This 'New Math' is going to ruin me! My teacher doesn't understand it, my parents don't understand it, and, I'm sure I don't understand it!" This lament could be heard throughout America in the early 1960s as the United States tried to supercharge its math and science curriculum in an attempt to "catch up" with the Soviet Union. Many Americans perceived the Soviets were outpacing U.S. education because they won the race into space with the first satellite (Sputnik, 1957). Historians will debate whether America really trailed the Soviets, but the trauma experienced in education when the Soviets jumped ahead in the space race was indicative of the new, more utilitarian role of education in U.S. society. By the end of the millennium education had dramatically changed its function. Educating, nurturing, and training children had always been a constant in human societies. But what has changed, and changed significantly, is the ways that schooling has become formalized. A thousand years ago, Western civilization was nearing the pinnacle of the medieval period. The 13th century enjoyed a flowering of culture and thought, especially in the brilliance of Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas believed he had perfectly combined Christianity with what scholars believed was the epitome of the medieval worldview, the thought of Aristotle. In the early centuries Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire like a wildfire. While the expansion was rapid and extensive, it occurred in the context of Hellenistic (Greek) culture. Classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle systematically and brilliantly laid the foundations for an ideal society. However, nearly 50 percent of Greek city-states were made up of servant/slaves, and women had no formal standing. Education was a privilege for men of wealth and position. These men studied either in a small academy or with a tutor. They were taught to contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful by investigating a curriculum that came to be known as the Trivium (logic, grammar, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). Christians were surrounded by the Greek way of thinking; those who heard the Christian message thought in Greek categories. The coercion of Christian thinking by Greek philosophy was facilitated by Emperor Constantine's conversion in 324 B.C. It was the synthesizing of Christianity with Hellenistic thought that established the medieval worldview. It is impossible to understand the unfolding of education in the West without understanding this synthesized worldview. This worldview found its fullest expression in Thomas Aquinas but was dominant for many centuries before him and many centuries after him. To recognize the power of this worldview one only needs to think of the culture-forming power of worldviews today that are only decades old to imagine what power would come from a worldview that went virtually unchallenged for over a millennium. So dominant was this worldview in education that both style and curriculum content went unchanged for this vast period of time. It's Greek to me
Educational needs at this time were very different. In an agrarian society, education revolved around the family. Education was informal for most people. It was accomplished by families passing on trades or farming knowledge as well as whatever catechizing the church did. Schooling only existed for the elite of society and those preparing to serve the church. While the layered society of Aquinas's day may seem remote, it was built on a foundation that had dominated the West for hundreds of years. It seems appropriate to describe such bedrock for education in the West as a monolith. Even after this worldview began to break up philosophically, it continued to have a dominant place in education well into the 19th century. (Even today it continues to have impact through the work of philosopher Jacques Maritan and the Classical Christian school movement.) By the 16th century the church had exhausted the synthesis of Aristotle with Christianity. Theological deterioration (such as the selling of indulgences) coupled with moral corruption called forth reform in the church. An Augustinian monk, who for 10 years had practiced the austere regimen of the monastery, took center stage. Martin Luther, as much as anyone, saw the insufficiency of the medieval worldview. To oppose the monolith was very dangerous. Yet Luther's passion for theological reform centered on the doctrine of justification by faith had a spillover effect for education. Luther sensed the urgency of education in some minimal form for the life of faith. If a person was to stand before God on an individual basis to give account for his response of faith, the need to have the Scripture in an understandable form was paramount. Some five years after he had nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door, he finished the translation of the New Testament into German, the language of the people. Luther's focus on the individual life of faith had a shaping effect. University begins with "you"
The monolith of the medieval worldview was breaking up. However, three key changes set the direction for education:
- First, the focus of education changed. The classical Greek philosophers believed education should be focused in the world of the ideal. There was a "form" for everything which existed. To know the world of the ideal "forms" was education's goal. The Hebrew worldview focused not upon the invisible world of "forms" but the visible world of God's creation. Rabbis and wisemen (as in the Proverbs) saw God's creation packed full of knowledge. They expected their students to learn by reflecting on the knowledge of God in the creation and in His word. However, Western society broke with both the Greek and Hebrew worldviews. Two images came to dominate: the artist as creator of beauty, and the scientist who could manipulate the forces of nature. The ascendancy of the artist and the scientist gradually allowed the focus of learning to turn from the ideal world of forms or the God-ordained creation to the central role played by the human person as knowledge grabber. That focus became what one chancellor of a major U.S. university wished for as he described what he wanted his new campus building to symbolize, "the hand of man reaching to the heavens to grasp the knowledge of the universe." The role of the person had become the centerpiece of Western education.
- Second, as education became more focused on the person unlocking the knowledge of the world, its agenda became more utilitarian. Instead of its primary task being related to unchanging givens, the discovery of knowledge to alter life in the world became central. Education needed to be more functional.
- Third, with the eclipsing of transcendent categories for immanent ones, there would be a gradual marginalizing of theism. The belief in human progress unfettered by transcendent constraints opened the door to both social and educational innovations. The immense power of the medieval monolith extended well into the 19th century in the United States. The vast majority of universities founded in the United States through that time were both rooted in the church and taught a classical curriculum (based on the Trivium and Quadrivium). But with the monolith broken into pieces, a number of changes redirected education. An echo, not a choice There has always been the hope that education can be a culture-forming activity. Each new system and innovative change is accompanied by the hope that the better nurturing of the young will bring about a better society. Attempts to direct society through education have fallen short; more often than not, education has adapted rather than shaped the broad social forces driving U.S. society. The agendas affecting education have been as broad as the agendas shaping society. Four examples from the last century and a half will illustrate this. In the early 1800s, a struggle developed over who would control education. Would the church continue to be the main support for education or would some other institution step in? In New York City a battle developed between the church-run schools and the city-supported ones. By the 1820s the church was receding and the city dominant. Horace Mann, one of the most influential American educators, had become Secretary of Education in Massachusetts. He was convinced that the well-being of society was dependent on compulsory primary schooling. In the 1830s and '40s his ideas were bold: Public education was virtually unknown and most families could not afford much schooling for their children. Those who could afford it usually sent their children to private schools. Mann was concerned that the migration of poor farm children to the cities coupled with the first wave of Irish and German Catholic immigration could destabilize the young nation. He approached businessmen with his idea that they fund the "Common Schools." He tried to convince them that the common culture created by compulsory schooling would go a long way toward training a compliant workforce. Business leaders rejected the idea, but Mann and others convinced state governments to fund universal primary education. By the turn of the century it had become a reality. The "Common School" reformers were certainly interested in giving children a sound, fundamental education. Yet the primary agenda of the reformers was not educational. They saw schooling as a way to bring cohesion among diverse groups as well as a way to inculcate the values they believed could mold the poor into productive members of society. Laudable as their intentions may have been, the outcome was now to view education as a means of social control. Horace Mann and the Common School reformers changed the role of schooling in society. As American society turned the corner to the 20th century, the brilliant Pragmatist educator John Dewey provided an alternative educational philosophy. Dewey's focus was on the tangible world. The transcendent could have personal meaning but had little value for education. Education, Dewey held, should be centered on experience and experimentation. He objected to the standard format of most schools, which had students saying monotonous recitations. He said education should be focused on the individual student and the things that interested them with rigorous investigation to follow. Unlike Mann, Dewey believed education could be the most democratic of institutions. Instead of training children for their place in society, he believed education could be egalitarian, giving each child his opportunity to advance in society. Dewey's methods were developed originally in his "laboratory school" at the University of Chicago. While his theories are universally acknowledged, they are seldom implemented successfully (remember the open classroom?) because few teachers have the class size or the training that permits it. Dewey was part of a larger group known as the Progressives (such as Teddy Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and G. Stanley Hall) who worked to see compulsory education extended to the secondary level. Child-centered education would now extend through high school. A third seismic shift was the advent of psychological testing in the schools. Originally developed as a tool for choosing army officers in World War I, testing was believed by many educators to be exactly what they needed to guide students to their most likely educational destiny. These tests quickly became educational orthodoxy as high schools arranged themselves around three tracks: college prep, general, and vocational/technical. The use of psychology and sociology, to a lesser extent, marked the increased role the social sciences came to play in American education. The final example of change in contemporary education accompanies our national shift to the high-tech world. Once again there is a need for accelerated technical education, this time not for the space race, but for our new cyber-world. If the label "The Information Age" is at all accurate, education will continue to be a crucial commodity, more utilitarian than ever. War of the worldviews
The millennium began with a monolith in education. As the millennium draws to a close people fear we're moving toward fragmentation. Unlike 1,000 years ago, there is no unifying vision for society. Competing worldviews battle for cultural dominance. Reform in education abounds. During the 1980s one reform proposal followed another, vying for the chance to dictate what education would be. With family breakdown and high levels of immigration, some suggest that it is the schools that can provide the cohesion for our society. They expect more and more from our schools-at a time when the schools are failing at the job of education. Proposals for school choice, which seemed unthinkable 20 years ago, are being tried in more and more places. Today, the movement experiencing the most growth and success is homeschooling, which further questions the present organization of schooling. Education closes the millennium in search of a worldview that can avoid the fragmentation that seems constituent to postmodernity. Education will continue to play a critical role in society. Will it find a unifying worldview to shape society or will it be one more piece of an increasingly fragmented society?
-Bradshaw Frey is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Education at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa.; Terry Thomas, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Education at Geneva College, also contributed to the essay