Public Schools Must Be Secular

A most influential teacher of teachers, HENRY H. HILL has been identified with our public schools for more than thirty-five years. He has been superintendent of schools in Arkansas, in Kentucky, and in Pennsylvania; and today, as President of the George Peabody College for Teachers, his influence and integrity are felt throughout the South and West. The article which follows was taken from his report as chairman of the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association at its annual meeting in Detroit last summer.



I FEEL I must begin by pointing out the danger, in the years ahead, of bitter and disruptive religious divisions and quarrels in America. Such divisions are common in Germany, for example, where religion and politics are frequently identical in the life of the community, where preachers and priests are supported by taxes, and where substantially all schools are confessional and under control either of the Catholic or the Protestant churches. Citizens so divided find it hard to get along together, much less with other nations. What is a local disturbance can in such a case become an international threat. So far we have avoided this particular kind of bitterness in the United States because we remain essentially secular in our political party organization. We do not support our churches by taxes. Being a Republican or a Democrat carries with it as yet little intimation of a man’s religion or lack of it. Nearly 90 per cent of all our children attend the public schools, which are secular and not denominational.

There is now in some quarters a demand that the public schools teach religion. Whose religion? What creed or ritual? However much we may like the plan of teaching that religion common to all recognized religions in the United States, the religious leaders have not produced such a text. Nor are they likely to do so. In both Protestant and Catholic bodies there are leaders who insist that truth cannot tolerate error. It seems to be “my truth, your error.”These same leaders do not favor or practice interfaith understanding for this and other reasons.

In the opinion of thoughtful observers religion itself cannot be taught in our public schools. If one religious group will not permit the King James version of the Bible to be read and another will not permit the Douay version, can we expect further excursions into purely religious matters?

When, then, by statute or by public opinion or controversy, the public schools are stopped from teaching religion — we do not here discuss released time and other possible compromises of value which affect a minor fraction of the children — they may be and are occasionally referred to as godless. This charge is misleading or else there is some peculiar religious alchemy which takes place en route between church and school.

As a former superintendent of public schools in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania it has been, over a period of thirty years, my privilege and duty to recommend to boards of education the appointment of some hundreds of teachers. Without a single exception they have been members of a recognized church — Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. If we may identify church membership with goodness — and surely most of the good people are in the churches; if we may identify membership in any church or synagogue with godliness as contrasted with godlessness, then how and at what moment do good and perhaps godly teachers become godless as they step from the churches and homes to their posts of duty in the public schools? Are all places of assembly or work —the stores, factories, courts, farms, trains, and market places — to be regarded as godless because in them man does not, through ritual or formal act, worship God or study or recite the dogma of his church? Are the Mohammedans to be regarded as godlier than Christians if they practice their religious devotions daily seven times, stopping their immediate duties at a given time or signal?

To ask these questions is to invite the thesis in which I happen to believe. The good or godly teacher has a quality—let us call it moral and spiritual values —which will “rub off” on her associates wherever she is. Is not this thesis acknowledged in the suspicion — unfounded for the most part - with which denominations sometimes regard teachers who belong to other denominations? The essential question is: Can and will this teacher teach by example and precept and through the daily life of the school those abiding values in which all religions believe? If there be no values to rub off, then indeed we should worry.

On rare occasions I have heard what seems to me the irresponsible assertion that our public schools are “as Stalin would have them.” I do not believe Stalin would be likely to select Protestants and Catholics and Jews as teachers.

The word “secular” is sometimes substituted for “godless.” There is being read into this word, which has been used to designate civil as separated from religious affairs, the pejorative idea that secular is evil.

What else can schools open to all American children be except nondenominational? They must remain secular unless we change those underlying concepts and practices which have to date made and kept America relatively free from the religious quarrels, wars, and intolerances which drove many of our forefathers, fettered by oppressors, to escape to America. Are we willing, as members of church groups, to insist that the homes and churches handle matters of religious beliefs and that the public schools deal with common moral and spiritual values?


LET me state candidly my own position. It involves divided allegiance, as is only right and proper. As a Presbyterian I have the responsibility to see that Presbyterian religious values are taught to Presbyterian children. This I believe may be done and has been done by the church through Sunday school and vacation schools and in other ways, leaving the public schools to provide those relatively noncontroversial values and learnings necessary to American citizenship.

As a citizen I have the responsibility of supporting and defending and improving the public schools where in any now conceivable future the great majority of all children will be educated for peace or war.

As an individual I have the responsibility to do what I can to build intercultural understanding and to work constructively for good will and tolerance among all faiths. I have both the freedom and the responsibility to take my stand in behalf of those values and practices in which I believe.

I agree with President James B. Conant, former chairman of the Educational Policies Commission, that both private and denominational schools have a constitutional right to exist. Further, I think both private and public schools provide each other stimuli to better performance. Without specific knowledge I assume the American Catholic schools are in some ways the best Catholic schools in the world, and I would infer that the challenge of good public schools has helped produce this. In a similar way public schools are sometimes challenged by the best practices of private and parochial schools.

The right to do something and the wisdom of doing it are not identical. Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists, for example, have the right to establish their own schools from nursery school through the graduate school, or, speaking more practically, for the twelve grades prior to college. Yet I would regret to see the day come when the last Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Congregationalist disappeared from the public schools. Since it is estimated that 90 per cent of all who attend private and parochial schools are Catholics, I shall be more specific and say I would regret to see the last Catholic child depart from the public schools. There are perhaps four million, or roughly half, who attend public schools now.

It has been my personal experience to know and like many members of other faiths. How do we know them, and hence like them, if we do not associate with them? If, for example, all the eight or nine million Catholic children and youth should go through twelve years divorced in their daily school life from all association with those of other faiths, would we not be taking a step towards the German pattern? Suppose then — to follow the argument further— that all other denominations of substantial size should do the same thing. Would we not, wittingly or unwittingly, have jerked the rug of common integrating experiences out from under our young citizens? Would we not have laid a possible foundation for the spread of the necessary religious diversity to other facets of public life at a time when we need unity in facing a hostile world of Communists?

It is important that parents who exercise their right to provide education for their children through private schools should understand and support the public schools from whence have come, and will continue to come, 80 to 90 per cent of all our armed forces. It is important that parents who exercise their right of choice to provide religious education for their children through schools established to perpetuate their creeds should understand and respect the views of the majority of American citizens, who believe religious education should be cared for by the home and church. It is important that those of us who believe wholeheartedly in the public schools should understand and respect the legitimate rights of other Americans to support other schools. It is, we believe, our privilege to call to the attention of all American citizens what the full and complete exercise of these rights would mean in creating all over again those old religious and class bitternesses so prominent in much of Europe’s history.

To guard against increasing tensions between public schools on the one hand and private and parochial schools on the other, there should be a united effort on the part of religious leaders to provide common agreements and sanctions for moral and spiritual values to be taught in the public schools. It is dangerously easy and appallingly irresponsible to voice hurtful and sweeping criticism against the public schools for the very conditions which divergent religions have in part produced. We need not dodge our disagreements, but we may speak quietly and fairly and responsibly, putting the welfare of our great American nation ahead of the complete and ultimate exercise of all our own personal or religious rights. Both churches and state will be served by this.

Perhaps you have read E. M. Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy. He gives one cheer for the variety of life and therefore the better opportunity for more individuals to live richer lives. He gives another cheer for criticism — that is, the possibility of free criticism which exists in full measure only in a democracy. Mr. Forster fails to give a third cheer because he thinks democracy deserves only two cheers.

My third cheer is for public education, its unique contribution to a classless society and to a freedom and tolerance largely unknown among countries with class education systems, and for the educational options offered the American people.

I am for public education. I am not anti-Catholic, anti-private school, or anti-religious, any more than I am anti-chocolate ice cream because I select vanilla. Three cheers for our democracy, our republic, if you prefer, our representative form of government , and for the options which make us free.