Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.
On the EDUCATION of YOUTH in AMERICA.
NEW YORK, 1788.
THERE is one general practice in schools, which I censure with diffidence; not because I doubt the propriety of the censure, but because it is opposed to deep rooted prejudices: This practice is the use of the Bible as a school book. There are two reasons why this practice has so generally prevailed: The first is, that families in the country are not generally supplied with any other book: The second, an opinion that the reading of the scriptures will impress, upon the minds of youth, the important truths of religion and morality. The first may be easily removed; and the purpose of the last is counteracted by the practice itself.
If people design the doctrines of the Bible as a system of religion, ought they to appropriate the book to purposes foreign to this design? Will not a familiarity, contracted by a careless disrespectful reading of the sacred volume, weaken the influence of its precepts upon the heart?
Let us attend to the effect of familiarity in other things.
The rigid Puritans, who first settled the New England States, often chose their burying ground in the center of their settlements. Convenience might have been a motive for the choice; but it is probable that a stronger reason was, the influence which they supposed the frequent burials and constant sight of the tombs would have upon the lives of men. The choice, however, for the latter purpose, was extremely injudicious; for it may be laid down as a general rule, that those who live in a constant view of death, will become hardened to its terrors.
No person has less sensibility than the Surgeon, who has been accustomed to the amputation of limbs. No person thinks less of death, than the Soldier, who has frequently walked over the carcasses of his slain comrades; or the Sexton, who lives among the tombs.
Objects that affect the mind strongly, whether the sensations they excite are painful or pleasureable, always lose their effect by a frequent repetition of their impressions.* Those parts of the scripture, therefore, which are calculated to strike terror to the mind, lose their influence by being too frequently brought into view. The same objection will not apply to the history and morality of the Bible; select passages of which may be read in schools to great advantage. In some countries, the common people are not permitted to read the Bible at all: In ours, it is as common as a newspaper, and in schools, is read with nearly the same degree of respect. Both these practices appear to be extremes. My wish is not to see the Bible excluded from schools, but to see it used as a system of religion and morality.
* The veneration we have for a great character, ceases with an intimate acquaintance with the man. The same principle is observable in the body. High seasoned food, without frequent intervals of abstinence, loses its relish. On the other hand, objects that make slight impressions at first, acquire strength by repetition. An elegant simplicity in a building may not affect the mind with great pleasure at first sight; but the pleasure will always increase with repeated examinations of the structure. Thus by habit, we become excessively fond of food which does not relish at first tasting; and strong attachments between the sexes often take place from indifference, and even from aversion.
- ☞ Horace Mann—Clergymen and Schools.
- ☞ Rush: Education in a Republic.
- ☞ Samuel Adams: On Education & Morals.