Last week, I asked whether children raised in Christian families were prepared to deal with the worldview conflict they will encounter in the public schools. I explained that secular worldviews can lead children away from their faith, and parents need to train their children in a biblical worldview to help them answer questions about their faith.
But before diving into a discussion about what a biblical worldview is, I want to discuss the goals and purpose of education.
What Is the Purpose of Education?
Throughout time, people have taught their children what they needed to know to function in their culture. Even illiterate societies instruct their children on how to gather or grow food, how to build a home, and how their society runs and what it believes. Education doesn’t necessarily equal literacy.
The ancient Greeks and Romans considered formal schooling a pastime of the wealthy, not a societal necessity as we do today. In fact, the Greek word for school, skhole, means spare time or leisure. Students had time to discuss ideas, unlike most of the populace who worked to earn a living. Ancient peoples used religious and civil festivals and ceremonies (the Greeks used plays) to educate the masses about virtue, religious beliefs, and their culture’s heritage.
Throughout Western history, we have educated our children for the following reasons:
1. To Preserve Culture and Cultivate Virtue
After the fall of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church molded and preserved Western European culture, passing it on to commoners through masses and religious festivals. Most book learning also centered around religion. Classical education developed at this time, which transmitted Western Christian civilization thought through the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Study of the humanities began in the 1500s. The other sciences came even later.
As in ancient times, only those with money, or were supported by one who did, could attend school. This education focused on reading books, hearing lectures, and discussing ideas. Vocational skills were learned through an apprenticeship. A formal education enriched the mind and taught people to think logically and express themselves well. It also refined manners and morality as they looked to the good, the true, and the beautiful. As one classical education publisher explains:
Classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the study of the liberal arts and the Great Books. The liberal arts are the universal linguistic and mathematical skills students need to excel in every area of life. The Great Books are the means by which we pass on the cultural heritage of the Christian West. A mastery of both is the best way to prepare a child for a life of wisdom and virtue….Memoria Press website
This idea of preserving the culture through classical education continued in Europe and the United States through the nineteenth century.
2. To Read the Bible
With the invention of the printing press, many people wanted to learn to read. The Reformation further increased that desire as people wanted to read the Bible for themselves. Christian leaders encouraged this and even risked their lives by translating the Bible into the vernacular languages.
By reading the Bible for themselves, people were less likely to be led astray by false teachings by a religious leader. They now could compare what they heard to what the Bible says.
Like these European Protestants, the American colonialists highly valued the ability to read the Bible as well. Thus, many of the colonies set up schools to form a literate and virtuous society. To train their pastors, many colonialists founded universities. Harvard was the first when it was established in 1636.
3. To Educate Voters
Following the tradition set by the Reformers and earlier colonialists, the Founding Fathers also valued formal education. They knew the Republic could only function with a literate electorate. While working on the Constitution, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance on July 13, 1787, which states in Article III:
“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”Northwest Ordinance, Article III
4. To Teach Religion and Morality
As mentioned above, religion and morality were deemed necessary for good government. The Founding Fathers recognized that the new Constitution could only govern a moral people. So, they encouraged the teaching of biblical morality.
[F]or avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy . . . the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.Gouverneur Morris, Penman and Singer of the Constitution
Whenever people of the Founding Era spoke of religion, they usually meant Christianity.
In the spirit of the Founding Fathers, Noah Webster, the author of the first American dictionary (1828), defined education this way:
EDUCA’TION, noun [Latin educatio.] The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners. education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties. (emphasis is mine)
This definition describes what early Americans considered the purpose of education: to instruct in knowledge, character, and morality. This insured that the students would function as contributing members of society.
The Bible was used in the public schools until a Supreme Court case removed it and prayer from the classroom in the 1950s.
Cultural Shifts in Education
During the mass immigration period of 1880-1920, American schools, in addition to pursuing the goals listed above, strived to assimilate the children of immigrants into American culture. These children were expected to take on American values, embrace patriotism, and become contributing members of American society. This, in effect, preserved American culture and created national unity.
As the nineteenth century came to an end, the educational focus began to shift from creating moral citizens united by a common culture to developing a skilled workforce. Abandoning the centuries-old classical teaching method, twentieth-century educators experimented with various methodologies.
These followed the growing cultural acceptance of several secular worldviews such as naturalism and modernism. Eventually, post-modernism and the post-truth era of the twenty-first century have pushed the biblical worldview out of mainstream culture and out of today’s schools.
Educational Goals Today
In 1986, I took a college education class for which I spent one morning a week in a local high school as a TA for an English teacher. For one assignment, I had to survey several teachers on the purpose of education.
They all agreed the goal was to create good citizens. Unfortunately, I failed to ask the follow-up question, “What do you mean by good citizens?” I had an idea of what a good citizen was (similar to the definition of the Founding Fathers) and figured they had the same. Maybe they held a different view.
Today, public schools list several goals for their students. My local school district lists these:
Our Vision: Every South Whidbey School District Student is a lifelong learner who is multi-culturally engaged, literate, and an active community member able to meet the challenges of our global society.
Our Mission: In collaboration with our community, every student will be supported to be a resilient, innovative, compassionate, and productive graduate prepared for a diverse and dynamic world.
Our Values: Equity, Resilience, Responsibility, Integrity, Respect, accountability, communication, compassion, empathy, collaboration.
1) Our Schools will be welcoming, safe and supportive places with consistent school wide expectations where all are respected.
2) Our students will demonstrate growth toward mastery in all content areas.
3) Our students will graduate ready for a future they choose.
Analysis of Goals
These sound like great objectives. Balanced against the historic goals for education, how do they compare? Several of the characteristics described in the mission and values statements could be considered virtues. Goals two and three are similar to the traditional goals of mastering content and preparing students for their future.
Citizenship, or a focus on successfully operating in society, is addressed in the vision statement and in the first goal. I chose to rephrase the term citizenship because the school says nothing about being a citizen of our nation. Instead, it points to the global community. Yes, we need to function with other countries. But why is the United States ignored? Patriotism used to play an important role in schools, beginning with saluting the flag each morning. Is that done anymore?
A typical parent may read these statements and have no problem with them. Nevertheless, some parents and conservative culture watchers have noticed that instead of passing on traditional American values that our Western culture has embraced for centuries, today’s educators are actively changing our culture by promoting different values. They often do this by redefining words.
The school website used a word cluster to display their values list. The word Equity grabbed my attention. What does that mean to them? I would like to believe that it means all people are treated equally in instruction, grades, and the application of rules. But equity serves as a buzz word for the diversity movement, which states that we must accept everyone’s truth as equal—an illogical and unbiblical idea. It also suggests that everyone is divided into competing identity groups—a Marxist concept, not an American one.
In the list of goals, why is community elevated over mastery of content? Yes, we need to learn to get along with one another. However, I believe schools should focus on knowledge and thinking skills (traditional goals) over social engineering. Most social skill training should occur within the family.
The words safe and supported places shout Critical Theory or Identity Politics. It’s Orwellian Newspeak for “students cannot say anything that might upset another, even if it is true.” That sounds like a college campus’s safe speech zones that prevent issues from being discussed from various points of view. Instead, “If you disagree with me, you must hate me. Therefore, I won’t let you speak at all” is the message. Traditionally, Americans have valued free speech.
Moreover, I find it odd that the school promotes resilience but at the same time offers safe places. These seem to contradict each other. A resilient person isn’t easily triggered and doesn’t need a “safe place.”
Many of these goals diverge from the type of education the Founding Fathers envisioned to preserve our Republic.
So, Christian parents, what are you doing at home to help your school children navigate through this post-truth environment? How can they spot a true prophet from a false one?
I will try to answer this in my next post, but I welcome your own answers in the comments.