I’d like to ponder something I’ll call “A Tale of Two Dictionaries,” and in particular how those two dictionaries define a specific word: “education.” The results are enlightening.
A Modern Definition
The first dictionary is the modern dictionary. I’ll cite two examples from this “modern dictionary.” The first is the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which defines education this way: “The action or process of educating or of being educated; the knowledge and development resulting from the process of being educated.”
From this, we gather education is simply a matter of “knowledge” and “development.” What constitutes either is unclear. There’s nothing particularly objective in the definition. What isn’t defined is capable of being defined, and thus “education” in this sense is something always malleable, never fixed.
The second example from this “modern dictionary” comes from Dictionary.com, and is perhaps a bit more enlightening when it defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”
This definition gives a bit of heft. We see that this “development” occurs in the powers of “reasoning” and “judgment,” with a “mature life” being the intended outcome. Again, good so far as it goes. But what counts for “mature” these days?
In short, this definition of education has only to do with this world, this life, and partakes of no relation to anything beyond it.
An Older Definition
Now we’ll turn to the second dictionary—the old dictionary. In particular, I’ll be citing Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary definition of “education”:
“The bringing up, as of a child; instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts, and science is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.”
In this definition, we encounter not only a definition of what education is, but the nature of the human person to which it applies. This person is, we see, capable of “understanding,” and thus reason. So the human person is a reasonable creature. However, this creature must be educated in such a way as to “correct [their] temper,” and have their “manners and habits” formed in such a way that they conform to reason. This is the key: the human person is capable of reason, but is also flawed, and thereby prone to the irrational.
How does education correct this tendency? First, by increasing knowledge in the arts and sciences, along with various habits of life. This is “important” to education.
But what does this dictionary say is “indispensable”? A “religious education.” Why? Because the rationality to which all human beings should conform is not an endowment we have given ourselves, but one we have received from our Creator, i.e. God. As such, this power of rationality cannot be fully actualized without reference to he who gave this power, and what he requires of us.
Free Will and Moral Judgment
Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary assumes the human person is both capable of reason and prone to irrationality, and that this can only ultimately be most corrected by a religious education, which directs this person to the God who originally gifted them with the power of rationality—a power no other species on the planet possesses; the power of moral judgment, and free will. Religion is thus essential to a proper and true education, according to Noah Webster.
In his famous 1830s work “Democracy in America,” the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed the same basic truth, and its importance to the American experiment:
“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed [increased liberty]? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?”
We would do well to ponder this definition of education, and contrast it with that which is prominent in our day, in which God plays no part, and the eternal is absent from all horizons. Let us ponder which vision makes more sense of the human person, and the deepest desires and longings of our hearts. And let us dare to be honest about the consequences of each respective vision as borne out in historical experience, including the experience unfolding before our very eyes.