Aug. 18, 2011
Millions of American school children are preparing to go back to school this week.
I rebel against it. Growing up inNew YorkState, we never had to think about school until Labor Day. Of course, we had to stay in school until the third week in June. Still,
I remember that about the third week in August, the weather would turn. There would be a marvelous crispness in the mornings. You felt like going back to school refreshed and ready to take on new challenges.
Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Courts banning the New York State Regents Prayer. I remember it still:
WE ACKNOWLEDGE OUR DEPENDENCE UPON THEE
AND BEG THY BLESSINGS UPON US,
OUR PARENTS, OUR TEACHERS, AND OUR COUNTRY.
Years later, a colleague of mine at the U.S. Education Department commented on the late, great Regents Prayer: It never helped anybody, but it never hurt anybody, either, said this thoughtful Southern friend. I considered this sincere Christians words seriously. Never helped anybody? But wait, it helped me.
What that Regents Prayer taught an unchurched youth like me was that there was a power above even the Empire State of New York and we acknowledged our dependence upon that Higher Power.
Without acknowledging that Higher Power, is it any wonder many powerful people today worship the State? In government they move and breathe and have their being.
That prayer also taught me to respect my parents, my teachers, and my country. Was that a bad thing?
Finally, it taught me that it was from a very important Person that all our blessings flow. Who else gets called Thee?
The High Court struck it down in 1962. You cant have a state agency like the Regents composing a prayer. That is the very essence of establishment of religion. So, out it went.
I think of that prayer today, as we read of aFloridayouth who may spend the rest of his days in prison because he was plotting to bomb his public high school. Would you care to speculate on how many school shootings there were in 1962? How many murders in schools? How many bombings?
My own childrens schooling was very different. Each morning, I dropped our son and daughter off atCalvaryLutheranSchoolnear our home inSilver Spring,Maryland. They would troop into class under an archway whose capstone proclaimed:
THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
When she was a second grader, our daughter got a Childrens Bible Story Book for Christmas. But in March, she said we had fallen behind in reading the daily verses and stories. I apologized and said it was because I was getting home too late from the Education Department. She and her brother were already in bed.
She replied, Why dont you read to us while were driving to school? I explained that it would be too dangerous to take my eyes off my driving. OK, she rejoined resourcefully, well take turns reading the stories. When we come to a word we dont know, well spell it out and you can say what it is. So we did that. Within a few weeks, we had completely caught up.
My childrens reading scores went through the roof that year. But all one hundred twenty three children atCalvaryLutheranSchoolwere reading on grade level then. And, when a liberal neighbor teased me about our engaging in white flight by sending our kids to a private school, I told him that 85% ofCalvarys kids were minority students. I didnt have to ask him what was the minority percentage in his kids Gifted and Talented program.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 1787, the Marquis de Chastellux visited thePennsylvaniafrontier. In the same year that our Constitution was framed, this distinguished French nobleman marveled how youngsters would emerge from rude pioneer cabins speaking Elizabethan English. They could all handle a firearm and they could read the King James Version of the Bible.
To educate a man without improving his morals, wrote Theodore Roosevelt, probably the most learned president since Thomas Jefferson, is to educate a menace to society.
When he left home for Harvard, T.R.s own father advised him to attend first to his own character, then to his physical wellbeing, and only then to his intellectual development. And Greatheartas the senior Theodore Roosevelt was knownwas paying his sons tuition.
My friend Dan Struble is president of MontreatCollege(his excellent back-to-school column can be read here). He knows that the purpose of education is just about jobs. Dan does not agree with James Carvilles famous rant, Its the economy, stupid! Instead, Dr. Struble could give us the English poet Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
So, as we prepare for the opening of a new school year, lets remember where we get our daily bread, from whom all blessings come, and what is the beginning of wisdom.