Education and the Source of Evil

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.

A major contention of this series is that any philosophy of education (and if you are educating someone, you have a philosophy, whether you know it or not) rests in some pretty profound assumptions about the nature of man and of knowledge. Today I’d like to focus in on what some common approaches to education have to say about the source of evil in men’s lives.

I hope we can all agree that not all people are good all the time. If you can’t see it in your own life, you can probably see it in other people.  We do bad things. The question before us today is why? Where does this evil within men come from?

There are two possible answers to this question: the evil we do comes from within us; it is built into us OR the evil we do comes from without; it is not built into us.

The first answer is the Christian one. Whether one believes in total depravity or original sin, there is some awareness that evil is within us from birth or before (see this post for some of the major Christian positions on just how fallen we are).

The answer the world often gives is that evil is not inherent to our natures but that it comes from without. Within this belief, there are again two possibilities, each of which corresponds to a major school of educational thought. One the one hand Rousseau believed that one’s natural state is his best possible state. The babe in the woods — and he seems to have preferred that his babes be raised in the woods by wolves — is the ideal. “Education” is the work of civilization and civilization is bad. It is what his elders teach him that corrupts the child. The best the educator can do, especially in the early years, is to leave the child to himself and to nature. The modern brain-child of Rousseau is the Unschooling movement which assumes the natural goodness of the child and his ability to choose what is best for himself. Its motto might be, in one word, non-interference.

On the other hand, there are those who, while not admitting to anything like Original Sin, still see a vital role for, for lack of a better term, educational interference. The child may not be inherently evil, but, left to his own devices, neither will he turn out the right way. Education saves him from the evil that he would otherwise learn. Rousseau sought to save children from education; this view sees education itself as salvific. Classical education (by which I mean actual classical education, that of the ancient Greeks) saw education this way. Education teaches one to think and if one could only think properly one would not do evil. Evil is essentially ignorance, and ignorance is evil (see this post).

The champion of modern progressive education, John Dewey, while no classicist, believed essentially the same thing (see this post). Education is what makes us fit members of society. Dewey’s approach is progressive in that it exalts progress. It is very much rooted in an evolutionary mindset which views the world in terms of becoming, not being. It’s motto might be: To stay still is to die. Like sharks, we must always keep going, changing from one thing to another. Education is what keeps us going and makes sure that we are progressing — moving in the optimal direction.

What Dewey and Rousseau have in common is the belief that evil is not inherent to man’s nature. Because evil is outside of us, it is affected by what we do. For Christians who believe that the problem of evil is an internal one, only internal solutions will do. Which is not to say that education is unimportant, but it cannot solve the problem of the evil in men’s hearts. For Dewey and Rousseau and Plato, education does play a role. It may make us worse or it may make us better, but either way there is the fundamental assumption that something external to us, something that is done to us, is able to affect our nature.

Nebby

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