That’s actually another book in my brain, and one I think needs to be written (and there are plenty already out there, but I may have something unique to add to the conversation; we’ll see . . .), but right now a blog post, or two, is the best I can do. I was inspired to write something on classical education because of a piece I recently read about education in the American Thinker that didn’t even use the phrase classical education. The title made it a necessary read for me: “Marxism and Education.” The author tells the story of how American education became radically re-envisioned in the early part of the 20th century, and you can infer from the title that Marxism was a seminal influence in that process. As he says, very few people today in or out of education are aware of these influences, but Marxist assumptions are ubiquitous in the American education marketplace.
What is classical education, and why should Christians embrace and champion it? Before I answer this, I will point out that modern, progressive (I’ll define that in a moment) education influenced by Marxist assumptions is incompatible with Christianity, and in fact its diametric opposite. Secular champions of public education are convinced that modern government schools are religiously neutral; nothing could be further from the truth. They are indoctrination centers, and very effective ones at that. They inculcate children into a worldview that is hostile to Christianity, and we can see that play out in the culture every day (but that’s for another post). The reason for, and the nature of, this hostility ultimately goes back to Genesis 3 and the Fall, “you will be like God . . .”
Classical education is rooted in history, and its driving force is the past. Progressive education is not. In fact, progressive education is a project to escape the past because as the moniker suggests, the goal is progress. By definition the past is regress, where people were benighted and captive to a pre-scientific view of reality. While this mindset was gaining acceptance among Western intellectuals in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 20th century that it began to make its presence felt in politics (in the presidency of Woodrow Wilson), and culturally through a transformation of education. The author of the piece quoted above starts with this:
At Columbia University’s Teachers College, in the early years of the 20th century, a handful of men inspired by “laws of social evolution” gathered to presume a “science” of education linked with a “science” of human behavior. They were no mere researchers. Their sights were on nothing less than the establishment of a new social order.
John Dewey was the most famous and influential of these, but it was a team effort, including something known as the Frankfurt School. The fundamental idea driving the progressive experiment in American education was and is that human beings are malleable, and “experts” working through science and government can transform society into a social Utopia. God not only was unnecessary, he just got in the way. Knowledge in the past that required a supreme being, especially of the Judeo-Christian variety, was not only inferior, but essentially bad and harmful because it kept the human race from modern man’s idol, progress.
The fundamental problem, then, with progressive education, which includes all government run public schools and most colleges and universities in America, is that there is nothing tying all the bits of knowledge together. My favorite metaphor for this secular state of affairs is the puzzle. All modern education has is puzzle pieces, and with only pieces nothing can make ultimate sense. In this view of reality, the picture on the top of the box is blank. It doesn’t exist. No wonder people are confused. They try to get pieces to fit together, but they can’t, so they throw that piece away, and try another, and another, and Utopia never arrives. Quite the contrary, the 20th century arrived in all its pragmatic, utilitarian, scientific glory, and well over 100 million died! And science couldn’t save one of them.
But the “progress” goes on, and the growth of classical education, informed by the knowledge and wisdom flowing from ancient Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem, is one of the most hopeful signs that the American experiment in liberty might just have a future. I’ll get to what is so important to Christians about this (in addition to living in a society in which we can freely practice our faith) in my next post, so stay tuned.