The Philosophical Problem With Modern Education

Say anything about education and you’re likely to ruffle feathers. My wife and I learned this the hard way when our eldest son was in kindergarten. Simply by weighing the options and deciding to home-school him, we instantly offended a couple of our friends who were public-school teachers. They understood us to be passing judgment on the whole public-school enterprise.

one-room-school-houseAnd in a way, we were. But not in the way they thought. A critique of the system is not a critique of everyone in the system. If I lament the inefficiency of the US Postal Service, that doesn’t mean I hate the mail carrier. And we need to get this straight so we can have honest conversation about post offices and schools and a hundred other things.

So at the risk of offending everyone, I want to start some honest conversation about our schools. And about the philosophy of education that undergirds modern schools. And I want to do this in the service of – spoiler alert! – bringing a new type of school to the Omaha area.

Let me start by saying that I cherish Christian freedom in this area. I’m thankful that Christian parents are free to arrive at differing conclusions about how to educate their children. At the same time, I do believe that a Christian worldview has implications in this area. Education is not neutral. It proceeds from a worldview – a set of basic assumptions about reality. Or, to quote James K.A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom:

“Behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.”

What does that mean? Well, a pedagogy is a method or practice of teaching. And a philosophical anthropology is an understanding of human nature. So Smith is saying that how we teach reveals our understanding of human personhood. Our fundamental assumptions about humanity are manifested in our approach to education.

So let’s consider the modern secular approach to education. What view of human personhood does it suggest?

First, consider the average school building. In our great-grandparents’ era, one-room schoolhouses were still common. But today, we send our kids to sprawling buildings in order to generate an economy of scale (more production, less overhead). Second, consider the class schedule. The average school day might consist of 8 periods, each 43 minutes long, with 6 minutes between bells and a 29-minute lunch period. And there’s no clear connection between 3rd period US history and 4th period Algebra, except for the fact that both subjects will be “on the test” (whether we’re talking about an elementary-level state achievement test or a college-entry SAT exam). Third, consider the stated goal of modern education (or, as Aristotle would call it, the final cause). What is education FOR? So that students can a) get into college, b) earn a college degree, c) secure a good-paying job, and d) make more money than they would otherwise. I dare you to pay attention to how your local school describes its purpose and see if it differs significantly from this basic narrative.

At the risk of putting it rather starkly, this pedagogy reflects an assembly-line view of human personhood. What kind of end product do we want? We want citizens who are good consumers and faithful economic producers. We want students who will grow up and take their place in the social order, facilitating the worship of our cultural idol: prosperity. At the root of our modern educational system lie three basic philosophical assumptions:

  • Mechanism: man is a machine. There is nothing mysterious, immaterial, or soulish about us. We are nothing more than complex biological machinery. (Therefore, education is functional, not formative; it’s about making the human machine work better, not about shaping the loves of the human soul in accordance with truth, goodness, and beauty).
  • Utilitarianism: The real value of anything is measured by its usefulness (utility). If it’s not useful, it’s not valuable. (Therefore, education exists to help people be useful, productive members of society).
  • Nihilism: “All is vanity.” There is no ultimate meaning or purpose to human existence. (Therefore, the subjects in school are not connected as a unified whole in a meaningful universe, but are disparate pieces of knowledge to be collected and used for personal advantage. And once you’re done with school, “get all you can, cause you only live once”).

To be clear: I realize there are thousands of public-school teachers and administrators who do NOT espouse this view of humanity. I’m thankful for thousands of Christian students swimming upstream against this worldview. I’m thankful for faithful Christians seeking to be salt and light throughout the school system, honoring Christ and holding forth a different anthropology. But the exceptions prove the rule. There’s no doubt that this is the philosophical anthropology driving the modern educational establishment at its highest levels.

By contrast, the Bible’s anthropology is quite different. Scripture teaches that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Whatever else we say about a human being, we must acknowledge that every human is an image-bearer of the Creator. If we don’t, our anthropology is false. And that’s the problem with the anthropology reflected in modern schools: it’s false. It proceeds from an incorrect understanding of human personhood. And thus it’s destined to fail. Modern education may in fact produce men and women who can function in a mechanistic society, but they will be “men without chests,” as C.S. Lewis so presciently put it:

All the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible… In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (from The Abolition of Man)

The Abolition of Man was a book about education. And Lewis was making same the observation I am making now: we long for qualities (honor, virtue, enterprise) that our pedagogy makes impossible. If we want human beings with virtue, we need a pedagogy that cultivates virtue.

In other words: we need education that starts from a correct anthropology. We need schools that see education not as the building of skills, but as the ordering the soul’s affections in accordance with what is true and good and beautiful. We need curriculum that is oriented not toward “passing the test,” but toward forming virtuous, thoughtful, well-rounded human beings. We need to teach art and music and literature not for the sake of their utility, but for the sake of their beauty.

I champion any and all efforts to reform the current public-school system in this direction. But I also suspect that those efforts will ultimately fail, because we are dealing with a worldview problem. The problem won’t be solved by better methods. It will only be solved by a shift in the philosophical anthropology of public education. And apart from a massive movement of God, that’s not likely to happen. Secularism is too deeply entrenched at the institutional level.

Therefore, living redemptively in our culture means that Christians must create alternative approaches to education. This is what we’re trying to do in Omaha with our proposal to launch a classical, collaborative Christian school in the Fall of 2016. This proposal doesn’t solve all the problems in American education. But “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” I trust that this post – and this effort – will get Christian parents thinking more deeply about the education of their children. And I hope many other leaders will be emboldened to innovate in the realm of education. The future of America lies not in the reform of the public schools, but in the creation of alternative schools that can save civilization when secularism caves in upon itself. And if you don’t believe that will happen… I recommend a class in the history of Rome.


Leave a Comment

  1. Excellent article, I agree, this is a worldview issue, and layers of presuppositions under gird PE. Can you expound on your sentence, “we long for qualities (honor, virtue, enterprise) that our pedagogy makes impossible. If we want human beings with virtue, we need a pedagogy that cultivates virtue.” In light of God’s common grace, and the imago dei, would you agree that elements of honor, virtue, and enterprise shine through PE, although marred?

  2. I would love to spend some time discussing this with you. For now, I’ll leave a quick comment since I don’t have much time. I’ll start by saying that I’m not arguing that public school is the best education for our kids. I’m going to argue that that’s not the point.

    I think you’re viewing this wrong. You wrote, “The future of America lies not in the reform of the public schools, but in the creation of alternative schools that can save civilization when secularism caves in upon itself.” Are you saying WE can save civilization? Are you saying that if there’s a broken, human created system we need to, as Christians, create a better system that will save civilization? Aren’t all human created systems broken and they will all come crashing down? I don’t think we’re called to remove ourselves from all of those systems and create new ones.

    I think we should have a paradigm shift in how we think about this. The new Christian school may be the best thing ever, but, no matter what, there will be thousands and thousands of families that can’t be apart of it. Even if you create ten or twenty of these schools, the vast majority won’t, or can’t, participate. Wouldn’t it be great if churches created opportunities that could supplement where public education is lacking – summer programs, evening activities, Saturday school – to teach correct worldview? This would open the doors to a lot of kids/families that need public schools and not remove Christian families from the public schools. Christian families would be engaging culture and being able to support one another and the growth and development of their children.

    Now, think about the people at Coram Deo (and everywhere else in Omaha) that, for whatever reason can’t send their kids to this new Christian school or have no other option beside public school and you, in this post, are telling them that their kids are going to become “men without chests” and that they need to evaluate how they are educating their children. It really seems like the wrong way to approach the whole education debate.

    Okay. That’s all I have time for right now.

  3. Paul, I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for engaging the subject.
    Your 2nd paragraph is ultimately a question about eschatology, which is a larger topic that will have to wait for a later date…
    Certainly the downside of a school like this is that not everyone can take advantage of it, because 1) it’s only one school 2) it costs money. But I think your proposed solution only highlights the problem. If the solution is for churches to “create opportunities that could supplement where public education is lacking – summer programs, evening activities, Saturday school – to teach correct worldview” – you’re agreeing that worldview is the problem, and assuming that problem can be solved with a few after-school programs. I am suggesting that worldview is THE most important aspect of education, and that there is a philosophical problem at the root of modern education that won’t be solved with work-arounds. Can these be helpful? You bet. Let’s create them. But they’re a band-aid, not a solution.
    The only reason that “the vast majority can’t participate” in alternative schooling models is because the current system is rigged, governmentally, against school choice. If the government implemented school choice, the possibility of a holistic classical education would be available to the whole market, and you’d see amazing solutions start coming forward. Again, these are systemic problems that can only be solved at the highest levels, and so you and I are forced in the meantime to do the best we can with what exists.
    Finally, I am certainly not in this post telling people that their kids are going to become “men without chests.” I am, rather, pointing out that the results we want (virtue, industry, honor) are not what the system is built to produce. Christian parents are absolutely morally obligated to raise children of virtue, industry, and honor – and by the grace of God they will succeed in doing so! But if they choose to educate their kids in the public schools, that success will be in spite of the school, not because of it. They will succeed because they supplement the false worldview-shaping at the school with work-arounds of the sort you propose. (By the way, I myself am a product of this sort of “hybrid” model – public school education supplemented with godly Christian parents who taught me truth – and I am grateful for it).

  4. “….I recommend a class in the history of Rome.” Indeed.

    “The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:

    Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;

    Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;

    Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;

    Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;

    Increased demand to live off the state.”

    ― Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

  5. I feel like this would be a move into the sectarianism direction. People with higher social economic means isolate their kids from other kids. This is also a paradigm shift away from Mission. Where better to be missional and train my kids to be missional than public schools?

    Ultimately, my kids’ academic output takes second place to them worshipping God and caring about lost souls.

  6. Mike:

    It certainly COULD become a way of isolating from others. Which is a mistake only careful vigilance will prevent. Humans can turn almost anything into a vehicle for comparison and isolation.

    I hear what you’re saying in your second point, but to say a private school is a paradigm shift away from mission requires a quite narrow conception of mission. Remember, the mission is making disciples. That takes lots of shapes and forms.

    • Thanks for your response. At the end of the day, Christians should be free to homeschool, public school, or private school. (Yes, I use the Oxford Comma.)

      However, at our church it does sometimes feel that we’re not free to choose public school. The vocal majority at Corum Deo seems to be homeschooling/private school, and I’ve felt like people think I’m crazy for working at a public school and planning to send my kids there.

  7. I have experienced public school in north Omaha, being homeschooled and also private school. I’m so thankful to attend a church that is willing to open up discussion to such a difficult subject because it’s shaped me in so many ways. One frustration I have is with so many friends and families that say they can’t afford alternative options. I know in a lot of cases that is the absolute truth but in a lot of cases it’s also choosing your priorities. If more people were willing to participate in something like this who have the means, my hope and prayer is that it could become more affordable. Sorry if this isn’t grammatically correct, I have a lot of different educations I can blame:)

  8. I love this!
    Please do not stop the dialogue between the concerned parties. I am so very interested to hear of each of your opinions and references for and against this concept (meaningful education). Frustration aside; again, please do not discontinue this dialogue for emotional or perceived relational effect!
    We (Julia and I) are in the midst of this very discussion and appreciate all input regarding this important topic.
    I very much look forward to hearing more from each you –
    In brotherly love and affection,
    James Gallup

  9. As stated before: I certainly don’t doubt the capacity for negative, critical judgments among any human community. Which is why it’s so important to keep the gospel at the center and not anything else.

  10. Three points:

    First, I think we can all agree there’s a lot more to life than going to a good college and acquiring worldly possessions. The author mistakes an American worldview as “the” secular worldview. As an atheist, it’s my duty to point out that, unlike specific denominations of Christianity and other religions, secular people have no obligation to share a worldview. This portrait of utilitarianism, etc. may happen to claim to be secular, but the problem with it is not its secular quality. The problem is that it fails to adequately prepare our children for leading meaningful lives.

    Second: aren’t the virtues that this particular Christian worldview encourages ultimately utilitarian? We want our schools to foster honorable, thoughtful, and otherwise decent human beings because those kinds of people function better in our society (I would also add that these qualities are not uniquely Christian, though I don’t think the author intends to claim that they are).

    Third: like it or not, the schools are run the way they are because of the democratic process. Not only that, but countless people (the author included, and I applaud him for this) are constantly working to refine our education system via democracy. Is the author suggesting supplementing his judgement for the judgement of our collective culture? Especially considering the religious component of his desire to change what children are learning, the very idea is antithetical to American governance. If you are not a fan of the system, you are free to remove yourself from it. I was home schooled in a secular manner, and the author has chosen home schooling for at least one of his children. People are also free to, as the author suggests, found alternative schools. We have the privilege of living in a country where we have choices, and minority worldviews like that of the author can be taught and lived without penalty, and without being forced upon others.

    I’m interested in genuine and respectful discussion, so please let me know if there’s anything you might want to add, contest, or comment on relating to my points.

    • Peter,
      You are correct that, ” these qualities are not uniquely Christian.” That is because all of us are made in the image of God.

  11. I was grateful for the way this post highlighted philosophical issues related to education. As a christian public school teacher I want to love poor kids in our society. I also know that sometimes uninvolved parents will not fill out an application for say, a high quality neighborhood charter school, let alone a classical Christian school. It’s my opinion that school choice won’t help poor kids whose parents are uninvolved but instead ends up providing funding for richer folks who could already afford a private education without government help. I am grateful to live in a society with a high literacy rate and thankful for the many common graces in public education even if there are some philosophical issues in the system (isn’t everything this side of Christ’s return created good but tainted with evil?). I wish you well in your educational endeavors and hope that you remember the poor as you do so. Blessings to you!

  12. Great article. Thank you. As a homeschool mother, I receive a lot of judgement from the public school crowd for not being salt and light in the city, for being selfish. I can’t seem to ever have an honest conversation. Just mentioning a lack of neutrality in the public schools will get me thrown in the legalistic camp. This article was encouraging to me.

  13. […] about this unbelievably common practice, but underneath the move is a massive discussion involving philosophical assumptions about the modern public school system that probably need to be rethought with wise guidance and with great prayer. The point is, we […]

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