At a recent prospective student weekend at New Saint Andrew’s College (Moscow, Idaho), Dr. Roy Atwood, the college’s president, discussed with visiting parents and students some important principles for ‘thinking strategically’, as he puts it, about choosing a college. Dr. Atwood began with some general questions for us to consider: How will your education help you to fulfill your various callings (not just find a job)? Will you understand how all things cohere in Christ, and be able to teach that to the next generation? Who do you want to be 20, 30 or 40 years from now? As we discussed these things it occurred to me that if the decision about how to educate college-aged students requires this kind of thinking (and I think it does) how much more is it needed for children too young for college and thus much more in need of careful guidance and nurture? It is critical that parents have a very clear understanding of what the purpose of education is and how education shapes children’s minds and hearts, and that they are prepared to choose wisely for the education of their children. Classical and Christ-centered education seeks deliberately to work in harmony with the culture of the home to develop young adults who go into the world prepared to honor and glorify Christ in all they are and do.
The apostle Paul in the Ephesians passage above stresses the responsibility of parents to bring up their children in the paideia of the Lord. Paideia (translated ‘discipline’ in the ESV) is a term that refers to the entire training and education of children. This involves the cultivation of the mind, as well as the virtues, and even the body. It encompasses the formal education, as well as on-going discipline, and general enculturation. This is not limited to discipline in the sense of correction; although it includes this, the concept is far broader. Paideia expresses a classical educational ideal to which Christians gave a new and deeper meaning. It involves all that the child is and is becoming. What Paul is enjoining is the raising and educating of children through and into an all-pervasive culture of thought and action that is pleasing and honoring to the Lord.
Modern education, at least since the late 19th century, has stressed job training or mere work skills over the classical and Christian ideal of paideia. There were many reasons for this radical change, but generally speaking there has been a strange alliance of modernist anti-traditionalism and pragmatism, socialist leveling tendencies, and corporate and statist proponents of a productive labor force. This view of education permeated colleges and universities, and has from there filtered down to lower education. While realizing one’s calling in a career can be a God-honoring result of the process of education, a job isn’t the purpose of education any more than one learns to read in order to read the fine print on a job offer. Classical and Christian education seeks to make one useful, as well, but by equipping the whole person—mind, soul, body—for service to Christ and community.
Martin Luther’s advice to parents on the subject of school selection is perhaps even more relevant today than when he gave it during the time of the Reformation:
I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them on the hearts of youth. I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution in which men and women are not unceasingly occupied with the Word of God must be corrupt.
Luther reminds us that all education enculturates, that is, every school forms those being taught into a way of living. Students spend six-plus hours a day, five days a week, in a place that is training them to desire certain things, to think and live in certain ways, and to make assumptions about the way people and world are, or ought to be. This is unavoidable and incredibly powerful. It is a shaping that stays with a student for a lifetime, and it goes on whether the school—or the parents—like to admit it or not. Like tea in boiling water, or dye to a cloth, the life and culture of a school seeps into the student, flavoring and coloring in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
If this enculturation, this education, is formed by a desire on the part of the school to seek the wisdom of God and to honor him in its practices and its curriculum, then it is a blessing both to parents and their children. However, if the school is not deliberately and intentionally striving to cultivate godly young people, then that school is not merely a neutral information factory, it is working actively to form the student to some other use than to serve Christ.
There is no escape from this process—there is not meant to be. Parents have a high calling, the glorious and weighty privilege of bringing children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Children will grow, they will learn, they will imbibe and embrace a view of the world and who they are in it. Christian parents ought to choose the education of their children wisely so that they will grow and learn in a way that will be a blessing to them, to those around them and to generations to come, and, ultimately, honoring to God.