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The Sunday School Curriculum
WILLIAM C. RUEDIGER, PH.D., THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
T is not difficult to show that the status of religious education in America is not an enviable one. This is true even when it is granted that moral education can be carried on without specific reference to religion, and that this is now being done in our public schools. Instruction in strictly religious matters is practically confined
to the home and to the Sunday school. The efficiency of the home in this respect is not easily gaged, but it may be safely asserted that it is not high when judged by the standard of systematic education. In many homes this matter is neglected almost entirely and in the others it seldom takes rank higher than incidental instruction.
The Sunday school, too, leaves much to be desired in the matter of religious education. It has but little social recognition, therefore reaching only a small percentage of our young people, and its educational efficiency is generally admitted to be inferior to that of the public school. The Sunday school has benefited scarcely at all by the advances that have been made in educational theory and practice within that last century. Its curriculum has been improved but little in recent years, and incentives and methods of instruction are still used that have long since been discarded in the public school.
This state of affairs is the more to be regretted because it is unnecessary. Educational theory applies to the Sunday school no less than to the public school, and what has benefited one may benefit the other also. The Sunday school is not subject to one set of principles, and the public school to another, but the two must ultimately be controlled by the same principles. These two types of school do not occupy different spheres, but they are supplementary to each other and together form an organic unity.
The aim of education, which applies to all educational influ
ences, may be briefly stated as the adjustment of the members of the rising generation to the life in which they are destined to participate. Education adjusts especially to those elements of life that are characteristically human,—those elements that man alone possesses in any conspicuous degree. These elements are, on the objective side, the humanities, the natural sciences and philosophy; and on the subjective side, a refined, cultivated and disciplined mind.
The vast array of different subjects that go to make up the world of knowledge may all be grouped into the three classes mentioned. The humanities include all those subjects, such as literature, art and history, that would not exist if man did not exist upon the earth; the natural sciences include all those subjects, such as physics, chemistry and biology, whose contents inhere in nature irrespective of man; while philosophy, which from one point of view might be classified under the humanities, concerns itself with the ultimate relations, meanings and values of the contents of both the humanities and the sciences.
Each of these classes must, of course, be further subdivided to make them of much avail for guidance in education, but we must here content ourselves with the somewhat dogmatic assertion that a liberal education should include the most universal elements of all three classes. The more that are included the better, provided always that they are properly assimilated.
Now one of the most universal elements in man's life is the religious element. We find it present on every hand. Man is born with the religious instinct no less than he is born with the instincts to be kind and to love his friends. On the objective side this instinct has prompted the institution of the church, it has contributed a large and important element to history as a branch of knowledge, it is the basis of the most important literatures that the world has, and it has stimulated man's intellect to construct comprehensive systems of theology, or of religious philosophy. If we should classify these topics into the threefold division made above, we should have to place theology into the class of philosophy, while all the others would have to be classed as humanities.
Under the heads of ontology and cosmology, some of the subject-matter with which theology deals is now studied in our college courses in philosophy, but all the other topics receive only scant, if any, attention in our entire public school system. But in order that they may have their proper influence on humanity, they should be studied systematically somewhere. Owing to the diversity of sects the public schools cannot now undertake this task, and for a number of reasons, some obvious, and others not, the home cannot undertake it adequately either.
The only institution left, therefore, to discharge the social obligation of giving religious education in an extensive and systematic way is the church through the Sunday school. This obligation is an important one, for the welfare and stability of society require not only that people have religious convictions, but that they have intelligent religious convictions. It is not sufficient that the religious life be practiced in the church, the home and elsewhere in life, important though this aspect is, but the practice must be backed up by insight, and this insight can be obtained only through systematic instruction. Spasmodic, haphazard instruction that may be acquired incidentally at odd moments is seldom better than none, and it may be worse.
The Sunday school is now doing noble work, but people both within and without the church recognize that its influence is not as thorough and far reaching as the occasion requires. Perhaps the task that falls to the Sunday school under American conditions is too big for it, but it would be rash to jump to that conclusion at the present time. In the light of modern educational theory, the Sunday school has not yet found itself. It has not yet come to realize fully what its task is and how this may be most effectively met.
Before the Sunday school can effectively discharge its educational function, the subject-matter with which it deals must be more adequately curricularized, the school must be more generally recognized as an important educational agency, and, if possible, more time should be alloted to it. The proper recognition of the school would probably follow if the curriculum were adequately reformed, and proper social recognition would undoubtedly bring in its wake an ample allotment of time. At any rate, the reform of the curriculum is the first step to be taken.
In reforming its curriculum, the Sunday school must follow some of the general pedagogical principles that are guiding the public school. The curriculum of the public school is planned to cover in a systematic way a definite number of subjects in a given time, and the subject-matter taught is throughout adapted to the maturity and the previous training of the pupils. A pupil following the course makes gradual but definite progress; with the exception of necessary reviews, he does not cover the same ground several times; and when he has completed the course he has a fairly rounded knowledge.
Now from the standpoint of educational theory, it is the function of the Sunday school to acquaint the pupil with the Bible; to teach him the history and geography of Palestine as a setting for the origin and development of the Bible; to instruct him briefly in the history of Christianity, and, in the more advanced classes, to consider with him some of the other great world religions, and some of the fundamental concepts, such as God and immortality of the Christian religion. Each year in the course should have assigned to it some definite part of these subjects, and when the student is graduated he should feel that he is acquainted with the essentials of all of them.
The details of the course cannot be thought out in the abstract, but they must be worked out in the practice of the Sunday school itself. A few guiding suggestions may, however, be offered. It would be well in the first place, to divide the Sunday school definitely into primary, intermediate, upper and high school departments, and, if the school is large enough, to have two or three classes in each department. This would make it possible to adapt the work to the maturity of the pupils and to plan the course so that all the essential features of a general religious education could be included. To get the complete training, a pupil would, naturally, have to take the whole course. This would take from eight to twelve years of consecutive attendance, but as the pupil would be making definite progress, the motive for attending this length of time would have been found.
The work in the primary department should be modeled after the work in history and literature that is done in the primary grades of the public school. Primary grade methods should be generally adopted. Biblical characters and events should be brought to the children in story form. Children delight to listen to stories and to tell them again, and because, the method enlists the child's interest and co-operation, it is highly successful pedagogically. A story stays in the mind, and it exerts a subtile moral influence that didactic instruction cannot rival. In the higher primary classes, provision should be made for letting the children do some written work in connection with their lessons.
The method of having the teacher tell the stories to the children should in a measure be carried into the intermediate grades, but here the chief feature should consist of the reading and study of biblical stories, biblical poetry and biblical history and geography from specially prepared texts. Especial attention should be given to the study of the characters of the Old Testament, for these have been demonstrated to appeal strongly to the children between the ages of nine and twelve years. Regular lessons should be assigned in all these subjects, and the lessons should be discussed and amplified in the class room. Maps and apparatus should be freely used. Not all the books necessary for the children during this period are as yet written. Much of the material for them should be taken directly from the Bible, but most of it would probably have to be especially written or rewritten. The present lesson leaf system would, of course, have to be discarded as being pedagogically faulty.
The upper grades of the Sunday school would normally include children between the ages of twelve and fifteen years. This is the period of early adolescence, which has marked characteristics of its own that should be recognized by the work assigned. All the emotions, including the altruistic and the religious, increase greatly in activity during this period. The child begins to feel a genuine interest in others, even in those beyond his friends and acquaintances, and he desires to be of service. This gives him a peculiar fitness for the study of the New Testament, and especially for the life of Jesus, which is full of inspiration for him. The acts of the apostles are only less interesting than the life of Jesus itself. These grades may also include a study of the establishment of Christianity, a period that abounds in dramatic and self-sacrificing situations.