For two millennia, classical Christian education quietly and instrumentally laid the foundations for Christian culture and the West. Then, a century ago, that all changed.
Almost 300 years ago, the teaching in Christians in homes, in churches, and in schools trained up leaders who abolished slavery, challenged tyranny, built a new form of government, and awakened millions to the truth of Jesus Christ in the great awakening. Lives, as a whole, were marked by acknowledgement of God as the creator and sustainer of our universe.
Today, the church and its ideas are in retreat in America. Many Christians are deeply concerned about this loss, but few can offer a long-term solution. We believe classical Christian education can, but first we must understand how.
How did they do it?
The retreat of Christian ideals is the intentional result of a group called “the progressives.” Near the end of the 19th century, they realized that an ancient concept called the “paideia” — a Greek word for which we have no translation, but which essentially forms each human being — was key to cultural influence. And, they wanted to change American culture, not just where it needed improvement, but at its very core. The progressives knew that to reform, they must first remove the existing model of education — classical Christian education.
Until the 20th century, nearly all schools were “classical Christian,” designed to cultivate a Christian Paideia. Paideia is the ingredient in our hearts and minds that sustains our culture, motivates the choices we make, and determines how we see the world. A related idea is “worldview,” but Paideia involves much, much more. It’s about the cultivation of virtues and a high appreciation of truth, goodness, and beauty in the souls of our kids. Classical Christian education’s objective, then, is to shape the virtues and sharpen the reason of students so that these things are in line with God’s will — a Christian Paideia.
The ideas behind classical Christian schools are foreign to modern educators. The model’s transformative power lies in one truth: Christ is Lord of all. So, what does that mean for how we live? How we think about things? What we value and what we love? In short, education is primarily about what we are trained to love, not just what we are taught to know. Put another way, education is about soul formation, not information. And this formation builds a culture. When carefully considered, a foundation this big transforms every aspect of school.
“I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” — John Dewey
With early progressive experiments in the late 1800’s, the power of the American public school to shape culture and the moral affections of students had been discovered. The ancient idea of Paideia proved its power, and the progressives focused on this new ally. If progressives could control education, they could control the national culture and values of our nation.
John Dewey was a leading progressive, and is now recognized as the father of modern American education. He ushered in changes beginning in about 1914 and these changes now dominate nearly every school in America. As you see from the quote above, he was motivated to remake American schools in the progressive image.
Between 1905 and 1945, the progressives took control of the American school system and intentionally re-made it to meet their goals, replacing classical Christian education with progressive education and the educational philosophy that we now accept as truth. When the progressives began work in 1905, they had a problem. The Christian worldview was in the way of their new educational system. So, progressives worked to remove Christian ideas and purposes from the classroom. In practice, the inner workings of the classroom were scrubbed of Christian ideas 40 years before the 1963 decision to remove prayer from public schools came down from the Warren court.
“As long as the public school is in any sort of competition with the church school, religion will not be entirely divorced from the schools.” The New Republic, 1915 (a publication of the Progressives.)
And this was their goal. It wasn’t long before the progressives attempted to make classical Christian education illegal. In 1922, they narrowly lost the landmark supreme court case Pierce vs. Society of Sisters. But, with over 90% of children under their system, they had won the war, if not the battle.
Christians missed the point. We let progressives replace the Christian Paideia in our children with a Progressive Paideia that, while seeming harmless or even good at the time, quietly supplanted Christian ideas over the span of about two generations. Today, the takeover is so complete that it’s assumed. We no longer even know the term Paideia, let alone nurture a Christian Paideia in our children.
While Christians championed other causes, progressives tirelessly and quietly worked to re-form children. And, they have controlled the American education system ever since.
The complete progressive takeover has been noted by scholars. Perhaps Columbia University historian Lawrence Cremin sums it up the best in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, the history of American Education:
“If education was to be the principal engine of an intentionally progressive society, then the politics of education would have significance far beyond the control of schools. Or child saving institutions. Or communication organizations; in the end, it would hold the key to the achievement of the most fundamental political aspirations—in effect, the key to the American Paideia.”
Here, Cremin, who was not known to be a Christian, recognizes that the progressives now hold the key to the American Paideia because they redefined what education was.
As far back as 1928, all that was was left for the progressives was a few decades of mopping up. By 1928, a prophetic statement by Charles Potter signaled “mission accomplished” for the progressives. Potter was a close associate of John Dewey — and both were prominent members of the “Humanist Society.”
“What can theistic Sunday School, meeting for an hour once a week, do to stem the tide of a five day program of humanistic teaching?”
We now know — not much. As a Texan friend of mine once put it, Christians brought a knife to a gun fight. We kept Sundays, and the progressives took everything else. Today, our churches struggle with teaching a different Paideia on Sunday than the progressives instill every other day of the week.
Books have been filled with the details of this transformation, and the nature of Paideia. It is by intentional effort that Paideia, once a well-known concept, is a little known term today.
So pervasive was the impact of the progressives, that even modern Christian schools abandoned the form of education practiced by the Church for nearly two millennia. The mindset of most Christian schools today, as well as the systems that regulate their accreditation, their training, and much of their curriculum, unwittingly reflects the progressive model. They often add a Bible class to a standard progressive program.
The Paideia of the progressives has created the hearts and minds our youth today. The values among Christians in their 20’s and 30’s are telling. Many embrace the “unchurch” movement and prefer to place their reliance on much higher levels of government control, even if those controls impact their freedom and ability to live their faith. Many are tolerant of false doctrine. Most identify with what was once universally considered sinful behavior. Most embrace some form of historical heresy. And, what is saddest, many have a shallow faith and live shallow lives because they have a shallow Paideia.