Tag Archives: Sophia Fahs

Progressive religious education

A couple of days ago, I wrote about what philosophies might underlie religious education in a liberal religion [Link]. Now I’d like to explore what religious education might look like if we used a truly progressive philosophy of education.

First, a quick definition of progressive educational philosophy. My definition of progressive education is a kind of education that educates for democracy, that aims to help kids be good citizens and able to function in a democractic organization (adult learners, too, but I’m going to focus on children in this essay). Thus progressive education emphasizes social problem solving, since that’s what a democracy involves. Furthermore, progressive education isn’t preparation for life, it’s life itself. That means that the social situation the kids find themselves in (their class, their church, their community) is part of the subject matter for their education.

(There are other possible definitions of progressive education, but this is the definition I use. I do not define progressive education as “letting kids do whatever they want”; to me, that would be a part of an overly individualistic romantic naturalist philosophy of education.)

So if that’s how I define progressive education, what results might that definition provide in a real Sunday school in a real liberal church? Here are some possibilities:

In terms of the social setting of the class (or group) itself, we might expect these kinds of outcomes:

  • Kids would have to solve problems together, and teachers would be as likely (more likely?) to assess the learning of the whole class as that of an individual learner.
  • Kids would have to make some decisions that affected them directly (e.g., what to have for snack, how to deal with problems).
  • Kids would fill leadership roles within their own class (e.g., taking attendance, even leading portions of a class).
  • Kids would have to speak up for their ideas, and verbal expression would be as important (more important?) than the written word.
  • In older age groups, kids would learn how to speak in meetings: when to talk, when to be quiet, how to think on your feet, etc.
  • Kids would learn conflict management skills.
  • Kids would learn how to read simple spread sheets, and how to manage a budget.
  • Etc.

You can read descriptions of actual implementations of these ideas in the book Exploring religion with eight year olds by Helen Firman Sweet and Sophia Blanche Lyon Fahs (New York, H. Holt and Company, 1930). I have personally incorporated all these ideas into Sunday school teaching.

In terms of the wider church, we might expect these kinds of outcomes:

  • Kids would give regular public performances of their learning for the congregation, involving social problem solving (e.g., performing in plays, leading worship, opening their classrooms to adults during an open house, etc.)
  • As a result of the preceding, kids would learn how to speak in public to large groups; and learn skills like using a microphone.
  • Kids would learn how to serve on adult committees, by serving on such committees.
  • Kids would come together several times a year in a business meeting of the entire Sunday school, just as other groups in the church (the Women’s Alliance, CUUPS, etc.) meet periodically for business meetings.
  • Older kids — teens — would be invited to attend Board meetings; teens would have at least one voting representative on the Board.
  • Kids would be allowed to become full voting members (who would also be required to pledge) no later than age fourteen.
  • Over the years, kids would learn how to sit through committee meetings, and how to listen to sermons, so that by the time they are allowed to become full voting members of the church they have the skills needed
  • Etc.

You can read descriptions of some of these ideas in books like Homer Councilor’s Junior Church (New York, Century, 1928), Worship in the Junior Church by Anna and Dan Huntington Fenn (n.d.). I personally have implemented all these ideas in actual church settings.

By now, you should get the general idea, and it should be obvious how to apply this kind of learning to the world beyond the church community. It should also be clear that this kind of progressive education is most emphatically not “letting kids do whatever they want.” Instead, it is a way of educating kids into a specific religious tradition. At the same time, because of the democratic nature of this education, when kids become adults they will also have the ability to think for themselves and to make their own rational decision of whether or not to remain in your religious tradition.

And it should be noted that this progressive approach can be combined with more traditional curriculum-based Sunday school — study of the Bible, of one’s own religious tradition, and of world religions can go hand-in-hand with these progressive educational goals. Indeed, they should go hand-in-hand, since so much of the intellectual background for the kind of democracy that we see in local liberal churches comes right out of Bible study, denominational traditions, and how we interact with world religions. (Actually, this might be an interesting intersection between the progressivist and the perennialist, or Great Books, educational philosophies; but that’s an essay for another day.)

That’s a quickie outline. Any thoughts and reactions from people out there who are involved in local churches?

Who should do theology?

Got a message from jfield of Left Coast Unitarian about doing Unitarian Universalist theology. He, too, thinks it is important, but in thinking about going and getting a degree in theology he finds himself less than enthusiastic.

Getting a doctorate isn’t the only way to do theology, I contend. I believe the person who had the most influence on Unitarian Universalist theology in the past century was… Sophia Fahs. Her excellent series of church school curriculum books helped to shape a theology of naturalistic theism that was also receptive to humanism. I was in church school a little past the height of the Sophia Fahs curriculum, but when I look at her books now, it’s clear how her curriculum books shaped me. Jesus the Carpenter’s Son helped me think of Jesus as a fully human political and religious thinker. The Church across the Street shaped my understanding of how I should relate to other faith traditions. Martin and Judy (which my mother taught when she taught Sunday school in the 50’s) has me seeing religion growing out of everyday experiences.

I might put Kenneth Patton second to Sophia Fahs in terms of theological influence. Patton was a humanist who believed in the power of symbols and liturgy. He developed exciting new ways of doing worship services without needing a reference to God, Goddess, C’thulhu, or whatever. You could argue that his experimentation with high-church humanism laid the groundwork for contemporary UU theology. His use of American folk tunes for hymns has, I believe, profoundly shaped the way we conceive of worship — after Kenneth Patton, we have to go beyond music composed by “dead white men” in the high Western tradition. If we would pay more attention, I think we’d see that Patton opened us to amazing possibilities in multiculturalism (even if his personal approach had a whiff of colonialism).

Oh, and forget trying to base theology on the “Seven Principles.” While Christian theologians do tend to ground their theology in interpretations of their sacred texts, the “Seven Principles” are excerpts from the UUA’s bylaws, and — alas — lack the poetry and human depth of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. The “Seven Principles” function fairly well as a profession of faith (thought I still prefer the old Universalist Winchester Profession for sheer poetry, even though I pretty much disagree with it) — but the “SevenPrinciples” are definitely not theology.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if one of the things keeping Unitarian Universalists from doing theology in our local congregations is that we make the false assumption that the “Seven Principles” are sufficient. They aren’t. They say “what,” but not “why” or “how” or “when.”

To answer the question in the title: Yes, Virginia, you should be doing theology, too.