It’s assumed by many that America’s public schools are, and have always been, a value-neutral and secular alternative to faith-based schools.
But that’s not really accurate.
As Boston University professor Charles Glenn has argued in The Myth of the Common School, the creation of America’s public school system was simply the triumph of one particular form of religion—liberal Protestantism and nationalism—over others.
“As the religious content of schooling declined, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the religious mission of schooling actually became more important in the minds of the education reformers. These developments were directly related. It was as the school came to be seen as the primary bearer of a new civic faith, closely related to liberal Protestantism, that much of the traditional religious content of instruction was increasingly excluded as divisive and also as representing a lower form of religion than the ‘pure religion of heaven’ taught in the school.”
Horace Mann (1796-1859)—the “Father of American Public Education”—and other key figures in creating America’s public schools were adherents of a denomination of Christianity known as Unitarianism, which saw the essence of Christianity in a general morality and spirituality as opposed to “divisive” doctrines.
And it was this general, lowest-common-denominator morality, mixed with civic pride, that Mann and his public schools promoted.
Some may grant that America’s public schools were more traditionally “religious” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when they still had recourse to the Bible, but they would argue that they have since become much more secular.
Perhaps… but so have a lot of Christian denominations. The “creed” of many liberal Protestant denominations today is not all that different from the social values you find espoused in many public schools. For instance, take a look at the principles of the Unitarian church in America:
In fact, as Glenn concludes, America’s common school movement actually created a new form of religion, which has undoubtedly shaped Christian belief and practice in the churches:
“The common school and the vision of American life that it embodied came to be vested with a religious seriousness and exaltation. It became the core institution of American society, the definer of meanings, and the only way to a higher life—spiritually as well as materially—for generations of immigrant and native-born children alike. In close alliance with but never subordinate to the Protestant churches, the common school occupied a ‘sacred space’ where its mission was beyond debate and where to question it was a kind of blasphemy.”
The implication, then, is that when parents today send their children to public schools versus faith-based schools, they’re not necessarily opting for the non-religious alternative. Rather, they’re simply choosing a different form of religious education.