This episode is another in our series considering the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we take a look at the influence the Faith had on Education.
The roots of the Christian posture toward education lies in Jesus’ command to His disciples just before He ascended to heaven. He told them as they went, to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to keep all that He had commanded.
The modern Evangelical church has taken the word & idea of discipleship & turned it into something rather different from what those original disciples understood it to mean. A 1st C disciple from the region of Galilee where the original disciples were from & where Jesus spent most of His life & did most of His ministry, was someone who’d been selected by a rabbi to follow him and become a devoted learner. A disciple was, in the most intense sense of the word – a scholar whose field of study was the life & teaching of his rabbi. His goal was to be just like that rabbi, and he spent 15 years of his life following his rabbi, 24/7/365¼ so that he could be just like his rabbi.
He began following at 15 and ended at 30. If he proved himself a worthy student & his rabbi sensed he too was called, he became a rabbi at the age of 30. The Gospels tell us Jesus was about 30 when He began his public ministry. He was following in this pattern for rabbis & disciples in place in 1st C Galilee.
If a disciple wasn’t quite cut out to be a rabbi, which required a demonstrated divine authority from God, then a disciple returned to his village to become the Torah-teacher in the local synagogue school where all Jewish boys & girls went from the age of 6-10. There they trained these youngsters to memorize the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. Check it out: They didn’t just memorize the names of the 5 books of Moses; they memorized all that was written in them. Genesis thru Deuteronomy, word for word.
Those boys who excelled at memorization in this 1st phase of education went on to phase 2 in which the Torah teacher taught them the rest of the Tanach, as well as the commentary on it by Israel’s most famous rabbis. It was the cream of the crop from this phase that became candidates to train under a rabbi as a disciple.
The point is this: When Jesus told His disciples they were to go & do with others what He’d done with them – make disciples, they understood what “teaching them to keep all Jesus had commanded” meant = a rigorous course of education that aimed not just at knowledge but at life-change.
The disciples took Jesus’ command seriously. Acts 5 tells us after the Feast of Pentecost, the disciple snow turned Apostles never stopped teaching. As Acts chronicles the Apostle Paul’s ministry, we see his emphasis on teaching. Paul was a teaching machine! He used every opportunity to inform people of the truth then call them to the implications of that truth.
In giving the qualifications for the church leaders called “elders,” which in the NT is synonymous with the words “bishop” & “pastor,” Paul says they must be able to teach. Immediately following the time of the Apostles, the 2nd generation of Christian leaders took up the mantle of leadership & set out to cull the essence of what Christians believe. They devised what’s known as the Didache, meaning – the Teaching / Instruction. This was written sometime between 80-110 AD.
In the early 2nd C, Bishop/Pastor Ignatius of Antioch urged all churches to instruct children in the Scriptures and to teach them a trade. This was a direct carry-over from Judaism which placed tremendous emphasis on literacy, on God’s Word & on knowing a skilled trade.
As we saw in a long-ago episode of CS, while baptism in the NT was something believers were urged to do as soon as they came to faith as a public profession of faith, as the decades passed, baptism was delayed until after new believers could be catechized – that is, taught the catechism, which was a question & answer format in which they were taught the doctrines of the faith. These were no lightweight questions. It was some pretty deep theology. They weren’t baptized till they’d taken all the lessons & that meant 2 to 3 yrs before they were dunked.
These catechumen, as they were called, were at first taught in the homes of other church members. But eventually there were to many so special schools were built. In these schools, the emphasis was on literacy, where people could learn to read & write so that they could read the Scriptures & other classical works. Justin Martyr built one of these schools in Rome & another in Ephesus. They began popping up all over and earned a reputation as a home of great scholarship. The School in Alexandria, Egypt was regarded around the Empire as a great center of learning & scholarship. Another school in Caesarea on the coast of Israel was another. It was out of these schools that the towering intellects of men like Origen, Clement, & Athanasius arose.
While the main course of study in these schools was Theology & the Bible, they included other disciplines as well. Mathematics, medicine, philosophy, grammar, and what passed for science. These centers of learning went far to remove the stigma critics of the Faith had attached to it in its early days – that is was a despicable religion fit only for the poor, uneducated & slaves. The Church was led by some of the brightest minds of the day who were more than capable at not only defending the Faith but dismantling the majority paganism. Many of the early apologists used the best of Greek philosophy to argue for the superiority of the Christian worldview. It infuriated pagan apologists that their own heroes from the past seemed to lend their weight to the Christian Gospel.
To be sure, Christians weren’t the first to set up schools. In Corinth, the Book of Acts tells us, there were pagan schools when Paul arrived. They were doing a brisk business. Where the Christian schools defied convention was in their willingness to educate both sexes in the same setting. Romans taught only boys, and only from wealthy families at that. Christians taught men, women, & children, regardless of how many coppers they could pass the teacher.
In the 5th C, Augustine said that most Christian women were better educated than pagan philosophers.
As education became more and more of a mark of being a Christian, their schools expanded and the course of study grew more comprehensive. Students were taught the Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic as core subjects, & the Quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry & astronomy as support studies.
The Church’s goal in this education was to make sure it’s members were well-educated, especially it’s clergy. They needed to be educated so they could love God with all their mind and serve Him with all their strength.
. In the 8th C, Charlemagne made sure his children were educated well & brought the famous English scholar Alcuin to tutor them as well as other children of the nobility. Hundreds of years later, King Alfred of England made sure his sons & daughters were taught to read & write in their native tongue & Latin, the scholarly language of the day. In the 1330’s a Florentine writer reported there were about 10 thousand children in Florence’s schools
While the Church educated both sexes equally for the first several Centuries, as the Middle Ages approached and the cathedral schools grew, the emphasis on education shifted to men being trained for the clergy. Women were moved to convents & nunneries where they learned basic literacy & the arts.
But the passage of time saw the emphasis on women’s education wane in favor of men & boys. There wasn’t so much an official position taken by the Church that opposed the education of women & girls. It was more the result of social apathy. In the 15th C 2 church leaders, Leonardo Bruni & Battista Guarinao, called attention to the appalling lack of emphasis on education for women & urged reform.
Those reforms were at least partially successful as the number of women scholars that appeared in Europe over the next decades and Cs was remarkable. Women such as . . .
Lioba // Hrotsvitha // Hildegard // Brigitta // Catherine of Siena & Christine de Pizan.
Students of Medieval history often have the mental image of the cloistered halls of monasteries where monks sit hunched over slanted tables laboriously copying ancient texts on parchment with quill & ink. What they ought to add to that is the cloistered halls of convents where nuns sit doing precisely the same thing. It was in these scriptoriums that Scripture & the ancient classics were copied; their treasure saved & passed on to posterity.
This emphasis on teaching both sexes dates back to Jesus’ own willingness to teach women. While there were no women numbered among the 12 Apostles, they certainly were counted among the larger number of unofficial disciples who followed Jesus. And that was something that was simply UNHEARD of among 1st C Jews! Rabbis did not allow women to come into contact with them. They did not accept them as disciples. Girls from age 6 to 10 were taught alongside boys in the Torah schools attached to the synagogue, but at 10 they went home to learn at their mother’s side how to be a wife & mother. Part of the scandal that simmered around Jesus was His acceptance of women as part of the small crowd that accompanied Him where-ever He went. He taught them alongside the men in the Sermon on the Mount. He taught them in Lazarus’ home in Bethany. The famous story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women in John 4 is stunning in its description of how utterly unexpected it was. She even said, “How is it that you talk to me – a Samaritan & A WOMAN?!?!?”
The famous historian Will Durant comments on the uniqueness of Christianity in the Greco-Roman environment it grew up it – that it broke with convention by being a religion for everyone –ethnicity, sex & social standing had nothing to do with its appeal or outreach. All were welcome & welcome equally.
The movement toward universal education came during the Reformation in the 16th C. Martin Luther’s appeal for reform, embodied in the 95 theses he tacked to the church door at Wittenberg, were necessitated by the appalling decline in education that had taken place over the previous centuries in Europe. The Church had become corrupted so that many of its leaders were lazy & shirked the call to scholarship. Instead of the clergy being the best educated, many couldn’t even read or write. As Marin Luther visited the churches of Saxony, he was dismayed by the number of nearly illiterate priests & monks. So he embarked on a campaign of education. In 1529 he wrote the Small Catechism which taught the basics of the Faith. Things began to turn around.
Luther said that people needed to understand both “the Word of Scripture and the nature of the world in which the Word took root.” He urged for a state school system in which elementary students would be taught the basics of grammar, reading, writing, then for secondary education would learn Latin so they could read the classics to broaden their worldview. He criticized parents who failed to make sure their children were schooled.
One of Luther’s most significant breaks with the religious schools of previous generations was his belief that not only were schools needed to train clergy, just as important a function was to train those doing non-religious or what we call, secular work. Luther believed clergy ought to be called by God, not just educated by man. Those not called to church work were called, just as much by God into secular work – so they needed just as strong an education. It was this sense of divine calling or vocation that framed what came to be known as the Protestant Work Ethic.
John Calvin, the reformer whose ideas shaped the City of Geneva, established a school system there.
As the Reformation spread across Europe, the idea of universal education met with some resistance from the lower classes; for 2 reasons.
1) What little education that had remained until that time was done by the Church which they considered corrupt. So, book-learning was suspected as being something that would corrupt the young; turning them into agents for the Pope.
2) The educated tended to be people in the upper social classes, so seen as lazy by the working class.
For that reason, in many rural settings, the movement toward universal education was slow to catch on. Luther & other Reformers knew that a healthy church was built by literacy & so urged civil magistrates to make the education of the young compulsory. In Many places in Germany they complied. And soon, public schools supported by taxes were growing across the land.
So it’s sad to see how the modern public school system has become so hostile toward Christianity. It owes its very existence to the Faith.