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Prayer in Public Schools

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Modern schools lack effectiveness in transmitting those powerful “prejudices” which move towards worthy citizenship. I fully agree that one of the strongest tendencies of modern life is to disrupt primary groups and to force individuals into association with others of their kind. This means, of course, that the future society will be different from the society of former days. There is a possibility, however, that it will be much better. It is too early to tell what the desirable outcome is, and in any event I doubt if we are wise enough or powerful enough to determine the outcome.

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Nowadays, we see schools as agencies for the transmission of civilization. But in schools where “first graders”, “second graders”, etc. are kept to themselves, we see schools that fail to contribute to the continuity of civilization. Besides, many researches force people to agree with their premises that a prayer mechanically said is of no spiritual value at all. Indeed, people could concur with scholars when they assert that the mere mouthing of a prayer destroys the benefit for which the prayer is intended. But we should not agree with them, however, when they suggest that if there is the slightest doubt whether a prayer is sincere that it is to be discontinued. My contention is that it becomes the duty of a teacher to make a prayer sincere. Let us give one practical example: if a child's experiences are unsatisfactory because of the want of sympathy and love, or are inconsistent and without pattern - if the story of “The Little Red Hen” is never told the same way twice - the child may grow up without the acceptance of any code of values. Then, literally, he/she will have no conscience. Usually, however, he/she will find a code somewhere, even if it is as a member of a group which has somehow evolved a system that is quite anti-social, and to that code he may be as true as a Christian martyr - whether it be the code of “The Little River Rats” or the anti-socialparty.

Ironically, the first schools in the United States were religious and not secular. Many of us remember when each school day began with morning exercises, either in a “chapel” program or in our home rooms, which consisted of the Bible reading, group recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

The extent of religious influence on American public schools remained an integral part of many school systems until 1960. It is interesting to note that more public school systems (19.8%) had formal policies dealing with religious services with prayer and the Bible reading for students. Next, the celebration of religious holidays, primarily Christmas, by means of various school activities had been traditional in many systems. A good deal of controversy had been generated by those practices, and considerable attention had been focused on them. Despite this, only 22.6% of school districts had a formal policy regarding the issue. Across the country, a majority of respondents (60.1%) reported that their systems observed religious holidays with special programs. Also, the display of nativity scenes and other religious symbols in school at Christmas time was found in over half (54.4%) of the American public schools. In addition, religious services in connection with high school graduation ceremonies had been a common practice in the American schools for many years.

Besides, religious influence on school curricula had taken the form of “teaching about” religion in areas such as history, literature, culture, and society. In sciences, it has centered on the issue of creationism, mainly in biology and geography. The “teaching about” movement had been noticeable for several decades, and it had a great influence on public education. About 48.6% of public school systems offered classes such as “The Bible as Literature”, “Comparative Literature”, “and America’s Religious Heritage”, etc. Three systems in five (46.1%) had a formal policy dealing with teaching about religion. Creationism was somewhat more popular. It was taught along with the theory of evolution in nearly a third (30.3%) of school systems. But it was less common in the East (18.7%) and more widespread in the South of the USA (42.0%).

On the contrary, when American public school systems are examined nowadays for the extent of religious influence affecting them, it appears clear that it is not a powerful factor in their operation. Controversy featured in the media has led to the conclusion that religion is a hot and ever-present issue in most school systems. Although the matter is not a “mole hill”, neither it is a mountain. Practice differs somewhat from section to section of the country, but there is considerable uniformity from coast to coast. In several practices, however, the South is more favorable to certain religious influences than the other parts of the United States.

Only a few of the religious influences are found in the majority of school systems, primarily centered on activities related to Christmas observances. The others are identified in only a few districts. These practices are mainly of a devotional nature, such as the Bible reading, prayer, and religious services. The broad issue does not appear to have stirred strong feelings in the average local community. A fairly small minority of school systems have adopted formal policies regarding most matters of religious influence. Even in such supposedly sensitive areas as the Bible reading and school prayer, very little public pressure has been felt either for or against these practices.

The situation nowadays seems as if it dealt the Propaganda Letter on November 24, 1876, reporting the decision of the Inquisition that opened with a review of the circumstances under which the questionnaire had been sent out and the answers turned over to the Holy Office. The resulting decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition contained eight points. The first three seemed to accept the charges of McMaster and Miss Edes against public schools. 

Here, the first point to come under consideration was the system of education itself, quite peculiar to those schools. At that time, the system seemed to the Sacred Congregation really dangerous and very much opposed to Catholicity. Children in those schools, the principles of which excluded all religious instruction, can neither learn the rudiments of faith nor be taught the precepts of the Church; hence, they will lack that knowledge necessary to a man without which leading of the Christian life is impossible. Children are sent to those schools from their earliest years, almost from their cradle, during which time it is admitted that the seeds sown of virtue or of vice take fast root. To allow this tender age to pass without religion is surely a great evil.

Since these schools are under no control of the Church, the teachers “are selected from every sect indiscriminately”; and, “while no proper precaution is taken to prevent them from injuring the children, there is nothing to stop them from infusing into the young minds the seeds oferror and vice”. Then evil results are certainly to be dreaded from the fact that in these schools, or at least in many of them, children of both sexes must be in the same class and sit side by side at the same desk. Every circumstance mentioned displays that children are fearfully exposed to the danger of losing their faith and that their morals are not properly safeguarded.

And finally, unless this danger of perversion can be rendered remote, such schools cannot in conscience be used.

But whatever it is said, the United States has evolved one of the clearest separations of religion from the government. In fact, with the emergence of a more conservative America in the last few years, the increase in “Moral Majority” pressure, and a less strict interpretation of the separation of church and state by the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps will change in the future. At the present time, however, it looks as if the “wall of separation” remains high, with few breaches of consequence evident.

Still, it is important to remember that moral civilizations arise only where there is an effective overlap of generations and where societies are so organized that the experience of the elders can affect attitudes and sentiments in the young. Hence, praying in school is important.

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Children must be motivated to pray rather than forced to do so. Hundreds of books have been written in the field of education concerning the virtue of conditioning the human mind to absorb certain informational data. It is generally assumed and accepted that unless the proper atmosphere is created, absorption will either be rather difficult or completely impossible. Even football coaches dare not start a football game without a reasonable warm-up. If this is important in such activities as reading, writing, spelling, and playing football, it should be even more important in the matter of prayer. The soul of a child is far more important than the touchdown he will probably run or the masterful curve of penmanship he will probably master. If it is important that the scene is set for his mind to develop, it is important that the scene is set for his soul to develop. Develop the mind at the expense of the soul and you father a monster.

Children cannot be expected to rush in from the early morning play and recreation and assume a prayerful attitude, because the administration allots time for the prayer. A brief quiet period of about five minutes usually bridges the gap of play and seriousness. Permit the mind to make the transition from noise to quietness. During this quiet period, children can be admonished to think of any problem with which they have been grappling, any private worry or difficulty, any great desire or wish, any question to which they desire an answer or help. They can be encouraged to bow their heads and silently tell God about it. If they have any special blessing for which they are grateful, any special happiness that has come their way, they can be persuaded to offer thanks. Sometimes it helps to let them share orally some of the good things that have come their way. Even the most timid have joined in this exchange in classes. After the oral exchange, they can be asked, not told, to bow their heads and pray. I am convinced that it works. Is it not wonderful when a teacher’s heart has been made to sing by one of his children confidingly declaring, “My prayer was answered today” or to hear one say, “I didn't get what I asked for, but I was glad to be able to tell someone about it who I felt could help me”? It is not easy to determine internal responses by external reactions, but I am convinced that a prayer means something to children even when administration accepts this as a traditional practice.

The mechanization of prayer can be decreased by the variety of procedure. Monotony can destroy the appeal of practically anything. The young mind is more easily bored than the more mature mind. Since the matter of drill and routinization is repulsive in many developmental activities, it can be even more repulsive in the matter of prayer. The efficacy of prayer can be maintained by varying the procedure. One day, a silent prayer can be employed. Another day, a sentence prayer can be used. Each student is invited to utter one complete sentence prayer. For other days, students may be scheduled to pray according to sex. All the boys may pray and then all the girls or a girl may pray and a boy will alternate. One day, they may follow an alphabetized schedule where only one student will pray. Another day the teacher prays and then, finally, the Lord's Prayer may be said. With this variation throughout a month, students manifest no obvious indications of boredom or “mouthing of a prayer”. They would seem to look forward to the prayer period. They would seem anxious to pray, and they will constantly discuss the benefits which they have received from the Morning Prayer at school.

Thus, I believe that rather than surrender to the possible doubt that the Morning Prayer at school is not effective, educators should remove the doubt. Teachers should do this by using some of the same ingenuity and effort they expend on teaching subject matter. They should create a prayerful atmosphere and keep prayer alive in their classrooms. If teachers assume the responsibility for the benefit of the other activities in their classrooms, a prayer should be no exception. Making the daily prayer meaningful is just another of the many challenges of teaching.

To conclude, it seems clear that we have reached a stage in the history of mankind when very important parts of our human arrangements must be on a worldwide scale. What might be called cultural nationalism is educationally often a very good thing, but political nationalism, except in terms of sensible devolution, is bound now to become a thing of the past if we are to survive. To prepare young people for a life will require great thought and practical educational skills. In attempting this, people have on their side the perennial tradition of learning that is shared in and belongs to mankind as a whole. The distinctive educational task of our time is to develop and broaden this tradition so that it passes down from scholars and scientists, artists and musicians to the ordinary teacher and the ordinary boys and girls. And this is impossible without the extent of religious influence, which is an efficient mechanism for transmitting civilization.

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