Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Historical Case for Christian Education

Every day I meet families who have a different reason for choosing a Christian school. They want Christian teachers instilling truth into their children; they’re ready for smaller class sizes and more individualized attention; they want a like-minded community to partner with in educating their children; they want to remove their child from a hard social situation and give them a new chance to make quality friends. These are all good reasons. Yet I’ve never heard a family say, “The Christian liberal arts tradition was the norm for nearly 2,000 years, and formed most of history’s great thinkers and leaders. This is why I want a Christian education for my children.”  Yet this, I believe, may the best reason for choosing a Christian school.

In Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evan’s fantastic book Wisdom and Eloquence, they outline the role of cultural icons like John Dewey in the shaping of modern education.  Heavily influenced by pragmatist philosophers like William James, Dewey helped to construct a “progressive” education. Dewey believed that schooling was a method of social change, and through putting the student at the center of the learning process and tracking them to economically beneficial careers, society could “progress.” Progressivism was also deeply tied to modernism, which relegated religion to a personal opinion, and placed science and social change at the heart of the educational process.

Although today Christian schools are seen as the cultural rebels, and often as separatists, Littlejohn and Evans point out, “It is important to remember, however, that modernism overthrew a 2,500-year-old tradition. It, and not the culture we are recovering in our classrooms [the authors lead classical Christian schools], is the insurgent.” So what was lost in progressive education around the turn of the 20th century?

Faith vs. Skepticism
            From the Greek pagans through the time of Augustine, it was assumed that people were inherently religious.  Solomon wrote “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). Augustine took passages like this to heart and believed that an understanding of God impacts one’s entire worldview, from the view of the self to society, and even to one’s view of language and math. (For an excellent treatment of numbers and Christianity, see Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake.)  The purpose of education was to deepen one’s spiritual beliefs and tie them to a student’s place in the cosmos. 

            In contrast, modern education replaces doubt with skepticism.  Instead of leading students to ever increasing levels of certainty, the academic badge of approval, primarily in our universities, is questioning all perspectives.  Students are taught that only science is the arbitrator of truth. To know is to be arrogant. To be a skeptic is to be academically accepted among one’s peers.

Fallen Nature vs. Evolutionary Progress
            The view of human nature has also undergone radical change. The Greeks viewed human nature as unchangeable, and the Christians view human nature as created good yet fallen, able to be restored through redemption, but still not in constant flux. In contrast, since Darwinism has moved into the social sciences, evolutionary psychology views human nature as improvable through self-awareness.  Knowledge alone, without God, can improve students and thus society through schools.

            If nature is in constant flux, the traditional and cultural context of the student becomes less and less relevant. For example, if we are now more “advanced” than ages in which slavery was accepted as a norm, we have very little to learn from thinkers like Cicero or Thomas Jefferson. What could they possibly have to tell us about humans now if we’re now fundamentally different from back then?

Objective Truth vs. Subjective Values
            Finally, the Greeks and the Romans believed pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful were knowable, like we believe today the number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water is knowable. Christianity raised that tradition ever higher, believing that these characteristics were in God himself, who made himself known in Jesus Christ. 

            In contrast, both modernism and post-modernism (both having their root in the Enlightenment) rejected absolutes and instead embraced the notion that all competing views of goodness, truth and beauty were equally valid. This rejection of authority, whether Christian or pagan, led directly to the skepticism we see in classrooms today.

            Despite many school districts that try to instill values like kindness, integrity, and honesty as a part of their overall objectives, when these issues come up in the classroom, the reigning postmodern epistemology can only leave teachers and students with questions. Whether or not Nazi concentration camps were morally wrong can ultimately only be a matter of private opinion.

            Littlejohn and Evans believe these three factors have led to an “educational disaster.” I tend to agree with them.  How can any true education seriously avoid central questions of what it means to be human and the ultimate purpose of human life?  A recovery of the liberal arts tradition, which found its root in the Christian gospel for nearly two thousands years, is a necessity for those who are actually serious about “educational reform.”

            As a father myself, I can identify with parents who want a Christ-centered, educationally rich environment for their children.  Yet rarely to we look to history’s “great cloud of witnesses” when making educational choices for our kids. Perhaps I’ll make this a part of my next campus tour.

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