December 1, 2010

The Family’s Mandate to Educate (Part 1)

The Crisis of Faith in Public Education

There is a crisis of faith in the public education system, and to understand it we need to take a look at the historical developments and philosophical changes.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

Crisis of Faith in Education

A Newsweek article of Feb. 11, 2010 began with an appeal to common sense: “It doesn’t take a degree from Harvard to see that in today’s world, a person needs to know something about religion.”[i]  Its exquisite irony became plain when the author drew attention to the Harvard faculty’s surprising rejection of a proposal to mandate at least one course in religion for its undergraduates despite its obvious contemporary relevance.  A sympathetic interpretation might explain it as a principled stance, announcing that true education doesn’t give way to fashionable trends. 

Yet at least one commentator quipped that it exhibited the faculty’s own peculiar ‘crisis of faith’.[ii]  Perhaps he had in mind its consonance with the changes made decades before to drop the words ‘for Christ and the church’ from the university’s own ancient motto, Veritas, presumably to avoid the assumed narrowness of education informed by the Christian faith.  It appears that the judgment of narrowness may itself have been the product of a particular faith-perspective, and a prejudiced one at that.

Separation from Origins

Observations about the departure of institutions of learning from the Christian faith are not new in the Western world, and certainly not restricted to Harvard.  The institutional separation of Canada’s public universities from their confessional origins took place at various points over the twentieth century.  This was not the end of the dying of the light however.  To choose just one example, in 1990, all overt forms of religiosity were removed from the Ontario public school system.  To promote tolerance – in what was described as a matter related to the principle of ‘the separation of church and state’– it seemed that the last vestiges of Christianity, which had till then been part of the status quo in Canadian public education, would no longer be tolerated.[iii] 

There were muted objections at the time, but for many Canadians, there is a pattern of giving credibility to experts who are civil enough to make benign gestures towards them, and this one was coupled with the promise of being in the vanguard of multicultural and inclusive gestures.  The new terms of forming our polity were presented in the terms of politeness.  New equity and inclusivity policies have recently followed on its heels.  Alarm bells are ringing as we see the fulfillment of the warning made over fifty years ago, that in the public system even “those areas still termed democratic are losing the freedom which gives meaning to democracy because they are losing that sense of direction which gives meaning to freedom.”[iv]

The Loss of Academic Freedom

How did it come to pass that in a few short years freedom of religious expression and adherence to Christian moral character were denied to Christians in the name of democracy?  Since academic freedom can be traced at least as far back as the Christian liberal arts universities of the Middle Ages and the insistence on teaching of Christian moral character in schools as long as there has been a church, the irony is particularly heavy.

Public Education in Canada

The obvious answer is that this sad state of affairs did not develop overnight.  Seen from today’s vantage, one might say the public education system in Canada developed at the expense of the church.  But a closer look at its historic development betrays a different picture.  When the public system was developed in the nineteenth century in Canada, what was at stake was not whether the Christian faith should be brought to bear on education – there was no dispute about that – but rather whether the well-heeled established church, represented by Bishop Strachan and the Family Compact, would continue to exert a stranglehold over it. 

The Religious Roots of Canadian Public Education

The man given credit for opposing Strachan and creating a public education system in Canada, Egerton Ryerson, was a Methodist minister, who modeled the new Canadian system chiefly on the one developed in Germany by Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s deputy.  Far from a move towards secularization, the defeat of the Family Compact resulted in a proliferation of denominational colleges, and a concerted attempt to extend the Christian faith across class divides and to create ‘a common patriotic ground of comprehensiveness and avowed Christian principles.’[v]   In other words, the close relationship between the Christian faith and education was reorganized and extended across the socio-economic divide rather than rejected.  The stone set above the entrance to Victoria College, for which Ryerson was the first President, reads, ‘the truth shall set you free.’

The Error of Modern Education Philosophy

In the interim, the most significant movement in public education in North America had emerged in the form of the educational philosophy of John Dewey.  Dewey's philosophy has been described as 'romantic progressivism', and it is not wrong to view it as a rival religious perspective rooted in the ‘natural supernaturalism’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his English and German literary inheritors.  For the sake of brevity, it might be useful to employ a summary of its tendencies.  It takes three words.  Nature is good.


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “The Family’s Mandate to Educate,” in the Winter 2010 issue of Jubilee.


[i] Newsweek, Feb. 11, 2010.

[ii] Albert Mohler, NewsNote: Just How Secular Can an Education Be?, Feb 15, 2010.

[iii] The appeal to a ‘separation of church and state’ was originally used by eighteenth-century American secessionists to oppose the establishment of a national church in the United States like that found in England. The present appeal is made to advance a razed earth policy towards any vestiges of Christianity in a state that has no established church, with a clear intention to silence Christian participation anywhere in the public square.

[iv] Hilda Neatby, So Little for the Mind: An Indictment of Canadian Education (Queens-McGill P., 1953). p. 318.

[v] Cited in William Westfall’s Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario (McGill-Queens Press, 1989), p.6.

Resource Type:
Media Format: