In 1963, Harvard psychology professor Jerome Bruner convened a group of scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their purpose was to develop a new social studies curriculum for America’s schools. Intoxicated with visions of the Great Society, many believed that the social sciences could solve the nation’s greatest ills. The National Science Foundation eventually awarded Bruner’s team $4.8 million to develop Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), a curriculum designed to teach fourth through sixth graders a purely naturalistic view of human nature.1 Many hailed it as a groundbreaking advance in educational theory. Christian parents, however, recognized it as a dangerous tool of social manipulation and secular indoctrination.
Bruner was perhaps the nation’s premier “expert” in educational matters. After a stint with the Army during World War II, studying the effects of propaganda on public opinion, he turned his attention to public education. He published several books including The Process of Education and The Culture of Education.2 Rejecting the traditional model of a teacher imparting knowledge to students, Bruner advanced a more liberal theory of education based on the free expression of ideas—students would learn more from creating answers than from reading them in books.3
True to Bruner’s philosophy, MACOS rejected an objective moral standard; right and wrong were determined solely by one’s environment. For instance, one segment of the course focused on the Netsilik Eskimos, among whom euthanasia and infanticide were common. Of course, such practices were unacceptable in American society, but who was to say they were absolutely wrong in a harsh environment where food was scarce? The course also denied any fundamental distinction between human and beast, inviting students to draw conclusions about humans from the behavior of salmon or apes.
Again and again, MACOS pressed the idea that no belief or behavior had value apart from its cultural context. “Our hope,” said Bruner, “is to lead children to understand how man goes about understanding the world, making sense of it; that one kind of explanation is no more human than another.”4 Congress eventually defunded MACOS, but by 1974, it had been purchased by some 1,700 schools in forty-seven states.5 And though its day has passed, it lives on through its many offspring, found in public schools throughout the land. In fact, the spirit of MACOS even lives on in other parts of the world.6
Christian parents may hope their schoolchildren are being taught firm morality, consistent with God’s Word. Unfortunately, many young people are being tutored in cultural relativism, the notion that all ethical judgments are subjective and arbitrary. Without trust in a transcendent, righteous, Creator God, many teachers make man the measure of all things—and a poor measure at that.7 Public schools may be the best option for a particular child’s education, but Christian parents must know their children are learning more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. They may be absorbing a worldview that can undermine and destroy the Christian values instilled at home.
1 Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 48.
2 Mark K. Smith, “Jerome Bruner and the Process of Education,” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education Website, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm.
3 This summary of Bruner’s educational philosophy taken from Nelkin, 49-51.
4 Ibid., 50.
5 Ibid., 51.
6 In the 1970s, MACOS “kits” found their way to Queensland, Australia where parents quickly objected to their children being told stories of wife-swapping Eskimos. Although MACOS was stopped, an indigenous version was created, the Social Education Materials Project (SEMP). The SEMP curriculum taught that all values and behaviors are equal, and it encouraged teachers to avoid any moralizing or criticizing. Although the government banned SEMP in 1978, the promotion of “progressive” education has not faltered. See Dan O’Donnell, “Ethics and Values in Education: Can Schools Teach Right and Wrong?” (a paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Newcastle, Australia, November 24, 1994), The Australian Association for Research in Education Website, http://www.aare.edu.au/94pap/odond94077.txt (accessed June 28, 2005).
7 This is exactly what teachers in Hong Kong are tempted to do. In a 2002 survey, a group of teachers indicated an appreciation for a humanistic curriculum that makes students “the crucial source of science curriculum” (italics added). Pun Hon Ng and Derek Cheung, “Student-teachers’ Beliefs on Primary Science Curriculum Orientations,” New Horizons in Education 45-46 (May – November 2002), 44. The MACOS worldview is evident: objective truth and the mastery of science takes a back seat to “personal liberation and development.”