This April occurs the tenth anniversary of the now historic educational report A Nation at Risk. A flurry of activity from educators, editors, and legislators came as a result of that document, which stated “The ideal of academic excellence as the primary goal of schooling seems to be fading across the board in American education.” The report declared that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

During the months while commission members and staff worked on the draft of the report, I frequently asked what it was we were ultimately trying to do in schools. Did the ancient aims of education—wisdom and virtue—have any place in contemporary curriculum? Who finally was responsible for the education of children—parents or the state?

A Nation at Risk answers the latter question by affirming that parents are the first and most influential teachers of their children, and that they have a right and a responsibility to participate actively in their children’s education and in the work of the schools. It asks parents and teachers to help their children understand that excellence in education cannot be achieved without intellectual and moral integrity coupled with hard work and commitment.

Although the report did not resolve the question of the ends of education, it spoke almost prophetically of an emerging national sense of frustration, “a fear of losing a shared vision for America,” stating that “Our concern . . . goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society.”

Now in 1993 our nation is at an ever greater risk than it was in 1983 of losing a shared vision. For the nation is now more gravely divided on questions of life and death, gender and genetics.

Perhaps it is time to examine how we contrived in previous years to transmit a shared culture in the schools. For this purpose we must consider how the religious assumptions held by most Americans affected their political and educational vision.

In the early years of settlement in New England, most children learned their ABC’s from The New England Primer. The first book printed in America expressed the deep religious conviction of Americans. Children learned the letter “A” by reciting, “A—In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” For the letter “J” they said, “Job feels the rod, but blesses God.”

Those Americans shared certain religious postulates about human nature. Despite differences among denominations, they generally believed in the existence of a transcendent moral order governing the universe; in the teaching that man is made for eternity; in the dogma that human beings have a proclivity toward the sinful.

In his farewell address, President George Washington said, “Virtue or morality is a natural spring of popular government. . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

John Adams, our second president, echoed these sentiments when he said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In 1787, the first Congress of the United States adopted the Northwest Ordinance, the third article of which runs, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of learning shall ever be encouraged.”

Early in the nineteenth century, the French historian and author of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, reported after touring the country: “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society . . . While the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.”

Many years have passed since Washington, Adams, and Tocqueville reached the conclusion that the health of the civil social order depends greatly on the allegiance of citizens to religious principles.

So late as 1952, Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority in the case of Zorack v. Clausen, found that New York City’s released-time program, which made no use of public school buildings, did not violate the First Amendment. Releasing students to attend religious instruction off school premises, Douglas concluded, was no more than an adjustment of schools’ schedules to “accommodate the religious needs of the people.” In words that now astonish, Douglas wrote: “We are a religious people whose institutions presupposes a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. . . . To hold that government may not encourage religious instruction would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. . . . We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to the hostile to religion.”

In 1962 I was a teacher in the New Hyde Park school system in New York when the case of prayer was brought to court by the parents of five children in my district. The prayer to which parents objected read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on thee, and we beseech thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” The prayer made no mention of Jesus Christ nor did it espouse any particular dogmata. It merely acknowledged dependence on God and asked His blessings. Children who did not participate in the saying of the prayer could remain silent or leave the classroom. Still, all members of the Supreme Court, save one, voted to abolish prayer. Justice Potter Stewart, alone in dissent, said, “To deny the wish of these children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.”

If prayer in the schools was unconstitutional, Bible readings could hardly survive. In Abington School District v. Schempp a year later, the Court struck down the practice of reading ten verses from the Bible and reciting in unison the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each day in the public schools of Abington, Pennsylvania.

Justice Stewart, again alone in dissent, interpreted the Court’s latest edict “not as the realization of a state of neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism or at least as government support for the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private.”

The issue, however, did not go away. James Reichley writes, “National opinion polls have consistently shown that about 75 percent of the public favors a return of organized voluntary prayer to the schools. (More than 90 percent of Americans indicate some kind of religious attachment.) In many rural schools teacher-led prayer and Bible reading reportedly have never stopped. They have come to light only when an occasional district has beenbrought to court. Evangelical Protestants, formerly among the strongest supporters of the public schools, have turned increasingly to church-related private elementary and secondary schools which in 1983 enrolled more than a million students, compared to about three million in the long-established Catholic system.”

Numerous amendments to restore prayer in the public schools have been introduced in Congress over the years. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 on a platform endorsing a constitutional amendment to permit voluntary participation in group prayer in the public schools. Simple majorities approved prayer amendments in the Senate in 1966, in the House in 1971, and again in the Senate in 1984. On this occasion the vote was eleven short of the needed two-thirds majority.

By 1985 many thinking people were becoming aware that first principles were lacking in society. James Reichley of the Brookings Institution wrote a lengthy report entitled Religion in American Public Life. This Brookings report, issued after a three-year examination and analysis of the elements holding society together, concludes:

“The founding fathers after all were right: republican government depends for its health on values that must come from religion. . . . Human rights are rooted in the moral worth with which a loving Creator has endowed each human soul: social authority is legitimized by making it answerable to transcendent moral law.”

The report explores various non-religious value systems to see if they might serve as the basic source for civil order. If the governance of society is to be left to each person—to his or her self-interest—then selfishness is sure to arise. If all sovereignty is to be given to the state, then established secular authority will be the norm. The report concludes that there must exist a source outside the state on which to base legitimate authority.

There are those who hold that the way to achieve government neutrality in matters of Church and State is to bar all expression and symbols of religion from public life. Rejecting this argument, Reichley’s report states that “Banishment of religion does not represent neutrality. . . . A society that excludes religion from its public life, that seems to regard religion as something against which public life must be protected, is bound to foster the impression that religion is either irrelevant or harmful.”

Now in 1993 we know that prayer in school, creches in front of government buildings, and invocations at public ceremonies are forbidden by Federal court orders. A generation of revolutionary change in the role of religion in public life has left many Americans reeling, and a nation struggling to find a common ethical ground to solve divisive moral issues.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, observes, “Ethics without religion is like a cut flower. Because it has no roots, it cannot sustain itself. Above all, it cannot reproduce itself.”

While many people agree that our religious roots do need to be watered and that the main work will have to be done by the churches, often churches need to renew the bonds of belief among their own communicants. Many liberal clergy tend toward a sentimental and humanitarian application of religious doctrines at the expense of the transcendent ends of religion and the personal element in morality.

Achieving a measure of moral consensus does not imply, however, an abandonment of the longstanding American belief in pluralism. Consensus does not mean that we must all join one church or profess one identical faith. As John Courtney Murray stated in his book We Hold These Truths: “Pluralism implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. . . . If society is to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups despite their dissensions.”

Understood thus, even pluralism requires a measure of consensus, a set of first principles. First principles are those beliefs forming the basis for the internal order of the soul as well as for the external order of society. They are the premises upon which we make our decisions, the assumptions upon which we act. They reflect the permanent concepts to which we adhere. They are compasses to guide us on stormy seas. The Hebraic Decalogue, the Chinese Tao, the Koran, and the Sermon on the Mount are conspicuous examples of enduring religious teachings that supply first principles.

At least some in every age must understand the relationships among good government, morality, and religion and how first principles flow from them. Parochial, private, or parent-run schools, in the minority though they may be, that affirm this relationship defend an inescapable truth of education. When public schools ignore this truth, they endanger the fabric of civilization.  

Annette Kirk was a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1981–1983.