Christianity and Education

From the Introduction to R. J. Rushdoony’s Intellectual Schizophrenia: A Study in Phi­losophy and Education (Presbyterian and Re­formed Publishing Company, New Jersey, 1961). Mr. Opitz is a member of the Founda­tion staff.

The crisis of our culture comes into one of its focal points in edu­cation. Most inquiries into educa­tion, however, are little more than amiable discussions about condi­tions in our schools. There is a dearth of trenchant criticism of contemporary educational theory and practice which measures its shortcomings against the demands of the Christian revelation.

Culture is religion externalized, and our culture bears the imprints of its molding by Christianity; we were Christendom before we be­gan thinking of ourselves as Eu­rope or the West. The hallmarks of this faith stamp themselves even on our rebellion against it, for every rejection or denial im­plies something positive against which the reaction occurs. The positive things in our culture have been Christian things, or the things of Christian cultivation.

T. S. Eliot has said somewhat the same thing in The Idea of a Christian Society. There are some, he observes, who say "that a soci­ety has ceased to be Christian when religious practices have been abandoned, when behavior ceases to be regulated by reference to Christian principle." But there is another way of looking at the matter. "The other point of view, which is less readily apprehended, is that a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else. It is my contention that we have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian. I do not think that it can remain negative, be­cause a negative culture has ceased to be efficient in a world where economic as well as spiritual forces are proving the efficiency of cultures which, even when pa­gan, are positive; and I believe that the choice before us is be­tween the formation of a new Christian culture, and the accept­ance of a pagan one." (London, 1939, p. 13)

The word "pagan" usually con­notes an innocent, carefree child of nature. This kind of thing is hardly a live option for modern man and, presumably, is not what Eliot has in mind. Christianity’s chief antagonist for the past two centuries has been the secular faith of the Enlightenment, and a perverse form of it is the main contender today. In its early phases there was something at­tractive about this faith, but in its reactionary phase during this century it has spawned an idola­trous, statist cult manifesting it­self now as communism, and again as various dilutions of Marxism.

Communism is one version of environmentalism—the notion that a man’s character is made for him and not by him. Improve his material circumstances and you change man for the better. Education, under this dispensa­tion, is the sum total of efforts to adapt man to his surroundings.

Should the educated man be adjusted to his environment? Ad­justment is the aim, as many edu­cationists see it. Some of them narrow the concept of the environ­ment down to the social group and recommend that schooling be a process of merging the man into the mass. These theories have not gone unchallenged. Man, say the opponents of environmentalism, has the capacity to respond cre­atively to his environment and surpass it. And the group, they point out, may exhibit norms that are warped or vicious. Accommo­dation to these is debasing.

 

What Is Environment?

 

The environmentalists return to the fray by asking their critics if the aim of education, then, is to produce maladjusted products? It is not, obviously, but at this point the argument runs aground be­cause both parties accept too lim­iting a notion of what constitutes man’s environment. As the term is commonly used, environment refers to the world of time and space, the world of things, the physical frame within which man struggles to survive. No Christian can accept so narrow a defini­tion of environment; his natural habitat is the universe of time and space, but he is also environed by another dimension, eternity.

This dimension has dropped out of contemporary life. The modern outlook does not include it, with the result that multitudes of peo­ple no longer feel a sense of life as participation in a cosmic adven­ture. They have come to believe that the world of things which can be seen, felt, measured, and tested is man’s sole habitat. Belief in the reality of things not seen has dimmed or disappeared and we are living, so the French writer, Andre Malraux, tells us, in "the first agnostic civilization." This charge, or description, is all too true. It is a fundamental assumption, uncon­sciously presupposed in our time—and thus more a mood than a precise—that man is a creature of the natural order only. It was the evil genius of Karl Marx to seize upon this mood and make it explicit. Communism today offers a godless religion and a this-worldly salvation, a caricature or parody, point by point, of Chris­tianity. And one has the uneasy feeling that many people, now on the fence, would go communist ex­cept for an inertia which prevents them from following their prem­ises to the bitter end.

We are living, some have sug­gested, in the post-Christian era. Our outlook is, in general, man-centered, secularist, and utopian. It is materialistic and rational­istic. It uses majority decision as its criterion of right. It asserts a false individualism as against nat­ural associations such as the fam­ily and intimate community group­ings, and then it turns to national­ism as the principle of social cohe­sion. There are very few new truths, but there are always lots of new errors—and these are some which have gained accept­ance during recent centuries. The axioms now widely taken for granted are largely eighteenth and nineteenth century products, and they are alien to the Christian and humanist tradition. But even though they seem more deeply entrenched than ever in the pop­ular mentality, they have already come under fire from some of the more discerning minds.

 

Socialism Lacks Appeal

 

The acids of modernity may have eaten away at historic Chris­tianity, but more recently they have also attacked the Enlighten­ment faith. Christianity has been purged of some undesirable accre­tions during this ordeal, but its rival has probably been damaged beyond repair. Reflect further on some of the tenets of the latter and ask: Where are now its votaries? Futurism, the gospel of unimagin­able progress; scientism, belief in the messianic potential of science; democracy, faith in the omnis­cience of majorities; socialism, utopia by means of political owner­ship—who now defends these dogmas? They still have their partisans, true, but they gain few recruits. Christianity, on the other hand, is resurgent; not always wisely so, perhaps, but it is, at any rate, alive enough to challenge the ablest contemporary minds. It fared badly under the shallow op­timism which reigned last century because Christianity is a religion of hard answers. It is not called into play when men are content with glib answers to soft ques­tions; it partakes of the tragic view of life.

 

Opportunity from Crisis

 

Henry Adams ironically re­marked that his contemporaries had "solved the universe." Chris­tianity is not for the likes of these. But today’s crisis is religion’s opportunity. Life again confronts men with paradox, uncertainty, dilemma, and catastrophe; the smooth facade is dented and breached. Man tries to play God and fails to secure even a niche for himself in any pantheon. The homemade heaven he tries to fash­ion on earth—in totalitarian lands—resembles an old-fashioned hell. He aspires to the role of deity and reverts to sub humanity. Perhaps if men attempt a more modest role—to become truly human—we may, with God’s help, make it. But such a choice as this demands an individual commitment. Before we seek for better answers, let alone hard answers, we must start to ask the right questions. In this respect each of us needs all the help he can get, and he can get help from the right books.

This analysis will hardly find favor with professional education­ists, nor with those who reject religion. But even many church­men, regrettably, are more at home with sentimentality than hard, rigorous thinking. They will be uncomfortable with anything that challenges them to re-examine things they have taken for grant­ed.

Many churchmen are disturbed because the Bible may no longer be read in the so-called public schools, but how many acknowl­edge the inevitability of the secu­larist trend in tax supported and politically controlled schools? The state is secular in a free society, the alternative being some form of caesaropapism. It follows that wherever government gets into the education business—whether at local or national levels—its influ­ence will tend to secularize the schools. The churches respond to this challenge by offering released-time religious instruction, and by establishing—at a progressive rate—their own weekday schools. Laudable as are these efforts, it is feared that, in all too many cases, parochial and private schools operate with the same theories of education as tax supported insti­tutions.

Before we can discuss the na­ture of education intelligently we must have come to some under­standing of the nature of man. Soviet schooling with its emphasis on scientific and technological in­struction, reflects the Marxian understanding of human nature. Whatever else we say about the Marxian view of man, we must certainly admit that it falls short in every dimension of the Chris­tian view of man—a creature created by God for fellowship with Himself. If the Christian view of man’s nature and destiny is our premise, we cannot possibly agree that even a superbly trained engi­neer is a finished educational pro­duct. We need lots of engineers in modern society, and good ones are to be preferred to those less high­ly skilled. But engineering is in the realm of means, and the crucial question concerns the ends to be served by these means. It’s fine that we constantly improve our means, but unless we simultane­ously improve our ends we gen­erate a conflict by hitching too much power to too little purpose. "Power is never a good," Alfred the Great observed, "except he be good that has it." It would further the interests of clarity if we could use the word training to describe the instruction that has to do with means, or instrumental knowl­edge; reserving the word educa­tion for that which has to do with ends, or formative knowledge. Instruction in instrumental knowledge is not education, al­though it is part of education and useful in its own right. It is need­ful that men possess such skills as the ability to lay bricks, cut hair, add figures, perform experiments in physics and chemistry, write books, and preach sermons. But while the possession of such skills is desirable and important, their exercise is not the distinctive mark of an educated man. It is true, however, that an educated man ought to have a quiverful of such and similar talents and be able, like Jefferson, "to calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin." But this is merely to say that a man ought to be trained as well as educated.

 

Inherent Defects of the System

 

The so-called public school sys­tem in the United States stems mainly from the nineteenth cen­tury and partakes of the dubious philosophy of that time and sub­sequent periods. As a system of instruction supported by taxation and compelling attendance it was bound to veer toward secularism and statism, but other inherent defects were apparent as well. Late last century the astute

French critic, Ernest Renan ob­served that "countries which, like the United States, have set up considerable popular instruction without any serious higher educa­tion, will long have to expiate their error by their intellectual mediocrity, the vulgarity of their manners, their superficial spirit, their failure in general intelli­gence." (Quoted by Albert Jay Nock in The Theory of Education in the United States, Chicago, 1932, 1949, p. 20)

In the twentieth century, com­pulsory government schooling got its philosopher, John Dewey. "The educational process," as viewed by this influential teacher, "has no end beyond itself." Education is "vital energy seeking opportunity for effective exercise." (John Dew­ey, Democracy and Education, N. Y., 1921, pp. 59 and 84) The Dewey philosophy is pragmatic, experimental, and instrumentalist—not advanced tentatively for argument and debate, but insisted upon dogmatically as the only per­missible point of view. I. L. Kan-del, Professor of Education Emer­itus, Teachers College, Columbia University, writes, in School and Society for August 22, 1953, "The critic, however sincere, who ven­tures to comment adversely on the consequences of the cult of prag­matism, experimentalism, or in­strumentalism is regarded as al­most committing sacrilege."

But now it is admitted on all sides that the sacred cow is out of sorts. There is something wrong with our system of education be­cause there is something wrong with our theory of education, and we won’t correct our system until we straighten out our theory. But this we cannot even begin to do unless we know what is normative. We really do know, as a matter of fact, but we need to be reminded that the norms are Christian imperatives.                    

 

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Calvin Coolidge

 

A revolution is taking place which will leave the people de­pendent on the government…. Finding markets will develop into fixing prices and finding employment will develop into fixing wages. The next step will be to furnish markets and employment, or in default, pay a bounty and dole.

Those who look with apprehension on these tendencies do not lack humanity, but are influenced by the belief that the result of such measures will be to deprive the people of character and liberty.