Humanistic education has been judged by a troubled world to be no better than the world. Riddled with chaos, inhumanity, moral impotence, and intellectual charlatanism, higher education has increasingly been subjected to adverse and even abusive criticism. And evasive as he might wish to be, or as loyal to flags, the Christian scholar and educator in the 1970s cannot escape as a context for his own enterprise the difficulties—and the apparent impotence—of secular humanism.

The first line of evidence marshalled against humanistic education has simply been the desperate persistence of a will to do evil, to destroy others and to destroy oneself. The anguished uncertainty of the Rhodes-scholar officer in Viet Nam (or of the whole American people) and the rationalized ambivalence of the beautifully educated Watergate convicts reflect a rationalization and loss of meaning that George Steiner, in the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures for 1970, finds most extravagantly exemplified in the holocaust of World War II. The terrible separation of idea from action, art from life, that allowed German soliders, fresh from their Brahms and Mahler, to force men, women, and children into the gas chambers signifies a moral disease that still grows like a choking vine around the frail bloom of educational endeavor.

As Steiner rightly pointed out, this humanistic disorder has roots that extend deep into our cultural memory. However, they go back not merely to the romantic formulations of such eighteenth-century idealists as Fichte and Schiller, as Steiner suggested, but much earlier.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan couches his temptation of Eve in the most seductive intellectual terms. The preface to this tempting, however, is offered as a lecture to his fellow angels, while they float on their backs in the burning stink of the hellish lake. In his lecture, Satan discourses as the virtues of an autonomous mind. His thesis is this:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n [I, 254–5].

All the self-deception and interpersonal deception that characterize the world of human enquiry and of human society would seem to have matriculated at this floating academy. Yet the perpetual lesson, after what happens in Eden, is that the mind cannot be “its own place” and retain its character as mind. (Witness Samuel Beckett’s eloquent yet inadvertent commentary, for example, in Endgame.)

Satan’s is the characteristic egocentric view. But it has also been the dominant view of post-medieval liberal humanism. The simple basis of Satan’s attractiveness to Eve is the attractiveness of the subtle ego-personalism of any age that confuses thinking with the self, in that at first it appears to offer a legitimate self-fulfillment. “The mind is its own place”—identity, autonomy, “integrity,” proprietorship, originality, “personal authenticity,” fulfillment. What deceit. But the litany of deceptions begun in Eden has become, for much of modern education, a kind of vicious and all-encompassing solipsism (the view that the self is the only reality) in which too few dare to loose their hold on the serpent’s tail.

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John Milton’s version of this human problem (1663) has a particular piquancy for the modern history of humanism and a particular insight for the Christian interested in education today. Acutely conscious that humanistic endeavor had come to a great crisis of understanding, Milton put before his contemporaries the problem of the self in learning. Renaissance humanism had evaded its relational content. It had shifted the perspective of enquiry from a system of reference to God to a system that reformulated the old Protagorean adage, “Man is the measure of all things.” Perhaps the most popular philosophical statement of this shift was that of Milton’s near contemporary, Descartes (1596–1650), in whose formula Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) contemporary humanism has (rightly or wrongly) often seen its parentage.

Descartes’s “Cogito” (or Kant’s, or Whitehead’s) represents what John MacMurray calls “a challenge to authority and a declaration of independence.” Intellectual historians and educators have found it a very healthful declaration. For Descartes, as for the subsequent history of humanism, the “I think, therefore I am” presupposition may be paraphrased as follows: “I am a thinking being; to think is my essential nature. I have therefore both the right and the duty to think for myself, and to refuse to accept any authority other than my own reason as a guarantor of truth.” This attitude is, in my opinion, basic to the present malaise in higher learning in this country and everywhere else in Western culture. And it is the basic challenge facing Christians in education.

The problem with taking “I think” as the starting point of one’s system of thought is, in the words of John MacMurray, that it “institutes a formal dualism of theory and practice; and that this dualism makes it formally impossible to … conceive the possibility of persons in relation, whether the relation be theoretical, as knowledge, or practical, as cooperation. For thought is essentially private” (The Self as Agent, Humanities Press, 1969, p. 73).

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First among the facts of failure that challenge the Christian in education today is an evident contradiction both in theory and in practice: while humanism claims to stand for personal freedom, its rampant ego-centrism, its love of the private mythology, of the mind as its own authority, make it too easily a shield for either exploitation or indifference. Not only does this contradiction help to justify the Marxist’s clamor against what he sees as self-contradictions in the liberal ideal; it also lies behind the suspicion of many within the secular humanities that the humanist enterprise is irredeemable.

At every level we live in transgression of the very “human” values we claim to uphold. The sickness that affects North American graduate schools, for example, is a spiritual cancer born of sheer moral irresponsibility, an attitude in which one views the lives of others as subservient to one’s blindly rationalized self-interest. It persists, even though it has been overwhelmingly discovered by students and by their professors for what it is. One result of student disenchantment is that enrollments in the humanities are dropping, as students turn away from the pursuit of ideas seemingly unrelated to personal reality toward a self-interested professionalism of their own. Perhaps Life saw it all coming as early as 1967. Writing of a midwestern American university, Life headlined the turn away from the optimistic activism of the 1960s with this harbinger: “The New Student Sensibility—Looking Out for No. 1.”

Educators should be aware that what gets communicated in the classroom far more effectively than content is a personal style—an approach to learning. And it is in this respect that the evasion of moral and personal responsibility has come back to haunt us. As Frank Kermode has recently put it: “We have allowed knowledge to become unfashionable, yielded to the cult of the gut-reaction, created a situation in which professors who profess nothing teach students who study nothing” (Times Literary Supplement, June 13, 1975).

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Life magazine in 1967 saw a return among students to the old self-centeredness, expressed in this headline: ‘The New Student Sensibility—Looking Out for No. 1.’ We need to confront this egocentrism.

The harvest is a series of student generations raised under a subliminal but very real curse. They come to the university in a state of anarchistic half-engagement, deprived not only of the grounds of personal motivation but increasingly of the very skills with which they might try to understand and express any alternative and sharable experience. One of the basic challenges confronting the Christian in education today is that of motivating the educational community—a community that is proving to be no community at all, indifferent to or even incapable of asking those basic questions to the pursuit of whose answers the Christian scholar may think he has devoted his life. Like it or not, the Christian student (or even senior scholar) may find himself, like the disciples of Isaiah, compromised, if not victimized, by a generation of Pharisaical and false prophets, “shepherds who know nothing; they all go their own way, each after his own interest” (Isa. 56:11).

This, then, is a brief catalogue of embarrassments for the secular humanist, and at least an index to the problems he helps to create. Now what about ourselves?

Despite all this “secular” malaise, can the Christian in education afford the luxury of his own despair, or of a kind of holier-than-thou withdrawal—which is to say, the false peace of his own impotence? Hardly. Like the disciples of Isaiah, we must now pass beyond the challenge presented by the failure of a poorly realized, misunderstood vocation; we must see our task in its historical and transpersonal perspective. The challenges that confront the Christian in education are no new thing, and they are far from untouched by the problems of the secular humanist. We might as well get out there and face the weather.

The oldest lament of the scholar, and one of the oldest surviving inscriptions in the world, is found on a piece of clay now in the museum of Constantinople that was excavated from the lowest layer of Babylon. It should strike us as a kind of consolation: “Things are not what they used to be. Everything is in decay, and everybody wants to write a book.” (Let me say in passing that I think one of the major challenges facing the Christian scholar today is to write better books. What we owe the tradition of Lewis, Williams, Barfield, and Tolkien—or Butterfield, Latourette, and F. F. Bruce—is not so much hero worship as a commitment that their enterprise shall not perish from the earth.)

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We really need to ask ourselves, What can we do? Where can we go from here? I am not a prophet. But it seems to me that the answers are at least as old as the problems, and that genuine prophets have seen them truly. In the perspective of Paradise Lost, as of Isaiah and his followers, we too need to move first to a carefully studied, sharp critique of our contemporary culture. And this will involve us in an unmasking of ignoble fictions. One of the most notorious of these is the myth of the isolated and purely individual self; we should recognize it as a subtle but malicious perversion of the truth we seek. But its opposite, the notion that a collective community in conformity constitutes one selfhood, is no less perverse.

We must make an effective and practical critique of the cult of personality, of ego-centrism in leadership. We must challenge simplistic evocations of the idea of progress, just as we rigorously scrutinize the many subtle felonies of cogito ergo sum. And in all this we must oppose and avoid the sort of pseudo-intellectual enterprise that is little more than specious generalization or enervating gossip. Christians in education must insist on dealing with real problems in constructive ways—must act in secular as well as Christian educational arenas.

We must recognize that cultural criticism, for the Christian, begins—and concludes—in self-criticism. If the generalizations we reach are to be significant rather than specious, they must be founded on at least a tentative mastery of concrete particulars. What we want is books whose chief merit is not that they are easy but that they are the product of clear thinking and a mature digestion of careful research. Both as continuing students and as educators we must also recognize that effective cultural criticism begins in an apprenticeship, and rises ultimately toward some sort of true penetration of the culture.

We ourselves have lived in our own versions of “cogito” centeredness. As an evangelical raised to believe that history after St. Paul began with Calvin and the Pilgrim Fathers (if not with Descartes), I am often chastened by an illuminating sequence of three resolutions from a New England assembly in 1640:

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1. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Voted.

2. The Lord may give the earth or any part of it to his chosen people. Voted.

3. We are his chosen people. Voted.

There was an administrator of some genuine worldly promise in that assembly, I can tell you. But in his illogical and perverse way of treating Scripture he showed that his education as a Christian was incomplete. And his error is often repeated in the Christian community today; calamity often arises from a confusion between divine will and self-will.

We should be candid with one another about what is probably the most persistent lesson in the Bible: the way one can tell who God’s chosen people are is that they are always the first ones called to do penance. And the repentance to which we are called is, certainly, a turning away from the self-centeredness and autonomous double-speak that are evident in the idolatry around us. But it is much more than that. Here is the instruction of Yahweh, as it came to the disciples of Isaiah:

Hanging your head like a reed,

lying down on sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call fasting,

a day acceptable to Yahweh?

Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me

—it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks

to break unjust fetters

and undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free?…

If you do away with the yoke,

the clenched fist, the wicked word,

if you give your bread to the hungry,

and relief to the oppressed,

your light will rise in the darkness,

and your shadows become like noon.…

You will rebuild the ancient ruins,

build up on the old foundations

[Isaiah 58:5b–12, Jerusalem Bible].

The true repentance is active charity, rebuilding with that integrity on the “ancient ruins,” yes, but also upon the “old foundations.” Against the impotence that threatens, repentance is an act of discovering, as William of St. Thierry puts it, that “the will is set free when it becomes charity.” As through understanding we come to pursue a genuine learning, true repentance is coming to know in no simplistic way that amor ipse intellectus est, that love itself is understanding. Against the false opposites of ego-centrism and collective conformity, true repentance is active participation as many (wonderfully diverse) members of One Body, teaching to our time the perpetual Body of Christ. Christians in education still have far to go in discovering their wider community in Christ.

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But what Satan proposes is loneliness. At his entry, into the Garden of Eden to seduce Eve and Adam to the curse of his own loneliness, Milton has Satan stop to survey the territory from a most arresting perspective:

… on the Tree of Life

The middle tree and highest then that grew,

Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life

Thereby regained … [IV, 195–7].

Like a cormorant Satan perched on the Tree of Life, surveying the yet unfallen Garden. Milton’s point is that even the Tree of Life, so perverted, cannot serve to counter Death. Seeing it from there is not enough. There is a lesson for us in that, too.

The business of the Christian in education is, like Milton’s, twofold. First, to recognize and describe the problem: to understand the meaning of Paradise Lost. Second, to learn, to act, to live, and to love toward a Paradise Regained far beyond any vision of our own, but made known to us in part already through God’s revelation. The challenge facing us is to do a thorough job of the first as we dedicate ourselves to the second, learning a lesson from Isaiah’s disciples. We find, therefore, our ultimate challenge in the words of our Lord: “If you dwell within the revelation I have brought, you are indeed my disciples; you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32, NEB).

Christians who are concerned about education need to be clear about what sort of thinking is the enemy and what sort is consistent with Christian life. There are many contemporary versions of intellectual egocentrism and many characterizations of the mind as, in Satan’s words in Paradise Lost, “its own place.” However disguised, all these are antipathetic to a biblical understanding of genuine learning. True education for the Christian is preceded by a submission. It proceeds in an apprenticeship to Creation in which one acknowledges with Paul that “in him all the treasures of wisdom lie hidden” (Col. 1:17). It succeeds when it is characterized by the growth of personal discipleship.

Intellectual freedom is not to be found in the mythology of intellectual autonomy, the mind as its own place. But a genuine integrity, a release to enquiry, and an optimism about learning can spring from relationship to a truth the self could not provide. Christians need, now more than ever, to be willing to claim the commencement Christ promised when he said to his disciples, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Against so many tacit or explicit proclamations that “man is the measure of all things” we need to exercise our gifts toward a better prospect: “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, KJV).

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Until then, Christians interested in education must unapologetically seek to express their interest—but must speak out of the humility and wisdom that characterize minds in which the spirit of Christ dwells richly. As this happens, we can speak effectively about the educational crises of our time and, at least in part, relieve them with a more healthful understanding of the mind’s most apt and noble place.

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