The Family's Mandate to Educate | Jubilee Magazine

First Published in Jubilee / Winter 2010

“HEAR, O ISRAEL: THE Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

A Newsweek article of Feb. 11, 2010 began with an appeal to common sense: “It doesn’t take a degree from Harvard to see that in today’s world, a person needs to know something about religion.” Its exquisite irony became plain when the author drew attention to the Harvard faculty’s surprising rejection of a proposal to mandate at least one course in religion for its undergraduates despite its obvious contemporary relevance. A sympathetic interpretation might explain it as a principled stance, announcing that true education doesn’t give way to fashionable trends. Yet at least one commentator quipped that it exhibited the faculty’s own peculiar ‘crisis of faith’. Perhaps he had in mind its consonance with the changes made decades before to drop the words ‘for Christ and the church’ from the university’s own ancient motto, Veritas, presumably to avoid the putative narrowness of education informed by the Christian faith. It appears that the judgment of narrowness may itself have been the product of a particular faith-perspective, and a myopic one at that.

Observations about the departure of institutions of learning from the Christian faith are not new in the Western world, and certainly not restricted to Harvard. The institutional separation of Canada’s public universities from their confessional origins took place at various points over the twentieth century. This was not the end of the dying of the light however. To choose just one example, in 1990, all overt forms of religiosity were removed from the Ontario public school system. To promote tolerance-in what was described as a matter related to the principle of ‘the separation of church and state’- it seemed that the last vestiges of Christianity, which had till then been part of the status quo in Canadian public education, would no longer be tolerated. There were muted objections at the time, but for many Canadians, there is a pattern of giving credence to experts who are civil enough to make benign gestures towards them, and this one was coupled with the promise of being in the vanguard of multicultural and inclusive gestures. The new terms of forming our polity were presented in the terms of politeness. New equity and inclusivity policies have recently followed on its heels. Alarm bells are ringing as we see the fulfillment of the warning made over fifty years ago, that in the public system even

[t]hose areas still termed democratic are losing the freedom which gives meaning to democracy because they are losing that sense of direction which gives meaning to freedom.

How did it come to pass that in a few short years freedom of religious expression and adherence to Christian moral character were denied to Christians in the name of democracy? Since academic freedom can be traced at least as far back as the Christian liberal arts universities of the Middle Ages and the insistence on teaching of Christian moral character in schools as long as there has been a church, the irony is particularly heavy.


The obvious answer is that this sad state of affairs did not develop overnight. Seen from today’s vantage, one might say the public education system in Canada developed at the expense of the church. But a closer look at its historic development betrays a different picture. When the public system was developed in the nineteenth century in Canada, what was at stake was not whether the Christian faith should be brought to bear on education – there was no dispute about that – but rather whether the well-heeled established church, represented by Bishop Strachan and the Family Compact, would continue to exert a stranglehold over it. The man given credit for opposing Strachan and creating a public education system in Canada, Egerton Ryerson, was a Methodist minister, who modelled the new Canadian system chiefly on the one developed in Germany by Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s deputy. Far from a move towards secularization, the defeat of the Family Compact resulted in a proliferation of denominational colleges, and a concerted attempt to extend the Christian faith across class divides and to create ‘a common patriotic ground of comprehensiveness and avowed Christian principles.’ In other words, the close relationship between the Christian faith and education was reorganized and extended across the socio-economic divide rather than rejected. The stone set above the entrance to Victoria College, for which Ryerson was the first President, reads ‘the truth shall set you free.’

In the interim, the most significant movement in public education in North America had emerged in the form of the educational philosophy of John Dewey. Dewey’s philosophy has been described as ‘romantic progressivism’, and it is not wrong to view it as a rival religious perspective rooted in the ‘natural supernaturalism’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his English and German literary inheritors. For the sake of brevity, it might be useful to employ a summary of its tendencies. It takes three words. Nature is good.

An educational philosophy marked by it espouses a belief in the basic goodness of the child’s soul, and thus rejects traditional educational attempts to instruct, civilize or to ‘train in righteousness’ as artificial, a newly pejorative word, and ultimately injurious to a child’s development. Eric Froebel, the founder of the modern kindergarten (a Romantic invention) puts the theological aims of such a path of education this way:

…the purpose of teaching and instruction is to bring ever more out of man rather than to put more and more into him; for that which can get into man we already know and possess as the property of mankind, and every one, simply because he is a human being, will unfold and develop it out of himself in accordance with the laws of mankind. On the other hand, what yet is to come out of mankind, what human nature is yet to develop, that we do not yet know, that is not yet the property of mankind; and, still, human nature, like the spirit of God, is ever unfolding its inner essence. The principal means of encouraging this sort of self-expression is to unleash the child’s inherent creativity and imagination — two words which gained their contemporary meaning and force in the Romantic movement. Before the Romantics, it was considered blasphemous to use the term creativity for human productions, but that ceased to be the case when the human soul was conceived as inherently godly. Moral education, the following of our ‘natural impulses’ and the spontaneous release of creativity and imagination were felt to go hand in hand. In 1953, Hilda Neatby, a member of the 1949- 51 Massey Commission, wrote a scathing critique of the influence of such ideas on education, noting that having originated in the U.S., they had come to dominate the educational establishment in Canada, and had done so for a generation. Dewey, she stated with no little irony, was the Aristotle of her day. His acolytes were ‘profoundly influenced by the new study of psychology, and by the increasing application of scientific techniques with unscientific optimism to every sphere of human activity.’ Her description of the average progressive school of her day is worth repeating: is a place where all children find sympathy, understanding and encouragement. There are no terrors for the dunce, there is demand for no feverish application from the good scholar. Learning is free and unforced because it is believed that children work best when they are happy and retain most firmly what they learn gladly. ‘The whole child goes to school’ and when he arrives he is accepted as an individual of the first importance. ‘The school is child centred.’

The child is confronted with ‘activities’ related to his life outside the school rather than tasks related to learning; led by discussion rather than driven by dictation; given ‘real’ as opposed to formal discipline, and by natural means to self-discipline, the new object of all moral training.

Neatby objected to this philosophy of education on three grounds: it was anti-intellectual, anti-cultural and amoral. All three grounds were related to the new type of freedom it advanced. In its anti-intellectualism, it freed the pupil from the exercising, training or disciplining of the mind, which would have been required if he had had to know a body of knowledge as all previous generations had; in its antipathy to culture, it freed the pupil from the ‘bondage of the past’. With his gaze firmly set to the future, the educator freed himself from the contamination of the sins of the past, and freely denounced it; finally, in its amorality, the pupil was freed from making judgments of right and wrong actions. The only moral requirement was that he be ‘open-minded.’ Liberated from having to judge actions or achievement, teachers retreated to the therapeutic language of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ ‘attitudes’ or ‘responses’.

The cumulative effect, Neatby observed, is that “the pupil soon learns the meaning of desirable and thinks, quite rightly, that in a democratic society he has as much right to desire as anyone else…(and thereby) even the elementary discipline of establishing rules which the child was required to keep is questioned.” Her trenchant conclusion: “In a democratic society which must ultimately rest on the morality of individuals with every opportunity for, and incentive to immorality, this seems strange indeed.”

Since Neatby wrote her indictment of Canadian education almost 60 years ago, it would be difficult to maintain that anything has changed, other than that new idealistic approaches to education derived from the same bankrupt educational philosophy have been brought forth; that the attack on the school as an instrument of cultural preservation and transmission has accelerated; that yesterday’s immorality has become today’s morality. The strong teleological assumptions of Ryerson’s vision for public education, as it had been for Christian educators for millennia – drawing the past, present and future together, assuming that the past foretold the present and that the future would fulfil the prophesies of the past – has largely been broken.

With it, both the meaning of life and a sense of social cohesion across classes and nations that goes deeper than mere tolerance has gone. And yet the progressivist belief in a utopian future which has replaced it, the outcome of a so-called natural evolutionary process, whose professed goal is to be student-centred, is completely belied by the bored ranks of pupils and their cynical views of education as simply a means to an end. Ironically, the pragmatism it reflects actually comes at the expense of the highly practical public good, for it is when the life of the mind is pursued as an end in itself that people are rendered most socially useful.

A recent book, What’s Wrong with our Schools: and How We can Fix Them, makes precisely the same indictment of the romantic progressivism at the heart of the Canadian educational establishment as Neatby, making such revolutionary suggestions as demanding ‘a pass should be earned’, ‘grades should reflect achievement,’ and that ‘subject matter matters’. What the repairs themselves indicate is the degeneration of public education to the point where even the demand for basic competence needs to be contested.

The question to Christian parents today is whether they are going to respond to the clear Scriptural mandate to the faithful to take responsibility for the education of their children. The prophet Jeremiah offers this counsel: “Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16) Surely this offers us light in a dark place.