(Updated from a previous article, most recently published June 16, 2007)
Prior to the history of curriculum development, which began in the early 20th century, the currently-popular interpretation of the so-called “separation clause” of the First Amendment was not applied to the public schools or what was taught in the schools including in the subject of American History. The following entry in the Library of Congress reflects the general understanding of the Christian religion in the role of the founding of the United States through the 19th century:
The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.
Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by “covenant theology,” a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they “should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears.” Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.
The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the “public prosperity” of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a “spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens,” Congress declared to the American people, would “make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people.”
According to an Edsitement lesson on one room schoolhouses,
Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the popular Little House on the Prairie books, was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse… when she was just 15 years old.
Many students in the 18th and 19th centuries learned in such one-room schoolhouses, some of which were in churches, and helped each other learn to read from the Bible, and the Biblically-oriented New England Primer.
One such student I recently spoke to attended a one-room schoolhouse in the Midwestern United States in the early 1940’s. She recalled that every morning, the children would sing Good Morning to You to their teacher, say the Pledge of Allegiance, and pray. She explained that along with subjects such as math, science, English, and penmanship, they learned American History by reading from the original documents, and studying the lives of historical figures. They memorized portions and recited them for the class, and occasionally during school presentations for the parents and community.
Since students read both the Bible and the original founding documents, they learned American History from the perspective of the Founding Fathers, who often quoted the Bible, and used scriptural references in their writings.
In the early 20th century, social and political pressures were placed on the public schools by Atheist activists such as Madelyn Murray O’Hair, as accounted by American Atheists, and by communist organization members such as Earl Browder of the ACLU, who once called the American Civil Liberties Union, “a transmission belt,” for the Communist Political Association, according to federal whistle blower, Devvy Kidd. In 1953, the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education was the first famous example of the many times the ACLU has sought the application of the fourteenth amendment to the first amendment to override the will of the majority on behalf of a minority or individual. Later, according to American Atheist Conrad F. Goeringer:
Madalyn Murray [O’Hair]…was a plaintiff in the historic MURRAY v. CURLETT  case which helped to end coercive prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools of America. She founded a series of organizations including American Atheists, wrote books, articles, and pamphlets, lectured at major colleges and forums throughout the country, and appeared in the media as an impassioned advocate for Atheism and the First Amendment. For years with her son, Jon Murray and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, she remained an important part of the American cultural scene.
Also during the early part of the 20th century, the subject of curriculum development changed from a study for “curricularists,” who specialized in general curriculum development for colleges and universities to a field of educational psychology, according to Marshall, Sears and Schubert, in their Turning Points in Curriculum (pp. 19-20).
Jerome Bruner, a leader in the field of cognitive studies, published his book, Process of Education, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961) was instrumental in turning the field of curriculum development into a forum on how children and adults learn, and how educators can shape public thought.
When we understand the cognitive processes, we will certainly be able to design education that will use man’s potential for learning far more effectively than it has been used before.
This change in the role of education along with the legal “civil rights” precedents opened the door for today’s political and social activists of every persuasion to begin utilizing the national curriculum to push various social agendas. For example, feminist Petra Munroe, a member of Women Educator Activists, teaches curriculum development at the University of Oregon, and has written influential books in the field, such as Pedagogies of Resistance: Women Educator as Social Activists 1880-1960, and Engendering Curriculum History, according to her website.
David Barton, American historian, describes the shift from teaching American History by studying the lives and writings of the Founding Fathers (many of whom were Christian ministers) to studying American History form a more secular, “economic perspective”:
Because in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, a group of secular-minded writers (including Charles and Mary Beard, W. E. Woodward, Fairfax Downey, and others) began penning works on American history that introduced a new paradigm. For this group, economics was the only issue of importance, so they began to write texts accordingly (their approach is now described as “the economic view of American history” and since the 1960s has been widely embraced throughout the education community)
Strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
They do this through public policy campaigns, through promoting Gay-Straight alliance (GSA) student groups in the schools, through hosting workshops and providing resource materials for teachers to learn how to,
…make schools safer and more affirming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.
Secular Humanist activists, through the Council for Secular Humanism / Campus Free Thought organizations, and Atheist activists, through organizations such as Americans United, have had a tremendous impact on the national curriculum, especially in the study of science, and social studies. Religion is no longer allowed to be taught in the public schools, but has been replaced with the secular humanist philosophy. In less than one century, schools in the United States have gone from one-room school houses run by the churches and local communities to support parents in educating their children, to national laboratories for re-shaping public thought.
Where will this “Progressivism” in our nation’s curriculum take us next?