What Christian Education is Not

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  ∼ G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908).

Christian education cannot be utilitarian. In fact, it will only be Christian in as much as it ceases to be utilitarian. One of the most destructive myths in recent decades has been that Christian education simply means the freedom to teach creationism, pray during class, and use the Bible as a text book.

Any Christian education that takes state-mandated curriculum and pedagogy, and simply tacks on some spirituality, sings some songs, and scatters around some Bible verses is not Christian education. Despite its efforts, it still has the same results as so-called “secular” education. It is the mere training of animals to become workers, because under the state, intelligent animals is all that we are, and all that we’re good for is to be is workers.

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No amount of Bible verses rammed uncomfortably into a physics lesson will change this.

Reductionism is the evil underpinning of the utilitarianism of The Common Core (or where I’m from in Australia, the National Curriculum). Students are reduced to mere intelligent animals. They’re just collections of atoms, chemicals, cells and impulses. They need to be taught just some skills, and only enough to be able to perform some specific tasks. Students are raw material to be shaped into cogs that will fit into the tax-paying machinery of society. Education exists for one reason—to fuel the economy. Schools create workers who create jobs that create growth that creates wealth that creates happiness. Apparently.

According to secular education, students are emphatically not transcendent. There is no transcendence. Everything is simply that of which it is made: merely the sum of its parts. A star is just a burning ball of gas. An ocean is just so many billion liters of cold water.

Readers of C.S. Lewis will have recognized the last two examples. The first is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the second from The Abolition of Man.

According to Lewis, reductionism dehumanizes humanity. In The Abolition of Man, he plots the course from a simple text book that reduces all objective statements to subjective discussions of feelings, all the way to the Faustian deal with the devil of applied science. Elsewhere, he makes the dramatic claim that “if education is beaten by training, civilization will die.” Training is what we do to animals. Education is a human endeavor. Training deposits information, education concerns itself with formation. The result of the subjectivism of reductionism is, what Lewis calls, “seeing through things.” We train our students to be worse than critics. We train them to be cynics. A critic judges a piece of art against an objective standard. A cynic questions all standards, and calls everything art. Or nothing.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is the product of “modern education”—the type of education that has been appropriated by the majority of the Western world—what is now called a “good” education. Eustace has lost the ability to see reality. He hates existence; he scoffs at the beautiful and exults in the inane. It is not until he becomes a dragon (by sleeping in a dragon’s lair, something that Lewis points out he would have known not to do if he had read the right kinds of books) and then has Aslan painfully rip the hard scales from his skin, that he becomes the real young man he was designed to be. The callousness of his dragon hide was the callousness on his heart, caused by an imprisoning education that prevented him from being able to enjoy an adventure on the high seas. Instead, he saw only cold, wet, dreariness. It was too natural and too real for him. He was what is described in Abolition as a “trousered ape,” although in Narnia, an ape would be more human even than him, and the only one to ever wear trousers, Shift, was much less humane than those without.

Earlier in his fiction writing career, Lewis gave another example of what happens to people who are taught to “see through things.” In The Pilgrim’s Regress, John the Pilgrim is captured by a giant and thrown into a prison. The giant is the zeitgeist of reductionism, and for those under his gaze, “whatever they looked on became transparent”:

Consequently, when John looked round into the dungeon, he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror, for the place seemed to be thronged with demons. A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes. And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had a cancer. And when John sat down and drooped his head, not to see the horrors, he saw only the working of his own inwards.

Reductionism does not lead us to greater understanding. It impedes our understanding, by reducing us to merely that which is “understandable.” It does not lead to happiness, it leads to terror.

John is rescued by Lady Reason whom afterwards asks him, “Did you think that the things you saw in the dungeon were real: that we really are like that?” When he replies in the affirmative, she rebuffs him:

He showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible. That is, he showed you something that is not, but something that would be if the world were made all other than it is. But in the real world our inwards are invisible. They are not colored shapes at all, they are feelings. The warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in, the comfort in your belly because we breakfasted well, and your hunger for the next meal—these are the reality: all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the lie.

But if I cut a man open I should see them in him.

A man cut open is, so far, not a man: and if you did not sew him up speedily you would be seeing not organs, but death. I am not denying that death is ugly: but the giant made you believe that life is ugly.

The giant of reductionism is the zeitgeist that still holds the keys to our education system. What is the cost that Christian educators pay when they buy the lie that a smattering of Jesus amongst the emptiness of Common Core tawdriness is all that is required to “Christianize” education? The cost is precisely the two things that they are claiming to do: they are neither educating, nor creating Christians.

Just as John saw through his skin, seeing through things is the goal of the reductionist approach. And this seeing through things—so called “critical thinking”—will not stop in the classroom. The student who has been taught to “see through” claims of transcendence becomes immune to them, and in so doing, willfully disdains their own transcendence. It breeds a generation of cynics, so skeptical they doubt their own ability to doubt (contra: Descartes). It creates a type of person that believes they see reality when they in fact see only bare, naked “fact,” removed from wholeness, and thus stripped of meaning. They become Chesterton’s madman, who dares to think “the thought that stops all thought.” Our “peril,” he writes in Orthodoxy, “is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.” Seeing through all things does exactly that.

This madman will not stop at deconstructing texts, reducing the solar system, and dissecting frogs. They will place God himself in the science laboratory, and will slice and dice him to pieces until there is nothing left. There is no room for the mystery of the Trinity in the reductionist world. The very fact that it does not make sense is proof to the modern trousered ape that it is a fiction. The mystery of the incarnation is incomprehensible; it cannot fit into the mind and therefore it is barred from entering. The very nature of God as an uncreated creator, eternally pouring himself out in love, is analyzed, critiqued, and found lacking.

“Where is God? I cannot see him,” asks the biology student.

“Isn’t God just a construct?” asks the history student.

“Why can God not be a woman?” asks the literature student.

“God is an experience, and all experience is true,” says the arts student.

“Dark matter, gravitational waves & quantum physics will soon do away with your outdated need for God,” says the physics student.

“God must be a jerk, look at my pain,” says everyone.

The teacher cries, “But don’t you remember? We sang songs in chapel yesterday. You clapped your hands. I saw you! You must have felt something!”

“We did,” they reply in a single mechanized drone, “but that was yesterday. Today we feel differently. Today we see through the emotional manipulation you subjected us to yesterday. Today we see clearly.”

What is worse, perhaps, is that if reductionism is taught implicitly in all other subjects, it will be adopted unconsciously in the church and in the Sunday school. The Bible is not immune to the postmodern questioning that is taught in English class. Ramming the ill-fitting verse into Quadratic Equations will not enliven calculus with the Word of God, it will reduce the Word to the perceived emptiness of calculus. Our education has what Chesterton calls the “touch of suicidal mania.” It kills itself in its attempt to survive.

The reductionism in our classroom will not stop in our classroom. How much more difficult are we making it for ourselves to help our students see Christ, to see and experience Reality, when, for six hours a day, we are convincing them the world is a stale, flat, boring place. We reduce the world to ash, and then try to convince them that it is not. As Lewis reminds us, “the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” When we expect our students to respond to the majesty of Reality after we have taught them that it’s nothing but atoms, we “castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Education determined by the state is anti-Christian education by default. Stemming out of what Jacques Maritain called ‘bourgeois liberalism,” while it has been “Christian in appearance, it has been atheistic in fact.” No amount of verses, clapping, warm smiles or amens will change this. Christian education is only what it claims to be when it is daringly different: when it enlivens reality by embracing it; when it exposes students to the beauty of the world as well as the brutality of its brokenness. When humans are exalted as more than a chemical cocktail with a mind of wires that can determine their own reality; when they stop trying to see through, they will finally be able to see.


  • Kenneth Crowther

    Kenneth Crowther is the Head of English at Toowoomba Christian College, in Queensland, Australia. He holds a Master’s degree in Arts: Creative Writing from Macquarie University.

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