What Education Ought to Be

by J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham MachenEditors note: J. Gresham Machen was a stalwart defender of the faith during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, standing firm against the tide of liberalism which then assaulted, and which continues to assault, the church in America. Because the struggle goes on, the following excerpt from his 1925 book, What Is Faith?is as much to the point today as it was in the days of our fathers.

To the Christian, sin does not differ from goodness merely in the degree which achievement has attained; but it is regarded as transgression of a law that is absolutely fixed; the pagan sense of imperfection is widely different from the Christian sense of sin.

At the root of the Christian attitude is a profound consciousness of the majesty of the moral law. But the majesty of the moral law is obscured in many ways at the present time, and most seriously of all in the sphere of education. Indeed, strangely enough, it is obscured in the sphere of education just by those who are becoming most keenly conscious of the moral bankruptcy of modern life. There is something radically wrong with our public education, it is said; an education that trains the mind without training the moral sense is a menace to civilization rather than a help; and something must quickly be done to check the impending moral collapse.

To meet this need, various provisions are being made for moral training in our American public schools; various ethical codes are being formed for the instruction of children who are under the care of the state. But the sad thing is that these efforts are only making the situation tenfold worse; far from checking the ravages of immorality, they are for the most part themselves non-moral at the root. Sometimes they are also faulty in details, as when a recent moral code indulges in a veiled anti-Christian polemic by a reference to differences of "creed" that will no doubt be taken as belittling, and adopts the pagan notion of a human brotherhood already established, in distinction from the Christian notion of a brotherhood to be established by bringing men into a common union with Christ.

But the real objection to some, if not all, of these efforts does not depend upon details; it depends rather upon the fact that the basis of the effort is radically wrong. The radical error appears with particular clearness in a "Children's Morality Code" recently proposed by "The Character Education Institution" in Washington. That code contains eleven divisions, the sub-headings of which are as follows: I. "Good Americans Control Themselves"; II. "Good Americans Try to Gain and Keep Good Health"; III. "Good Americans Are Kind"; IV. "Good Americans Play Fair"; V. "Good Americans Are Self-Reliant"; VI. "Good Americans Do Their Duty"; VII. "Good Americans Are Reliable"; VIII. "Good Americans Are True"; IX. "Good Americans Try to do the Right Thing in the Right Way"; X. "Good Americans Work in Friendly Cooperation with Fellow-Americans"; XI. "Good Americans Are Loyal."

Here we have morality regarded as a consequence of patriotism; the experience of the nation is regarded as the norm by which a morality code is to be formulated. This (thoroughly non-moral) principle appears in particularly crass form in "Point Two" of the Institution's Five-Point Plan for Character Education in Elementary School Classrooms: "The teacher," says the pamphlet, "presents the Children's Morality Code as a reliable statement of the conduct which is considered right among boys and girls who are loyal to Uncle Sam, and which is justified by the experience of multitudes of worthy citizens who have been Uncle Sam's boys and girls since the foundation of the nations. The teacher advises the children to study this Morality Code in order to find out what Uncle Sam thinks is right"

But what of those not infrequent cases where what "Uncle Sam" thinks is right is what God thinks is wrong? To say to a child, "Do not tell a lie because you are an American," is at bottom an immoral thing. The right thing to say is, "Do not tell a lie because it is wrong to tell a lie." And I do not think that it is an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public schools for a teacher to say that.

In general, the holier-than-thou attitude toward other peoples, which seems to be implied in the program of the Character Education Institution almost from beginning to end, is surely, at the present crisis in the history of the world, nothing short of appalling. The child ought indeed to be taught to love America, and to feel that whether it is good or bad, it is our country. But the love of a country is a very tender thing, and the best way to kill it is to attempt to inculcate it by force. And to teach, in defiance of the facts, that honesty and kindness and purity are peculiarly American virtues-this is surely harmful in the extreme. We blamed Germany, rightly or wrongly, for this kind of thing; yet now in the name of patriotism we advocate as truculent an inculcation of the same spirit as Prussia could ever have been accused of at its worst. Surely the only truly patriotic thing to teach the child is that there is one majestic moral law to which our own country and all the countries of the world are subject.

But the most serious fault of this program for "character building" is that it makes morality a product of experience, that it finds the norm of right conduct in the determination of that "which is justified by the experience of multitudes of worthy citizens who have been Uncle Sam's boys and girls since the foundation of the nation." That is wrong, as we have already observed, because it bases morality upon the experience of the nation; but it would also be wrong if it based it upon the experience of the whole human race. A code which is the mere result of human experimentation is not morality at all (despite the lowly etymological origin of our English word), but it is the negation of morality. And certainly it will not work. Moral standards were powerful only when they were invested with an unearthly glory and were treated as quite different in kind from all rules of expediency. The truth is that decency cannot be produced without principle. It is useless to try to keep back the raging sea of passion with the flimsy mud-embankments of an appeal to experience. Instead, there will have to be recourse again, despite the props afforded by the materialistic paternalism of the modern state, to the stern, solid masonry of the law of God. An authority which is man-made can never secure the reverence of man; society can endure only if it is founded upon the rock of God's commands.

It will not now be possible to propose in full our own solution of the difficult educational problem of which we have just been speaking. We have indeed such a solution. Most important of all, we think, is the encouragement of private schools and church schools; a secularized public education, though perhaps necessary, is a necessary evil; the true hope of any people lies in a kind of education in which learning and piety go hand and hand. Christianity, we believe, is founded upon a body of facts; it is, therefore, a thing that must be taught; and it should be taught in Christian schools.

But taking the public school as an established institution, and as being, under present conditions, necessary, there are certain ways in which the danger of that institution may be diminished.

1. The function of the public school should be limited rather than increased. The present tendency to usurp parental authority should be checked.

2. The public school should pay attention to the limited, but highly important, function which it is now neglecting-namely, the impartation of knowledge.

3. The moral influence of the public-school teacher should be exerted in practical rather than in theoretical ways. Certainly the (thoroughly destructive and immoral) grounding of morality in experience should be avoided. Unfortunately, the true grounding of morality in the will of God may, in our public schools, also have to be avoided. But if the teacher himself knows the absolute distinction between right and wrong, his personal influence, without theoretical grounding and without "morality codes," will appeal to the distinction between right and wrong which is implanted in the soul of the child, and the moral tone of the school will be maintained. We do not for a moment mean that that sort of training is sufficient; for the only true grounding of morality is found in the revealed will of God; but at least it will avoid doing harm.

4. The public-school system should be kept healthy by the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools and church schools, and the state should refrain from such regulation of these schools as to make their freedom illusory.

5. Uniformity in education-the tendency which is manifested in the proposal of a federal department of education in the United States-should be avoided as one of the very greatest calamities into which any nation can fall.

6. The reading of selected passages from the Bible, in which Jews and Catholics and Protestants and others can presumably agree, should not be encouraged, and still less should be required by law. The real center of the Bible is redemption; and to create the impression that other things in the Bible contain any hope for humanity apart from that is to contradict the Bible at its root. Even the best of books, if it is presented in garbled form, may be made to say the exact opposite of what it means.

7. Public-school children should be released at certain convenient hours during the week, so that the parents, if they choose, may provide for their religious instruction; but the state should entirely refrain both from granting school credit for work done in these hours and from exercising any control whatever either upon attendance or upon the character of the instruction.

Such are in general the alternative proposals that we might make if we were dealing with the problem which has led to the efforts at "character building" of which we have spoken. We recognize to the full the good motives of those who are making such efforts; but the efforts are vitiated by the false principle that morality is based upon experience; and so they will only serve yet further, we fear, to undermine in the hearts of the people a sense of the majesty of the Law of God.

Certainly if there be no absolute law of God, there can be no consciousness of sin; and if there be no consciousness of sin, there can be no faith in the Savior Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that many persons regard Jesus merely as the initiator of a "Christ life" into which they are perfectly able, without more ado, to enter; it is no wonder that they regard their lives as differing only in a degree from His. They will never catch a real glimpse of the majesty of His Person and they will never understand His redeeming work, until they come again into contact with the majesty of the Law. Then and then only will they recognize their sin and need, and so come to that renunciation of all confidence in themselves-which is the basis of faith.

J. Gresham Machen, The MacMillan Co. 1925

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