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A Cultural History of Education



Education forms the minds of citizens at an impressionable age. What is taught and learned in school eventually effects the life and character of a nation.

Questions like who should control the schools, how education should be delivered, who should be teaching, what students should be learning, and how they should be taught have been with us for centuries.

Schoolteachers and educational reformers have always regarded themselves as both pioneers and revolutionaries. The issues they wrestle with, including faith, philosophy, pedagogical practice, psychology, law, and politics have long—and often unsettled—histories.

Judeo-Christian Origins

At the dawn of European settlement in North America, formal education was generally organized by religious orders.

The culture of Western European colonists who settled in the present territories of the United States and Canada was anchored by Judeo-Christian traditions and faith. Religious practise played an integral part in the lives of French and English settlers.

In early French Canada, exploration and trading expeditions generally included a trifecta of merchants, soldiers, and priests, the first to pursue profit, the second to secure the interests of the Crown, and the third to temper the materialist impulses of the other two and spread Christianity among the indigenous peoples.

The development of Roman Catholic education can be traced to the year 1620 when the first school was founded by the Catholic Récollets order in Quebec. As a rule, until the 19th century, almost all schools in North America were operated under the auspices of one Christian denomination or another.

In the British colonies, the famous Mayflower Compact of 1620 established a Christian government in the North American wilderness as a religious act based on biblical law. In the “presence of God and one of another,” the colonists entered into a covenant for the “better ordering and preservation, and furtherance” of their ends in the new world.

Since the early pilgrims held a single Christian worldview, there was no immediate imperative to separate church and state. It wasn’t until after several different denominations became established in America that the separation idea was imbedded in the 1789 Constitution of the United States of America.

In the early years of European colonies, all education was faith-based. Everyone had to read the Bible, and children were often taught to read more for religious than practical purposes.

Parents were generally encouraged  to catechize their children in the principles of the Christian religion. Bible-based societies considered education to be the most important means of providing future generations with cultural and religious institutions that would preserve and advance civilization. Harvard University was founded in 1636 with a grant from the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a training ground for Calvinist ministers.

One of the best-known American educators was Noah Webster, a devout Christian, born in 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut. During the Revolutionary War, he was a student at Yale University. His Blue-Backed Speller, first published in 1783, taught millions to read. By 1820, the number of copies sold throughout the United States was about 20 million.

Webster, who had become a Congregationalist in his later years, saw the faculty of language as a gift from God. He considered the famous dictionary he compiled as the zenith of his work in a Godly endeavour.

By the time France and Britain had planted permanent colonies in America, practically every school and college had classical Christian roots. The Christian tradition set the tone in education for the better part of two centuries.

The Kingdom Without the King

In an important new book titled “Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a century of Miseducation,” authors Pete Hegseth and David Goodwin contend that a person’s vision of the well-ordered or “good life” is driven by a force they call “paideia.”

The authors say that this spirit “has proven to be the strongest cultural force throughout all of human history.” In the case of the “Western Christian Paideia” it is connected with traditional family life, worship, loyalty to country and community, personal industry and moral behaviour. Christian children discovered virtue within a worldview or “paideia” of faith and patriotism.

Hegseth and Goodwin assert that the Western Christian Paideia went unchallenged and unchanged for centuries. It combined faith with freedom and it influenced an entire civilization.

Today, however, we seldom think about the Judeo-Christian origins of our assumptions because we have been consistently taught to doubt the depth and value of all religious convictions.

The authors of “Battle for the American Mind” argue that: “The great plume of smoke we see rising from selfishness and hyper-sexuality in our culture emanates from a fire built to worship the creation rather than the creator. We are trying to have the Kingdom, without the King.”

Dissolving Attachments

In the early 19th century, the decline of the Western Christian Paideia began at New England’s elite Harvard University.

Harvard became a stronghold of Unitarianism which rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and other Christian teachings in favour of a rationalist and inclusivist approach to belief. Harvard and other prestigious universities went on to become the chief sources of anti-faith-based education.

While many university elites leaned toward atheism, the vast majority of ordinary North-Americans remained conservative in their faith and educated their children in the Biblical tradition up to the early decades of the 20th century. In their homes, and in small Christian or Jewish schools, some still do.

Conservative academics have argued that over the last two centuries, North American schools, colleges, and universities have come full circle from the Judeo-Christian daylight to a neo-pagan darkness.

Like Pete Hegseth and David Goodwin, many have noted that modern educational reformers undertook to change our cultural order and dissolve our attachment to the Western Christian Paideia.

Over the last two centuries, North American educators have been influenced by a so-called reform movement that has done little or nothing to improve the quality of teaching, the content of curricula, or the mission of our schools.

We will examine the portentous origins of the educational reform movement in Part 2 of this continuing series on the history of North American education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

William Brooks


William Brooks is a Canadian writer who contributes to The Epoch Times from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of “The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society.

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