Calvinist Education?!

Dear Reader,

A side rant to my main series — in writing my recent post on public education in America, I ran across (again) a couple of quotes on the Calvinist influence on education. I’ll give them to you first before I rant so you can form your own impressions:

“The most suffocating of the constraints are generated from traditional Calvinistic roots: Mistrust of children, mistrust of 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 — voluntary suppression — which the collective teaching staff imposes on those of its colleagues who haven’t yet lost their talent.” [John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction  (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010), p. 75]

” . . . if you believe dumbness reflects depraved moral fiber (the Calvinist model) . . .” (Ibid., p. 87)

“Lurking behind the magic is an image of people as machinery that can be built and repaired. This is our Calvinist legacy calling to us over the centuries, saying that the world and all its living variety is just machinery, not very hard to adjust if we put sentimentality aside and fire the villains either symbolically or with actual bonfires, depending on the century.” (Ibid., p.89)

“To the Protestant reformers who started them, schools were meant to be correctional institutions, built on the assumption that children are natural sinners. To be saved from hell, children were required to go to schools where their sinful wills would be broken and then reshaped along lines consistent with Protestant teachings.” [Peter Gray, Free to Play (New York: Basic Books, 2013), p. 68]

Sigh. Do you think he knows any Calvinists? I’ll start with the first long quite from Gatto. He is clearly blaming everything wrong with American public schools on Calvinists (as least the way the sentence is punctuated). I can’t imagine he  means it. How can we blame Puritans (which is undoubtedly who he is thinking of) for the use of the term adolescence and standardized testing? I *think* is associating them (us?) with mistrust of children and the rest is just tacked on. Ignoring most of what is in the first quote, here are the charges  against us/them:

  1. Calvinism leads to a mistrust of children, presumably because . . .
  2. Children are born sinners.
  3. The solution to #2 is to break the child and then reshape him in the “right” mold.
  4. Schools are therefore correctional institutions in that they are designed to correct what it wrong in children.
  5. Intellectual deficits are correlated to moral deficits.
  6. The world is just machinery, presumably a reference to a God’s sovereignty in preordaining what happens in our world.
  7. Somehow we can manipulate this machinery, mostly by burning those who disagree with us.

Most of this is pure bunk and I have no idea where Gatto and Gray got it all (though Gray may have gotten it from Gatto). There are shreds of truth, though, so I think it is worth noting the principles they are mangling here.

We do believe in total depravity; children are born sinners. How will this relate to education? That’s one of the issues we have to explore. How can we even begin to educate an unregenerate soul? I am pretty sure the answer is not that we break and remold the child. A preview of what will come: if salvation is the work of God (and it is), perhaps education is too.

Which brings me to #5 above — the correlation between the intellectual and the moral. Total depravity means all parts of the person are fallen so I think there is some truth here. It is not just that we sin in breaking God’s moral law; our reason, our intellect is also fallen.

Lastly, the world as machinery. I don’t know if Gatto is just very wrong or if he has been reading some sort of hyper-Calvinists. Of course God knows and ordains all that will happen. That does not make the world a machine. It certainly does not mean that we can come in and manipulate the machine to our ends. Quite the opposite.

If you are still asking why we need a reformed theology of education, here’s another answer: to counter drivel like this.

Next time: something less depressing.



4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Barb on February 7, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum is probably the ONLY Rushdoony book I can recommend. It might be helpful as you think about these things. He does discuss the confusion that happens when we try to make the school into the church. It’s a good read.


    • Thank you! I’ll add it to my list. Who is in charge of education is an interesting question. Van Til (whose book I am in the midst of) says the school and not the church is. But is this like the separation between church and state? Can we ever trust the state with education? Maybe we shouldn’t make the school into the church but maybe we also shouldn’t make the church into the school.


      • Posted by Barb on February 9, 2018 at 8:36 am

        We do see these models in reformed circles. Some denominations run their own colleges and divinity schools while others do not, saying the school should be a ministry of the church or independent of the church. No “state” involved in the model but who will be in charge is a good question to answer in some way. Churches do end up supporting their favorite schools with money and students whether connected to a denomination or not.


        • My own denomination (the RPCNA runs a Calvinist school (if one wants to call it that). I think it is one of the only reformed undergrad institutions really owned and controlled by a denomination. But I think Gatto and Grey are reacting to something older- the old New England Puritan influence on education in America. They clearly see what they term a Calvinist undercurrent which has deep roots and have left ideas they disagree with.


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