A Very Brief History Of Schooling For Christians

When most Americans think of education and schools we think of buildings, teachers, board meetings, lunch lines, playgrounds, classrooms, and athletic teams. We might be tempted to assume that education has always been done this way but it has not always been so. The modern educational establishment, public and private, secular or Christian, is the result of a long historical development. It will help us to think carefully about what Christian education is if we understand its roots and history.

Educational Structures
Christianity has always had an active interest in the life of the mind but the form or structure of education followed existing patterns. The Apostle Paul lectured for two years in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9) in Ephesus. The post-Apostolic period the early church also adapted existing educational patterns and vocabulary to teach the faith. Justin Martyr (c.100–65) was trained as a philosopher and converted as an adult. He used that training to teach the faith in Ephesus. The catechetical school in Alexandria was famous for its teachers and scholars. In the early medieval period the study of these disciplines was gradually centralized in schools associated with cathedrals or regional capitals of the church. These schools tended to be run by one faculty member who taught both the arts and theology. Virtually all the great theologians of the medieval church lectured and wrote on topics associated with the liberal arts as well as in theological and biblical studies. By the thirteenth century students and teachers (often monks) were gathering in cities such as Paris and Oxford. With this consolidation distinct faculties of arts, theology, and law began to emerge. In the next century universities were founded in several European cities. The Renaissance, best remembered for its return to original texts and classical sources (ad fontes), developed and flourished in the midst of new specialization and professionalization of scholarship.

From the early medieval period the church adapted the classical pattern of the seven liberal arts, the trivium and the quadrivium. The former refers to the disciplines of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar was a way of speaking of the basic stuff of any discipline. Logic is the study of the relations between propositions. We might say it is the study of the way things work. Rhetoric is the study of how to communicate what has been learned. Traditionally the these disciplines were also correlated to childhood development. Languages (and catechism) were taught and memorized much earlier (and more successfully) than they have been in the modern period. Such “grammar” subjects suited younger children’s love for repetition, their “parrot” phase (as Dorothy Sayers characterized it in her 1947 address, “The Lost Tools of Learning”). The middle or, in Sayers’s language, “pert” phase of childhood development correlated to the study of logic. She characterized the final stage as the “poet” phase. The quadrivium refers to the study of numbers in themselves (math), in space (geometry), in time (music), and in the heavens (astronomy). These disciplines would become the cornerstones of all learning for more than 1,000 years.

Until the modern period, for those who could afford it, education usually began at home with a private tutor. From there a student would typically attend what we would regard as a preparatory school and then, a university. Following the classical pattern, students entered university much earlier than they do today. The Enlightenment brought with it educational reorganization including a rejection of the classical pattern of liberal arts instruction. The older approaches were replaced by the public education establishment undergirded by increasingly aggressive post-Christian ideologies.

The Substance of Education
Under the inspiration of the Spirit the Apostle John appropriated and redefined a weighted pagan philosophical term (Logos) to describe God the Son. Following this pattern Christians have always borrowed from their surrounding culture in their educational program. Because we cannot escape our time and place, such borrowing is unavoidable. Christians have also subjected their surrounding culture, and its assumptions, to criticism according to the Scriptures. Sometimes the church has been more astute in its criticism and sometimes less.

In the period before Christendom, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christians engaged paganism as an urgent, existential matter. Many Christians were converts from paganism and all our theologians knew it intimately as they combatted the temptation either to show the compatibility of Christianity with various pagan philosophies or the temptation to attempt to synthesize Christianity and paganism. In any even they had to understand pagan thinking well and most sought to emphasis the antithesis between Christianity theology and the Christian explanation of the world and its pagan competitors. When the Christians confronted unbelief they did so, however, as a politically and culturally powerless minority.

For a millennium Christians thought about education within the context of Christendom, that relation of church and state in which the state not only protected the ministry and the right to teach the faith but also required that everyone affirm Christian orthodoxy and punished those who denied it. Under Christendom, the Christian faith dominated the intellectual life of the West. Christianity enjoyed what scholars now describe as a “privileged” position. Opposing points of view were illegal. Thus, Christians were able safely to engage the existing pre-Christian and non-Christian scholarship and borrow from existing secular vocabulary and educational patterns to teach the faith and a Christian interpretation of the world.

This is not to say that there were no challenges. From the 7th century the Christian West was locked in what would become a one-thousand year military struggle with Islam for control of Europe and the Middle East. As an intellectual and educational matter, however, apart from the challenges by some Muslim scholars to the Christian appropriation of the classical world (e.g., Aristotle) and challenges by Jewish scholars to the Christian use of the Old Testament, for the most part when Christians engaged paganism or competing religions it did so as a matter of history or theory rather than out of active, existential, engagement with unbelief.

The picture began to change, however, in the Renaissance. Most Renaissance scholars (14th–17th centuries) were Christians who engaged in a renewed study of pre-Christian, classical rhetoric, texts, and sources as well as Patristic sources to benefit Christian piety, teaching, morality, and civil life. Some scholars, however, took the opportunity of renewed study of the classics to subvert the dominance of the Christian faith. That challenge that had simmered for a couple of centuries began to come to a full boil in the late 17th century. Through the course of the 18th century there was a great reversal in the West. The minority interest in subverting Christianity became overt rebellion.

From the middle of the seventeenth century Christian appropriation of secular thought became more complicated. Prior to modernity, in Christendom, Christians had been able to borrow and re-define existing secular forms without much obvious danger. Such borrowing became much more difficult, however, because the Enlightenment was aggressively intent on undermining historic Christianity.

In the Netherlands and in North America one response to this aggressive post-Christian ideology was to form distinctively Christian schools. This movement took root among Reformed folk in North America with the formation of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857.

Despite the intentional antithesis between belief and unbelief on which it was founded, the Christian school movement was unavoidably a child of its time. For example, the period in which the Christian school movement developed is often described as the industrial revolution. In this period the factory replaced the farm, and private tutoring was replaced by mass education. At the same time, the public schools and their Christian counterparts were influenced by some of industrial assumptions about mass education, efficiency, and economy of scale, as well as by democratic and capitalistic assumptions about the purposes of education (the production of skilled workers and informed citizens).

Nevertheless, as we continue to wrestle with the challenges of educating our children in the midst of a post-Christian culture, we should be encouraged to know that we are not the first to face these challenges and we can learn from our past to find creative ways to fulfill our duty to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

This post is revised from an essay that first appeared in EVANGELIUM published by Westminster Seminary California in 2009.

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  1. It is good to read an essay on the history of education that reminds us that our efforts at education the covenant children are not unique. It is a struggle in an increasingly hostile post-Christian America and doubly so when well-meaning but confused pastors, leaders, etc. try to pin one type of Christian schooling (homeschool, private, etc.) as the only sanctioned method from God. So, pointing out the borrowing of not just schooling types but particular methods (trivium) is especially helpful.

    But from a Presbyterian (confessional) viewpoint, it is interestingly that in the early 1840s the Presbyterian church was much bothered about the increasingly generic Protestant nature of the local schools. In some States, the bible was no longer read in school. The Presbyterians wanted Presbyterian schools (“sectarian” to use the older language). Hodge wanted “parochial” (church-run) schools for want of local control over the “public” schools. Breckenridge wanted to redouble the efforts at making the common schools acceptable (through inward change, e.g. protecting the use of the bible) for the Presbyterians. In the end, it was overwhelmingly agreed to promote and support (with monies even) Presbyterian schools.

    The picture painted by Hodge during this time, is quite fascinating considering our times today:

    “It is regarded as the simplest solution of a complicated problem to confine the State to secular education and leave religion to be otherwise provided for. This is the ground publicly assumed by the majority of our public men; it has received, directly or indirectly, the sanction of several State legislatures; it is avowed and acted upon by superintendents and commissioners; it is advocated by some of our most influential religious journals, and by many of our prominent religious men. In the year 1842 and 1843, laws were passed by the legislature of New York, forbidding ‘sectarian teaching and books’ to be employed in the public schools. Everything was regarded as sectarian to which any person would object on religious grounds. Every book, therefore, even the Bible, and every sentiment to which the Romanists objected, were banished or expunged when demanded. All religious instruction and prayer have in many cases been proscribed. Teachers have been threatened with dismission, and actually dismissed, for using even the Lord’s Prayer.” “Parochial Schools,” Discussions in Church Polity, 1878, 92.

    His response: ” “It is against this doctrine, which is now so extensively embraced and so effectively acted out, that the great body of Christians in this country, and of the Presbyterian Church especially enter their earnest and solemn protest. They regard it as a virtual renunciation of allegiance to God, as destructive to society, and as certainly involving the final overthrow of the whole system of public education. If the Bible and religion are excluded from our public schools, they and their abettors will very soon be swept away, if the country remain, what it now is, Protestant and Christian…But in the second place the whole theory of separate secular education is fallacious and deceptive. The thing is impossible. The human soul is in such a sense a unit that it is impossible the intellect should be cultivated without developing, favourably or otherwise, the heart and the conscience…This however is not the worst of it. The separation of religion from secular education is not only impracticable, it is positively evil. The choice is not between religion and no religion but between religion and irreligion between Christianity and infidelity.”

    “On Education,” Home, the School and the Church…1855, 92ff.

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