Posts Tagged ‘Puritans’

John Milton on Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series on reformed education. Find them all here.

I recently ran across an article by John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, on education.  It is a fairly brief piece and doesn’t have a lot to contribute to our discussion, but given the stature of its author I thought it was well worth reading and reviewing.

In “Of Education” Milton writes to a friend, Master Samuel Hartlib, and proposes a particular approach to education. After a long introductory paragraph explaining his reasons for writing, Milton jumps right into the goal of education:

“The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.”

The language, as I am sure you have noticed, is dated, but Milton’s point is clear: the goal of education is to undo the effects of the Fall. I tend to shy away from those who make virtue the highest end of education so I like that Milton unites virtue to faith.

Milton does not spend long on theory but turns quickly to practical matters. He argues against a tedious and repetitive approach to education and particularly to the learning of (classical) languages. He does believe that one should learn Greek and Latin but makes clear that knowing the languages is not the end in itself but that the goal is to be able to delve into the real heart of the material, the content of the classical writings themselves. Knowledge should not be an “exaction” but “worthy and delightful.”

Milton’s overall plan is for an education that is “compleat and generous” so that a man may “justly, skillfully and magnanimously” perform “all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War.” Study does not begin till age 12 but continues in one institution which serves as both middle/high school and college till age 21.

After a foundation in pronunciation and grammar, the student is to begin with Plutarch to learn virtue, diligence and courage. To this is added some arithmetic and geometry. Religion and Scripture are taught in the evenings. Subjects are introduced in sequence including practical ones such as agriculture, astronomy and geography. Latin is learned first, then Greek, Italian and Hebrew and possibly even Babylonian and Syriac (having taken these languages myself in grad school, I can say this is not small enterprise). There seems to be a kind of apprenticeship involved as well in which the students learn from hunters, architects, anatomists and more. The study of history seems to come rather late in the plan as do poetry and drama. Milton also makes provision for physical and musical training.

Milton’s approach seems to be a modified version of the classical. He relies heavily on Latin and Greek authors and subjects and the overall program of intellectual, musical and physical training is in the classical (read: Greek) mode. I like the practical bent he gives to it all and the emphasis on true learning rather than rote learning and profitless exercises. This is not a must-read article but it is am amusing and short read.


Book Review: Worldly Saints

Dear Reader,

So I finished reading Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were by Leland Ryken. I have blogged on different aspects of this book three times before (here, here and here), but I thought I would give a more comprehensive review of it.

I will start by saying that I loved reading this book and I could see myself going back to it many times to revisit various topics. This is not an impartial, scholarly  treatise on the Puritans (if it is even possible to be impartial about things which I doubt). Which is not to say that it is not scholarly; Mr. Ryken seems to have done his research, but he is clearly on the side of the Puritans. Here, for instance, is a statement from his concluding chapter:

“It is impossible to overstate how much difference it makes in a person’s life when he or she views the Bible as ‘a perfect and absolute rule ‘ for life.” (p.219)

This is not a Puritan speaking, this is the author’s opinion, and while I agree with him, I use it to show that Mr. Ryken definitely comes to his subject matter from a certain theological school himself. So if you are a non-Christian, or perhaps even a Christian far removed from Puritan thought, you will probably not like this book but will find it biased and misleading.

I myself, being reformed and Presbyterian, found a lot to like here. On almost every subject I found myself “amen”ing the Puritan position as Ryken presents it (of course, being reformed and Presbyterian, this amen-ing was done quietly in my head).  Mr. Ryken quotes the Puritans liberally. He also does a good job of showing the underlying principles behind the Puritans’ beliefs. The last chapter is devoted to this topic, though I think he makes his case better as he goes through the book.

My one big quibble with the book is embodied in the next to last chapter, “Learning from Negative Example: Some Puritan Faults.” Up until this point, Mr. Ryken has presented a fairly uniform and (to my RP mind) very positive view of Puritan thought. But in this chapter, he admits that the theory did not always play out in practice. That, in fact, the Puritans sometimes seemed to hold ideas contradictory to those he has already presented. When is left wondering which are the real Puritans. Should we accept Ryken’s ideal view of them as presented in the first ten chapters? Or should be look at how they really behaved? Here is a quote to illustrate what I mean:

“Throughout this book I have had occasion to praise the Puritans for the things they affirmed — work,  sex, the physical world, education, and much besides. But Puritan theorists on these subjects had a way of surrounding their affirmations with so many qualifying rules that a person could scarcely practice these activities without a sense of guilt creeping in. I have already observed the legalism with which they surrounded recreational activities.” (p.192)

For a specific example, let us take the case of Puritan sermons. Ryken spends quite a big of time earlier in the book telling us how long the Puritans preached and extolling how wonderful it was that their congregations would not only put up with extended sermons but would ask for more. But in this chapter, he adds that they were really very repetitive and “seemed to search for ways to say to say everything at least twice in different words” (p.194). To me this would seem very relevant to the length of the sermons. It is not that they had two-hour sermons that were necessarily more substantive than the 45 minute ones I hear every week but they apparently had  s style of preaching that tended to produce long sermons without adding more content.

The other area where he seems to save some negative and yet highly relevant news for this later chapter is on the subject of the Puritan view of women. In his earlier chapter on the subject he spent a lot of time convincing us that the Puritans had a very high view of women, seeing them as the moral equivalent of men. However, in this chapter he quotes them as saying things about “‘the natural  imbecility of the female sex'” (p.196). To me it is deceptive to give all the good quotes that one likes to hear in the main part of the book and to save all the negative views for one final wrapping up chapter as if they were somehow less important or showed us less about who the Puritans were.

Overall, I still liked this book. It is a valuable resource, but the way Mr. Ryken presented his material, selecting out good facts for most of the book and  then only hinting at their less desirable views in a final chapter, left me feeling deceived as if what he spent most of his time presenting was not the real Puritans. It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that the Puritans were human and had their weak points as well as their strengths, but I wish that a more balanced view of them had been presented from the outset.


Charlotte Mason and the Puritans on Education

Dear Reader,

As I have mentioned before, I am reading a book in the Puritans and their beliefs on various topics. I have just finished the chapter on education and I am struck once again by how much their views remind my of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Now Charlotte was not a Puritan; she was Church of England. But she comes later than the Puritans and so I assume that her views, as she picked them up from her society, were influenced by those earlier writers.

Everything I have to say about the Puritans will be based on the book Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986). Mr. Ryken does not appear to be an uninterested observer (if there ever is such a thing). He clearly favors the Puritan view on most if not all topics, but I am choosing to take him at his word as an accurate reporter of what the Puritans themselves thought.

So without further ado, here is what the Puritans have to say about education.

Mr. Ryken begins the chapter by quoting T.S. Eliot who said “‘we must derive out theory of education from our philosophy of life'” (p.157). I like this quote. I firmly believe that how we educate should reflect our larger beliefs, particularly those about human nature. This is why I did a whole long series on the different approaches to education, because even if we are not consciously aware of it, there is more behind our educational philosophy than we know.

Mr. Ryken goes on to talk about how very important education was to the Puritans and how they always felt they had to battle anti-intellectual parties around them (at one point banishing them to the wilds of Rhode Island; trust me it’s funny if you live where I do). Education, in the Puritan view, is not something that is separate from our spiritual life. Rather, it is an aid to it. Ryken quotes Richard Baxter:

“‘Education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace and ought no more to be set in opposition to the Spirit than the preaching of the Word.'” (p.159)

This appeals to my reformed sensibilities. If anything, we tend too far towards the intellectual knowledge at the expense of real feelings. But I do find for myself that my walk with God is usually going better if I am reading books that really make me think about Him. I also believe that all parts of our nature are fallen so it makes sense to me that in sanctification all parts, including the intellect, would be used and redeemed.

I think in our own culture, we are perhaps moving slightly away from the opposition between faith and reason. I am not very into what is happening in modern Christian culture, but my sense is that we have shifted from saying things like “we don’t care what science says; this is what our faith tells us” to saying things like “faith and science need not be in opposition; this is how our science reconciles with our faith.” Though in the latter case it sometimes seems to be a particularly Christian science with which other scholars may not agree. I am not sure how the Puritans would have felt about this kind of Christian science which is not widely accepted by the rest of the scholarly world, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

The Puritans, coming from a religious standpoint, said that intellectual pursuits are of value, that they need not be divorced from spiritual pursuits. Charlotte Mason, coming from an educational philosophy, said that faith need not be put by the wayside but that learning is also the work of God. In both cases, they end up at the same conclusion, that the spiritual and the intellectual work together and that we cannot point to one and say secular and to the other and say sacred. Ryken says in the beginning of his chapter that if we listened to the Puritans our views of education would be different. I wish he had expanded on that more than he does. But one thing I see is that many Christian curricula seek to make themselves Christian by constantly inserting Bible verses or biblical situations (eg. word problems about animals on the ark) into their curricula. I think both Charlotte and the Puritans would say that this is unnecessary because intellectual pursuits are in themselves spiritual, or rather the spiritual extends through all of life. There is no dichotomy because God’s presence is pervasive through all aspects of our lives. (See this earlier post on the sacred and secular in a Charlotte Mason education.)

The goal of education, for the Puritans, was also a religious one. Ryken says, “Their primary goal was Christian nurture and growth” (p. 161). Indeed, they saw an educated, Bible-reading populace as a foil to Satan himself. Though they established many schools, Ryken says that they viewed education as the responsibility of the parents. Our modern public schools which take responsibility away from the parents and which remove all trace of religion from education would not have been acceptable to the Puritans.

But we must be careful not to think that Puritan education was only for the purposes of Bible-reading. Their education was comprehensive in that it included a wide range of subjects, and its goal also a broad one. Ryken refers to Milton a lot in this area. Milton, he says, was less interested in how much a person knows than in who they were becoming. Later he says, “We customarily limit sanctification to moral and spiritual progress; for Milton, becoming like God can mean coming to share God’s love of truth and beauty as well as his holiness” (p.163). At this level, education need not have any practical applications. It is about the development of the person. But the Puritans were also interested in practical uses. They desired their education to prepare a person to be fit for anything God might call him to. This included not just a good job for the sake of earning money but also fitness for the other spheres of life, church membership and leadership, parenthood, citizenship, and even friendship. Ryken says that the question they would have asked is “‘What can a Christian liberal arts education do with and for me as a person?'” (p.170).

Charlotte Mason also framed the goal of education as a question. She said we should ask not what the student knows but how much he cares and how many things he has formed relationships with. In neither case is the main concern for getting a good job. In both cases there is an interest in who the student is becoming and an appreciation for truth and beauty in their own right, or rather as extensions of God’s truth and beauty.

In furthering these goals, both Charlotte Mason and the Puritans favored a broad education. For Charlotte this broadness directly furthers the goal of having as many relationships as possible. Making connections between different works or areas is also a large part of a Charlotte Mason education. For the Puritans, the Bible is of course primary but sciences, math, and the classics are also emphasized. This also furthered their goal of enabling the individual to be fit for anything. A Puritan education was a liberal arts education. Ryken tells us that  a Harvard thesis (Harvard was founded by Puritans only a few years after they first settled in this country) showed the liberal arts as a “‘circle of seven sections of which the center is God'” (p.167).

This idea of God at the center of the fields of knowledge also lead us to another belief which ties the two educational approaches together. As Ryken states: “All truth is God’s truth” (p.167). Charlotte also believed that God the Holy Spirit was the Great Educator and that all wisdom and knowledge comes from Him. This to the Puritans is part of the doctrine of common grace by which even non-believers are given good things and kept from being as wicked as they could be. Since all truth belongs to God, the Puritans also saw all truth as interrelated, bringing us back again to Charlotte’s thinking and her emphasis on making connections between different areas of study.

So to sum up since this has been a long post, here are the key points I see in the Puritan view of education:

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.