‘Beautiful Feet Books’ History Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

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.

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based 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.”

No.

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.”

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

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27 thoughts on “‘Beautiful Feet Books’ History Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

  1. This is good on so many levels. Even Sunday school materials often stress being “good girls and boys” instead of looking to Jesus for forgiveness and mercy and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

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  2. Pingback: Choosing Curriculum: 15 Questions to Ask About Everything From Race to Rules | Oaxacaborn

  3. Yes, I was just listening to a podcast today from the author of Beautiful Feet books. The idea was emphasized that good literature will produce good character. I kept thinking….”you guys are making a god (little g) out of good books.” I am very fond of good books but no one and nothing can produce a heart change in my children except Christ. What does “good character” (virtues) do for my children if they aren’t trusting in Christ? It worries me because I fear our culture can’t see the difference. Good action does not equal good person.

    And Lou is SO right. My husband has been a children’s pastor. He was deeply saddened not only to see that the major producers of Children’s curriculum promoted a man focused theology (be good, do good) but that other christian leaders and pastors didn’t see it as a problem. :( Children can understand GREAT things of God if we would give the the opportunity to.

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  4. I’ve home schooled four children through high school and I still appreciate Beautiful Feet, but what you’ve all said is very accurate. I know that one of the resources I used to balance the predominant perspective presented in the curriculum was a book produced by The Critical Thinking Company, (It used to be Critical Thinking Press) Critical Thinking in United States History Colonies to Constitution. (http://www.criticalthinking.com/colonies-to-constitution-ebook.html)
    Here’s a brief description: “Critical Thinking in United States History uses fascinating original source documents and discussion-based critical thinking methods to help students evaluate conflicting perspectives of historical events. This process stimulates students’ interest in history, improves their historical knowledge, and develops their analytical skills for assessment tests.
    For each lesson, students examine two or more perspectives of an event using analysis and evaluation skills such as identifying types of reasoning and evaluating sources. Through debating historians’ evidence, inferences, analogies, and assumptions, students come away with a deeper understanding of specific events. They also learn to examine any historical, or current, event with a more critical mind.”
    In the early grades we spent a lot of time and energy discussing WHY the same event was related SO differently through various accounts. Additionally we discussed how a person’s choices reflected their thoughts and beliefs and their preparedness for dealing with opportunities or circumstances in which they found themselves. I think that we’ll all agree that the way most American’s view the world and our history is not as elementary as it once was. (The smaller the world becomes, the broader our minds are stretched.) But, some of the stories still reflect the way that we once looked at events or people groups. While we’d call these thoughts and belief faulty (and they ARE), they once were predominant and relevant to the reasons why people were motivated to do particular things. I think that this is ALSO a very important aspect of teaching history.
    We also spent a LOT of time discussing the elements you mentioned so well regarding our Hearts, how our actions show the focus of our hearts, and how it’s important to be in a personal relationship with Jesus so that our hearts are more apt to reflect Him through our actions.
    I really think that the extraordinary results that we realized through our homeschooling experience were mostly the result of taking advantage of teachable moments: choosing a less rushed and more simple lifestyle for the whole family (meant buying into the conviction that more isn’t always better) which provided lots of opportunities for shared experiences; using current events and modern examples, both personal, interpersonal and culturally in discussing complex aspects which motivate people to behave in the ways we do—whether good OR bad. Because there certainly IS a difference between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge. So many times decisions are based on fear instead of any kind of understanding of truth.
    So, that’s my comment. But, before I go I have to say, I can’t help but to wonder if in the years to come our grandchildren won’t look back upon this age and shake their heads at the choices we’ve made.

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    • Jenelle, thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment! You’re absolutely correct about analytical and critical thinking skills, discernment, and problem-solving. I love that you bring up “discussing WHY the same event was related SO differently through various accounts”. This is crucial, and it’s a great skill to apply throughout life.

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  5. Wow- I don’t even know what to think about BFB after reading this! I was completely sold on using this for my 1st grader this fall. So do have any suggestions of a book based history program that is already planned out for this age group? This totally makes me sad.

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          • AKA, yes, and I also find that unacceptable. I mentioned in the post that Beautiful Feet is not the only publisher to include these two books on their recommended reading lists. Like I said in my reply to Cathy further up in the comments, “You’d be hard-pressed to find a literature-based American History list or curriculum which doesn’t include ‘The Courage of Sarah Noble’ or ‘The Matchlock Gun’! For some reason, it’s an accepted part of our culture to read these books under the guise of them being “classics”, but I just won’t. Bookshark 3 [Sonlight D] is probably a great choice, actually, if you can just leave out those two books. I love and use Sonlight, and Sonlight D has a very similar reading list to Bookshark 3 (Sonlight and Bookshark are sister companies).”

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    • It’s hard, because a lot of the excellent lit-based companies don’t do American history until a little later. I’m currently working on developing an early-American reading list for early elementary grades, which will include titles with more diverse perspectives. I am excited about it!

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  6. I found your blog after searching for comments about BF on the Sonlight FB page. We used Bookshark last year and loved it, but I was looking into BF to be able to combine some of my younger kids. I looked at the BF guide online and wasn’t thrilled with all the morality references either, also feeling like it makes people seem one dimensional. I am also disappointed in the passages you noted in the recommended books. I’ll read the books for myself to see if it gets better, but even if it does, I am worried at the damage those words would do to my young children’s persepectives.
    For those looking for a literature based early American history, Bookshark has one in Level 3 but I’m afraid to say they list the two books you referenced. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on BF!!

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    • Cathy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a literature-based American History list or curriculum which doesn’t include “The Courage of Sarah Noble“ or “The Matchlock Gun”! For some reason, it’s an accepted part of our culture to read these books under the guise of them being “classics”, but I just won’t. Bookshark 3 is probably a great choice, actually, if you can just leave out those two books. I love and use Sonlight, and Sonlight D has a very similar reading list to Bookshark 3 (Sonlight and Bookshark are sister companies).

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  7. LOL So, just live an ungodly life but claim grace covers it?!? Or wait, just hope the kids can figure out right and wrong on their own because, what? Because they go to church? haha Yep, sounds like typical take Christian teachings today.

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  8. Thank you so much for this review! I am starting homeschooling this fall and I had taken a look at Beautiful Feet since I was intrigued by the literature-based curriculum model. Just a few days ago though I started to feel uneasy when I saw an instagram post (by just a random user of Beautiful Feet books) about Benjamin Franklin. Then I saw that there were a lot of other book titles by BF about historical figures that made me think, “I wonder if these individuals’ flaws and shortcomings are mentioned in the books?” Despite finding nothing through a google search, by God’s grace I found this post because I follow you on Instagram and saw this when I came to your website. Yes. Thank you, so much, for writing this. This is just the confirmation I needed.

    I agree 100% with what you said. These individuals were so complex, just like you mentioned. Not to mention, they were sinners. When we highlight someone’s positive traits only, it causes a lot of trouble. Plus, it leaves no room for grace. Why would Jesus need to come and die for us, if we are in charge of our own moral compass?

    I would recommend Dr. Thomas Kidd on Christian perspectives on colonial history and prominent American figures. I aspire to provide the balanced perspective he does (he looks at the positives and negatives in the individual being discussed) when teaching my son this fall. I know my son is so young, but I couldn’t agree more with you that these are formative years and we do not need to start a foundation on morality-based instruction.

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    • Emily, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Character traits certainly are not the foundation of salvation by grace! Acts of outward morality are not the means through which we can procure our own salvation.

      And as far as the complexity of these individuals in our early history, I also believe it’s important to respect the trust our children have in us as we teach them about the world. As a child, I was was exposed to lots of literature extolling only the virtues of the founding fathers. These materials painted everyone as a Christian on the basis of cherry-picked morality. As I got older and learned the complex truth about these men and women in history, I felt betrayed and lied to. My early exposure to American history had whitewashed the explorers and founding fathers to the point of not just inaccuracy, but what actually crossed the line into falsehood. Certainly we are free to shield our very little ones from the harsher points of history, but this can be done in a way that we don’t swing the other way and portray historical figures as saints, either.

      I so appreciate hearing from you!

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  9. Taking with a grain of salt. I need a moment to ponder all of the above. I have not read the books you speak of. And with all of the rampant virtue signaling these days. I will have to check into said books.. before I swallow hook line and sinker. There’s just so much that can easily be taken out of context. One could read your bio above.. could twist and misinterpret who you are and what your intentions truly are..

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  10. We used BF Early American History – Primary a few years ago with our first group and plan to use it this coming year again with our second group. Yes, the conscience poem is not biblical. I read it to the kids, pointed out the fallacy, and used the opportunity to explain the truth. Yes, I censored parts of the Matchlock Gun as I believed appropriate. Wow, I can’t even imagine requiring my small children to try to wrap their tongues around a long, foreign name for the sake of friendship (Courage of Sara Noble). We respectfully use Mr./Mrs. First Name often with those we know, and it is actually more endearing than processing the intricate pronunciation of some last names. At any rate, the reason we chose Beautiful Feet was it’s start with American History…beginning with what is close to home and expanding our study of history as we grow and expand our understanding of the world. Some literature-based curriculum begins chronologically with ancient times. That was not for us. Last week a friend (longtime Sonlight user) told me that she thought I went the better route with Beautiful Feet starting with American History first. What a blessed choice of freedom for individual homeschooling families to prayerfully research and customize education. Please do not swallow any curriculum guide–hook, line and sinker and regurgitate that to your children. I plan to continue with Beautiful Feet, Early American Intermediate and Modern American & World. I fully expect that each literature package will have aspects that will be learning opportunities in the truth, as I would expect from using any literature package. Our family has daily conversations regarding the truth of salvation by grace. We are learning and reinforcing that our self-worth is found in Christ, not our performance. I consider Beautiful Feet a worthy program when submitted to wisdom and discretion.
    Incidentally, we’ve also used History of Science and Geography through Literature. These programs stuck to the topic at hand without spiritualizing the content.
    I hope some of this perspective was of help to those of you weighing your choices.

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