Can you believe that many of our children and youth will be starting school this week! The summer has gone by so fast. Thinking about education this week’s letter looks at the role of education a core aspect to being Presbyterian. Much of this document, is based on excerpts from the Presbyterian Church Mission Agency and “A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education,” The Education and Congregational Nurture Ministry Unit, Presbyterian Church (USA.), 1987.
It is no surprise, that education has been central to the life of Presbyterians. While we are not the wealthiest denomination, we are the most educated. This started at the very roots of our tradition where clergy were seen to have roles of Rabbi’s (teacher) and mediators of the divine. This comes from a theological and Biblical understanding of the office of a Pastor. In fact, the historical title of a Pastor is Teaching Elder.
In fact as John Calvin was teaching and preaching he was also advocating support of free schools in Geneva where he was the city planner. John Knox, who brought Calvin’s reformed tradition to Scotland, also brought the concern that schools be provided for all children in Scotland. This was not unique to the Calvinists but, like today, not all of the church supported education in fact some preached against it. As a marker of this new tradition, education was woven into every level of the church.
In colonial times, Presbyterians joined with other churches in providing schools for children in whatever community Presbyterian churches were to be found. Academies and colleges were established to continue the tradition of learned clergy and to encourage the general development of all youth. A comparable commitment has characterized Presbyterian mission outreach in the United States among the non-European communities including notable historic Black colleges.
But often, as the Public School system in the United States took over, the Presbyterian Church relinquished their parochial schools to become public, believing in the need for a good education for faithfulness and understanding.
As Presbyterians, we believe that “an education of high quality for all children is an obligation of society and indispensable to the political and economic health of our democracy,” and that “we are called to respond in every possible way, with measures that seek to evidence love and justice in the education of children and youth.” --A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education (199th General Assembly, 1987)
However, to understand public education today, it is important to explore how it evolved and why. Understanding the roots of our public education system can help us understand the problems we face today.
As more immigrants arrived toward the end of the 19th century, education was primarily perceived as a social mechanism to change children into productive workers. Law and order, righteousness, and civil duty were stressed. The familiar descriptive metaphor of the melting pot is grounded in this influx of immigrants.
From these roots, our system of public education has branched out in an attempt to accommodate an increasingly diverse and varied population. Each branch, from secondary education to vocational education, through segregation to desegregation to bilingual education and so on, has emerged in response to the needs perceived by those in power. Our problems today and the challenges we recognize for tomorrow, must be evaluated in that light.
An overture to the 216th General Assembly in 2004, "On Improved Education for African American and Other Students placed at risk for an Excellent Education," called for action to address the concern that some children, particularly poor children, children of color and others on the margins continue to be left behind. Among its recommendations:
That Presbyterians be called upon to confront the stubborn continuance of racial prejudice, particularly the persistence of societal attitudes that discourage academic achievement among economically disadvantaged and children of color students and others at risk.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen