What Is Education?

By Beckett, Lucy | Contemporary Review, January 1993 | Go to article overview

What Is Education?


Beckett, Lucy, Contemporary Review


COLERIDGE in 1797 showed his garden at Nether Stowey to an atheist friend who believed children should be brought up as agnostics in the interests of freedom. 'This is my botanical garden', said Coleridge. 'How so?', said the friend, 'It's covered with weeds.' 'Oh', said Coleridge, 'that's because it has not yet come to the age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries'.

In traditional thought education is the teaching and encouragement of children to know God, to love Him, to praise Him, to fear Him, to want to serve Him. Education is the introduction of children to full human life. Education is the welcoming of children into their inheritance, which is the civilisation of Christendom, a human world of meanings, beliefs, traditions of thought, of art and of skill, a world which is historical as well as natural, made by man as well as created by God. The human world of man's making has always been in some respects in harmony with God's creation, in other respects in jarring discord against it. Education is a personal transaction between human beings in the course of which children begin to hear the difference for themselves, and begin consciously to try to live and work, in themselves and with others, in and for more harmony and less discord.

These are not separable enterprises but a single undertaking. The fact that education is no longer so perceived is its chief enemy, and is responsible for the many threats endangering its continuing adequacy to give the young what they need to become what they have it in them to be, what God created them for. These threats must be identified and countered so that the young will not be deprived of what is theirs to receive and theirs to choose.

The fragmentation of the whole that education truly is has taken place gradually, since the seventeenth century but recently with increasing speed, and has taken place because of the secularisation of our civilisation. The 'liberation' of reason from faith, identified by St. Bernard as a grave danger as long ago as the twelfth century, and the compassionless (because faith-less) over-valuing of classical 'freedom' of thought as the Renaissance moved into the Enlightenment, produced over centuries the familiar pattern of branches of learning in which the young have had their minds and imaginations trained. Some developed from 'subjects' much older than the Renaissance, subjects taught and learned in mediaeval Christendom within the validating context of faith: theology, mathematics, philosophy, law, medicine, music, grammar and rhetoric or the study and practice of writing. Others were added as the disciplines of study through which man understood himself and his world diversified, discovering for him different ways of investigating and ordering his experience, and different kinds of power: history, geography, the physical sciences, politics and economics. Later were added the study of vernacular languages and their literatures, including English literature, alongside the classical languages and literatures. These were the means by which those at school and university were initiated into the intellectual and imaginative world of European civilization; these were the means by which different kinds of truth were pursued and applied. In this long secondary development of 'new' disciplines, the relation of faith not only to reason but to shifting perceptions of truth altered in the minds of succeeding generations, as intellectuals led the flight of western Europe from belief in God. The study of history, for example, at least since Gibbon, has quite properly regarded Christian faith, or its profession, as one among other motives which have inspired human action or inaction for both good and ill. The study of physics since Kepler and Galileo, the study of biology since Darwin, have, equally properly, established truths which, because of a fragmentation to which they have contributed apparent justification, have seemed in profound (and victorious) conflict with Christian faith. …

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