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Friday, September 28, 2012

Slaughterhouses Of The Mind

The effects of the Reformation on the development of education in the West (and other parts of the world influenced by the offspring of the Reformation, such as Charles Grant and William Cary in India) cannot be overstated. The ball that Martin Luther got rolling in 1517 was something like that gigantic rolling rock that rumbled with increasing momentum toward Indiana Jones in the jungle cave.

Luther expounded upon essential Truths of the Bible which he believed were as comprehensible to cobblers as Kings, if they had it in their common language [something he provided for the Germans]. This conviction, combined with Gutenberg’s press, made The Book accessible to the people, and changed everything. It provoked a compelling reason for commoners' literacy, driven by the revolutionary idea that Truth would set people free.

Common people, if literate, could read Truth for themselves! Wow! And their children could read Truth too—if they were also literate.

They didn’t just view The Book as a collection of interesting bedtime stories. They perceived the Bible as the very Word of God in print. Reformers like Calvin saw it as the underpinning of cities, like Geneva, where Calvin put theology into practice and transformed what was once called “the smelliest city in Europe” to a city on a hill that inspired an entire continent. [Read Tom Bloomer’s recount of this remarkable story here.]
As mentioned last week, Luther also saw the urgency for educational reform. He wanted to replace the schools' fixation on Aristotle with a love for The Book. But Luther had his hands full reforming the Church, and it fell on one who came after Luther to reform education. His name was John Comenius, born in 1592, in Moravia (now the Czech Republic). He was a bishop with the Moravian Brethren who wrote nearly ninety books on education. Many consider him to be the father of contemporary education.

Comenius saw medieval schools as “slaughterhouses of the mind.” His mission was to make schools an “imitation of heaven.” How? By making connections between all subjects taught in school and the larger frame of reference that a biblical worldview provides. As Vishal Mangalwadi notes in The Book that Made Your World, “[Comenius] called his biblical philosophy Pansophia, integrating all wisdom, secular and sacred, into a biblical framework.”
Pansophia? Integrating "secular and sacred?" A biblical "framework?" What’s this all about?

To be continued...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Most Important People Of The Past 1000 Years

To get to the roots of Noah Webster’s convictions about the purpose of education in America, we have to go back further, to some truly radical voices preceding him, upon whose shoulders Webster stood.

When the popular television series Biography, which airs on the Arts and Entertainment channel, addressed the question of the most important people of the past 1000 years, they placed Johann Gutenberg first, Isaac Newton second, and Martin Luther third. In the 1997 millennium issue of Life magazine, Martin Luther was also named the third most important person of the millennium, behind Thomas Edison and Christopher Columbus. When members of the Religion Newswriters Association (reporters and editors writing for the secularized media) were asked to vote for the most significant religious story in the past 1000 years, the event coming out on top was Martin Luther's nailing 95 theses to a Wittenberg church door, in 1517, which “sparked a Protestant Reformation whose results are still being felt."

Most people know of Luther’s herculean efforts to reform the Church of the 1500s. But, as Vishal Mangalwadi points out in The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, Luther also called for a complete overhaul of medieval education. In “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility,” Luther said: “I believe there is no work more worthy of pope or emperor than a thorough reform of the universities. And on the other hand, nothing could be more devilish or disastrous than unreformed universities.” [Emphasis mine.]

Luther said the Church-owned-and-operated Renaissance universities were “places for training of youth in the fashions of Greek culture,” where “little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”

Luther maintained that Aristotle’s books "Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soul, and Ethics, which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.” Luther, who knew and taught Aristotle himself, would only keep Aristotle’s Logic, Rhetoric and Poetics—without commentaries. He wanted the Bible to be the center of the curriculum.

But Luther had his hands full reforming the Church. The reformation of education fell upon one coming after him, born in 1592, in Moravia.    

Martin Luther, holding The Book that made our world,
called for a complete overhaul of medieval education.
"Nothing," said Luther, "could be more devilish or
disasterous than unreformed universities."

Friday, September 14, 2012

It Went Far Beyond The Classroom

Last week I quoted Noah Webster, one of the Founding Fathers of America, and the author of the original Webster's Dictionary of 1828, saying that education which neglected the "aids of religion" in developing character, was "essentially defective." But that's not all Webster had to say on the matter. He also declared: "...the education of youth should be watched with the most scrupulous attention. Education, in a great measure, forms the moral characters of men, and morals are the basis of government.”  

What? Morals are the basis of government? I haven't heard this little detail mentioned in any recent political speeches. But that's what the most influential educator in early America said. He didn't say morals are "a good thing." He said they are the basis of government. The basis!

I have no doubt Webster would have also said morals are the basis of business. And medicine. And the media. And art, or any other topic of concern relevant to education itself. 

He also maintained: “...it is much easier to introduce and establish an effectual system for preserving morals, than to correct, by penal statutes, the ill effects of a bad system.” I think we’re finding this true today.

It is worth noting that when Webster talks about “morals,” he has a specific kind of morals in mind. He has a biblically-based, Judeo-Christian morality in mind. He once said the Bible is “that book which the benevolent Creator has furnished for the express purpose of guiding human reason in the path of safety, and the only book which can remedy, or essentially mitigate, the evils of a licentious world.”

In an atmosphere were virtue is the foundation for all arts and sciences, it’s remarkable how much knowledge can actually be transferred in the classroom! In an environment where students practice self-government under God (the way people in Webster's day thought of "self-control"), not only can a teacher accomplish a great deal of teaching, but students can accomplish a great deal of learning. To bring this one element back into American schools would revolutionize the entire system.

It's important to understand that virtue was not a part of the early American curriculum for virtue’s sake. Many early Americans, particularly the Puritans, had a compelling reason for laying virtue as a foundation for education. It wasn’t just to bring order to the classroom. No, they saw a greater purpose for virtue. It went far beyond the classroom.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Essentially Defective

In stating that the foundation of education is virtue, as I did last week, I don't mean to imply that the facts of math, science and history are unimportant, or that the transfer of information is of little value. Yet, for many students and teachers, education has come to be viewed as little more than information being transferred, or the development of certain study-and-research skills. Our current concept of “schooling” has been reduced to the accumulation of facts, or to the development of certain mental skills and abilities that allow people to be "good learners." 

Many parents, teachers, students, and curriculum designers have bought into the curious notion that students are educated through the development of mental skills or the capacity to learn what one needs to know. But the fact is, such students are only half-educated. To see the development of mental capacities and rational skills as the purpose of education while neglecting underlying virtue is, as Noah Webster put it, “essentially defective.”

In a letter he wrote to David McClure on October 25, 1836, Noah Webster, the most influential American educator of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, a "Founding Father" of this country, and the author of the original Webster's Dictionary of 1828, said: "...any system of education...which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the character of citizens, is essentially defective." 

In the early days of America, nearly all schools were extensions of the church. In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French historian, came to find out what made America tick, he noted that almost all education was entrusted to the clergy. Nearly all American schools were established by Christians for Christian purposes. Developing people of virtue to take active roles in all arenas of human endeavor was one of those compelling purposes.

By the way, with the exception of the University of Pennsylvania, every collegiate institution founded in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War was established by some branch of the Christian church, be it Puritan, Presbyterian, Baptist, or the Church of England. These collegiate institutions in the New World included Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, William and Mary, and Columbia. What’s notable is that prior to the Revolutionary War, there were nine chartered, degree-granting colleges in the Colonies while in mother England there were just two: Cambridge and Oxford.

To be continued...