The Protestant Origins of Dysfunctional Education

As a former boarding school teacher, this time of year brings memories of enormous frustration at the chaos, moral and intellectual, that is contemporary American education. While the general disorder is the fault of Adam and Eve, the particular mess has much to do with Luther and Calvin, who not only spawned the Protestant Reformation beginning five hundred years ago this fall but also fertilized the Cultural Revolution five decades ago.

August remind me of contentious faculty arguments, if fussing and fuming can be characterized as logical discourse, in reviewing rules for the beginning of the term. The other teachers thought we were fighting over pedagogy, but I believed, as Chesterton taught me, that all disputes are ultimately theological. While our school had an above average classical curriculum, the dorms, like those of most secondary boarding schools and colleges, were the Land of Nod.

It never really mattered what occasioned the faculty dispute—dorm visitation, dress code, vulgar language, appropriate possessions or décor, dining room manners—for the depressing conclusion was always the same: “They are going to do what they are going to do.” We could “punish” them for “inappropriate behavior and poor choices,” of course, assign them demerits, refer them to counselors, recommend medication, write emails to their parents, suspend them for a few days, or even expel them. What was impossible—and what few in American education believe possible—was to give them a moral formation, and that is because, in part, Luther and Calvin foolishly dismissed the idea of the rational appetite.

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The Catholic and Protestant understandings of the human soul are quite different, and we Anglo-Americans suffer under the latter. The Catholic understanding follows Aquinas, who followed Aristotle. The notion is simple but profound. The human soul has two parts, the intellect that knows and the will that loves, and the will itself is divided, like the teenager, between the knowing parent, the intellect, and the childish passions. The passions pull on the will, but the will obeys the intellect—yet only, in Aristotle’s analogy, as a child “listens to” and “is persuaded by” his father and friends, not with mathematical consistency. Aquinas filled in Aristotle’s psychological outline with the insight that the will and the intellect “include one another,” for “the intellect understands the will and the will wills the intellect to know” (Summa theologiae, II-I.16.4.). “Imperium,” however, resides in the intellect. The whole drama of moral life is played out, therefore, in the complicated back and forth, sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic, between the childish will and the imperial father, which we can call education—or the formation of habits. These habits, in Aristotle’s words, “make nearly all the difference.” If the habits are virtuous, virtue becomes easy and vice difficult; if they are vicious, the contrary is true.

Of course, Aquinas followed not only Aristotle but also Augustine, who developed the notion of original sin, the effect of which is concupiscence, which taints the intellect and the will. Thus, the will has an additional bias or inclination toward disorder besides the passions, which the Council of Trent called “fomes peccati,” or tinder for sin. Despite this taint, however, the rational will for Catholics has always been considered free enough to choose the good, and the intellect always free enough to see it, even if through a glass darkly. Not so, however, for Luther and Calvin.

The bondage of the will is a commonplace in Luther, but less well known is that he makes reason a blind tyrant, “a pestilent beast,” “the fountain and headspring of all mischiefs. Reason feareth not God, it loveth not God, it trusteth not in God, but proudly contemneth him. It is not moved either with his threatenings or his promises. It is not delighted with his words or works, but it murmureth against him, it is angry with him, judgeth and hateth him” (Commentary on Galatians, 1531). Worse than assaulted by irrational passions, therefore, the will, deprived of natural light, is the “permanent prisoner and bond slave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.” God’s operative or uncreated grace alone accounts for conversion: gone is the secondary action of man’s cooperative or created grace. Strictly speaking, education thus becomes the fearful hope for an illuminating bolt from the blue, not a long patience, a permanently morning, noon, and twilight training in good habits. As the Catechism puts it, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes” (1733). Where else in modern pedagogy than there could one find this hopeful follow-up axiom: “Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts” (1734)? Such work is neither easy nor complete, but a “long and exacting work,” “never” to be considered “acquired once and for all,” and often “more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence” (2342).

If it is possible, Calvin’s scorn for the rational will is even more severe than Luther’s. First, the natural intellect, after the fall, while still, unlike the brutes, “influenced by the love of truth,”nonetheless “fails before it reaches the goal,” stumbles like one “groping in darkness,” and “at length gets completely bewildered” (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 2, Ch. 2, Sec. 12). Second, the will is so corrupt, “such is the depravity of his nature, that [man] cannot move and act except in the direction of evil” (Ch. 3, Sec. 5). Thus, once again, as in Luther, “everything good in the will is entirely the result of grace” (Sec. 6). “Man is so enslaved by the yoke of sin,” he concludes, “that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit” (Ch. 4, Sec. 1). The dogma that but for the grace of God the elect would remain reprobate takes the load off educators but offers them no reason to get up in the morning.

I would certainly not blame the apathy in moral education entirely on the pioneer Protestants, and I know from my childhood what terrific teachers Seventh Day Adventists can be. Moreover, much else in intellectual history accounts for the disappearance of the rational will—to name a few explanations, moral relativism, perspectivism, denial of causation, voluntarism, behaviorism, and materialism. The contemporary working vocabulary in education, however, betrays an impoverished psychology initiated by the Reformation’s turn away from Aquinas and Aristotle. The idea of an animating principle that seeks the good, that can be damaged by unwholesome conduct, that loves, that stands in awe of beauty, that exhibits courage, that is capable of choosing—in brief, not merely the “will” but even the “soul,” is now considered a fundamentalist word to be eschewed by large-minded liberals as reactionary, primitive, and even magical. If you don’t believe in the soul, how can you believe that values can take hold, that habits matter, that any human activity has enduring consequence? “Memory” and “character” are our only equivalent terms, but “memory” doesn’t act and “character” doesn’t last forever. In all our recent hype about values education, it seems that even many of those who believe in values also believe that they are items that are simply there or not, probably in genes, not wise principles that direct growth in the helpless young toward more independent sapience.

Consequently, the word “sin” has utterly disappeared from educational discourse. My colleagues acknowledged that students make mistakes and commit wrongs but only as something unlawful, against the rules, or breaking the social code. Not surprisingly, students themselves put stealing, cheating, driving without a license, burping, promiscuity, and lying all in the same class: behaviors that might be permissible under another set of rules or laws, when they were grown up and free and in college or self-employed.

Finally, the word “love” was missing. The idea of sacrificial self-giving agape, unrequited and unbidden, however, enjoining corporeal and spiritual works of mercy (rejected as meritorious by Luther and Calvin), and the saintliness of “supererogatory acts” have been ridiculed and replaced by the ubiquitous and chilling service requirement: a hundred hours of approved community service, certified by the Student Activities Director, in order to graduate with a stuffed résumé, to look good and virtuous, and, of course, contradictorily, to help our fellow man overcome the ignorance and misfortune of his fate. If love is simply a whimsically determined “swerve” of atoms or the mere infusion of transcendent grace, if the will cannot be trained, charity is accidental and best quantified by a bureaucracy. If all that stands between the human person and evil is “irresistible grace,” then when God also disappears in the culture are we left with what Ivan Karamazov calls “artistic cruelty,” which he imputes to adults but which I heard about in teenagers and about which I was told we could do nothing except punish after the hideous fact: duct taping underclassmen in trees and leaving them for hours, exploding small animals in microwaves, and “pulling trains” of sexual customers for drug money?

The disappearance of the rational will takes its toll in a thousand consequential weak ideas in the larger culture: addiction can be overcome by federal grant money, the cure for depression is pills, abstinence classes are futile, poverty and crime are solely the result of material circumstances or perhaps genes but certainly not moral formation (sometimes called good parenting), and so on. For all of society’s ills, we can identify and treat, deter or punish, but we cannot train because the hydraulic metaphor has replaced the organic one in human behavior. The self is a balloon that fills and must be pricked and relieved to an acceptable state, not something that grows in a tended garden. What back to school time reminds me of is far worse than the state’s confiscation of the monasteries: it’s the devaluation of, in even the sinning Macbeth’s words, our “precious jewel,” the immortal soul, created by God’s love but developed also by man’s.


  • Kenneth Colston

    Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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