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.


One response to this post.

  1. […] weeks, we have looked at the history of Christian education from a fairly broad perspective (see this most recent post). Today I’d like to focus in on how education played out in Dutch Reformed circles in […]


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