Say anything about education and you’re likely to ruffle feathers. My wife and I learned this the hard way when our eldest son was in kindergarten. Simply by weighing the options and deciding to home-school him, we instantly offended a couple of our friends who were public-school teachers. They understood us to be passing judgment on the whole public-school enterprise.
And in a way, we were. But not in the way they thought. A critique of the system is not a critique of everyone in the system. If I lament the inefficiency of the US Postal Service, that doesn’t mean I hate the mail carrier. And we need to get this straight so we can have honest conversation about post offices and schools and a hundred other things.
So at the risk of offending everyone, I want to start some honest conversation about our schools. And about the philosophy of education that undergirds modern schools. And I want to do this in the service of – spoiler alert! – bringing a new type of school to the Omaha area.
Let me start by saying that I cherish Christian freedom in this area. I’m thankful that Christian parents are free to arrive at differing conclusions about how to educate their children. At the same time, I do believe that a Christian worldview has implications in this area. Education is not neutral. It proceeds from a worldview – a set of basic assumptions about reality. Or, to quote James K.A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom:
“Behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.”
What does that mean? Well, a pedagogy is a method or practice of teaching. And a philosophical anthropology is an understanding of human nature. So Smith is saying that how we teach reveals our understanding of human personhood. Our fundamental assumptions about humanity are manifested in our approach to education.
So let’s consider the modern secular approach to education. What view of human personhood does it suggest?
First, consider the average school building. In our great-grandparents’ era, one-room schoolhouses were still common. But today, we send our kids to sprawling buildings in order to generate an economy of scale (more production, less overhead). Second, consider the class schedule. The average school day might consist of 8 periods, each 43 minutes long, with 6 minutes between bells and a 29-minute lunch period. And there’s no clear connection between 3rd period US history and 4th period Algebra, except for the fact that both subjects will be “on the test” (whether we’re talking about an elementary-level state achievement test or a college-entry SAT exam). Third, consider the stated goal of modern education (or, as Aristotle would call it, the final cause). What is education FOR? So that students can a) get into college, b) earn a college degree, c) secure a good-paying job, and d) make more money than they would otherwise. I dare you to pay attention to how your local school describes its purpose and see if it differs significantly from this basic narrative.
At the risk of putting it rather starkly, this pedagogy reflects an assembly-line view of human personhood. What kind of end product do we want? We want citizens who are good consumers and faithful economic producers. We want students who will grow up and take their place in the social order, facilitating the worship of our cultural idol: prosperity. At the root of our modern educational system lie three basic philosophical assumptions:
- Mechanism: man is a machine. There is nothing mysterious, immaterial, or soulish about us. We are nothing more than complex biological machinery. (Therefore, education is functional, not formative; it’s about making the human machine work better, not about shaping the loves of the human soul in accordance with truth, goodness, and beauty).
- Utilitarianism: The real value of anything is measured by its usefulness (utility). If it’s not useful, it’s not valuable. (Therefore, education exists to help people be useful, productive members of society).
- Nihilism: “All is vanity.” There is no ultimate meaning or purpose to human existence. (Therefore, the subjects in school are not connected as a unified whole in a meaningful universe, but are disparate pieces of knowledge to be collected and used for personal advantage. And once you’re done with school, “get all you can, cause you only live once”).
To be clear: I realize there are thousands of public-school teachers and administrators who do NOT espouse this view of humanity. I’m thankful for thousands of Christian students swimming upstream against this worldview. I’m thankful for faithful Christians seeking to be salt and light throughout the school system, honoring Christ and holding forth a different anthropology. But the exceptions prove the rule. There’s no doubt that this is the philosophical anthropology driving the modern educational establishment at its highest levels.
By contrast, the Bible’s anthropology is quite different. Scripture teaches that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Whatever else we say about a human being, we must acknowledge that every human is an image-bearer of the Creator. If we don’t, our anthropology is false. And that’s the problem with the anthropology reflected in modern schools: it’s false. It proceeds from an incorrect understanding of human personhood. And thus it’s destined to fail. Modern education may in fact produce men and women who can function in a mechanistic society, but they will be “men without chests,” as C.S. Lewis so presciently put it:
All the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible… In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (from The Abolition of Man)
The Abolition of Man was a book about education. And Lewis was making same the observation I am making now: we long for qualities (honor, virtue, enterprise) that our pedagogy makes impossible. If we want human beings with virtue, we need a pedagogy that cultivates virtue.
In other words: we need education that starts from a correct anthropology. We need schools that see education not as the building of skills, but as the ordering the soul’s affections in accordance with what is true and good and beautiful. We need curriculum that is oriented not toward “passing the test,” but toward forming virtuous, thoughtful, well-rounded human beings. We need to teach art and music and literature not for the sake of their utility, but for the sake of their beauty.
I champion any and all efforts to reform the current public-school system in this direction. But I also suspect that those efforts will ultimately fail, because we are dealing with a worldview problem. The problem won’t be solved by better methods. It will only be solved by a shift in the philosophical anthropology of public education. And apart from a massive movement of God, that’s not likely to happen. Secularism is too deeply entrenched at the institutional level.
Therefore, living redemptively in our culture means that Christians must create alternative approaches to education. This is what we’re trying to do in Omaha with our proposal to launch a classical, collaborative Christian school in the Fall of 2016. This proposal doesn’t solve all the problems in American education. But “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” I trust that this post – and this effort – will get Christian parents thinking more deeply about the education of their children. And I hope many other leaders will be emboldened to innovate in the realm of education. The future of America lies not in the reform of the public schools, but in the creation of alternative schools that can save civilization when secularism caves in upon itself. And if you don’t believe that will happen… I recommend a class in the history of Rome.