Education & Moral Development

Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” Many, if not all, temptations could be described as the desire for an appropriate thing in an inappropriate way.

Think of it, even the “worst sins” – murder, sexual deviation, etc. – are perversions of things that are good and right in and of themselves. Murder is usually a perversion of justice, adultery and illicit sex is a perversion of love and sexual desire. So, when we are tempted, we are being drawn to counterfeits and, when we succumb, it is generally because we preferred to counterfeit to the real, the knock-off to the original.

In other words, it would be accurate to say that giving in to temptation is rejecting goodness and beauty in favor of what only appears to be good and beautiful. Resisting temptation, then, is largely learning to know goodness and beauty.

But, is it this knowledge enough? Socrates, in his Apology, indicated that if he was guilty of the charges laid against him, he simply needed to know what to do. If he had the right knowledge, he would do rightly. Knowing the good/right would produce good/right action.

Certainly, knowledge of what is good and right, on some level, is necessary but is it enough? Could it rightly be reduced to this, one could make the argument that man’s real problem is that he is poorly educated.

If man is, by nature, sinful, then poor education is not his ultimate problem. And, if evil is more than bad information, then it cannot be cured simply by inserting right information. Both are the case – man is sinful and evil is more than an information problem. Education, as vital as it is, is no messiah.

What Socrates suggested, that knowing the good and right would make man good and right, is insufficient. Granted, this is a wildly simplistic summation of Socrates, but the observation still holds true. The Socratic approach to education, what we would call classical education, taken on its own, does not take into account the nature of man or evil, and is therefore insufficient.

Now, we would certainly agree that the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty are marvelous goals. But, we believe it is a marvelous pursuit because we know, ironically, that those things are good, true, and beautiful. However, the pursuit of those things in a purely classical sense can only proceed so far.

If man is to begin to comprehend what is good, true, and beautiful, he must have an absolute standard guiding his way. He cannot be the standard, yet this seems to be the paradoxical position of non-Christian classical education. No matter how loudly one insists that there are objective standards of goodness, truth, and beauty, man becomes the standard if he is left alone to determine what they are.

Classical education, while stressing the importance of loving goodness, truth, and beauty, falls short because it does not provide definite definition to them. In the Euthryphro dialogue, Socrates shows the difficulty of even defining good and right.

Christian classical education, however, does have definition for these things and the definitions are based on an absolute standard, not one that leaves man to define goodness, truth, and beauty autonomously. While, education is no messiah, it greatly aids moral development if students are pursuing something beyond themselves and their fallen nature.

Left to define or “discover” goodness, truth, and beauty by their own standards, they will always reach it and yet always fall short of the true standards found in the Triune God.  Christian classical education can help students develop a love for what is lovely and avoid the temptation to pursue it by false means.

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2 Responses

  1. Brian,

    There are too many things to respond to in this post to have any hope of discussing it properly. Let me begin by saying that I agree, since I am a Christian, that what people now call education is inadequate and even to add that no education can fulfill even its own objectives if it isn’t Christian.

    But what you are saying about Socrates and what he said is puzzling to me. You seem to be treating him with an extremely anachronistic touch, ascribing to him theories of knowledge and education that would leave him shocked and offended.

    For one rather obvious thing, the notion that man is the measure of things is precisely what Socrates is arguing against, at least in the Platonic dialogues, which is the only useful source on this matter.

    Secondly, I think you are being rather hasty and careless with your language when you say that “man is by nature sinful.” I know that is the way we talk and maybe most of the people who read this post will understand what you are meaning.

    But how can you possibly argue that “man” is “by nature” sinful, when the only real man, the one true man, the one man who truly has human nature, is perfectly pure and holy and good and has, in fact, taken human nature into the Holy Trinity.

    It is not and cannot be our nature that is sinful in the sense that we are sinful by nature, but only in the sense that our nature, as you and I experience it, is in a sinful state.

    But a state and a nature are not the same things, and the two must be carefully distinguished on a matter as crucial as this one or you will, inevitably, fall into some accidental heresy.

    I know that you know the distinction, but the wording you used is wording that leads to such harmful things as the very common dualism among contemporary Christians on matters of right and wrong.

    And it shows, I think, in your ascribing to Socrates views of education and knowledge that he spent his life trying to overcome.

    He did not mean by knowledge a simple explanation from another person. Knowledge for him was enlightenment, an interior state parallel to what St. Paul refers to constantly in his epistles. It was experiential, a power of perception into the essence of things.

    Thus education is not what people these days are relying on, which is a perverse Enlightenment aberration, but true enlightenment of the inner faculties.

    The great irony is that the Church had always recognized the value of Plato’s writings in this regard because they help to explain the inexplicable until the last century or two.

    Now we draw these thick black lines between classical thought and Christian thought as though they don’t both arise within the context of the Roman empire and as though the Church wasn’t born in and achieved maturity through the conflicts with that culture.

    So now Christians will look to Adler, Freud, Skinner, Hirsch, Gardner, and the leading neuroscientists for theories about how we should live and teach, but they’re embarrassed to read the classical works.

    The only hope the Christian mind has is to realize that the core concepts of classical philsophy are usable and full of insight, while the core concepts of modern philosophy and culture, which we adopt mindlessly and without reflection, are born of the explicit rejection of the Christian gospel AND metaphysic.

    American evangelicalism has a great deal more to answer for than it is ready to admit.

    So thanks for your post, but please use these gigantic concepts with great care. An inch off on something as important as human nature and the gap becomes unbridgeable.

    • Andrew,

      Thank you for your reply. While I agree with you that this discussion is difficult to carry on in blog format, I thought it would be fun to respond to your response anyway.

      To begin with, I never indicated that Socrates believed that man is the measure of all things. I did say that applying his method wholesale still leaves man without absolute standards of goodness, truth, and beauty. Because of the sinfulness of man (more on that later), I argued, that is simply not sufficient.

      Your second objection was that my wording was “rather hasty and careless” when I wrote that “man is, by nature, sinful.” In response, you said that Christ, the true man, is perfect and holy. Of course He is and, as you know, by use of the term “man” I was referring, not to Christ (the God-man), but to man (you know, the rest of us).

      Christians are redeemed by the perfect Man, the second Adam, and we have become partakers of the “divine nature” as a result of that redemption (2nd Peter 1:4). If you look at my post, however, you will see that I am not primarily addressing redeemed man, but fallen man (hence, the Christian vs. non-Christian classical education). And, in referring to that same group, St. Paul said they are “by nature children of wrath…dead in trespasses” (Ephesians 2:3-4). In other words, if I was hasty and careless in my wording, I am in good company.

      I know you are warning against the idea that Christians have a “dual nature,” an idea likely based on Paul’s several discussions about the “old man” and the “new man” (Romans 7:7-25, etc.) and I agree that he was not addressing man’s nature in those contexts. But, he is addressing redeemed man’s state.

      You asserted that man is sinful in his “state” but not in his “nature” and that needs clarification. Man was created good, is restored in Christ, and will be fully restored (no more “old man”) with all things when the heavens and earth are remade. Man was not created with a sinful nature, and in that sense I agree with you, but even redeemed man still lives with the old man along for the ride. Christians struggle with sin (a temporary state), but fallen man has a sinful nature which can only be changed through the work of Christ (again, Ephesians 2:3-4 & 2nd Peter 1:4).

      So, in reference to fallen man, I think it perfectly appropriate and biblically warranted to say he is born with a sinful nature (though that is not necessarily permanent, due to the work of Christ).

      I never argued that Socrates saw knowledge as mere mental assent and I do recognize that he was referring to a “true enlightenment of the inner faculties.” My point was that even this kind of knowledge is not enough given that it does not taken into account man’s inability to determine the good, right, and beautiful apart from absolute divine standards.

      The last third of your reply was puzzling to me because it seems to be the result of assertions I never made and implications that do not follow from my position. Those who throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to classical thought are wrong and I do not advocate drawing those “thick black lines” between classical and Christian thought you mentioned. That is why I argued for Christian classical education, not Christian education, and not simply classical education.

      I wholeheartedly agree that – the dualism in American evangelicalism requires repentance, the classical works are of inestimable value, Skinner and his buddies are misleading countless people by their explicit rejection of the Christian gospel and metaphysic, and the dualism affecting the Christian community stems from accepting the heresies of modernity. I’m just not sure of their connection with my post, as I did not advocate anything to the contrary.

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