CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice
Why UUs Need Our Own Schools


These are notes for a sermon presented at TPUUF, 2/23/97. It had grown out of my interest in free education and an invitation the previous year to present the UU case for separation of school and state at SEPCON'96. It was accompanied by two readings: a short version of F. Forrester Church's metaphor "The Cathedral of the World," and the final part of Bertrand Russell's lecture (3/6/27), "Why I Am Not A Christian," which states the Humanist case for a "religious" life.

Who are we Unitarian Universalists?

Our faith community is a union made in the early 1960s between adherents of the Unitarian and the Universalist Churches. Each of our founding churches has a long and honored religious tradition. We each insist on defining our own beliefs and on the primacy of direct experience of that which we consider holy.

What do we Unitarian Universalists believe?

We are a covenantal rather than creedal association.

Sources of the our living tradition include:

"Direct experience of...transcending mystery and wonder...

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men...

Wisdom from the world's religions...

Jewish and Christian teachings...

Humanist teachings...

Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions..."

Before coming to my main points, let me utter three caveats (warnings):

First: I am committed to the disestablishment of public (State) schools because, at their base they are coercive and not suitable for the education of a free people:

Alfred North Whitehead (From Force to Persuasion, 1933)

"The creation of the world - said Plato - is the victory of persuasion over force... Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force (and, I add, the threat of force), however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals..."

Second: I believe that it is important not to replace compulsory schooling with compulsory education. Thus, I am not a strong advocate of long term home schooling, with its' inevitably coercive parent/child relationship:


John Holt (Instead of Education, 1976)

"...(W)hen one person holds power over others there is not likely to be very honest conversation between them.

...(A) warning to any people or society which takes human freedom and dignity seriously and values them highly. You cannot have human liberty, and the sense of all persons' uniqueness, dignity, and worth on which it must rest, if you give to some people the right to tell other people what they must learn or know... Let any who want to make such judgments make them privately and in the understanding that such judgments can only be personal or subjective. But do not give them any permanent or official sanction, or the liberty of your citizens will soon be gone."

Third: It is nonsensical to speak of education without also speaking of developing character and imparting values and religious belief. The modern interest in the State schools in teaching values and developing character is an admission of the central failure to provide moral examples and to value principled conduct of each life. True education, as distinguished from training or conditioning, is, at its' heart, a spiritual process.

Nevertheless, I will try to restrain myself to the narrower topic:

Why we Unitarian Universalists need our own schools.

First, some numbers:


In the US, there are about 56 million children of school age: 48 million are in State schools, 7 million are in private, mostly religious, schools and more than 1 million are in home schooling, again often for religious reasons. It is of interest that mandatory school attendance laws were not introduced until 1852 (originally in Massachusetts) and did not become universal until this century, with 14 states adopting them after 1900; the last, Alaska, in 1929. Thus, universal State education still applies to only ~85% of our children and was unknown for the first three centuries of our life as a people on this continent.

Who runs religious schools and why?

Separatist sects: Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Hassidic Jews (and now Muslims)


The Amish tried community schools from their first arrival in the US in 1727 until the 1940s. However, today virtually all of their children attend Amish schools from age 6 to 16, generally on a half-time basis (the balance of their time is taken up by family activities for the younger ones and work in the community for the older ones).


It is of interest to note that the Amish are Anabaptists: their children are baptized into the church only after completion of their education, generally as young adults of 17 or 18. (Anabaptists generally believe that since children have no knowledge, they cannot sin and thus they require no baptism for remission of sin. Baptism in such communities is generally associated with a decision, made as a young adult, to join the church)


The Amish built their own school systems in response to the movement to consolidate rural schools. Rural, one-room schools, reflected community standards of belief and socialization which the larger, more urban consolidated ones do not. Amish schools are based on church districts, approximately 16 sq. miles each in PA, somewhat larger in other states. There is no busing!


Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), recognized as a landmark case in US constitutional law, finally established the right of the Amish to educate their own children. Chief Justice Warren Burger, for a unanimous Supreme Court, wrote:


"States undoubtedly have the responsibility of improving the education of their citizens, but this interest must be measured against the legitimate claims of the free exercise of religion."

What do Amish schools do and how do they do it?


John Hostetler was raised in an Amish community but left as an adult to become the foremost interpreter of their life and principles to us, the English, as they call the outside world.

John Hostetler (Amish Society, 1963, 1993):

"The function of the school is to teach the children the three R's in an environment where they can learn discipline, basic values, and how to get along with others. There is concern that the home, school and church teach the same things. Most children attend Amish schools. Here the teacher is an Amish person, and emotionally the school belongs to the Amish community. Amish children must learn to understand something of the world to reject it selectively..."

Rewards are used to develop the attitudes of humility, forgiveness, admission of error, sympathy, responsibility, and appreciation of work... The school supports the parents who teach children by example to become Christians, and who teach them the work skills they will need to live in the Amish community."

We may well disagree with some of the precepts taught in Amish schools. But we must respect (and admire) the fact that 3/4 of their children join the church voluntarily as adults and remain within the circle of Amish life. I wonder if we can say the same for our children?

Mainstream Sects: Presbyterian, Lutheran and Catholic

The parochial schools, initially conducted by Presbyterian, Lutheran and other Protestant sects as well as by the Catholics, are a legacy of our co-religionist, Horace Mann.

There was certainly no lack of schools in early 19th. cen. America.

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in Democracy in America (1835), after his grand tour:

"I know of no other people who have founded so many schools or such efficient ones, or churches more in touch with the religious needs of their inhabitants, or municipal roads better maintained."

The primary schools which de Tocqueville saw were largely the one-room schools valued by the Amish until the Second World War. Only in large cities had they grown to five or even ten rooms! Many were proprietary, run by a school master for profit, many were run as adjuncts to church communities of many different sects, including our own. Most church schools were Protestant. None of the schools in the first quarter of the 19th. cen. were State schools, as we know them today.

The Common School movement, the progenitor of our modern State schools, arose in the 1830s in response to four perceived threats to the American way of life: urbanization, industrialization, immigration (especially of non-English, largely Catholic Western Europeans) and resultant religious sectarianism. Horace Mann was appointed Sec. of Education in Mass. in 1837 and intended to carry out the three goals of the movement: providing a free public education for all white children, professionalizing education and bringing education under centralized state control.


Mann was very concerned about moral guidance: In 1837, he wrote, "Society, like a mother, should take care of all her children by giving them moral guidance." His model curricula included daily prayers and Bible reading and made extensive use of Old and New Testament texts in reading and writing exercises.


The resulting Common Schools were to provide a model for compulsory State schooling worldwide.


It was the use of Christian religious materials, in a non-sectarian (we would say, UU) way, that is, without interpretation, that led first to violent religious opposition to the Common Schools and later to the formation of Presbyterian, Lutheran and Catholic parochial schools.


However, Mann would be appalled by today's State schools with their refusal to recognize the religious roots of value and principles, in which teaching is conducted as if religion was a curious, archaic folk custom.

Here is a contemporary commentary on our religion-free, "value-lite" State schools:

Oliver Thomas (Freedom Forum First Amendment Center) speaking in Philadelphia (1966), said:

"...(H)ow can you teach about the world today without mentioning religion?

...(S)ome textbooks describe Pilgrims only as people who traveled long distances.

We (have) kids learning about the civil-rights movement and not talking about the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was a clergyman. If you don't understand something about his vision of a blessed community, you can't understand what he was talking about."


I may add to Thomas' complaints, relevant to our religious experience, Emerson and Thoreau are taught in the State schools only as authors rather than theologians, Coleridge as a poet rather than philosopher and William Ellery Channing not at all! Furthermore, Transcendentalism is treated as a literary mode rather than a religious and cultural movement.


Has the Common School worked?


A modern commentary:


Robert L. Church, in his definitive history Education in the United States, (1975):


"The goal of common school reform could be summarized as an effort to find an effective substitute for the mechanisms of social control and socialization that had characterized the pre-urban and pre-industrial small stable community...(T)he common school was to impose moral and social consensus on a heterogeneous population living in conditions often openly hostile to the influence of organized schooling...The promise behind the commitment to morally oriented schooling for all has not been seriously challenged. Instead, schoolmen and citizens have agreed that success is just around the corner if only the common school system could be made a little larger and a little more powerful."


There was secular criticism of Common Schools even in Mann's own time:


Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his Journal (1839):


"Yesterday Mr. Mann's address on Education. It was full of the modern gloomy view of our democratical institutions, and hence the inference to the importance of Schools...Education!... We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years & come out at last with a bellyful of words & do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands or our legs or our eyes or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods. We cannot tell our course by the stars nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim & skate....Far better was the Roman rule to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing..."

Do the State Schools serve our children well?

To ask that, is to ask:

Why do we need formal education at all???

We each need it as a child in order to equip us to address the only two really important questions which we will face in our life:

Credo: Why: Why are we here?

Praxis: What: What must we do to lead a good enough life?

Personal witness - the UU view:

E. Forrester Church (Our Chosen Faith)(1989):

"Imagine awaking one morning from a deep and dreamless sleep to find yourself in the nave of a vast cathedral."

"Welcome to the cathedral of the world. ...(T)here are windows without number, some long forgotten, covered with the many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. ...Each tells a story of the creation of the world, of the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of mankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines in."


This is a perfect image of the common elements of our belief structure: The outer unitarian light shining through the many windows of faith and interpretation bringing a universal message to all who care to look up.

Personal witness - the Humanist view:

Bertrand Russell (Why I am Not a Christian )(1923):

"Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.

A good world needs knowledge, kindliness and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by words uttered long ago by ignorant men."

Knowledge, kindliness, courage; intelligence...All virtues which we UUs value and honor. But, yet, although we include humanism as one of our sources of faith, we find it is not enough. Place a humanist in Church's cathedral and he would spend his time looking at the pretty pattern on the floor without wondering from whence came the light.

We UUs need our own schools:


Because the State, in pursuing its' goals, has failed us and our children.


The State, through its' schools, forbids the discussion of the first question, Why?, claiming that the 1st Amendment excludes dealing with such issues.


The State, through its' schools, refuses to instruct concerning the second question, How?, saying that values and principles are merely relative and a matter solely of individual choice.


The State, through its dogmatic promotion of secular humanism, ignores religion other than as a cultural curiosity and teaches the impossibility of universal values and moral principles.


Thus, our UU children are involuntary subjects of an educational process which produces no religious roots to support them nor moral wings to uplift them.


Let me note in passing that State schooling succeeds, and even works well for us UUs in many cases, but for the wrong reason: not through carrying out its program but through the moral witness of individual, exceptional, committed teachers. Each of us remembers teachers who have changed our lives for the better; few of us remember the subject matter of our school work.


If we expect our children to remain or become UUs, they must have a wide knowledge of the religious roots from which they may chose their own beliefs. They cannot do this in ignorance. How many of you have read the Bible, the Koran, the Torah and the Mishna, the Book of Mormon, Thoreau on Civil Disobedience, Emerson's Divinity School Address? How many of you did so at school?


If we expect our children to be UUs, they must have constant encounters with examples of principled conduct of life from among which they may chose their own values. They cannot do this without understanding the power of moral witness. How many of you know that Emerson was first a Unitarian minister before becoming known as a lecturer and author and that he abandoned his calling over doubts concerning holy communion, over the impossibility of the sacramental transubstantiation of bread and wine? How many of you learned this in school?

I think that the matter speaks for itself: We UUs need our own schools just as much as the Amish and the Catholics do.


Let me close this discussion with a brief story, to remind us of what we are really about, when we speak of education of the young:


My friend Mary is a good mother. Every weekday morning she gets Sam up before daybreak - it's a hassle sometimes! - sees that he eats a good breakfast even if he doesn't seem hungry, packs a lunch for him (and straps it to his back so he won't leave it at home), then waits with him at the curb for his pickup. Then she goes back in the house. By this time Jeannie is generally up and Mary has time, sometimes before she has eaten but perhaps later in the morning, to read a story with her and, in good weather, they go for a walk together. When I asked her why she treats Sam and Jeannie differently, she replied, "Well, dogs need to go to school but children have rights like the rest of us. With Sam away at obedience school, my daughter Jeannie and I have much more time to spend together."


Who is getting an education more suitable for a UU child, Sam or Jeannie?

Blessed be.