Historians tend to differ on the origins of “modern” education. Many point to the progressive philosopher John Dewey, whose educational reform of the early 1920s had a profound impact on the United States’ public school systems. However, even Dewey’s significant shifts in educational theory pale in comparison to the monumental changes that occurred during the Enlightenment era. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education (1762) shaped western thought for decades after its publication. Even Dewey, writing over 100 year later, agreed with many of it’s premises.

Yet, the true shift towards modern education began even before Rousseau, with John Locke (1632-1704). The significance of Locke’s educational concept did not arise from methodological experimentation or even trial and error (as much reform is derived today). Rather, it began with a shift in the theological articulation of childhood. Locke believed that the minds of children were like “blank slates” – an apparent break from the Calvinist concept of original sin. This nuance, according to historian Stephanie Schnorbus, included significant epistemological implications.

Calvinists believed that the inherent sinfulness of children distorted their senses, making knowledge gained in this manner unreliable. It was only through God’s redeeming work that true knowledge could be obtained. As a result, information presented to children needed to be as clear and straightforward as possible. This was done primarily through catechisms and simple, written descriptions. Images were vague and open to interpretation, making them potential stumbling blocks for acquiring truth.

The Lockean view, however, came to very different conclusions. Schnorbus writes, “In contrast with earlier philosophers, Locke argued that all ideas came out of sensory perceptions. The only way to gain knowledge (and the fodder for thinking) was through the senses. … Sensory perceptions were not perfect, but the more there were, the better the chance for correct knowledge and eventual refinement of reason. People needed to love learning, so adults had to give children an appealing, sensory-diverse education to help them form correct ideals and a desire to learn at the same time.”

As almost all historians agree, it was the Lockean view of education that ultimately won-out, becoming the predominant concept beginning in the mid-18th century. Even Calvinists came to embrace Lockean concepts. However, Schnorbus notes, “Calvinists who adopted the Lockean view of children would have been walking a fine line. To accept the view fully would have meant changing beliefs about original sin and the reliability of knowledge gained through the senses, in the end requiring a new way of seeing the relationship between God and man.” She concludes that Calvinists ended up using “one epistemology to teach the essentials of another.”

The modern implications of Schnorbus’ conclusions are fascinating. Do modern Calvinists recognize the unorthodox origins of their own educational practices? How do they reconcile the two?

It seems that there are three possible options:

1.) Modern Calvinists have a sloppy childhood theology. A quick amount of research reveals that Calvinists seldom (if ever) write on this topic. Although a few Calvinist epistemological writings are available, they are not widely disseminated. Lay Calvinists are likely unaware that any type of contradiction may exist.

2.) Calvinist theologians are aware of theological and epistemological differences, and are seeking a return to more historical origins. This can be seen through The Gospel Coalition’s (TGC) push for catechismal instruction. As one of the leading organizations for Reformed theology, TGC seeks to influence laymen through spiritual, intellectual, and historical truth. In recent months, they have published a number of online articles that advocate for the use of catechisms. Perhaps an increased understanding of the theology at the heart of educational theory is leading them to the past for answers.

3.) The dichotomy between Lockean and Calvinist concepts of childhood are not as distinct as Schnorbus portrays them.  Although most historians view Locke’s tabula rasa concept as a blatant contradiction to original sin, other historians, such as W. M. Spellman, raise questions regarding Locke’s perceived unorthodoxy. Spellman even suggests that Locke’s focus on moral education implies a depraved disposition. Whether this is true or not, it seems clear that several Calvinist contemporaries of Locke were open to reconciling many of his views. Even the 18th century’s biggest defender of Calvinist theology, Jonathan Edwards, once described children’s minds as being like “white paper,” and used many of Locke’s educational concepts.

 

In the end, perhaps there is at least a shred of truth to each of the options mentioned above. Educational concepts and practices are predicated on many presuppositions that often go unrealized. Calvinism itself is a complex branch of theology that contains varying caveats and nuances. At the same time, modern Calvinism lacks the presence of figures that mirror the intellectual giants of its past. This seems to have been a natural process, as Calvinism distanced itself from accusations of close-mindedness and dogmatism. Nevertheless, there is a rich history in these educational and theological traditions that, for the benefit of modern society, should be explored and analyzed.

 

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