Review: The Messianic Character of American Education

The Messianic Character of American Education by Rousas John Rushdoony

A presuppositional critique of the history of philosophy of education in America

This is a thick book: 400 pages, every one densely packed with names and philosophies of education covering the last 200 years in American education. This book appears on several reading lists (for example in Doug Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning), as a devastating critique of the philosophy of the American education system.

This book is “an historical and analytical study of the philosophies of education in state education in the United States.” (x) He starts out with a couple of chapters of historical introduction, stretching all the way back to Rome and then later Scholasticism, and explains how “the university gradually developed its concept of academic freedom, that is, an independent authority for reason and scholarship which made it responsible to none other, and its concept of the redemptive, authoritative and power-endowing nature of knowledge, of reason, of university and school.” (17)

He then jumps into the American history of the philosophy of education, and doesn’t come up for air until the end of the book. 21 of the 28 chapters are each devoted to a particular figure in this history, starting with Horace Mann, and including men like William Harris, Francis Parker, Wiliam James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey.

Each chapter is heavy on original source quotes, so you can read for yourself the sort of language and philosophy that has shaped education in America. This is important, because if you couldn’t see it with your own eyes, you would be tempted to write Rushdoony off as a crackpot conspiracy theorist. His title “The Messianic Character,” put me on guard initially, that maybe he is taking this a little too far, but page after page, quote after quote, from figure after figure and eventually you cry out “Okay! I get it! your point is incontrovertible.”

This history of American education has been shaped by men and women who believed in the innate goodness of man, and his ability to reach utopia through education. They themselves use religious, messianic, salvation language when describing the process of education, specifically apart from the God of the Bible. When you see how these men were the professors of teacher’s colleges, and held positions in federal and state Education departments, you see how we have reached our present condition.

I appreciate the hardcore presuppositionalist reconstructionists for this: they boldly take on ungodly philosophies from the foundation up, and spare nothing in exposing them for what they really are. The Bahnsen/Stein debate is another classic example of this. While I don’t agree with the solution that they posit (theonomy, reconstructionism), their critiques are devastating and extremely helpful, and pave the way for a more truly Biblical solution. I want them on my demolition team, even if I don’t ask them to help me rebuild 🙂

One final note, Rushdoony is hard to read. His sentences are often tangled syntactical messes, and his paragraphs often extend for 3-4 pages in length. Here’s an example that I noted for it’s sheer convolutedness:

“In Idealism, God, however exalted in rhetoric, nevertheless, especially since Hegel, labors mightily merely to bring forth the new universal, man. In Horne, this strange “God” was still on the stage; in Dewey, having brought forth the child of destiny, man, this “God,” like a salmon whose life ends with spawning, faded quietly out of the picture.”

Dozens of names, dates, places, and quotes, combined with the difficult style of Rushdoony’s writing, makes this a laborious read. Nevertheless, if you want to understand the history of the philosophy of American education, this is the book to tackle, if you must!

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