Western scholars have noted that educational history is intrinsically connected to the history of a society. There's almost always a close link between schools and the social order.
A Golden Age for LearningFrom the mid-17th century to the present day, the age of the European Enlightenment has profoundly affected the advancement of learning in the United States and Canada. Enlightenment thought developed from new philosophical positions that challenged the authority of the Christian church and increased interest in matters of reason, scientific methods, and the development of technology.
In a myriad of ways, scientific and enlightenment thought has improved our material well-being and opened the door for effective democratic governance in free societies.
Enlightenment philosophers questioned authoritarian ways of thinking, behaving, and governing. They eagerly turned to the support of new educational methods that would play a central role in the transmission of their ideas and ideals. The development of such ideas was carried on throughout the late 18th century and well into the decades following the American and French revolutions.
By the 1820s and '30s, advancements in school systems produced a larger reading public, which resulted in increased demand for printed material, from readers with a wide range of interests across a broad span of social classes. The era was generally regarded as a golden age for learning.
Falling Away From the Christian EraSomewhere amid the intriguing rationalist ideas of the scientific revolution and the Age of Reason, legions of Western intellectuals began to lose their taste for biblical wisdom and the virtues of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Up until the final quarter of the 18th century, most North Americans agreed that Christianity was the guiding light of Western civilization. By the time of the American Revolution, the classical Christian form of education had been in use for more than 1,500 years.
DeismHegseth and Goodwin point out that the seeds of opposition to the Western Christian paideia first appeared in the form of 18th-century deism.
Deists held that a generic God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws. But, deists said, God doesn't intervene in human affairs through miracles or spiritual forms of revelation. God’s existence is only revealed through the nature of the existing world. Therefore, the authority of the church and scriptural prescriptions should have no special place in the governance of a nation.
Hegseth and Goodwin contend that deism chartered an early course away from Western Christian culture. They point out that more radical American revolutionaries, such as “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine, looked forward to “a revolution in the system of government” to be followed by “a revolution in the system of religion.”
Some of America’s revolutionary leaders were already returning to the pre-Christian Greek idea of education based solely on a divinely informed reason, or “logos.” Enlightenment thinkers saw the idea of revolution as a redemptive force in itself, offering a new kind of promised land and a new order for the ages.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, subscribed to the ideas of English and French Enlightenment thinkers, including Locke, Bacon, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Jefferson considered the independent yeoman and the agrarian life to be models of “republican,” but not necessarily Christian, “virtue.”
The Pursuit of Utopian PerfectionIn hindsight, Enlightenment deism was more akin to modern ideology than traditional religion. It was the beginning of the cultural ascendance of empirically informed reason over the divinity of Christ, the authenticity of Scripture, and the authority of the church.
At a historical moment when blends of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism and other forms of Protestantism created considerable disunity among North American Christians, the introduction of deism had practical political advantages.
The conservative Christian vision of a well-ordered life was tied to the desire to live for the glory of God and His kingdom. Enlightenment thought leaders saw a new human order developing out of the revolutionary process itself. They craftily fused the kingdom-purpose of Christianity with the more Utopian (this world) promises of the American, French, and later communist revolutions.
Deism became a politically convenient quasi-religious bridge between the society from which enlightened intellectuals wished to depart and the new order they sought to usher in.
Fortunately, American Christians and deists both recognized the danger of political tyranny and sought to limit the power of government. But a diminishing role for Christianity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries created cultural vulnerabilities that more secular movements would eventually exploit.
Government administrators across North America soon took steps to create a powerful new form of civil agency. Commonly known as the public school, this institution was intended to serve the ambitious modern pursuit of human perfection.