Gimme that Old-Time Education
By Michael Farris
It is the most amazing book I have seen in years—perhaps the most amazing ever. It was published in 1951, the year I was born, but my secretary, Lois, just found it a few months ago among some of her mother’s old books.
It is called The American Citizens Handbook. More than any other work I have ever seen, it demonstrates how much America—and particularly American public education—has changed since the year of my birth. The Handbook stands as a monument to the way things were. Most of us know how things are today. Let’s see how they compare.
The book's author and publisher says that “This volume should be in every home library and on every teacher’s desk. It may well be used as a text or reference book in the schools . . . .” There is every indication from the book that it was widely used in the public schools across America.
Today, our nation is engulfed in me-ism as is exemplified by the ubiquitous saying, “What’s in it for me?” In 1951, the American citizen was called to a slightly higher task:
To be a good father, mother, brother, sister or friend;
To be a dependable, faithful, and skilled worker in home, school, field, factory, or office;
To be an intelligent, honest, useful, and loyal citizen, with faith in God and love of fellowman;
To recognize the brotherhood of man and to live by the Golden rule—
It is the call to citizenship “with faith in God” that stands in starkest contrast to our situation today. The Handbook is full of our nation’s tradition as a religious country—specifically a Christian country.
Today children cannot even be told that the moment of silence offered at the beginning of a school day might be used for prayer. Bible reading? Surely you jest. Group prayer? Are you a Neanderthal? Only the bigots and zealots of the far religious right have ever favored such activities! Christian principles in schools? Never was, never will be—at least that is what the education establishment like the National Education Association and other left-wing theorists are saying in 1986.
In 1951, however, what was the situation?
In The American Citizens Handbook (which was intended for public schools, it should be remembered), there was much to be said about the relationship of Christianity to education and Christianity to our nation in general.
In the opening essay, written by the book’s author, Joy Elmer Morgan, entitled “Your Citizenship in the Making,” she writes of the physical beauty of America: “it is an inspiring picture of a mighty gift such as the people of no other continent enjoy, God-given and eternal.” She goes on to say of our nation’s founding and history:
It is difficult to read this history without seeing in it the hand of Providence, for the struggle which was then taking place in America was in a sense the climax of untold centuries of human struggle upward, a struggle against despotism, against the destructive forces within the nature of man himself. The birth of our democracy is the result of the teachings of religious leaders going back hundreds of years. Democracy finds its fullest expression in the roots of religion, which has ever emphasized the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. For democracy to reach its highest fruition, our society must include that larger liberty and justice preached so eloquently by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus.
When the schools talk about teaching values in 1986, the topics usually discussed “in a non-judgmental framework” are premarital sex, homosexuality, drugs, abortion, and situation ethics. In 1951, schoolchildren were encouraged by an essay from Benjamin Franklin on the subjects of temperance, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. The simple explanation Franklin gives about humility is, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
One of the most remarkable pieces in this remarkable book is called, “The Tenth Generation” by Harry Stillwell Edwards. It was originally published as a short story in 1928, reprinted in 1951. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the values of America did not shift very much, apparently, in the 23 years between 1928 and 1951.
The theme of this story is the importance of public education. But it is remarkable to see how public education was characterized. The story features a wise Southern lawyer advising a man on how to write his will in order to best benefit his descendant. The lawyer advises the man to invest in education if he wants to see his grandchildren and descendants down to the 10th generation living in freedom and prosperity. But what kind of education did he have in mind?
The old lawyer says: “None can hope to make his money a blessing to his descendants except thru Christian education that will elevate each generation as it arises.” He continues this theme, saying, “We are not here to fail, because we are building for eternity, for God. And our tools are the hearts and souls of good men and saintly women. The prophets of evil have never heard of a nation where Christian education extended to every individual. No such nation has ever before arisen. And back of every ruined nation that history records was always one irresistible, ever-present cause of failure—ignorance.”
It is remarkable that this story sets up only two alternatives—Christian education or ignorance. I, for one, agree with this assessment. Once again he makes the point, “The best insurance at last for wealth, personal and national, is Christian education.”
A variety of historically significant persons are quoted in the handbook. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted from an essay entitled The Moral Basis of Democracy. She says:
The principle of the responsibility of the individual for the well being of his neighbors which is akin to : ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ in the Bible, seems always to have been part of the development of the democratic ideal which has differentiated it from all other forms of government.
The book’s editor continues, “The teachings of the Hebrew Prophets and of Jesus Christ inculcate the idea of brotherhood. The growth of the idea gave us the concept of democracy in government. It ennobled the home life. It emphasized the sacredness of human personality and gave rise to the idea of personal rights which all mankind should respect. It led to the doctrine of equality of opportunity.”
The teachings of Jesus Christ and the Hebrew prophets.
One of the chief founders of American public education—Horace Mann—argues for Bible reading and Bible teaching in the public schools. He says:
The lives of great and good men should have been held up for admiration and example; and especially the life and character of Jesus Christ, as the sublimest pattern of benevolence, of purity, of selfsacrifice, ever exhibited to mortals. In every course of studies, all the practical and perceptive parts of the Gospel should have been sacredly included; and all dogmatic theology and sectarianism sacredly excluded.
He tells all teachers of his time and for the future to go forward with this kind of non-denominational Christian teaching. He gave this charge.
Go forth and teach this people. For, in the name of the living God, it must be proclaimed that licentiousness shall be the liberty, and violence and chicanery shall be the law; and superstition and craft shall be the religion; and the self-destructive indulgence of all sensual and unhallowed passions shall be the only happiness of that people who neglect the education of their children.
Horace Mann has given us an objective test to measure our children’ education.
—Do we have liberty or licentiousness in our public schools?
— Do we have violence and chicanery or law and order in the schools? Dungeons and Dragons are in—Bible and prayer are out. Mann said, “superstition and craft shall be the religion” where education is neglected.
— Do we have “selfdestructive indulgence of all sensual and unhallowed passions” as a result of the public schools?
I rest my case. Our nation’s children have had their education neglected.
There are 179 pages of poems and passages of literature called “A Golden Treasury for the Citizen.” No less than 41 passages from the Bible are included. These passages are encouraged to be not only read by public school children—but memorized. A grade-by-grade chart is included.
—Second graders are to memorize the Lord’s Prayer.
—Third graders memorize the 23rd Psalm.
—Fourth graders memorize “Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord He is God; it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves.”
—Seventh graders memorize the Beatitudes and Psalm 24.
—Ninth graders memorize Psalm 1.
—High school sophomores memorize Joshua 1:9.
—High school seniors are to memorize the whole chapter of Romans 12, which begins, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”
A great variety of uplifting and religious poetry, songs, and prayers are included. One specific prayer has subsequently been ruled unconstitutional by a federal court.
Oh, how things have changed.
But who wrote and published this book? The Southern Baptist Convention? The National Association of Evangelicals? A 1951 precursor of the Moral Majority? A young Tim LaHaye?
It wasn’t me. I was just born that year. It was the year my dad was in his senior year at Arkansas State Teachers College. The next year he began to teach in the public schools.
Would a young teacher like my dad have paid any attention to a book like this? Even though my dad wasn’t a Christian at the time—I think he probably would have paid attention to the book. For it was published by none other than the National Education Association—the NEA.
I hope their face is red when they read this. It will match the color of the 1986 political philosophy.
By the way, after I shared this story with the first group I spoke to after finding the book, a man came up to me and told me that the NEA had hired his company in 1974 to destroy the last 10,000 copies of The American Citizens Handbook. Talk about your book burners.