What is Education?

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I read an enlightening article from Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg, writing at the Imaginative Conservative, entitled Are You a Bad Teacher?; which is itself a response to an article from Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, Are You a Truly Bad Teacher? Here’s How to Tell. Rummelsburg says that asking if someone is a bad teacher is the incorrect question. A better question would be, “What is a good teacher?”, and to answer that we have to establish what constitutes an education. Rummelsburg draws a sharp contrast between two competing ideas of education: Christian Classical and Modern education, Modern Public education specifically. He uses the questions proposed by Ms. Strauss to show the difference between the value systems of each education ideal. It is very instructive to see the two compared this way.

Christian Classical starts with the acknowledgment of a student for what they are, imago Dei, an image of God. So, what does it mean to be created in God’s image? The Hebrew root of the Latin phrase for “image of God” means image, shadow or likeness of God. We are a snapshot or facsimile of God. At the very least this means humans occupy a higher place in the created order because we alone are imprinted with godlike characteristics. Our godlikeness is the path to our greatest fulfillment. We will feel the greatest pleasure and wholeness when who God made us to be is fully developed and expressed. There can be no true education without acknowledging this.

In light of this knowledge, a Christian Classical education seeks to nourish the soul on the good, the true, and the beautiful, and rightly so. It seeks to teach the soul to love what is worthy of being loved. The goal is to inculcate virtue and set the student on a path of harmony with his Creator. Once the student knows what is worthy of being loved, and loves it himself, he will seek it out for the rest of his days. We will have started him on a journey of learning, given him a love of learning for the way it brings him closer to God. He will do it joyfully for the rest of his life. If we start with feeding the soul the best food, then everything else will follow naturally.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matt 6:33

Modern Education doesn’t acknowledge the soul. Modern man, for the most part, has done his best to divorce himself from the reality of the soul. It is impossible that this attitude could not affect how he educates. Modern education is no longer about teaching virtue. It no longer concerns itself with the good, the true, and the beautiful. Modern education has been reduced to a system of testing how well students retain the information they are presented. The fact that they are never asked to do anything with the information, that they are not taught a system of truth to evaluate it by (Modern man believes truth is relative so how could it be a proper standard?), means the new way is more indoctrination than education.

Once a student is instructed in the true, the good, and the beautiful, once the truth of God has been placed before them and they have taken it in, they have a proper framework for everything else in life. They know their place in the world, they know how they are to interact with their fellow man, and they have an unerring standard of value to compare everything else they ever encounter by. Only through this filter can a true education occur. Students must be presented with facts and then be allowed to wrestle with them. They must take them and judge them by God’s truth, and then they must place them together into an ever expanding tapestry of understanding. Short of this a student simply has a collection of disparate thoughts swimming around in his head, seemingly without any connection to one another, if he retains them at all.

When we fully grasp what it means to bear God’s image, we are at once struck with the grandeur of our possibilities and the tragedy of our unrealized potential. To be fully human is to fully reflect God’s creative, spiritual, intelligent, communicative, relational, moral and purposeful capacities, and to do so holistically and synergistically. As A. N. Whitehead said, “Moral education is impossible apart from the vision of greatness. If we are not great it does not matter what we do.”

The greatness the Classical Christian seeks is the true greatness of wisdom and virtue. This vision of greatness guides the Classical Christian in the way he educates. Students instructed in the modern way are denied that. They are not taught their place in the world. They are not taught why the world is the way it is or the proper way to view themselves. They are not taught how to relate to God. And they are much the poorer for it. What good is it to “teach” the way we do today? Facts and skills are not the aim of a true education. If we are not leading our students into a right standing with God, what is the point?

“For to me, to live is Christ….”

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4 thoughts on “What is Education?

  1. Homeschooldad, Thanks for talking about this, not enough is said and far too few people understand the basics of natural human learning and that if a teacher doesn’t consider who it is that is sitting in front of him and understand the nature of the human person and the fact that we are designed to cultivate excellence in the virtues, then real learning cannot take place. Most assuredly, authentic learning does not take place in the public classrooms, and sadly by extension, even homeshcoolers who give any credence to modern methods are ill-serving their children to the extent they buy into bad pedagogy. It is a sad day in the West! Keep up the good fight! Yours in Christ, Steven

    • Thank you, Mr Rummelsburg. I completely agree that we have lost our way, but I do see more people coming to the same conclusions discussed in your article and above. I am hopeful that we can change our course.

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