“Morality in the Public Schools” The American Sentinel 6, 9, pp. 66, 67.

UPON the question as to whether morality should be taught in the public schools, we would suggest that it would be well for those who demand it, to agree upon what morality really it, what is its basis, and what are its sanctions. If this should not be clearly discerned and taught, even granting that it is the province of the State to teach morality, it is certain that the teaching would be no better than that which is now given in the public schools, and the probabilities are, that it would be much worse. It is also certain that those who favor the teaching of morality in the public schools cannot agree upon what morality is, nor upon what are the grounds of moral responsibility.

This question was studied “thoroughly and practically” for four years by the Evangelical Ministers’ Association of Boston.

In 1882 an able committee of that body, composed of representative men of all [67] denominations, was appointed for the purpose of preparing “a book of morals for the public schools.” Two of that committee were Drs. Joseph T. Duryea and Edward Everett Hale. The result of the four years’ study of the question by this committee was expressed by Dr. Duryea in 1885, in a letter to the chairman of a committee in New York, appointed to consider the same subject. The following is the material part of that letter:—

32 Union Park, Boston, Dec. 5, 1885.

MY DEAR SIR: The committee appointed to consider the matter of a book of morals for the public schools, have been trying faithfully to find out what can be done. Difficulties have been met and not overcome. We are trying to evade them…. The desire was for a graded series. This would involve a book worthy to go into the high schools. This could hardly omit reference to the grounds of moral responsibility. The committee have seriously doubted the wisdom of debating the basis of moral choice and action before youth. To show them that apparently good men differ concerning the very foundation of morality, might be harmful before they are developed and informed sufficiently to understand how there can be differences as to theories, and yet substantial agreement as to practical morality.

I think, now, the tendency is to admit that it is better to address the moral intuitions, and not to theorize about them; also to treat moral matters as they come up in the life of the pupils, and their associations in the school and on the play-ground.

But it has been deemed practicable to prepare a book, or a series of books, after the pattern of the “Book of Golden Deeds,” prepared for youth in England.

The moral affections and sentiments might be exhibited in expression, and moral principles might be embodied in characters, and concretely presented in deeds. An outline including all the virtues, and incidents under each of them, might be selected. Also deeds might be presented involving all the moral rules drawn out of the root principles of morality.

This is as far as we have been able to go, with expectation of meeting with general approval, and securing the admission of the book or books.

Yours truly,


This is an interesting letter, and coming as it does as the result of years of special study on the subject by such men, its statements are of more than common importance.

First, difficulties have been met and not overcome, and they are difficulties of such a nature as, from the circumstances of the case, to seem insurmountable, because instead of battling with them with a real endeavor to overcome them the committee tried to evade them. But upon such a question, to evade the difficulty is not to escape it, for it is still there and there it remains. This statement simply reveals in a more forcible way than is usually done, the fact that upon the question of the Bible, or religion, or morality, in the public schools, there are difficulties which cannot be overcome with justice to all. Of course we use the word morality as meaning much more than civility.

Second, the committee could not insert in a book for the public school any reference to “the grounds of moral responsibility,’ because that is an unsettled question even among those who were to compile the book; and because the wisdom of debating before youth the question of what is the basis of moral choice and action, is seriously to be doubted; and, further, because it might be harmful for the youth in school to discover that the very reason why they should choose, and act, a certain way in a given case, was an unsettled question amongst college graduates and doctors of divinity.

These reasons certainly ought to be sufficient to put a check upon the efforts of any such committee. They ought also to be sufficient to put a damper upon the zeal of very many who are now so ardently in favor of forcing this question to an issue in the management of the public school. Because when men of mature and trained minds, graduates of the best colleges and the highest universities, and of theological seminaries, and who, of all men, are most intimately and constantly associated with the consideration of this very question in all its phases,—when these can not agree upon what is the ground of moral responsibility, or the basis of moral choice and action, it certainly would be perfect folly to demand that school-children should decide the question. The committee did well to say it might be harmful; the committee might have gone farther and said not only that it might be harmful, but that it could not be anything else than harmful.

Yet it was not exactly this phase of the question that the committee referred to when it said it might be harmful. It was the fact that the children would discover “that apparently good men differ concerning the very foundation of morality,” and would thus be led to doubt whether there is any real foundation for morality, and consequently would be landed plumply into skepticism. Of this the committee might well be afraid, because it would be the inevitable result of every attempt of the State to inculcate morality.

A. T. J.

Share this: