It is no surprise that that education has been a central to the life of Presbyterians. While not the wealthiest denomination, it is one of the most educated. Like today, not all of the church supported education but the line of theologians that inspired the reformation all held high regards for it. So it is no surprise that it was imbedded into our reformed DNA through John Calvin’s 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.
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.
This Sunday we continue that tradition as we celebrate Public Education Sunday with the teachers in our congregation and for all of those who are in the Public Education system in our community. Their jobs continue to be complicated on a variety of levels, but the fact that remains that our children are our future. The investment in our future is crucial!
(This document is based on excerpts from the Presbyterian Church Mission Agency website https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/publiceducation, and “A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education,” The Education and Congregational Nurture Ministry Unit, Presbyterian Church (USA.), 1987)
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen