A lot of different books cross my desk, especially as I work on creating an early elementary reading schedule for U.S. History. When I first started to look into Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades“ literature guide for grades K-3, I was intrigued. Once I sat down and actually read through it, though, I knew I wouldn’t be using it or incorporating the lessons into my history schedule.
If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time at all, you know I’m a Jesus-follower; and if you’re searching for reviews on Beautiful Feet curriculum, you likely know it’s purported to be a Christian curriculum. I wouldn’t say it represents a Christian worldview, though — certainly not my worldview. But before I get into the implications of how the Beautiful Feet guide teaches morality, let’s address two of the books included in the primary literature list, “The Courage of Sarah Noble” and “The Matchlock Gun“.
In “The Courage of Sarah Noble“, Sarah’s courage is praised, but just what is it that Sarah is facing with such bravery? “Indians [who] will eat you.” Sarah is afraid of things in the dark, because they might be Indians. She freezes “still as a rabbit in danger” when Indian children approach. When she finally musters up the much-applauded courage to interact, she can’t be bothered with “the long, long names of the children, so she called the boy Small John and the girl Mary.” To learn more upsetting details, please do read this review of “The Courage of Sarah Noble“. There are billions of books in the world, and ones like this don’t belong anywhere near my bookshelf.
And then we have the “The Matchlock Gun“, which is so horrifyingly unthinkable in its description of Native American people, that I can hardly bring myself to type it here, but I want you to know what these books contain: “They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then the other coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.” This is stomach-churningly appalling. And why is young Edward, the main character, so celebrated in this book? Why, because he fired the matchlock gun and “killed more [Indians] than the rest of us put together.”
No. This book has no place on my bookshelf. Additionally disheartening here is the fact that Beautiful Feet is not the only publisher to include these two books on their recommended reading lists. But let’s at least take a look at Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades” study guide itself. The guide was updated and revised in 2014, so it’s more modern in appearance than previous editions. The 37-page softcover book now covers additional material such as the Westward Expansion, and has full-color images and web links (although, I counted less than ten links in the course of over one hundred lessons). The content itself was less practical than I was hoping for — comprehension questions are given, but no answers are provided. Lesson prompts are vague, at times not much more than “Introduce Columbus” and “Discuss the value of conscience”. And there’s a lot more written busywork than I expected in a literature-based curriculum designed for kindergarten through second grade; students are instructed to copy entire dictionary definitions into a notebook. I could be persuaded to overlook some impracticalities, if it were not for my deeper concerns about morality-first instruction.
Throughout the guide, the child is asked to interpret every historical figure by measuring the person against a list of character traits, and then make a determination of the person’s virtue. Nearly every one of the 106 lessons instructs the child to extrapolate the good character traits from a biographical segment of a person’s life, and then make an effort to apply these same character traits to his or her own life. This might seem innocent enough at the outset, but little mention is made of the heart itself, or of the transforming power of the gospel (which transforms from the inside out, not the outside in), or of what it means to actually follow Jesus. Perhaps this is because each lesson simply encourages the student to follow a list of moral character traits, not Jesus Christ himself. The hope, it seems, is that through emulating morality from the outside, one might become pure on the inside.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to Beautiful Feet guides alone; there is a tremendous amount of curricula and instructional material framed this way. But there are problems with this approach. When a child is repeatedly, lesson after lesson and year after year, asked to give examples of how a revered historical figure stacks up against a list of Christian virtues, several things are bound to happen. First, this approach ignores the basic fact that every single person who ever lived was inherently complex. So by reducing complex individuals to one-dimensional figures, heroes inevitably become white-washed, because the focus is always placed on their abundant virtues. The child forms a worldview in which heroes have a lengthy list of abundant positive character traits, and “the bad guys” have very few positive traits. Life, of course, is not this binary. Going into life’s tricky situations believing you will easily be able to spot good vs. evil in either-or terms is not even safe! Teaching that people are good because they exhibit outward traits teaches nothing of the heart (although it does teach how to act “perfectly Christian” on the outside).
Another thing is bound to happen, too, when a child is asked to emulate the outward qualities of heroes who have almost exclusively positive character traits. When the child first encounters a sense of failure in his or her private life, the child is very likely to see even a minor struggle as a massive moral failure. After all, the child has never known any “good person of Christian virtue” to have struggles or moral failings — so the child concludes that he/she must not be good, either. When discernment between good and evil is determined by actions and accomplished by checklist, one too many moral failings on the checklist will automatically shift a person over into the “bad guy” category. And if “goodness and badness” are assessed based on a self-imposed list, what room is there for grace?
This curriculum guide also instructs children to memorize “The Conscience Poem”, several rhyming stanzas devised by Rea Berg, who co-authored this guide with Joshua Berg. At first, I hoped this poem could easily be overlooked as an inconsequential side-note, but that’s not the case. “The Conscience Poem” is a central focus of the lessons, and is used in lessons 8 through 51 . The poem explains conscience as the inner “voice” or “light” by which a child “understand(s) God’s justice, truth, and love”, and ends with these lines, ”…and this is the confidence I will have / that God is pleased with me.”
This is so damaging. First of all, one’s inner voice isn’t even a Biblical concept! God’s still small voice, yes. Ours? No. We simply cannot teach children that their own thoughts are the sole determination of God’s displeasure or pleasure. We can’t teach that their worth and value is determined by how they feel about themselves, or by how they imagine God might be thinking about them on any given day. God already made that clear in John 3:16, “For God so loved...” Not that “For man was so wretched…” or “For man knew God was so angry…”, but “For God so loved…”
We don’t need to keep self-assessing God’s love for us. We don’t need to keep wondering what God thinks of us. He already demonstrated that. His bloodshed and resurrection settled that question once and for all. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished.” He was the sacrifice, the Lamb of great price, and we do not need to struggle daily to apply virtues in order to guarantee God’s favor. That’s not the gospel! And it’s not what I want to teach my daughter.
It’s also worth noting that for all its talk of Christian virtue, the character traits in this guide aren’t even taken from Scripture. One would expect, at least, this character-driven type of of morality-based education to be centered around the fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5 — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — but this list is never mentioned in this guide. Instead, the ambiguous ideals of “industry”, “virtue”, and “moral sense” are emphasized, as is an excerpt from Tennyson’s Oenone which praises “self-respect, self-knowledge, and self-control”. (Of course, it would not change the spirit of the curriculum even if the list of virtues had been taken directly from the Bible; even the fruits of the spirit are not a way to achieve righteousness. )
Overall, the guide teaches that a person’s goodness is measured by moral tendencies or lack thereof, and teaches that a child’s value and God’s pleasure are measured and determined by how well the child thinks he/she has applied a list of moral virtues. Contrast this with the perspective Rich Mullins sang about in “Let Mercy Lead“:
“Aidan, you’re young
but Aidan, you’re growing fast…
…and you’ll need something more
to guide your heart
as you grow into a man
Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs,
and in every footprint that you leave,
there’ll be a drop of grace.
If we can reach
beyond the wisdom of this age
into the foolishness of God,
that foolishness will save
those who believe…
…Aidan the day will come
you’ll run the race
that takes us way beyond
all our trials and all our failures,
and all the good we dream of.
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading,
but one day you’ll see
the face of love...”
It’s about mercy, always. It’s about grace, always. It’s about God’s endless love, always. Mercy, grace, and love can’t be quantified. They can’t be put on a checklist, and applied to life. Morality doesn’t set anyone free. Perfection doesn’t set anyone free. Good character doesn’t set anyone free. Only Jesus — the face of love — can do that.
When you’re presenting the world for the first time to five-, six-, or seven-year-olds (the Beautiful Feet guide is intended for grades K-3), you have a serious responsibility. This responsibility is not just to shelter their tender hearts from the violent darkness all around us, but to show them the world and equip them with courage and with faith. I want to teach my daughter that the most courageous people in history were not those with the highest stack of character traits, but those who believed God could overcome darkness. Morality does not overcome darkness. Virtue does not overcome darkness. Only God can do that. And we have to be careful not to oversimplify life to the point that we end up teaching false doctrine.
So perhaps, as my strong and sensitive daughter grows up in this big ol’ world, I’ll say to her as Frederick Buechner said best —
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”