At the Veritas Teaching Conference in August we had the privilege of hearing from Leland Ryken of Wheaton College. His closing talk was on ‘The Student’s Calling and the Teacher’s Role in Fostering It’. In this address, Dr. Ryken encouraged the group of teachers, administrators, board members, and parents to think carefully and biblically about what the purpose of education ought to be. With the student in mind, Dr. Ryken addressed the key questions that must be asked—and answered—in any school setting.
What kind of education is best? Behind this basic question there is an even more important one, because the answer to ‘what kind of education?’ depends on the answer to the question, ‘what kind of person are you trying to get in the end?’ The purpose of education is the shaping of people. Indeed, whatever else schools may think they are doing, they are more than anything developing a certain kind of person, with assumptions about the world and about life. The aim of education, Dr. Ryken reminded us, should be that the student will come to value the things they ought to value, and this means that they ought to value what God values. A Christ-centered education will work toward this in all that it does. A secular education will find this goal meaningless and irrelevant, and frequently hostile.
A secular education has, by its very nature, a secular-minded person as its goal. This person will be taught to think, and will unconsciously grow to feel, that the world is, generally speaking, made up of unconnected bits of data that just happen to be in existence. Some attempts may be made to organize some of the bits into broad fields of knowledge, and perhaps even to think of some of the bits (people, animals, the planet) in somewhat ethical—though selectively ethical—ways. But no attempt is made, and indeed cannot be made because it is utterly contrary to this way of viewing things, to account for where the world came from ultimately (and not merely mechanically), why and how it came to be, and—most importantly—what it all means. These questions, which are really the only ones that truly matter, the secular ‘neutral’ schools of our time cannot begin to answer. In fact, they have ruled out from the beginning any exploration of these questions. They will not allow the one, central fact that all Christians hold to, that God created all there is for his glory and for the good of his people. This foundational truth of the existence and creative nature of God is excluded from the very start.
This willful ignorance is claimed as a virtue and it becomes the central idea in secular schools. Students who attend these schools are taught these assumptions accordingly and will, but for the grace of God, believe and live the way they are taught. (While it is true that some secularists certainly know how to find out true things about the physical world, and even to some degree the mental and spiritual world, but their understanding is darkened. They do not—cannot—know what these things ultimately mean.)
I once had the tremendous privilege to spend a summer studying gothic architecture in France. It was, of course, a marvelous experience, but studying gothic cathedrals with the materialists who led the group was eye-opening. Chartres Cathedral for them was only so many bits of structural element, measurements of lengths, degrees, type of stone, dates of construction, etc. The meaning behind it all was lost because is it non-sense to them. There was an element of tragedy in this, because they could sense something more there, but they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—understand it. In the same way, for the secular person and the secularly-minded school the study of creation and all that is in it is an ultimately futile exercise. The person shaped by such a training sees the world in the way his or her training conditions—that is, as so much material only vaguely (if at all) related to a God only partially (if at all) known.
Some, even within Christian educational circles, may adopt these assumptions, promoting merely material means (such as an emphasis on technology tools or a standardized curriculum) though these are only ‘machines’, and can at best be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. But, even then, the means themselves assume an end, they teach an approach to and certain assumptions about, what life and learning is and ought to be. One cannot divorce the process from the result. We become more like what we spend our time doing. Means and methods are not neutral vehicles that transport us to some predetermined site, they are more like food that nourishes us—or poisons us. And so the question still remains, to what end? What is the purpose?
That God might be the most important piece of ‘data’ in the universe is absurd to the secular mind—it is utter non-sense. And yet to the Christian, God is the only sensible starting place, and, indeed, ending place. For us, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10). Education is the process of nurturing souls toward the Good. It is the growth in wisdom, virtue, and godliness that can only come when right content, right teachers, and right methods join together toward the end that the students will love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. This cultivation of wisdom, virtue, and godliness is not a neutral, abstract process. Education is always the education of a person by other persons. The servant is not greater than his master, and as the master is, so will the disciple be. The teacher’s role, then, is to fix his or her mind on the ends, which is the kind of person intended by the education, and within that to foster the student’s calling to love learning and grow in loving God.