Public education neither teaches nor believes in the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, the very pillars of the education that built the western world and flow from Christianity itself.
Let’s get right to the point: many Christians throughout history shared the idea that God is the fundamental source of all truth, whether religious, academic, or otherwise. But what are we to make of a student who has spent 15 to 20 years studying academics without ever considering God’s relationship to these fields of knowledge? Does this kind of education not actually imply that God is the source of all knowledge and truth?
It should really be no wonder that students so quickly abandon the faith after a year or two of university schooling. God has been left out of every meaningful field of knowledge by the end of high school, so it does not take much more prodding to decide that God never really fits in the first place.
In the 1963 court case , the Supreme Court eventually ruled, 8-1, in favor of a father who objected to his son being required to read the Bible in a Pennsylvania public school. This marked the beginning of numerous cases that created a clear precedent for removing elements of religion from schools.
Yet the majority opinion conceded “that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities” (374 U.S. 225).
In other words, while arguing that it was unconstitutional for schools to require student participation in religious exercises, the court decided was equally erroneous to deny all discussions of religion in public education. This, as the majority wrote, would constitute “hostility” toward religion and indirectly prefer secular value-judgments. The one dissenting justice went further, writing that to exclude religion from education is to give “preferential treatment” to those opposed to religion and would help establish “a religion of secularism” (374 U.S. 313).
Following this case, a federal study was commissioned to investigate the relationship between religion and education. They “A curriculum which ignored religion…would appear to deny that religion has been and is important in man’s history.” The point is clear: until recently, no one though “value-neutral” education was even possible. Yet today we insist that it is. Perhaps many of us have been equally convinced that the study of the material world (science) has very little to do with the study of God (theology). Where did we receive such ideas?
A Brief History Of Religion in Schools
In 362 the Roman Emperor Julian issued an edict forbidding Christianity to be taught in any schools while also instituting devotion to the pagan gods. Julian and Christians agreed that whoever controlled education controlled culture.
So, while Christians were barred from teaching in schools, students who were Christians were openly accepted, with the hope that they might be converted to paganism. Since these schools were the primary means by which an individual could achieve elite status and become a part of the noble, political, and ruling class, Julian assumed his edict would eventually end Christianity.
Julian underestimated the role the Christian church and home played in religious and educational training. Consider, for instance, the traditional Christian educational requirements, called catechesis, for a new believer before baptism. Often lasting three years, these catechumens would typically hear orations and interpretations of the entirety of scripture, be taught all of Christian doctrine and retain it through memorization of the early church creeds, while also being held accountable for moral and spiritual formation. Much of this process was overseen by the churches’ most educated bishops and priests, Augustine being one notable leader who spent considerable time teaching these courses.
Indeed, immediately following Julian’s edict, Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, wrote an “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature.” It was heavily circulated throughout the church and became the lasting foundation for classical Christian education for centuries to come. In it, Basil argued that the Greek education provided a very welcome instruction in language, logic, and truth that prepares students for the much more difficult task of reading and interpreting Scripture.
Yes, Basil assumed that reading Homer was preliminary preparation for reading scripture. Or, to put it more bluntly, he thought reading scripture was more difficult than reading Homer. And why should it not be? Homer is only partial truth, and finite. What comparison is that with the infinite truth of the eternal God?
One other significant aid to being trained in the Greek academy was learning the careful work of discerning what is true from what only has the initial appearance of truth. Today, we might ask how one can sift through what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “morass of propaganda” that targets us with every glimpse of the screen.
It is for this reason that Basil suggested that sifting through what is true and what is false in Greek literature was “preliminary training for the eye of the soul.” Of course, Basil would not have been confident that the students could sift through such had he not been convinced that the church’s rigorous religious instruction and formation would provide the necessary theological vision.
The question today, then, is whether we are sending our kids out into the world without properly equipping them with sufficient theological training? That is, do our children have the tools to identify truth when so much of the American church does so little theological training, especially in a society overwhelmed with disinformation?
Indeed, one wonders whether the American church could do any serious study when young Christians are being mentally drained for two-thirds of their days by a secular institution. As the dissenting Justice Stewart put it in : “a compulsory state educational system so structures a child’s life that if religious exercises are held to be an impermissible activity in schools, religion is placed at an artificial and state-created disadvantage” (374 U.S. 313). The point is that the state has ensured that the church gets the leftovers, or, perhaps more accurately, the crumbs.
The Transcendentals Ground a True Education
As a late professor of mine warned, “I fear that we live in an ahistorical age in which we believe that we are so wise that we no longer need the lessons of the past, perhaps most disturbingly of all that technology has put us beyond the lessons of the past” (J. Rufus Fears, “Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life”). The point is that those with the greatest foresight are equally skilled in the study of hindsight.
Today’s public education is not only increasingly distancing itself from great literature but is also ambivalent if not hostile toward virtue as the end goal of education.
Both classical philosophy and Christianity agree that the purpose of education is to prepare one to live the good life, but that such living requires robust preparation. For this reason, the classically trained student is nurtured in the habit of reading literary works that have passed the test of time, and so offer a universal insight into the nature of mankind.
Contrast this with today’s public education, which is not only increasingly distancing itself from the humanities and great literature but is also ambivalent if not hostile toward virtue as the end goal of education. Traditional morality is being devoured by that one enlightened pseudo-virtue of tolerance, also known as indifference.
Bertrand Russell’s first encounter with math captures what so many children are missing: “At the age of eleven, I began Euclid, with my brother as my tutor. This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love. I had not imagined that there was anything so delicious in the world” (“Autobiography”).
It would not seem too far-fetched to suggest that typical students today are rarely incited to such delightful marvel in their own encounters with geometry, much less any other discipline. Yet, for the classicist and the Christian, Russell’s sentiment summarily defines the goal of education, which is, properly speaking, not an increase of but an increase of .
Does Your Child Wonder in the Glory of Creation?
Instead, today’s student (and presumably teacher) probably relates far better to the detached and anesthetized paradigm of Charles Dickens’s “enlightened” superintendent in “Hard Times,” Mr. Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
This is, of course, the necessary outcome of dividing the academic disciplines from their transcendental parents of truth, goodness, and beauty. This leaves none other than cold, passionless, uninteresting facts. And these facts supervene on reality, but they have no ability to tell us anything beyond themselves.
To set our gaze on that which is ordered, harmonious, and ultimately beautiful prepares us for that final beatific vision of the Triune God.
It is for this reason that C.S. Lewis, among others, has suggested that the pinnacle of classical education is to set our gaze on that which is ordered, harmonious, and ultimately beautiful, precisely because it prepares us for that final beatific vision of the Triune God. Perhaps, then, one of the greatest litmus tests for determining schooling’s effects on students is to see, by graduation, whether they still retain that childlike capacity for wonder and awe.
This is where public schools are desperately failing and Christian classical schools are thriving. As G.K. Chesterton quipped in his “Tremendous Trifles,” “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” The loss of wonder and beauty is one of the greatest tragedies in our modern climate of education.
Perhaps the most damning case against public education is that it neither teaches nor believes in the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, the very pillars of the education that built the western world. The consequences of this dichotomy are life-changing: classical schools are producing students who are deeply attuned to these objective realities, while public schools are producing students whose spiritual vision is dimmed to objectivity itself.
In his treatise “The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition,” Dr. E. Christian Kopff contends that, “A society without educated citizens will collapse in times of crisis and will wither away in times of ease and prosperity. Simply put, a civilization without educated citizens will cease to be civilized.”
In times of cultural and decadent decline, the church has risen to lead the way. Because classical education does not merely differ in , but especially in , as its ultimate aim is to leisure in the infinite rather than toil in the finite, it might just be our “last, best hope” to save Western civilization. At the very least, it offers a robust Christian education, whereby young Christians will be prepared, confident, and capable of bearing witness to the gospel in the marketplace of idol gods.
Aaron Ames teaches rhetoric, logic, speech, and literature at Trinity Christian Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. He has published essays with The Imaginative Conservative and Circe Institute.