David Hicks and Christian Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Last time we began to look at David V. Hicks’ book, Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999). In this volume Hicks describes classical education — not the modern version but the philosophy of the Greeks themselves — and gives his own version of it for the contemporary Christian school.

That ancient philosophy, which we looked at last time, can be summed up as follows:

  • What is the nature of Man? Man embodies material, rational, and spiritual elements. There is a hierarchy to these parts such that the physical is the lowest and the spiritual the highest. Evil comes from within man, not from his environment, but virtue is teachable.
  • What is the goal of man’s life? There is an Ideal Type which men have been able through the centuries to discern and describe with increasingly accuracy. The goal  of life is to conform to this Ideal which embodies goodness, beauty, and truth. There is an active element as one must not just know Truth but act on it. It is acknowledged that no one will do this perfectly and that people will achieve the Ideal to greater or lesser extents.
  • What is knowledge? Knowledge does not seem to refer to a body of truths. There is more emphasis on the process. There is a unity to knowledge but it is also in flux like a flowing stream. Knowledge has been planted in man by the divine.
  • How do we know? To know is to uncover what has been planted in man. We know through a process called dialectic which involves starting with a position, a dogma, and going through a process of questioning and answering. These are not static, catechism-style questions but there is a real dialogue between teacher and student. The personal element is important as the teacher teaches himself more than a body of knowledge. Imagination plays a large role.

Given that this philosophy comes from a pagan culture, I find it quite impressive. There is a lot of truth here which men managed to discern without a knowledge of the one true God. But the fact is that we, as Christians, believe that there is one God and that He has revealed Himself to us and provided us with answers to these very questions. So the question before us today is how Christianity affects the classical philosophy of education. I’d like to begin by looking at what Hicks says and then move into some responses and additional thoughts.

 In Norms and Nobility Hicks spends seven chapters delineating what classical education is and one chapter discussing the impact of Christianity on it (and then a few chpaters on practical aspects of education which we will not get into). This distribution alone tells us something. Hicks largely accepts the classical model but sees some flaws in it which need to be corrected by our Christian understanding. 

Hicks’ main cricitcism of the classical education of the Greeks is that is simply proved ineffective. It presents an Ideal Type to which one should conform but really gives no reason why one should do so. It places man at the center of things which tends to exalt him and leads ultimately to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. Though the ancients believed that virtue could be taught, in practice there was nothing that truly empowered man to do good. They themselves saw this and an attitude of futility developed. The inherent optimisim of the educational philosophy was countered by a kind of fatalism which saw that man could not escape his own tragic fate. 

Christianity provides a lot of answers to these problems. It gives us a reason to pursue the Ideal because it is not man-centered but God-centered. The task is no longer futile because it is not done alone; the Spirit of God gives one understanding.

The goal, the Ideal, is also affected. Hicks’ view is that in Christianity the goal is no longer perfection but holiness.  The Ideal Type which the Greeks believed was constantly being refined is, according to Hicks, seen most perfectly in Christ. This is its climax and those examples, Hicks calls them saints, who come after Christ do not add to but imitate the Ideal.

For the ancients, there was a dogma, a unifying pattern which tied all knowledge together. His discussion of the classical philosophy does not indicate if there was ever any agreement on or even any clear statement of what this dogma was. In a Christian context, Hicks identifies it as love, the Greek eros. Love requires an object outside itself and that object is Christ whom he calls “the spirit of eros incarnate, the expressor of the divine will, and the truly divine object that self-transcending love requires” (p. 95).

Hicks’ corrections to the classical philosophy are good as far as they go. My primary problem with them is that they simply begin in the wrong place. The questions which underlie this, or any, philosophy of education are very fundamental, very theological questions which the Bible directly addresses. Yet Hicks, though a Christian, chooses to begin not with what we can know about the nature of man and about knowledge from God’s Word but with with this ancient, pagan philosophy. The corrections he makes to it are good in the sense that they correct some of its flaws, but this doesn’t make up for the basic error of starting in the wrong place.

Hicks seems to assume that the Greek and Roman view of man is the same as the Judeo-Christian one. He says that:

“The first premise of classical education is that the Ideal Type’s ancient, prescriptive pattern of truth — which served Christian and Jew, Roman and Greek — remains the most durable and the most comprehensive.” (p. 8)

The myth of the Ideal Type is that it is a universal model of goodness, truth, and beauty. Because it is found within man himself, it is universal, independent of time and place. While there do seem to be some common standards which all, or almost all, human cultures have had, there is also enough variation that we cannot say there is one Ideal common to all. Hicks hismelf as much as admits this when he quotes Bertrand Russell:

“‘Dr. Arnold wanted “humbleness of mind,” a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s “magnanimous man.” Nietzsche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.’” (p. 39)

If then, as Russell says, our view of the goal, the Ideal, will affect our approach to education, then we, as Christians, must begin with what God tells us of that goal.

Beyond the conception of the Ideal, I would take issue with some other aspects of the ancient view of the nature of man. While we would agree that man contains different facets which we may call the physical, mental, and spiritual, in biblical thought there is no hierarchy to these elements. We think of them separately but man hismelf is a unifed whole and no one aspect is exalted over the other. Donald Oppewal specifically rejects the Platonic view which, following Wolterstorff, he calls “‘an anti-Biblical conception'” (Oppewal, A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education, Grand Rapids: ChapBook Press, 2001, p. 135):

“. . . the Bible reflects a view of man which opposes all dualisms, particularly when such dualisms identify higher and lower elements . . .” (Oppewal, p. 134)

Much heresy has come from dividing  the elements of man’s nature or emphasizing one over another. The most common way to do so is to do just what the Greeks did — to diminish the importance of the physical world. Hicks does not address this issue. I am struck, however, by his use of the word “Christ.” He says, for instance, that Christ was the spirit of eros incarnate and again calls Christ the new Ideal. But he does not use the name Jesus (that I recall). Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I sense a sacrificing of the real, physical, historical “Jesus” for the sake of a more spiritual “Christ.”

The ancients, unlike modern secular scholars, were correct in placing the evil in men’s lives within themselves rather than attributing it to external forces.  They thought that this evil came from ignorance and could be combated through education. Their own fatalism shows that on some level they saw this was not true. Hicks brings God into the picture, saying that:

“For whether he conceived of grace as the joint effort of man and the Spirit of God or as the unique work of the Spirit, the Christian acknowledged the essential power of his faith to enlarge his understanding of the world and of his meaning and purposes in it” (pp. 101-02).

Leaving aside the fact that we as reformed people do not believe that grace can be a joint effort, there is still something off in this approach.  I do believe that wisdom and understanding are gifts of God given to us through the agency of the  Holy Spirit, but to say that He enlarges our understanding is not to take quite the right tack. What we fallen people need is not an enlarging but an utter transformation. Hicks’ view of the evil in man seems to not fit this reformed understanding:

“Sin is a condition for which man is responsible as a result of failing to act in accordance with what he knows. Man is cupable in the eyes of God and of his fellows not because he is fundamentally bad, but because he refuses to live as the good law written into his nature tells him he ought to live.” (p. 96)

I would say quite the opposite — man, since the Fall, is inherently bad and it is not so much that he fails to live according to the law but that he is utterly incapable of doing so.

The basic state of man, then, is quite different from the depiction the ancient Greeks gave us.  This alone should be enough to show us that we need to begin on a different basis. There is not enough common ground here that we can take the classical philosophy and tweak it to make it a Christian philosophy of education. Because our fundamental views of human nature and of the problem of evil are so different,  we need to begin, not with the philosophy of a pagan culutre, but on a biblical basis that starts with the biblical view of man.

The subject of knowledge too is one on which the Scriptures have quite a lot to say. The Greeks understood something mdoern peope have forgottten, that there is an underlying unity to knowledge. (As Christains we would say this unity comes from the origin of all wisdom in God Himself.) They don’t seem, however, to have a sense of absolute truth. Knowledge for them was in a state of flux, and this is why they spurned epxerimentation. Though modern science has rejected its roots,  they were christian roots, arising from a belief in the inherent knowableness and reasonableness of the universe. The Greek view was of knowledge planted by the divine within man to be discovered. The Christian view is of Truth which stands outside of man, in God Himself, and is therefore absolute and unchangeable.

Hicks spends a lot of time arguing against the modern, scientific view and its implications for eduaction. Most of his criticisms of it are good, for there is a lot to criticize there. But he talks as if these are the only two possible positions to take (and if that were the case, the classical is certainly preferable). But the fact is these are not the only possible views and the questions which underlie any philosophy of education are essentially theological ones to which we already have good answers. We need to start there rather than to take a pagan philosophy which does not even get the nature of man right and to try to adapt it.


David Hicks on Classical Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

After having taken a brief hiatus to discuss the history of Christian thought on education, we are now returning to our mini-series on Reformed Thinkers on Education. I don’t honestly know the denominational affiliation of today’s thinker. I rather suspect he is not reformed. David V. Hicks is a graduate of the Stony Brook School in New York. (We have previously looked at two other thinkers from this school: its founder, Frank Gaebelein, and and teacher, D. Bruce Lockerbie.) He himself is president of the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. I had long heard of his book, Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999), but had not taken the plunge to buy and read it. When I heard of his connection to Stony Brook, I was intrigued and knew I had to finally take the plunge (at $50+ for the book this is not a step to take lightly). 

 Norms and Nobility presents to us classical education, not the modern version of Dorothy Sayers and the Well-Trained Mind, but truly classical classical education going back to the Greeks. Though this is a somewhat dense, albeit not overly long, book, Hicks’ explanation of the Greeks and what they believed is very well done and I feel after reading it that I finally understand this somewhat complex philosophy.

Hicks spends seven chapters explaining the Greek approach, one chapter on what Christianity has to contribute, and then four chapters giving his own practical proposals for education. I am going to largely ignore the last four chapters. Hicks has some interesting ideas and if you run a Christian school, even one that is not classical, they are worth reading, but they do not fit my particular interests. The rest of the book I am going to divide into two posts. Today we will look at what classical education is, that is, what the ancient Greeks believed. Next time we will deal with how Christianity impancts the classical philoosphy and what Hicks’ views are. 

Hicks begins with an assertion that I whole-heartedly support:

“Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes.” (p. 3)

Because education is so tied up in the nature of man and his purpose, we must begin by asking what this nature is. For the Greeks, Hicks tells us, the nature of man was defined not descriptively but prescriptively. That is, one does not look at man as he is and simply describe what he sees. Instead, there is an ideal that is presented, a vision of what man should be. This is what Hicks calls the Ideal Type.

This Ideal Type is a universal, not bound by time or place. Philosophers like Plato saw virtue as inherent in man’s nature, placed there by God. Gradually over time people have seen what is morally good and true and beautiful and made stories about it. Though the image of the Ideal is being refined over time, it is essentially unchanging and is the same for all peoples. 

Ideals aside, any view of man must account for the presence of evil. Modern education tends to assume that evil is external to man. It therefore educates so that men may learn to transform their environments. The ancients believed that evil is within man. Because the root of the problem is internal, the effects of education are also internal. The goal is to change the man. Plato believed that man would not choose evil if he were thinking. Education teaches man to think, or to think better, and therefore enables him to turn from evil.

While modernism is materialistic and denies the spiritual, the ancients acknowledged both material and spiritual dimensions to man. Man was seen to be a microcosm, a universe in miniature. Like the universe, he contains both physical and spiritual aspects. There is a hierarchy to these levels. The material or physical is the lowest. Next comes man’s rational nature. At the highest level is the spiritual (p. 55).

Ultimately the goal of education is action, that the man should act according to what he knows. Aristotle spoke of the theoretic life:

“Indeed, the theoretic life is the life of virtue, so long as we mean by virtue all that the Greek arete expresses: the life that knows and reveres, speculates and acts upon the Good, that loves and re-produces the Beautiful, and that pursues exellence and moderation in all things.” (p. 21)

Alternatively, we may think again of that Ideal Type, the prescriptive vision of what man should be. While acknowledging that no one ever perfectly achieves this ideal and that people will only get there in varying degrees, the goal is nonetheless to conform to that Ideal. An assumption behind this which all of the ancients held to is that virtue can be taught. If this were not the case, education as they envisioned it would be futile.

In educating children, there is another presupposition as well. As Isokrates observed and in contrast to some modern views, children are not to be preserved as children but transformed into adults. Childhood was not seen as a golden age to be preserved but a stage toward a better end, mature adulthood (p. 38).

To the questions of man’s nature and purpose, we must add another: What is knowledge and how do we get it? For Plato knowledge was not a body of knowledge so much as an activity of learning (p. 20). Though there is an underlying unity to knowledge, our knowledge is never complete and there is a constant flux to it. Hicks compares it to “the parable of the river that ever changes yet always remains the same” (p. 68).   

Classical education, Hicks tells us, is not tied to a time or place but is a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction. There are three attributes of this inquiry: general curiosity, imaginative hypotheses, and a method of testing them. While the basic process sounds similar to the modern scientific method, there are some important distinctions. The classical method is at all stages more broad. “The field is open to all sorts of questions,” the hypotheses are imaginative, and the methods go beyond mere experimentation (p. 18).

Because they did not believe in a static but a changing world, the ancients devalued experimentation and preferred a process called dialectic. In this process, we uncover buried truths through a process of challenging ourselves and finding answers. This process is natural to man but he is often not conscious of it. The teacher brings it to the fore so the student is aware and can use it as a more effective tool. The conversation is then not just in the head of one person but becomes a dialogue between student and teacher. The teacher’s main task is not to give answers but to ask questions. Not suprisingly given the central role of the teacher, oral teaching is valued over the written because it is freer and allows the flow of questions and answers. Especially as the student advances, there is a mutual learning that takes place as both teacher and student advance. 

For dialectic to work effectively, one must begin with an opinion, what Hicks calls dogma, rather than from neutral ground. The teacher’s life is governed by some dogma, some overarching pattern. The student initially assume this dogma and then through the dialectical process, through questions and answers, comes to either accept or reject this dogma. [We have seen a similar idea in Gaebelein and Lockerbie. For both the teacher is paramount and to some extent teaches himself.] 

Imagination also plays a large role in classical education. The Ideal, you will remember, is prescriptive and is embodied in myths (“myth” here denotes a kind of story rather than a truth value). Myth tells external and internal realities through imagination. It is like a map in the wilderness which communicates values which transcend civilization. The goal is to fill the child’s head with voices concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent so that he can conform to that Ideal. 

This in a nutshell is classical learning. Next time we will look at Hicks’ own views more closely and particularly how Christianity adapts classical education. I will leave you with this summary of the big questions any philosophy of education must ask and of how classical education answered them:

  • What is the nature of Man? Man embodies material, rational, and spiritual elements. There is a hierarchy to these parts such that the physical is the lowest and the spiritual the highest. Evil comes from within man, not from his environment, but virtue is teachable.
  • What is the goal of man’s life? There is an Ideal Type which men have been able through the centuries to discern and describe with increasingly accuracy. The goal  of life is to conform to this Ideal which embodies goodness, beauty, and truth. There is an active element as one must not just know Truth but act on it. It is acknowledged that no one will do this perfectly and that people will achieve the Ideal to greater or lesser extents.
  • What is knowledge? Knowledge does not seem to refer to a body of truths. There is more emphasis on the process. There is a unity to knowledge but it is also in flux like a flowing stream. Knowledge has been planted in man by the divine.
  • How do we know? To know is to uncover what has been planted in man. We know through a process called dialectic which involves starting with a position, a dogma, and going through a process of questioning and answering. These are not static, catechism-style questions but there is a real dialogue between teacher and student. The personal element is important as the teacher teaches himself more than a body of knowledge. Imagination plays a large role.


History of Education: 1870-the present

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

Today we are finishing up our look at the history of Christian thought on education. The book I have been using for this is D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). Last time we looked at education in the United States in the 1800s and saw that, while there were some positive trends, there was also a kind of lowest common denominator Christianity which began to pervade the public schools.

The time period we are looking at today really begins around 1870. In both England and the United States this was a time of major change. In England, the Education Act of 1870 mandated schools for all children, not just the sons and daughters of the aristocracy. This created much need for teachers and also the need for a new approach to education.  In the US, the Civil War had just ended. With it many fledgling Christian schools, which had begun as a reaction to the gradual eroding of solid religious teaching in the public schools, were destroyed. The public school system too, along with the whole society, had to be rebuilt and revitalized.

In England, the Education Act had created a sudden need. There were many more students to be taught and these were a new class of students, those from poor and uneducated families.  I was quite pleased to see that Lockerbie’s representative of this period is Charlotte Mason. Though she was largely forgotten until a revival amongst modern homeschoolers, she was quite influential in England in her day. I have written a lot on Charlotte Mason, whose philosophy has in many ways shaped my own (see this list of posts), so I will not dwell too much on her thought here. I will say that I was gratified to see that Lockerbie, while acknowledging her true Christian faith, points out that she did not believe in the innate sinfulness of children. This is a point I have argued again and again as the common consensus in Charlotte Mason circles these days seems to be the opposite. See  this earlier post. I also recommend this one on Charlotte Mason and the reformed tradition. There are many false or misleading claims out there about Miss Mason being reformed or in line with reformed thought which, sadly, she was not.

In the United States thought Dwight Moody tried to establish Christian schools as early as 1880, a renewed interest in Christian education did not seem to take hold till some decades later as parents and leaders, appalled by the modernism on the public school system, saw the need for a return to distinctly Christian education. Though as we saw Lockerbie in his introduction defines schooling in such a way that it would include the homeschooling movement, his interest and focus is on formal schooling outside the home. He nods to the homeschooling by seems to imply that it is a second choice (p. 353). Lockerbie distinguishes two main branches of thought, that of the Stony Brook School, headed by Frank Gaebelein (with which he is affiliated), and that which arises from the Dutch Reformed Tradition.

The representative of the Dutch Reformed tradition whom Lockerbie chooses is Henry Zylstra whose philosophy I have discussed previously here. My own brief study has led me to believe that there is not quite so much uniformity in this branch of Christian thinking so it was interesting to me that Lockerbie chose one figure to focus on and that that one was Zylstra. I will say that from what I have read of him, I like Zylstra’s main ideas. I was particularly struck by the idea that truth itself has the power to transform. Lockerbie offers a selection from Zylstra’s Testament of Vision. Here he argues that the Christian school must not take over the role of the church; its main purpose is not to evangelize. He further argues that people are inherently religious and that we cannot have any education which is not religious in nature. Religiousness is not just another part of our nature alongside our reason, our creativity, etc. “It is the condition of all the rest and the justification of all the rest” (from Testament of Vision, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 343). He continues:

“We hold that the education being a human enterprise is inevitably religious . . . Our answer to the secular challenge is this answer: Being neutral is impossible for man as man, certainly impossible in so fundamentally human a thing as education. It is this answer: We believe in order that we may know, for belief is the condition of knowledge.” (ibid., p. 346)

Turning to those affiliated with the Stony Brook School, Lockerbie offers selections from four thinkers: Gaebelein, the founder of the school; Peter Haile; Kenneth Gangel; and himself. I have looked at both Gaebelein and Lockerbie’s thought in earlier posts — two on Gaebelein here and here and four on Lockerbie, here, here, here, and here — so again I will not spend long on it now. There was one idea, however, I gleaned from Lockerbie that I had seen previously. In answer to the question of how we know, he says that:

“The fullest answer to these epistemological questions is both/and: both empirical and religious, scientific and spiritual, practical and philosophical, physical and metaphysical; We know some of what we know because of the presence of hard facts . . .” (p. 388)

He goes on to argue that there is another part of what we know that comes from God through faith. This reminds me of Jonathan Edwards who distinguished between two levels of knowing. We can, for instance, know intellectually that honey is sweet but if we have tasted it, we know its sweetness on another level that goes beyond the rational.

Lastly, I want to just mention Simone Weil who lived before the Second World War. She seems to have been a bit of a mystic and in the short selection Lockerbie gives one can tell her theology is not sound. But she does have some lovely things to say on joy in education:

“The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there mus be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in  joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” (from”Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 359)

Her overall argument here is that, just as in physics, work is measured by progress made, not just by effort expended and that twenty minutes of good attention to one’s studies is better than a few tiring hours with little to show for it. I will say the goal for her is  to build attention which she, in her mysticism, sees as a spiritual good. She seems to devalue the content and truth of what is learned and to see it only as a tool with which to build spiritual habits.

That brings is to the present. Lockerbie has a “going forward” section which is mostly occupied with concerns over court cases and what might be required of Christian schools. These issues are certainly concerning but they are not my focus. If I had to sum up the history of Christian thought on education, I would say that there is no golden age. each age responds to the forces active in its own time. There were certainly times when education could take more of a priority and people had the leisure to think about it in the abstract and to advance our thought on it. There were other times when this was just not the case or when the thought seems to have been mainly of a more practical nature.  It would be nice to say there had been some overall advance and that some issue had been settled but I don’t think this is the case. One of the first issues the church confronted is how to interact with pagan culture, with some urging complete withdrawl and some a level of engagement, taking the good and leaving the bad. This issue is with us still, or again, today. But because the issues are not new, there is much we can learn as well from studying the history of thought on education.


History of Education: the 1800s

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently looking at the history of Christian thought on education using D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). As we move into the modern era, Lockerbie focuses in a little more specifically on education in the United States. Last time we saw that while in its earliest days colonial America set a high priority on education that this was quickly replaced by a strand of anti-intellectualism, albeit with Christian roots. During the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards made some headway, once again presenting an argument for an educated populace and an educated clergy.

The 1800s saw two big trends in education, one with Christian roots and  one distinctly non-Christian. Lockerbie covers these in two chapters, “The American Reformers” and “The Deification of Democracy.”

If you haven’t heard of Lyman Beecher, you may at least have heard of his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is said to have ignited the Civil War. Lyman was himself quite an activist and headed a circle of activists and thinkers whose main causes were the abolition of slavery and equality for women and African Americans. Lyman’s other daughter, Catharine Beecher, was a major proponent of education for women. She, among others, called for giving women and girls not just an education  but a full education. The Grimkes, Sarah and Angelina, and Thomas Weld (who married Angelina) did much as well to advance the education of African Americans. Though these were good impulses, my impression from Lockerbie is that there was a kind of lowest common theological denominator to this movement. In discussing Catharine Beecher, he says that: “Together the women of America would encourage a new national unity centered around the common interests of the schoolhouse rather than the factional and divisive interests of the church” (p. 247). In other words, we begin to see a common Christian culture or value system which bypasses the church.

Though he seems to have been a solid Christian, William McGuffey also contributed to this common culture with his famous readers. These “children’s textbooks” with well-curated stories which promote biblical truths had such an influence on generations of young Americans that Lockerbie compares them to television. They were the shared cultural experience.

McGuffey himself has some interesting things to say on the hows of education. He paints a high role for the teacher whom he sees as a vital shaping influence in the life of his students:

“All that they [the students] shall hereafter think, will in great measure, be the results of what we [the teachers] have previously thought, and inculcated. With us rests the tremendous responsibility of laying the foundation of a nation’s literature; and of saying what shall be its future character, for morality and religion.” (from “The Relative Duties of Parents and Teachers,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 269) 

He did not, however, paint parents out of the picture, but urged them to “discharge the high responsibility that heaven has laid upon them” by choosing “suitable instructors” and “superintend[ing] the whole process of their mental, moral, and religious training” (ibid., p. 272).

There is again a least common denominator aspect to all of this. “The Christian religion,” McGuffey says, “is the religion of our country” but teachers must avoid “the inculcation of all sectarian peculiarities in religion” (ibid., p. 271). In the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, the religious culture was fairly uniform, at at least uniformly controlled. Those who seriously dissented were ousted and went on to form other colonies. As the country expanded, both geographically and in terms of the make-up of its population, public schools had to make  choices. If you teach the religious views of one group, you necessarily exclude those of another. Hence this lowest common denominator appeal. There is a shared Christian culture, but it becomes a kind of “mere Christianity” with the “sectarian peculiarities” removed. Whether such an environment is sufficient is a question that needs to be answered.

At the same time there were other ideas infiltrating the world of education which did even more to strip it of its Christian presuppositions. Horace Mann is known as the founder of the American public school system. Lockerbie argues that he has, to some degree, gotten a bad rap. He was not against religion in the schools. His primary concern was that the schools not be carried away by the winds of change which in our country blow in quite regularly with every election cycle. By reducing the religious part of the  curriculum to its lowest common denominator, he sought to protect it from these changes which he feared would undermine the education of the children they were meant to serve. He allowed the Bible to be read in schools, but only without comment. This, he believed, would still provide a moral education as God’s Word could speak for itself. Even this basic Bible reading was not non-sectarian enough for Catholic parents who objected to the use of the King James translation over their own.

There is another element to Mann’s philosophy which Lockerbie doesn’t draw out, though it comes through in the selection he quotes. The purpose of education for Mann was to equip the child to be a “free agent”:

“So the religious education which a child receives at school is not imparted to him for the purpose of making him join this or that denomination when he arrives at years of discretion, but for the purpose of enabling him to judge for himself, according to the dictates of his own reason and conscience, what his religious obligations are, and whither they lead  . . . ” (from “Report to the Massachusettes Board of Education, 1848,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 290)

The world Mann assumes here is one in which each person essentially elects his own religion. It is not passed down from his fathers nor it there necessarily any right or wrong choice. Each votes for himself, not just in the realm of politics, but on his God and his truth.

With Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey, who was an admirer of Emerson’s, we move firmly away from Christianity. For Emerson, who denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ, nature is the supreme teacher and the goal of education to to know oneself and to become a “Man Thinking.” He was skeptical even of books which were merely the thoughts of other men. They are to inspire, he tells us, but not to get knowledge from.

John Dewey brings science to bear on education. His approach to education is a matter of scientific experimentation; what gets the desired result is what we must do. His approach is Darwinian and pragmatic, rejecting any God as outdated. The goal is “personal and communal growth, ever moving forward” (p. 302). Though, as Lockerbie notes, there is little definition of what constitutes “forward.” Though Dewey says some things about balancing the psychological and the societal, education for him seems to be mainly social indoctrination. There is no talk of knowledge here, only the social process:

“The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences . . .” (from “My Pedagogic Creed,” article II, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 306)

In the end, each child must fulfill his own destiny, a destiny he finds only after years of societal molding by trained teachers.

Not surprisingly, there was some backlash in the Christian community to this progressive de-Christianizing of the schools. The Roman Catholic Church, as we have said, had long sought to establish its own school system, recognizing that non-sectarian Christianity presented in the schools was still not quite non-sectarian enough (I discussed this previously here). In 1847 both the Presbyterian Church, USA and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church decided that they could not rely on the public schools to give the kind of Christian education which they desired for their member children. Thus a new wave of Christian schooling began, though it was cut short of the Civil War.


History of Education: 1500-1800

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently looking at the history of Christian thought on education using D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). Thus far we have looked at biblical times, the early church, the Middle Ages, and the rise of humanism and the Protestant Reformation. Today we look at the beginnings of the modern era which Lockerbie dates to 1500-1800. I am going to include in this section early American eduaction as well. Lockerbie devotes an independent chapter to the beginnings of education in America but it too falls within this time period.

As we saw last time, the Protestant Reformation led to an interest in state-sponsored education for all, rich and poor, boys and even sometimes girls.  In England at least the first step was often the establishment of Sunday schools which taught reading and writing. These church-sponsored schools gradually spread, taking over other days of the week and offering instruction in more subjects. Once common schools were established, new, practical disputes began to arise. For instance, how much should a teacher be able to beat his students and should instruction be in Latin or in the vernacular?

In the Netherlands the Canons of Dordt addressed education. (As we have seen in our study of Donald Oppewal’s book, the Dutch Reformed still have a lot to say on the topic.) The focus of the Canons was still on religious instruction in which they saw the parents, schools, and churches sharing. Reading through the selection Lockerbie provides, the words “catechize” and “exhort” stand out again and again which I think gives a taste of what they had in mind without much more being said.

The major thinker of the era was John Amos Comenius, a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670). He saw parents as the first teachers but also favored universal schooling. Like the Canons of Dordt, Comenius paints a picture in which the family, school, and church work together. Education serves a religious purpose but the language he uses seems to point to a more comprehensive and modern-sounding goal. Today we would talk about fulfilling one’s vocation:

“Hence parents must see that their children are exercised not only in faith and godliness but also in the moral sciences, the liberal arts, and in other necessary things. Thereby, when grown up, children may become truly men wisely managing their own affairs in the various functions of life, religious or political, civil or social, that God wills them to fulfill. Thus having wisely and righteously passed through this life they may with greater joy migrate to heaven.” (The School of Infancy, chapter 1, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 180)

Practically speaking, Comenius emphasized understanding over rote memorization and speaks of “the power of the eye to teach the mind” (p. 177). Education he depicts as a labor-intensive process of molding, just as one might train a horse, prop up a young sapling, or even plane a piece of wood. He says that:

“Indeed, man himself must be trained in such bodily actions as eating, drinking, running, speaking, seizing with the hand, and laboring. How then, I pray, can those duties higher and more remote from the sense such as faith, virtue, wisdom, and knowledge come spontaneously to any one?” (The School of Infancy, chapter 3, as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 181)

I have to say I find this quote utterly bizarre. I am tempted to think Comenius was being facetious in all of this — from his comparison of children to lumber to his assertion that they must be talk to grasp. I have four children and while they are all adept at eating, drinking, running, speaking, and seizing, I taught them none of these things. With regard to seizing in particular, I can furnish biblical and historical evidence that this comes quite naturally to children and that they don’t need to be taught — Jacob was born grasping his brother’s heel and my daughter tells me Genghis Khan was born holding a blood clot.

Lockerbie’s next thinker is John Milton who wrote a brief letter on education. I have covered that here so I will not revisit it.

John Locke whose name is almost synonymous with the Enlightenment also had a bit to say on education. Lockerbie spends some time arguing that Locke was indeed a Christian. I really can’t comment on that. Two interesting ideas can be seen in Locke, experimentation and delaying education. In earlier thinkers there was talk about learning through memorization or through argument but the idea of experiments being a way to gain knowledge is rather modern and new. We take it for granted in these days of the scientific method, but this was not an ancient idea. Locke also speaks of an idea close to the hearts of many homeschoolers —  delaying education so as to not kill the love of learning:

“‘Tis better it be a Year later before he can read than that he should this way get an aversion to Learning.” (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, par. 153 as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 191)

Turning to the new world, we find that education was a high priority in colonial New England. Though in the first years children were taught at home, the colonists fairly quickly moved toward founding and even requiring schools. The religious motivation was again at the forefront. On the elementary level, children must learn to read Scripture so grammar schools were founded. On the other end of the spectrum, colleges were established so there might be an educated clergy. There were also in time mission schools and education became tied to the Great Commission.

[For more on the Puritan view of education, I also recommend Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints. See also this earlier post.]

Before the United States was even the United States, a kind of anti-intellectualism developed. Though the first settlers had valued an educated clergy enough to establish Harvard College early on, a new suspiscion of education arose. There was a misguided theological principle at work here. To prepare a sermon was seen as not allowing the Spirit to work. A specifically uneducated clergy was now the ideal. A man named Gilbert Tennent taught that “education devitalized faith” (p. 224). Lockerbie tells us that “opposition to formal learning pervaded life throughout rural and frontier America” (pp. 224-25).

Onto this scene came Jonathan Edwards. While it is not clear that he did much to influence the education of children, his preaching ignited a revival known as the Great Awakening and he did much to help establish Princeton as a new university for the education of orthodox, Presbyterian clergy. The selection Lockerbie gives us from Edwards is from a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” Though he does not touch on education directly, Edwards here presents an epistemology, a theory of knowing, which has implications for education.

Edwards primary argument is that there is a kind of knowing which goes beyond the facts. He tells us, “there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace” (from “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 228). The same may be said of more mundane objects. Edwards gives the example of honey. One may know intellectually that it is sweet but it is quite a different thing to have tasted it and to have a sense of its sweetness.

Scripture tells is that wisdom and knowledge come from God. Edwards presents a logical argument that, as these things are so intimately tied to God, as they are so very important, that God gives them to us directly and would not use a secondary means to convey them:

“It is rational to suppose that God would reserve that wisdom and knowledge . . . that it should not be left in the power of second causes . . . It is also immensely the most important of all divine gifts; it is that wherein man’s happiness consists, and on which his everlasting welfare depends.” (p. 230)

Note also that Edwards sees knowledge as a source of joy for men. He says again later:

“Men have a great deal of pleasure in human knowledge, in studies of natural things . . .” (p. 232)

Since he has defined wisdom as something beyond mere facts, Edwards is able to argue that this true knowledge is not merely rational. The sweetness of honey, the holiness of God are not things that the rational mind perceives. “Reason’s work,” he tells us, “is to perceive truth and not excellency” (p. 231).  Because this is so, “babes are as capable of knowing these things, as the wise and prudent” (p. 231).

The Reformation taught the value of learning. In this early modern period, education was still a handmaid to faith, but we also see new ideas being advanced. Though I have some serious doubts about some of what Comenius has to say, we see in him the idea of vocation. Education allows us to do what God calls us to, even in non-religious spheres. In Locke we see experimentation as a means of gaining knowledge. In the Americas, education was initially highly valued and though this, sadly, was undercut by an anti-intellectual trend, we find in Jonathan Edwards an intriguing theory of knowledge. Edwards seems to have been a man who truly valued knowledge in its own right as a source of happiness to men.


History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently looking at the history of Christian thought on education using D. Bruce Lockerbie’s A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994). Thus far we have looked at biblical times, the early church, and the Middle Ages. Today we are looking at the rise of humanism and the Protestant Reformation.

We saw last time that at the end of the Medieval Period some began to question the teaching method known as scholasticism. This question-and-answer format had become rigid, a matter more of memorization than original thought. The desire for more openness and more critical thinking was part of a larger movement that had a few different prongs to it.

Humanism may have a bad ring to it these days, but early Christian humanists were acting on a good idea. There had been an overemphasis on the spiritual and a neglect of the bodily, physical world. The physical creation, as God made it, was “very good.” We know as well that our bodies are not temporary; they will be raised and we will have them on the new earth. Though we are made of parts — body, soul, mind, and heart — these parts are indivisible.  Humanism brought more mundane aspects back into the equation. Ordinary people were more valued, ordinary subjects came back into the mix. One result of this was a democratization of education. Education was valued not just for the elite and those who could pay for it but for all classes on society, even, a little later, for females (gasp!).

Up until this point the papacy had controlled education. With the Protestant Reformation, this hold was broken (as least in countries where the Reformation thrived). There was a return to the biblical text, and the need for ordinary people to be able to read the Scriptures in their own languages led to a new justification for education. That the ordinary person can and even should read and understand the Bible for themselves was a radical idea. Education at this period was almost entirely for religious reasons. People must learn to read so they can learn doctrine. This motivation seems to have been nearly universal at the time. Erasmus argued that learning other, “secular” subjects also instills discipline and virtue, but no one seems to have advocated learning entirely for its own sake.

Erasmus, while certainly a proponent of education, still kept the parents in the picture. He was close friends with Thomas More who educated his own children which perhaps had an influence on Erasmus’ perception. Certainly, Erasmus allowed that if they were able parents could and should educate their own children. If unable, they should work to “qualify themselves to this task” (p. 134). If they were still unable, they might hire a master to teach their children though this in no way relieved them of the ultimate responsibility for the job. They were to visit the schoolroom often and “they themselves will share the penalty” if their children are not brought up aright (p. 133).

The reformers  — including Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox — seemed to all agree on the need for formal schooling. With the Pope out of the picture, the state, working with the church, took an interest in education. Luther’s opinion was that most parents were unqualified to educate their own children. This may perhaps have been true at the time, the parents themselves having grown up in a different, pre-reformation world in which little education was likely available to them. Certainly, Luther is probably correct when he says that most parents would simply have to work too hard to have the time to educate their own children. Luther placed the responsibility for education on the political leaders.  This was a different time and place, one must remember, when many of the German princes would have been supportive of the church. As we saw when we looked at Chris Coleburn’s article, “A History of Reformed (Presbyterian) Christian Education” [The Evangelical Presbyterian (January 2011); see my review here], the state and church worked well together initially but over time the state began to over-exert its authority and push the church out of the picture.

With Calvin we begin to see a little more appreciation for knowledge in its own right. As seen in the example of Bezalel and Oholiab, artisans who worked on the tabernacle, God gives all kinds of wisdom. God’s common grace means that we may even learn from the knowledge of non-Christians. So, Calvin says, “if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, chapter 16; as quoted in Lockerbie, p. 153).

Lockerbie does not provide selections from Knox, but the article by Coleburn, mentioned above,  gives a more thorough picture of schooling under Knox among the Scottish churches as well.

For the first time in this era we see the education of children, not just of teens and adults, as a paramount concern. For Luther this meant formal schooling and the focus was on being able to read and understand the Scriptures and on learning Christian doctrine. Erasmus allowed for and even encouraged more of a role for the parents. Calvin, while still very concerned with education as a handmaid to religion, begins to open the door to the study of “secular” subjects as valuable in their own right.


Books Read July 2019

Dear Reader,

Here is the latest installment on what I have been reading this year:

Books Read July 2019

Fundamentals in Christian Education by Cornelius Jaarsma — This is another book which is a compilation of essays by various writers. It is an older book and many of the articles in it are also in Oppewal’s volume or Van Til’s book. I will do a few posts on things that struck me in it and new ideas I encountered. It is probably not worth acquiring unless you have a deep interest in Christian education EXCEPT for one lovely little article, “The Man of God Thoroughly Furnished” by Henry Schultze (review coming soon) which pretty much says everything I have been thinking about the goals of education but much better than I could.  

Testament of Vision by Henry Zylstra — Again I will have posts coming out on this book. This is a collection of essays published posthumously on various topics including literature, grammar, and education. I love Zylstra’s ideas. 

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene — This is my first book by Greene and I really enjoyed it. The story was easy to read, the characters were likeable. Though there are sinful actions that are integral to the plot, it is not explicit and the point really is to make one think about God-related issues. I am not entirely sure what I am supposed to take away from this book or how I feel about it.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene — Having just finished  The Heart of the Matter and having a couple of days to waste in a strange town, I picked up another short novel by Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. The two books have a lot in common in terms of their characters and plots. The Power and the Glory was a bit of a harder read (though not much) and more depressing overall, though with a more optimistic ending. Both are set in foreign lands and contain Roman Catholic characters who struggle with serious sins. Both accept without question the structures of their church which requires certain actions and both feel themselves condemned for what they feel and do. There are interesting issues relating to sin and faithfulness here and I enjoyed the book. Ultimately, though, the problem is that the system is a flawed and inaccurate one. 

Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education by James Taylor — I will be blogging on this book so I will be brief here. Taylor describes and advocates for a theory of knowing (an epistemology) which he calls poetic knowledge. He traces this view back to the ancients and shows how it continued in the Middle Ages and fell off in modern times. This book is a fairly tough read. The philosophical concepts can be a bit hard to grasp. There is good fodder for thought here though. Taylor does not seem to be a Christian. His approach is not inherently Christian and he has some decidedly negative things to say about Calvin and Calvinism, but the ideas help clarify what the questions we should be asking are and that is useful.

Experience & Education by John Dewey (New York: Collier, 1971; first pub. 1938) — I will have a much longer post coming out on this one. I agree with almost nothing Dewey says and yet he is brilliant and so foundational to what passes for education in America today that he is well worth reading. This is a very slim volume and goes quickly but I do think it is helpful to have some knowledge of what he says before jumping into it. 

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell — The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I don’t think it’s as good as Durrell’s previous one, My Family and Other Animals. Wonder nature lore/geography for adults and older teens. There are animals mating in this one so you might want to pre-read for younger kids. You’ll enjoy it anyway. I recommend reading it outside in the sun, on a beach of possible. 

What have you been reading?


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