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Dabney's day

The great theologian wrote wonderfully about education

Issue: "Ghost busting," Aug. 24, 2002

WRITING THIS WEEK'S COVER STORY SENT ME back to my three volumes of the works of Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th-century Southern Presbyterian whom A.A. Hodge called "the best teacher of theology in the United States, if not in the world."

Dabney had blind and ugly spots, as do we all; the racism that he inhaled and exhaled lingered for a century after the Civil War and hampered enormously not only generations of black and white Christians but the church's testimony before a watching world. But Dabney was right about many things, and his understanding of the nature of education is unsurpassed to this day.

Readers of pages 14 to 17 will have enough of me, so I'll use this page to give you a dose of Dabney: "Education is the nurture and development of the whole man for his proper end. The end must be conceived aright in order to understand the process. Even man's earthly end is predominantly moral. Now if dexterity in any art, as in the handling of printer's type, a musket, a power-loom, were education, its secularization might be both possible and proper.

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"Is not a confusion here the source of most of the argument in defense of that theory? For instance, 'Why may not the State teach reading and writing without any religious adjuncts, as legitimately as the mechanic thus teaches his apprentices filing, planing, or hammering?' Because dexterity in an art is not education. The latter nurtures a soul, the other only drills a sense-organ or muscle; the one has a mechanical end, the other a moral.

"And this answer cannot be met by saying, 'Let it then be agreed that the State is only teaching an art, a dexterity-that, for instance, of letters.' For the State refuses to be understood thus: it claims to educate, as is witnessed by the universal argument of the advocates of this State function, that she has the right and duty of providing that the young citizens shall be competent to their responsibility as citizens. But these are ethical....

"We are attempting then an absolute novelty. But may not the tree be already known by its fruits? State education among Americans tends to be entirely secularized. What is the result? Whence this general revolt from the Christian faith in this country, so full of churches, preachers, and a redundant Christian literature, so boastful of its Sabbaths and its evangelism? What has prepared so many for the dreary absurdities of materialism? Why do the journals which seek a national circulation think it their interest to affect irreligion? Why so many lamentations over public and popular corruptions? ...

"It is the Christian ideas which are most stimulating and ennobling to the soul. He who must needs omit them from his teaching is robbed of the right arm of his strength. Where shall he get such a definition of virtue as is presented in the revealed character of God? Where so ennobling a picture of benevolence as that presented in Christ's sacrifice for his enemies? Can the conception of the inter-stellar spaces so expand the mind as the thought of an infinite God, an eternal existence, and an everlasting destiny?

"Every line of true knowledge must find its completeness in its convergency to God, even as every beam of daylight leads the eye to the sun. If religion be excluded from our study, every process of thought will be arrested before it reaches its proper goal.... Does someone say that practically this showing is exaggerated, for he is teaching some purely secular course, without any such maiming of his subjects or prejudicing of Christianity? If his teaching is more than a temporary dealing with some corner of education, the fact will be found to be that it is tacitly anti-Christian; overt assaults are not made, but there is a studied avoidance which is in effect hostile....

"But farther: Why do people wish the State to interfere in educating? Because she has the power, the revenues to do it better. Then, unless her intervention is to be a cheat, her secularized teaching must be some very impressive thing. Then its impression, which is to be non-Christian, according to the theory, will be too preponderant in the youth's soul, to be counterpoised by the feebler inculcation of the seventh day. The natural heart is carnal, and leans to the secular and away from the gospel truths.... In a word, to the successful pupil under an efficient teacher, the school is his world. Make that godless, and his life is made godless."


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