Thoughts on Education

The Christian Ideas of Education, Ed. Edmund Fuller, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957, pp. 265, $4.00.

The Christian Idea of Education is a book compromising the published proceedings of a seminar held at the Kent School in Connecticut in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary. Rev. John O. Patterson, rector and headmaster of Kent School, states the preface: “It is our hope that this meeting may be a means of regaining and restating something of the vision of what general education could be with a Christ-centered culture” (p. viii). In order to accomplish this end, outstanding scholars with Christian roots in Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Protestantism were invited to give lectures and lead discussions at this seminar. The table of contents gives us an idea of the extent to which the subject of Christian education was discussed and the caliber of the discussants.

Dark Age and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century, by Wm. G. Pollard, director of Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies.

Liberal Education and Christian Education, by E. Harris Harbison, professor of history, Princeton University.

The Person in Community, by Alan Paton, author of “Cry, the Beloved Country,” etc.

The Liturgy and Christian Education, by Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., professor of liturgics. Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

The Christian Idea of Education, by John Courtney Murray, editor of Theological Studies.

On Some Typical Aspects of Christian Education, by Jacques Maritain professor emeritus (philosophy), Princeton University.

Faith and Culture, by Georges Florovsky, associated with Harvard Divinity School. Until recently professor of history and theology of Eastern Orthodoxy at Union Theological Seminary.

The Two Sources of Western Culture, by Reinhold Niebuhr, professor of applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary.

God Is The Teacher, by Stephen F. Bayne, Jr., Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia.

Dr. Pollard, chairman of the seminar, does not hesitate to say that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are dark ages. “Our basic difficulty is that we live in an age when our whole civilization has in effect lost the capacity to respond to its JudaeoChristian heritage. Just as the dark age of a millennium ago was a period when Western culture had lost its capacity to respond meaningfully to its Graeco-Roman heritage, so the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are essentially another dark age in which the capacity of response to our other cultural root has now been just as thoroughly lost.” (p. 8) The way we are to emerge, he contends, is to experience a Christian renaissance. He believes such a renaissance is now under way in our culture and that “This is the primary challenge of our age, the challenge to become participants in the twentieth-century renaissance.” (p. 20)

This seminar tries to make a contribution to that end, but such a task is very difficult. There are so “few who respond to it and arc seized by its exhilarating power…” The classical tradition of the past and the scientific advancement of the present have so darkened the modern mind that, like a mule turned blind by working in a dark mine and unable to see even when exposed to sun light, so too our culture cannot respond to the light of God’s Son as long as it insists on working solely within the dark confines of the human mind. The conferees generally agree that no synthesis will save us from our dark dilemma. Dr. Maritain says that if we are to get at the Christian idea of education we must “get rid of those absurd prejudices which can be traced to the Renaissance…” (p.178)

Dr. Florovsky speaks out very strongly for conversion as over against synthesizing. He writes: “The whole structure of the existing culture was determined by a wrong faith.” (p. 229) “The true solution of the perennial problem of the relationship between Christianity and culture lies in the effort to convert the natural mind to the right faith…” (p. 231) This, Florovsky says, St. Augustine appreciated while St. Thomas tried to synthesize.


In this article we cannot list all of the Christian ideas of education delineated throughout the pages of this book. In this brief review we can only whet your appetite to entice you to read not only the lectures but also the excerpts of the discussions that follow them.

A first thought, developed by both Maritain and Pollard, is that “The Christian idea of education is intimately related to the Christian idea of man, and of the nature of human life and destiny. The Gospels interpret these subjects for us.” (p. 23)

A second idea, expounded especially by Murray, is the “ideal of unity as the lodestar of the Christian educator and the Christian scholars too; at least to make an honest attempt to integrate the whole of human knowledge under the primacy of the Word of God, making the Word relevant to all the departments of human thinking as well as, of course, to the departments or aspects of human action in life.” (p. 199) (italics mine )

A corollary to this unity is that “there is no neutrality in truth…A school is not neutral…And a school or teacher who pretends to an insulated neutrality, who tries to stand inviolate and unperturbed while the current of life flows all around him, is a fool if not a knave.” (pp. 264–5)

A fourth idea, related to Bayne’s words quoted above, is that Christian education must effect commitment. Alan Paton confesses that he failed to do this in his time. He hopes that his sons and daughters, now parents, will not make the same mistake. He says “that for the sake of their children I feel they should give them what I would call a more dogmatic education and a more dogmatic upbringing than I myself gave them.” (p. 118)

A fifth unique idea of Christian education is its concept that God has a plan in history which progresses toward its inevitable culmination because of his sovereign providence. Christ’s role in history is supreme, according to Pollard. He says that “An academic community in which a truly Christian educational process was going on would feel itself to be the object of grace and providence at every step, it would sense the Lordship of Christ over all history, not only its own history but the history of the whole world, Christian and non-non-Christian. He is the Lord of Russian and Japanese history as much as he is of American history.” (p. 27) According to Shepherd, all history works toward the new creation. “And furthermore, not only is the resurrection of Christ decisive for the historical process, it is even cosmic in its scope, being nothing less than the first fruits of a new creation.” (p. 134)

A sixth aspect of the Christian idea of education is the dignity of manual labor. “This principle,” says Maritan, “which the monks of former times perfectly understood, was long disregarded by reason of social structure and ideological prejudice. As against such prejudice, let us not forget that St. Paul made a living as a tent-maker—not to speak of Jesus himself, who was a carpenter manual work and intellectual work are equally human in the truest sense and directed toward helping man achieve freedom.” (p. 194)

There is one tragic observation one could make about this seminar. No Calvinist was represented. While New England Calvinism historically had more to do with American education than any other single group, we find the vitality of Roman Catholicism evident in this twentieth century New England seminar on Christian education. What has happened to us American Calvinists? When one reads that we need a Christian Renaissance in our culture, can any true Calvinist help but thrill to the challenge? Has not God brought us here for such a time as this? May it please him to use us to help restore to America the Christian idea of education. Let us work hard to re-establish contact with our culture.