Calvinist Influence on Education?

Dear Reader,
I think this is my last post generated by John Taylor Gatto’s book Weapons of Mass Instruction (see this one, this one, and this one). Overall, I have liked Gatto’s book and would recommend that everyone read something by him. But there were places in this book which really irked me. A few times Gatto says disparaging things about the Calvinist influence on education. Being a Calvinist myself, this rubbed me the wrong way. Here are Gatto’s remarks:

“The most suffocating of the constraints are generated from traditional Calvinistic roots: Mistrust of children, mistrust if teachers, a reluctance to face that adolescence is a junk word, fear of looking bad, fear of scoring poorly on standardized tests, and suppression of imagination . . .” (p. 75)

” . . . if you belive that dumbness reflects depraved moral fiber (the Calvinist model) . . . ” (p. 87)

The second quote is part of a long list of ideas about education which Gatto is rejecting. In the course of things, he also blasts neo-Marxists, Buddhists, and others. His assertion here is that Calvinism does not seek to educate those who most need it because it views dumbness as indicative of a moral condition and therefore dumb people as unworthy of being educated. At least this is how I understand him.

The first quote seems quite unfair to me. The way he has written it Gatto is laying all these wrongs at the Calvinists’ feet. I suspect that it is the first, mistrust of children, that he means to attribute to them. But they way the list is laid out, it sounds as if they all are due to Calvinism. I do not think anyone can rightly blame Calvinism for the idea of adolescence or for standardized testing.

Now to be fair, I can see how a somewhat worn down idea of Calvinism might lead to some errors in education and I am even willing to believe that over time as the ideas were perpetuated but the spirit behind them lost that these things happened. The first point of Calvinism’s five is Total Depravity which says that we are all completely fallen since Adam’s sin. We are unable to choose or to do good on our own (until the Holt Spirit regenerates us). When we lose sight of the whole system of belief of which this is part, it is easy to see that the logic would proceed something along these lines: We are all innately depraved; Children are in their most natural state, having learned little; Therefore children are quite depraved; Therefore we must do what we can to drive the depravity from them. This sort of thinking no doubt could lead to a very severe kind of education which does not value the child but seeks to essentially reprogram him.

And education is important in a Calvinist worldview. Of course, in Calvin’s day, the Reformation was young and being able to read the Bible in one’s own langauge and to interpret it for oneself (without centuries of church tradition telling one what it means) was huge. One needs an education for this. And because we do believe in total depravity, we believe one’s intellect is fallen as well and therefore needs to be sanctified along with all the other parts. Calvinism is a fairly heady branch of Christianity and so for these reasons it does value education and even see it as a part of the redemptive process. Richard Baxter is quoted as saying that “‘education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace . . . ‘” (Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, p. 159). Practically speaking, the value placed on education is seen in the establishment of Harvard College by the Puritans soon after they had come to New England. Back in England, Puritans were also greatly involved in supplying and expanding education (Worldly Saints, pp. 157-59).

But there is still quite a lot here that is wrong. I cannot say that people calling themselves Calvinist never believed and did the things Gatto says they did, only that the approach he is portraying is not essential to Calvinism and I would say is not compatible with true Reformed thought.

In addition to my own perceptions of what I as a Calvinist belive, I am relying heavily here on a book I have reviewed previously, Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken. This volume discusses various beliefs of the Puritans and includes a chapter on their view of education. I blogged on that specifically here. The conclusions I came to at the time are that the Puritans believed:

1. Education reflects our larger beliefs (or worldview if you will).

2. Education is an ordinary means God uses to convey His grace and to sanctify the individual.

3. There is no opposition between faith and reason.

4. There is no distinction between sacred and secular because all of life is held captive to God.

5. Education serves a religious purpose and even combats evil.

6. The goal of education is to prepare the individual for anything and everything God might call him to.

7. Education should be broadly based. It begins with the Bible but it extends into many other areas as well.

8. All truth is God’s truth.

Now none of these points directly contradicts the view Gatto presents, but I hope one can begin to see that there is a more noble picture of education given here.

To these points, I would now add the following:

    • The child is a person. This is no small statement. My experience of Calvinism is that it highly values each one’s humanity and that it sees that personhood beginning well before birth. Life begins at conception and God’s plans for each individual are from before the foundations of the world so that the prophet can speak of being chosen by God from his mother’s womb. If such is the case, how can we not value and esteem each child?
    • Not sure how older Calvinists would view this, but my own belief is that while one must be of the elect and have experienced the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit in order to be free and able to do and choose good, this act of redemption can happen at any point in one’s life. We treat our children as members of the church unless and until they prove otherwise (just as we do all confessing believers). They are viewed as God’s people and therefore as redeemed and not as totally depraved. And I do believe God can save us even before we are able to speak or do more than wiggle around. So I do not assume that children are more depraved than the rest of us. Having had less time to commit actual sins and to become entrenched in their sin natures, they are often less so than adults.
    • Even for those who are not children of believers or for whom we have no particular reason to hope that they are yet saved, there is common grace. Ryken says of it that common grace ” . . . has always been prominent in Calvinism. The doctrine of common grace asserts that God endows all people, believers and unbelievers alike, with a capacity for truth, goodness, and beauty.” (p. 168)
    • We are not able to save our children. Salvation and sanctification are always and only the work of the Holy Spirit. Though God may use education as a part of the process, it is not something that we adults and teachers can force upon them. We provide the substance, but God must apply it to their hearts. Therefore there is no compulsion in education. It would be impossible for us to beat and shape them into what we want them to be even if we tried.

Ironically, from my reading of Gatto’s book and Ryken’s take on the Puritans, I think the two would find a fair amount of common ground. Both believe in a broad education which does not break everything down into distinct subjects but rather sees interrelatedness between the various disciplines. They also both see the goals of education as both improving the individual and enabling him to serve his community.

So while I like Gatto’s work overall, I would like to see him take  a more responsible view toward how he presents what Calvinist  education is. I will leave it for others to defend the neo-Marxists and Buddhists.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nellekeplouffe on November 20, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Loraine Boettner wrote about Calvinism’s influence on education in America here: (Scroll down to number 9.). Interesting thoughts!


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