Bavinck on the History of Classical Education

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 have done a couple of posts already on topics from Herman Bavinck’s Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008; see here and here). Today it is time to get to my main topic: Bavinck on education. 

The biggest contribution of “Classical Education” is to show just how widely this term has been applied. Bavinck shows that “classical” can refer not only to practices in the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds, each with their own distinctives, but that even in the ancient world, there was not just one model of what classical was. Some of this is material we have covered previously. I am going to try to focus on what Bavinck adds that we have not already seen in other works.

As we saw when we looked at Barclay’s Train Up a Child, the early Church struggled with how to respond to the educational system of the day with some like Tertullian arguing for a complete separation between Athens and Jerusalem and others like Origen and Clement seeking a unity. The long-story-short version is that a compromise, middle position became the default, with the Church acknowledging and making use of the “natural gifts” of art and science while still considering them of a lower level than the supernatural subjects (pp. 211-12).

The fall of Rome brought chaos to Europe. Classical learning was preserved in monasteries which copied texts. Under Charlemagne (c. 800 AD), empire once again meant peace and that learning could begin again. The goal was an educated clergy and the seven liberal arts, divided onto the trivium and quadrivium, were taught as precursors to theology (p. 213).

Another stage began around the year 1000 AD with the rise of Scholasticism. Aristotle, as transmitted through Boethius, was a major influence. The process known as dialectic was rediscovered (see this post for more on dialectic). As John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in spiritual matters, so Aristotle was said to have done so in natural matters. It is important to note, however, that few people read Greek. What was known was known through commentaries and translations. What was learned was learned through books, not through experimentation or first-hand study (pp. 214-15).

Scholasticism was rigid and it was perhaps inevitable that there was a rebellion against it. This came in the Renaissance through the rise of humanism with its emphasis on the individual (see also this earlier post). When people began to actually look at Aristotle for themselves, they were disappointed. Dialectic as a rigid system was abandoned. The beauty of ancient culture was re-discovered and it was held up as an ideal (pp. 215-17).

This was followed by a period of realism which turned its back on the past (p. 218). But as the pendulum swings one way, so it swings back the other. Around 1750, Rationalism was replaced by Romanticism and neo-humanism, which elevated Roman and Greek culture respectively. Antiquity was elevated to such a degree that Jewish culture, and Christianity which arose from it, were expected to fade into oblivion.  It was the ancient, classical cultures which embodied the purest form of humanity (pp. 218-21). At the same time, classics became a field of study in its own right and related fields like archaeology and philology took off. As a result of these developments, people discovered that the ancient world was more far-ranging and less uniform that they had imagined (pp. 225-27).

At this point we enter the modern era with its emphasis on science as the way to know. Two Bacons played a role: Roger Bacon said that we know through observation and experience. Francis Bacon said that we must reject preconceived notions. Learning was no longer done primarily through books but through experimentation and experience. More practical goals were also put forward; learning was valued for what it could do to advance the condition of humanity. Our sights were turned from the past to the future (pp. 231-32).

Bavinck goes on at this point to address a practical educational issue of his own day in the Netherlands. The specifics of the battle he was fighting do not concern us. He does, however, close with his own estimation of the value of classical learning which I will leave you with as well:

“Classical antiquity is no longer the ideal of education for us, and it will never again be that . . .But the great cultural and historical value of that antiquity has never been realized as well as today. The influence of Israel and also of Hellas and Latium on our culture is much more clear to us now than in previous centuries; these are and will remain our spiritual forbears.” (pp. 241-42)




One response to this post.

  1. […] Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) discusses some of the variety within Greek education (see this post). William Barclay’s Train Up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient […]


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