Education History: Connections

Possibly interesting stuff, perhaps not dead-on topic. We are at the Yard Sale of the Mind, after all.

You know how when you get a car, you immediately notice all the similar models driving around, that had, being just cars and all, previously escaped your notice? No? Well, whenever I delude myself into thinking I have an actual idea, it seems I notice similar ideas everywhere. On the one hand, it is comforting to think I’m not *just* a crazy poser; on the other, hey! That was *my* idea!

Regarding the Postmillennialism mentioned in yesterday’s post, David Warren did a post on Dickens, who was achieving literary success in England just as the Second Great Awakening was winding down in America. Many have noted the Romanticism in Postmillennialism, which elevates feelings over thinking. By comparison to the Puritans, with their rigid logic of predestination and the bondage of the will, and even Unitarian Universalists, and their equally logical, if less dour, conclusion that all are predestined to salvation, the rising sects of the Second Great Awakening had little use for thorough, logical theology. The Latter Day Saints, a pure product of that Great Awakening, are perhaps the cleanest and most Romantic of the participant sects. As a Mormon missionary will tell you, you question and study and pray hoping for that moment when the Spirit touches your heart, and gets your brain out of the way.

Which is almost correct. St. Teresa of Avila, who reasoned her way to faith as a child, and persevered and advanced despite no consolations – no sense of the Spirit touching her heart – for a decade and a half, and then was cautious ever after about her feelings even as she was enveloped in experiences of God’s love, is the full expression of the underlying truth.

As Chesterton points out somewhere: A lie is never so dangerous as when it is very nearly true.

Anyway: today Mr. Warren writes, to clarify his ‘paradoxical recommendation’ of Dickens:

He was among the writers (and artists generally) who contributed subtly to our post-Christian worldview, based on emotion, not remorseless thought. Who made, say, Christmas about giving presents to little children, rather than centrally about the birth of Christ. That doesn’t mean his works should be suppressed. On the contrary, they should be read and enjoyed, with this thought in mind. He moralizes, but in a way that may actually subvert morality, by substituting “feelings” for the hard truths, which are to die for.


There is a not-entirely-subtle rejection of rationality that permeates education reformers from Luther through Fichte and on to Harris and Dewey. Luther famously distrusted argument; Fichte rejected the very idea of objective reality and wanted education to destroy the free will of the student (there is no such thing as reason without a free will); Harris speaks of “substantial education” as producing automata.; and Dewey was a Marxist, asserting the bondage of the will (and thus, reason) to class consciousness. Masked in Enlightenment optimism, especially as expressed in Americanism, this embrace of Romanticism and its reliance of feelings is, at its roots, a type of despair. In its more positive form, it is despair of our human powers, as when we recognize that our best efforts most often still fail, and thus we are moved to await a Savior; its darker manifestation is the paradoxical belief that the ignorant and immoral can be fixed if only we Enlightened can control them through education. This tyrannical optimism becomes murderous despair when it encounters objective reality in the form of real, sinful human beings, especially the specimen in the mirror. It is not surprising, in this context, that objective reality was rejected by Fichte and Marx. Their projects collapse unless they can be preserved from contact with the real world. Communism has never been tried, right?

I was wondering who Henry Edwin Dwight, the fellow who wrote Travels in the North of Germany 1825-1826, was. He lived a short life, and there were no biographies I could find on the web. But then, in other readings, I came across educator and reformer Timothy Dwight, part of a large and illustrious Dwight clan. Henry E. was the 7th of 8 sons of Timothy, who was president of Yale. Timothy Dwight, while ‘tied to the past’ according to Blinderman, pitched for women to be educated – although pitch is all he did – and imposed a degree of discipline at Yale. According to numerous critics, including a number of graduates, college life in American at the turn of the 19th century was a joke, with rich playboys and rowdies learning very little yet getting awarded degrees anyway. Dwight sought to put an end to this at Yale.

Seems we’ve come full circle. Funny, that.

Finishing up American Writers on Education Before 1865, by Abraham Blinderman. Published in 1975, it reviews what American writers had to say about educational from the colonial era to the Civil War – kind of like what the title might imply. Anyway, it is enough of a product of modern academia that Progressive is used unironically as a synonym for ‘good’ and conservative for ‘bad’. As those terms were understood in 1975. Anything that tends toward or foreshadows the heights of 1975 academic thinking is of course praiseworthy; anything that contradicts it is backwards. Thus, the gradual secularization of education is a good thing, even though the point reached by 1865 is merely an attempt at ‘mere Christianity’ circa 19th century America: Episcopalians would grudgingly make room for Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and even look the other way for Methodists, Baptists and Quakers, who would likewise tolerate the stuffy, way too papist Episcopalians. The non-sectarian schools of the era all used the King James Bible and history texts that painted the Church as the Whore of Babylon and the Reformers as heroes. One simply agreed not to think too hard about the mutually exclusive doctrinal issues that created the myriad sects in the first place, let alone discuss them in school. The unifying principle was hatred of Rome.

In this sense, the ultimate secularization of the school was partly the fault of Catholics, who were the one large group of people at the time excluded from the ‘mere Christians’. Under pressure from Catholics, the common schools jettisoned the KJV and, eventually, all talk of Christianity. (And, eventually, so did the Catholic schools, pretty much. But that’s another story.)

The universal complaint of these early American writers is the low quality of the common school teachers and facilities. Teaching was a low-paying, low respect job, which therefore often fell to those with few other prospects, or those who needed a little cash before going on to a real career. Since school funding was left up to local communities, they tended to pay the teacher as little as possible, and equip the schoolhouse as cheaply as possible. If only – if only! – the state would tax everybody to pay for schools, give decent salaries to the teachers, and force all children to attend school, the Millennium of peace and justice was sure to dawn right here in America, the most enlightened and free country in the world. Education theorist never seemed to notice the conflict between means and ends: we will make everybody free and just by forcing them against their wills to fund and send their kids to school.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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