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Some Thoughts on Education (2) – What about Secular Education?

If we define the chief end of education, as I have, as the formation of the soul and if we define secular not as something anti-religious, but rather simply as something done without reference to God, then secular education is a contradiction in terms. It is not just the content of what is being taught in secular schools, but the assumptions and foundations, that are problematic. For even if secular schools teach virtue and wisdom, when they try to impart these things without reference to God they become idolatrous failures.

“Ok, but come on,” one could argue, “you have tilted the argument in your favor by defining education in a way that excludes the secular. At the end of the day isn’t education just being about readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic?” I grant that if you reduce education to the mere transmission of facts, then it can be secular. But in so doing you reduce the person to a mere receptor of knowledge to be programmed—that is, you reduce him to something less than an eternal being that bears the image of the triune God—you reduce him to something less than he is. You make him into, in the words of C. S. Lewis, a “trousered ape.”

Given the traditional understanding of education it follows that education ought to be Christian. For if education is the forming of a person then that person can only be formed into what he or she was made to be with reference to his or her creator!

Am I saying that all secular education is wrong and you sin if you send your child to a secular school? No. If you want to be a doctor or dentist or get your PhD in virtually anything you will probably have to attend a secular university. Likewise, most Christian schools are not equipped to serve blind or deaf students or other students with exceptional medical or emotional needs; they are also rarely equipped to serve students with exceptional learning gifts or needs. In the same way, Christian education is not financially viable for many Christian families. And, for various reasons, Christian families might feel called to be a part of the secular school system. I have no quarrel with any of these things and I will not for a second declare a law in a place where the Bible is silent. Here is what I would say: for many Christians the assumption is that secular education should be the norm for Christian children and that Christian education is something outside the norm or in some way exceptional. I think that assumption needs to be flipped. Christian education should be the default and secular education should be a thoughtful, intentional departure. 

The main thing secular schools lack is a telos. This is not a new problem! Augustine complained about it in his Confessions, ‘I wept over the death of Dido, but not over the death of my own soul; I learned about that Aeneas guy and his wonderings, but did not realize my own soul was wondering from You.’ Augustine complained that he and other students were taught technical proficiency in their writing, but that this writing was devoid of morality or purpose. Kierkegaard wrote about this too—his argument was that we need to read subjectively. By this he doesn’t mean that the text has no objective meaning and that we should turn it into whatever we want it to be, but rather that when we read we must remember that we are subjects born to know and love and live lives of beauty and faith—not objects to be filled with useful facts.

Let me put this another way. Consider a table. A secular education can talk about what the table is made out of, it can talk about its design, and it can talk about how it was made. But it cannot answer the metaphysical question: what is it for? Is it for grazing when I am hungry, or eating with family and friends? Should it be used for séances, or family devotions? For games with friends, or high stakes gambling? Without reference to an objective moral code there is no way to say something as simple as what a table is for. Instead, we are left with vague platitudes ‘be kind’, ‘if it doesn’t hurt anyone it can’t be wrong’, ‘don’t judge.’ This might not be a big deal when we talk about tables (it also might be a big deal), but think about what happens when we change the metaphor. Think about the human body—the form our Savior bore, the part of us that will die and rot but ultimately be raised unto life everlasting. Secular education can tell us what it is made of, how it works together, and how it is begot, but it cannot and does not tell us how it should be used—why can’t I use to make as much money as I want?, or to engage in a string of romances?, or to “own” my opponents on social media?, or even to redefine its gender?

These are some of the worst and starkest consequences. But even when education is generally moral—think of the type of education that our grandparents or great-grandparents might have had that was infused with “civic religion”—even then, when we take purpose and we take meaning out of education, when we ignore man’s telos and reduce education to the simply instrumental, we make education really boring. Even a great contemporary agnostic thinker like Neil Postman recognized this. To him modern education was like learning all the components of a basketball game but never playing a game—it was all drills, but there was no point to the drills beyond the drills. This prepares humans to be little worker bees, but not humans.

For over a quarter of my life I have devoted the majority of my waking hours to Christian education, so it should come as no surprise that I feel strongly about it. But it is important to remember that in our fallen world every school, even very good schools, have limitations. When we recognize these limitations it is it is tempting to be discouraged. But instead of discouragement, I think it is helpful to remember that schools only play a part in a child’s education. The family, church, and the family’s community all play a part in a child’s education, so if there are things you want to be a part of your child’s education that are not part of his or her school, don’t despair! Seek them out—foster them in your home or cooperate with likeminded individuals to provide those things for your children.