secular. Indeed, the more religious children tended to be better behaved, but the difference went far beyond docility.
I gradually realized that the more religious students possessed empathy that other students often lacked. Studying history requires the ability to project oneself into another person’s situation. Not having this attitude prompts the statue-topplers. They want to erase anyone who did not live up to their “woke” standards from history. If you don’t understand the circumstances of their times, you can’t see any justice in their actions.
Indeed, from my perspective, religiosity often corresponded to a higher ability to learn.
Scrutinizing Liberal Prejudices
A recent study sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute supports this conclusion. Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and its Recent Decline looks at levels of religious sentiment throughout the United States’ history.
The study has a comprehensive scope. However, its educational points are most revealing. It shows that religiosity (the strength of religious conviction) increased considerably between 1800 and 1970 when average academic levels soared. Most American adults in 1970 were far more educated than their great-grandparents. They were also more religious.
Significantly, the break with religious fervor comes in 1970. Most adults in 1970 had finished school before the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision banning school prayer. Since then, the content of American public education has become relentlessly more secular.
“The vast majority of change in religiosity over time in most countries is not because adults converted away from a given religion, but simply because the next generation was less religious…. In other words, the story of secularization in America is not mostly a story of lots of people who were raised religious, leaving their religious faith as adults. It is a story of fewer people having a religious upbringing at all.”
The Anti-Religious Classroom
The schools reflect society. As the culture became increasingly secular, so did the schools.
Several factors play a role. Although there are no statistics on the number of public school teachers who are regular churchgoers, that number likely echoes the general decline in religiosity. That change alone brings a new note of cynicism into the classroom.
Textbooks also deride religion. Consider the following account of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas from a textbook published in 1879.
“On landing, he threw himself down on his knees, kissed the earth, and returned thanks to God with tears of joy. His example was followed by the rest, whose hearts, indeed, over-flowed with the same feelings of gratitude. Columbus then rising, drew his sword, displayed the royal standard, and assembling around him all who landed, took solemn possession in the name of the Castilian sovereigns, giving the island the name of San Salvador.”
Compare that treatment with one from a commonly used high school text, Liberty, Equality, Power from 2006.
“Columbus’s motives were both religious and practical. He believes that the world was going to end soon, but that God would make the Gospel available to all humankind before the last days. As the “Christ-bearer” (the literal meaning of his first name), Columbus was convinced that he had a role to play in bringing on the Millennium, the period at the end of history when Jesus would return and rule with his saints for 1,000 years; however, he was not averse to acquiring wealth and glory along the way.”
Neither treatment denies Columbus’s religious fervor. However, the 1879 treatment took Columbus’s devotion seriously – describing the piety of the Admiral and his men. The 2006 test sneers at Columbus’s religion – describing it in terms that modern readers with little religious background would deride. Then, for good measure, it takes Columbus to task for being greedy.
Most Catholic Schools Fare Little Better
Many of those textbooks are also used in Catholic schools and contributed to their decline after 1970. According to the Jesuit magazine America, “By 1960, nationwide enrollment in Catholic schools had peaked, with more than 5.2 million students.… From 1966 to 2014, the number of Catholic schools was cut in half. Today, enrollment in Catholic schools hovers around 1.8 million.”
The average modern Catholic school is far less Catholic than its predecessors. Once staffed by nuns and brothers, the contemporary Catholic school faculty is now composed mainly of laypeople. Many faculty members are not Catholics. The same is true of the students, where a non-Catholic population of one-third or higher is standard. Teachers often tend to “water-down” religious instruction to avoid offending non-Catholic students and their tuition-paying parents.
Most schools require that religion teachers be Catholic, but often that is little help. The quality of their Catholic catechesis has also declined since 1965. Many teachers’ Catholic almas mater are also less committed to a Catholic view of the world. Many Catholic institutions signed the infamous 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement, described as a kind of “Declaration of Independence” separating the Catholic colleges from the Church’s Magisterium.
Thus, the current generation is less religious than their parents. Unless parents confront the culture as a whole, they will face children who stop believing in God.
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