This article is about the purpose of education and the importance of knowledge in education. It also looks at Christian education and non-christian knowledge (secular knowledge).

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1991. 4 pages.

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

When we read Hirsch and Bloom and their critics, we see a profound difference as to the aims of education. Hirsch and Bloom are traditionalists. They believe that it is the business of the schools and universities to make the younger generation aware of their cultural heritage, which is to serve as a basis for the acquisition of additional knowledge. This has long been considered the task of the school, and especially of the university: the preservation, transmission, and extension of knowledge. An additional aim, which is stressed especially by Bloom, is to use the insights of the past to test and where necessary to correct the opinions of the present.

The Progressives🔗

The self-styled progressive educators have very different opinions as to the purpose of education. How radical these opinions can be became evident by the recent release of a “General Policy Statement on Education” which was adopted by the 1991 Convention of the Ontario New Democrats (Canada's socialist party). In its list of proposed educational reforms this document makes little or no mention of the aims beloved by the traditionalists. It gives pride of place instead to such issues as the general overhaul and transformation of Canadian society, and to the guaranteeing of students' rights, women's rights, and the equality of opportunity and of outcome for all students.

To achieve these goals, the document states, schools must stop teaching “obedience and submission to authority,” because such values create a docile work force instead of an “empowered politically active population.” Students' rights must be legally protected and student involvement in the government and decision-making processes of the schools guaranteed. Ability grouping, that is, the streaming of students into advanced, general, and basic groups must be eliminated, because it is “class-bound” and goes against the two equalities (those of opportunity and outcome). More women teachers must teach the natural sciences and/or get into positions of responsibility, and more male teachers should be encouraged to train for early childhood education.

And all these teachers, emancipated females and reconditioned males, must learn to see themselves as advocates of change in Canada's economic and social system. Indeed, the entire educational process “must foster an understanding of people's ability to effect change in their world.” Whether teachers and students labouring under such a mandate will have any time left to attend to the schools' traditional business is debatable. As a matter of fact, very little is said in the document about such mundane (and apparently minor) matters as curriculum content and the teaching of cognitive skills. The big thing is socialist egalitarianism and social change.

Progressive education NDP-style is not really new. Its equivalent has been around for a long time. Nearly 40 years ago the Canadian historian Hilda Neatby in her still relevant book So little for the mind (first printed in 1953) already sparred with progressives. She wrote that these people were still dreaming the old Enlightenment dream that all people are naturally intelligent, reasonable, and moral. That old dream was modified, she added, by modern-day psychologists, who wanted to cope with mankind not by means of intellectual training (as the Enlightenment philosophers did), but by indoctrination and socialization. This was their hidden agenda, and she warned her readers that the outcome of the process would not be freedom and equality, as was promised, but servitude: man's enslavement to his manipulators.

Today's Depreciation of Knowledge🔗

The emphasis nowadays indeed seems to be on socializing and conditioning, rather than on intellectual training. Progressive educators disparage the transmission and the acquisition of knowledge. They believe that schools should stress doing rather than knowing; learning how to cope, rather than learning subject-matter; teaching “skills” such as cooperative learning, critical thinking, and decision-making, rather than (or at the expense of) academic content. All this is partly a response to the problem created by the information explosion of our days: knowledge increases so rapidly that no one can keep up with it, and it is therefore argued that students might as well rely on the computer and the encyclopedia for whatever information they need. (It is usually forgotten that when reading a book or listening to a lecture or sermon people do not necessarily have access to these aids, so that, as Hirsch has pointed out, it continues to be helpful to have at least some information in one's head.)

There are other reasons for the emphasis on doing rather than knowing, and on skills rather than subject-content. One of them is the anti-historical (and often anti-Western) attitude of progressive policy makers, who believe that nothing worthwhile can be learned from the past, so that the idea of the transmission of knowledge is altogether outdated, and even anathema. Another is the fear of elitism and the thirst for egalitarianism: there must be, as the NDP document openly states, not only equality of opportunity, but also of outcome. High academic achievement, it seems, has to be discouraged in order that all students can end up at the same level. The result, as American researches have shown, is that now, for the first time in the country's history, the educational skills of the potentially high achievers fall well below those of their parents. There is every reason to believe that it is much the same story in Canada and other countries that follow the progressivist agenda too closely.

Traditionalism and the Christian School🔗

If they had to make a choice between the two, the majority of Christian parents would opt for a school that was in sympathy with the ideas of Hirsch and Bloom and Hilda Neatby, rather than for the so-called progressive one. Indeed, traditionally Christian schools have closely followed the traditionalist pattern. Generally they have held that children must be acquainted with the history and literature of their country and their culture, that they should be well versed in logical, verbal, and mathematical skills, that academic standards must be maintained throughout, and that authority, including that of the teacher, must be obeyed. Most Christian parents continue to see these characteristics as essential for their schools (all the while insisting that room be made for the teaching of religion as well).

Christian approval of the academic tradition has not been universal, however. Some Christian educators have felt that the traditional school tends to stress matters of the intellect to the exclusion of other important aspects of the child's personality. Some also believe, rightly or wrongly, that it tends to measure its success by the amount of knowledge the students can absorb, that it pays to little attention to what is one of the few positive contributions of the modern educational establishment: that is, the development of teaching methodology and of cognitive or learning-related skills, and also that it is not really concerned with questions of context and meaning.

The Danger of Secular Knowledge🔗

Still others have drawn attention to the undeniable fact that the traditional, academic kind of education is not without its own hidden agenda, and that this agenda, too, is essentially anti-Christian. For is it not true that the values and much of the subject-content taught by the traditional school tend to be humanistic and rationalistic? Are not these schools driven by the same humanistic faith in man's natural goodness and reasonableness that Neatby noticed among the progressives?

This is also the message of Theodore Plantinga's recent book Public Knowledge and Christian Education. Dr. Plantinga argues that Christians have all too often believed that they can introduce public or secular knowledge into their schools with impunity, if only they add some “Christian perspective” here and there. In this manner, he argues, Christian educators have unwittingly admitted the Trojan horse of anti-Christian knowledge into their schools, only to discover later that this secularism, like a yeast, had leavened the entire curriculum.

He therefore pleads for much greater selectiveness in what Christian educators borrow from secular sources of knowledge, and asks that more stress be placed on the role of the teacher in translating the secular knowledge they have to pass on to their students. These warnings should be taken to heart.

Its Uses, According to Earlier Christians🔗

And this has landed us in the middle of two of the questions I proposed at the beginning of this series. These questions concern the kind of knowledge that should be taught in our Christian schools, and the context of that teaching. Both questions are ancient ones – about as old as the Christian church itself. The early Church Fathers, knowing that the church was surrounded by a fascinating but anti-Christian culture, debated them at length. Well-known are the exclamations of the third-century Tertullian, the prototypical Christian culture-despiser:

We have no need for curiosity since Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry since the Gospel! What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church?  What is there in common between the philosopher and the Christian, the pupil of Hellas and the pupil of heaven?

Tertullian's ideas were not to set the tone in the early church. Later scholars like Jerome of Bethlehem and Augustine of Hippo, both of whom died in the early decades of the fifth century, also realized the dangerous attractions of secular learning. Both had fallen in love with it in their youth. They nevertheless did not hesitate to make use of secular scholarship in the service of the gospel. As E. Harris Harbison has reminded us in his book The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation, Jerome did so in his work of translating the Bible into Latin and in writing his biblical commentaries, while Augustine utilized his extensive knowledge of classical philosophy and history in practically all his writings, including his monumental philosophy of history.

Augustine subjected reason to revelation, confessing that unless a man believes, he cannot know. But reason thus sanctified he saw as a gift of God, to be used in His service – that is, first of all for the instruction, encouragement, and protection of the believers, but then also for the church's expansion. Like all the early Christians, Augustine was mission-minded, and he drew upon his knowledge of Hellenistic culture when explaining the church's message to unbelievers; when acting, as Harbison put it, as a mediator between Christianity and its pagan surroundings. In doing so he followed the example of the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers. And he set an example for future Christian scholars, such as the scholastics of the Middle Ages, John Calvin and many others at the time of the protestant reformation, as well as men like A. Kuyper and K. Schilder, to mention only some of the best-known of reformed scholars in the more recent past.

What Knowledge is of Most Worth?🔗

Christian schools that stress the teaching of subject-content can therefore boast of a venerable tradition. They should not forget, however, that honouring this tradition implies a proper view of the relationship between revelation and reason, a proper evaluation of the subject-matter that is taught, and also a proper concern for context and goals. The acquisition of academic knowledge is not an end in itself. As Augustine's example shows us, it is first of all a means for the imparting of wisdom – wisdom as the Bible defines it.

It is no more than a means, but it is a valuable and indeed a necessary one. As in Augustine's days, Christians today are surrounded by a decaying and strongly antichristian culture. Even more than in Augustine's days – especially as a result of today's omnipresent communication media and of universal education – that culture is all-pervasive. Christian schools have to help students deal with this culture. They have to do so first of all by teaching them how to criticise it in the light of God's Word, but then also by showing them the historical roots of their culture, by drawing attention to historical parallels (for most modern heresies are recycled versions of ancient ones), and by helping them analyse and critically evaluate modern-day opinions and belief systems. Bloom is absolutely right when saying that the insights of past generations can help us in discerning and correcting present delusions.

If Christian schools fulfill that task they will indeed impart wisdom to their students. They will also help equip them for what continues to be the church's mandate, today as much as in Augustine's days: to show the light of the gospel in a world of increasing darkness.

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