¶ … philosophy of education through a historical and then through an explicitly Christian lens, with a focus on the political role of education, and the Christian philosophy of John Milton. Milton's 1644 works Areopagitica and Of Education are invoked to justify the true Christian purpose of education as being exposure to the sort of free expression and free exchange of ideas that are guaranteed in America under the First Amendment.
What would a true Christian philosophy of education look like? The answer might actually be surprising to the majority of Americans who identify themselves as Christian and seek a Christian education. In 2014, frequently Christian education can seem retrograde, a form of ressentiment and indoctrination that derides Darwinism and has a greater interest in upholding a political consensus than in embodying the ideals set forth by Christ Himself. I propose to examine a Christian philosophy of education through a somewhat unique lens -- that of the greatest Christian writer in the English language tradition, the poet John Milton. Milton is most famous today as the author of Paradise Lost, an epic poem on the theme of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden, still routinely assigned to college English majors. However it is worth noting that in his own time Milton was a distinguished theologian, political activist and polemical writer, and even had some connection to colonial America. Politically Milton would rise to become a high-ranking member of Oliver Cromwell's protectorate government in England, but he was also connected with early religious figures in the American colonies. In particular, the founder of Rhode Island -- and the establisher of the first Baptist Church in America -- Roger Williams was a close personal friend of Milton, and would tutor Milton in the Dutch language while Milton tutored him in Biblical Hebrew. Indeed, Williams's biographer Edwin Gaustad notes that Williams's "friend, the poet John Milton, published a treatise calling for freedom of the press at the same time that Williams published his treatise calling for freedom of religion" (Gaustad 2005, 59). I bring these facts into discussion because it is Milton's treatise on freedom of the press (entitled Areopagitica) as well as his other writings on education that I will use as the lens through which a Christian philosophy of education can be examined. Understanding its relevance and connection to American freedoms in the earliest days will help to demonstrate the vital and enduring relevance of what Milton himself can add to the understanding of a Christian philosophy of education. It is worth noting, however, that this examination will fall into two parts: first I will approach the philosophy of education as a subject in itself, and then I will approach it again, from the angle of specifically Christian education, using Milton's writings as a philosophical guide.
Obviously education exists in most world cultures, under every conceivable religion. The question is what cultures hope to achieve by education. Looking at one of the world's oldest cultures, China, and its ethical code of Confucianism, it is worth observing that education plays a crucial role. Gutek (2011) states that "Confucius believed that human beings had the power to create a beautiful pattern of their humanness through education" (14). This "beautiful pattern" referred to by Gutek is, of course, nothing more than a system of social organization. In Chinese history, for example, it is worth noting that Confucianism presents an ethical code, but is not by definition a religion, because it makes no particular claims about God or anything beyond human understanding: instead, Confucius presented a system of relationships and hierarchies that would make social existence function more efficiently. In particular, however, Confucius emphasizes social hierachies in a way that would be utterly inappropriate for a twenty-first century democratic society: to understand that peasants automatically owe obedience to an emperor may, in fact, be a useful educational goal for the society that is reflected in Confucianism, but it is utterly pointless in a society with a different social structure. The Confucian philosophy of education is meant to provide a structure to a very specific society, and indeed the only way in which religion ever seems...
The idea seems to be that, if society is run according to this order, all will be harmonious. There is not a lot of room for individual initiative, individual self-discovery, individual salvation, or any other concerns that an American reader -- raised in a strongly individualist culture -- might have about this educational system.
To look at a more specifically American model, then, it is necessary to look for classical American examples. In this arena, Thomas Jefferson may be the closest thing that the United States has to a Confucius-like sage (if this suggestion is not an insult to Benjamin Franklin). Jefferson provides us with a highly useful example, because Jefferson is interested in examining the philosophy of education from a purely secular standpoint: given his strong insistence on the separation of church and state, for which he was such a profound legislative advocate, it is no accident that for Jefferson the question of education is about what it would be most purely useful from the standpoint of the state itself to promote by means of education. If we understand from Confucius that, in some sense, every educational platform or syllabus is inherently, if not always openly, an endorsement of some view of the pattern or order which this society hopes to impose upon its own citizens (on the micro level) and upon the world at large (on the macro level), then Jefferson's view of education is a good example of what the generation of Founding Fathers had in mind philosophically. This is the generation that wrote the U.S. Constitution, the legal basis on which the nation still stands, and it would be unwise to assume that these were men without religion: instead, they were men of differing religions who wished to create a country that was founded (among other principles) upon a principle of religious tolerance and acceptance. (We will return to this subject when we look more closely at Roger Williams and John Milton.) This is, of course, why the U.S. Constitution contains no invocation of God in its text, and no reference to religion except in the negative sense -- in the clause that specifies "no religious test" shall ever be required to hold governmental office. These general tendencies are reflected in Jefferson's writings on education. For a good example, we can examine Jefferson's "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," which institutes by legislation an educational system in Jefferson's home state of Virginia. In this document, Jefferson offers some rationale for the purpose of education at the outset:
[E]xperience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes (Jefferson 1778)
The basic principle here is one of maintaining a self-perpetuating status for the tolerant form of government which Jefferson endorses. The goal is not indoctrination, but rather the enlargement of all knowledge for the purpose of skeptically analyzing political power and maintaining an awareness of when it has codified itself as "ambition" and "tyranny." Historically speaking, it is crucial to note the date of Jefferson's legislation here, which falls between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The American Revolution is fresh in his mind -- and it is worth recalling that the British crown, whose rule over America was overthrown by Jefferson's generation, was itself the temporal authority of a state-established church, the Church of England. The specific avoidance of religious precept in education for Jefferson and his generation stemmed from a specific and pained awareness that even religious matters could be perverted by allowing them to slip under the control of the direct source of political power. This was, after all, the earlier rationale for the Protestant revolt against the Papal authority of the Catholic church -- conceived of as a kind of Christian-themed monarchical tyranny -- and for Jefferson's generation, the King of England was no less than the Pope of Rome…
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