The Role of Education (1)


Christianity and Politics (7)

Restoring virtue

The fundamental theme we have been exploring in the last few articles has been the need to revitalize institutions in society in order to promote virtue, because without virtue, no republic can survive, according to both classical and Christian political theorists.

The primary institution that needs to be resuscitated in our society is the family, the first school of virtue, without which nothing else in society can work correctly.

Next is the church. As Os Guinness points out in A Free People’s Suicide, liberty depends on virtue, virtue depends on faith, and faith depends on liberty. When one fails, the whole system collapses.

The third institution that desperately needs to be reformed if we are to start restoring a culture of virtue is education.

The centrality of education

Throughout history and across cultures, education has been seen as a critical element in developing virtue. Ancient authors from Plato to Confucius believed that education would produce virtuous citizens. Indeed, for Confucius morality was the most important part of education. Solomon likewise extols learning and wisdom as critical elements to learning the fear of God and right living.

Early Christians esteemed education. Augustine codified late Roman education into the seven liberal arts, which became the foundation for medieval education. A little over a century later, a Christian Roman senator and thinker named Boethius began composing textbooks for each of the liberal arts; his contemporary Cassiodorus established a monastery at his estate at Vivarium and began amassing a library for his monks.

Education was a critical element of Irish spirituality in the early middle ages as well as later monastic spirituality on the continent. During the period, virtually all schools were connected directly or indirectly to the Church. Students at medieval universities were even considered members of the clergy.  The curriculum was based on the liberal arts, with an emphasis on studying ancient sources.

In the Renaissance, a new approach to learning emerged that emphasized the humanities rather than the liberal arts, and particularly rhetoric. The goal of Renaissance education was to produce active citizens who could participate in government. Since they knew the classical sources, Renaissance educational theorists were well aware of the need for virtue in public officials; they also knew from the ancients that education was essential for virtue, and so they made moral philosophy one of the key subjects of study. And like the ancients and medievals, they believed that studying history and literature was an important tool for inculcating virtue.

Education and virtue

Although the exact books would change over time, the study of great books with the goal of promoting moral character and virtue would remain a staple of higher education well into the modern period. Primary education, particularly in America, was built around Scripture. In fact, in colonial New England, primary schools were established so that the people would know the Scriptures so that they could hold their legislators accountable for the laws they passed.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, several developments occurred that would begin to change this traditional approach to education.

During the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called Emile, which outlined a program for educating boys. It was student-directed: the object was to allow the student to pursue his own interests, though the teacher was encouraged to manipulate the student into taking an interest in particular subjects the teacher wanted him to pursue. Although Rousseau had up to five children out of wedlock and abandoned them all to be raised in a foundling hospital, his ideas about childrearing and education have proven to be very influential in re-shaping education in twentieth-century America.

Rousseau’s thinking influenced John Dewey, a key figure in the development of progressive education in America. Dewey was a philosophical pragmatist; that is, he believed that ideas and theories were to be developed from practical experience, and those ideas needed to then be applied back to practice.

In terms of education, he believed that children were natural learners and were inherently inquisitive, and that education needed to take this into account. He advocated an approach to learning that was a balance between the student driven approach of Rousseau and a more traditional content-driven approach.

For Dewey, the goal of education was the full development of a person’s abilities, very much in keeping with the Greek concept of virtue. But Dewey did not see this in terms of virtue: he saw it as necessary for producing productive members of society—in other words, it had pragmatic value. In terms of virtue, Dewey was a moral relativist. He did not believe that education should include moral absolutes; rather, what moral education there was should be to the standards of the community, since education was essentially a process of socialization into the norms of the culture.

Progressivism in education

Progressive ideas gradually spread into the school systems over the twentieth century, eroding the position of traditional classical education. The process accelerated after World War II, with the shift occurring definitively in the 1960s. There were a multitude of reasons for this shift: post-colonialism challenged the narrative of Western Civilization as the pinnacle of human achievement; feminism challenged the male-dominated educational hierarchy and the canon of Western literature; the civil rights movement led to an increasing call for greater diversity in education; multiculturalism and a growing trend toward identity politics further eroded the concept of a common cultural core.

At the elementary and secondary level, progressive education had moved well beyond Dewey. Williamson Evers summarizes some of the key ideas that had developed as follows:

  • All learning in school is to come through playing.
  • Children’s social and emotional development and psychological attitudes (self-concept, self-esteem, how well the child works with others) are to be given an overriding importance.
  • A high-school-as-supermarket curriculum, an approach in which core subjects are crowded out, should be adopted. In the words of critic Mortimer Smith: “hairdressing and embalming are just as important, if not a little more so, than history and philosophy.”
  • Drudgery and hard work on the way to mastering a subject should be abolished.
  • Competition among students should be eliminated.


What has been the net effect of these changes in education? SAT scores have been dropping steadily, even with the tests being revised to fit the new educational realities. New programs and methods—always based on these progressive models—are introduced, and every one of them seems to make the problem worse. American students score well below their peers from other industrialized countries in every area except self-esteem, where our students truly excel.

So they perform worse, but they feel better about themselves.

Glenn will continue his article on restoring the institution of education in the next installment.

Next steps

How do the leaders of your local church see the church’s work of education as fitting in to the development of virtue and the restoration of a moral society? Ask a few of them and see what you can learn. Make yourself available to help in your church’s educational work.


This Christmas we encourage you to learn more about the real meaning and importance of Advent and the Incarnation of our Lord. Order the series, He Has Come, which includes videos and study guides you can use with your family or friends to enhance your understanding, appreciation, and joy at this time of year.


Glenn will continue his article on restoring the institution of education in the next installment.


1 Comment

  1. Does faith depend on liberty or on hearing and hearing on the word of god being preached? Liberty helps, and is inspired by faith. Ultimately faith brings liberty regardless of the political/ cultural situation. We are "free indeed".
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