delivered at The Wade Center (Wheaton College) in Wheaton, Illinois on 9 April 2019
I came into education much the same way. I fell backwards into education as I fell backwards into G.K. Chesterton. If when I was 18 you had asked me what I thought of education, I would have simply smiled and gone along. Education was a nice thought. But for me, as a boy who wanted to be a man, going into education was a great curse. I saw a career in teaching as a kind of acceptable disgrace. The path for a male teacher I saw as a pitiable disgrace.
But though I fell into education and Chesterton separately and quite by accident, I have not stayed there by accident. I have most certainly not fallen backwards into G.K. Chesterton’s theory of education. Quite the contrary. As my questions about education rose, so did my interest in finding great thinkers who would provide the requisite wisdom, perhaps even the requisite paradigms, for getting education right. If we in America want to get education right for our children, for our churches, and for our cities, we must listen well to what G.K. Chesterton has to say.
By way of a brief introduction, I’d like you to meet, either as an old friend because you have been reading him for years or as a new friend because you have hardly heard of him, the man we call G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was born 29th of May, 1874 on Campden Hill, Kensington and baptized July 1st 1874, as he says in his Autobiography, “according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge…I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.”
Gilbert was born to a respectable middle-class family. His father, who greatly influenced his boyhood, was a small-business owner and had many hobbies in and around the house. Gilbert had a typical preparatory education for an English boy of his time. And while he was an intelligent boy, he was not particularly a strong student. Eventually, Chesterton was bound neither for Oxford nor Cambridge but for art school. Though he contributed great pieces of both prose and verse to the school journal, Chesterton was known to have wonderful handwriting and a master’s touch at draughtsmanship. Chesterton’s first publication in the national press appeared December 1892 and so showed his gifts as a writer. In 1893 he entered The University College, London Slade School to study art. After one year, he dropped out, attending lectures informally in English and French literature around the college for another year or two. Shortly after, and quite slowly, his career in writing, particularly as an essayist, began, and he never turned back. In no way, by his own admission or any other admission, was Chesterton an educator; perhaps this would be a great insult. We could perhaps apply to title to Lewis or Sayers, but not to Chesterton. So, why then turn to a forgotten 20th century English essayist for our understanding of education? This is the question of the hour: what does Chesterton have to teach us about education?
In short, nothing. Nothing at all.
Now I could end my talk here, and leave you all in great confusion. But then you would think I was a hoax or the Wade Center has tricked you. And you would leave. You would leave not understanding what I mean that Chesterton has absolutely nothing to teach us about education. What I mean by this is not that we have nothing to learn from Chesterton on education. Of course, we have much to learn from Chesterton on everything. What I mean is that while we have much to learn from Chesterton, he has nothing new to teach us which our own humanity has not tried to teach us from the very beginning, nothing which cannot be picked up by watching a five year-old little girl in a happy and healthy home. If Chesterton was here and heard us call him something like a teacher or an educator, he may jeer, of course with the utmost jolly and grace, to remind us that he is nothing more than a common man, and he does nothing more than to ask us to be very common as well. He would not want the title of Educator any more than he would want the title Incinerator, for while both may provide a kind of warmth, both turn their contents to mere ashes. The former may even be worst, for it takes living men and turns them to ashes, while the latter takes dead men and turns them to ashes. Nonetheless, Chesterton himself believed he has nothing to teach us on education:
“Of course, the main fact about education is that there is no such thing. It does not exist…” (WW, 170)
For Chesterton, a philosophy of education was something of a practice in redundancy. So is a term like good education or classical education or personal education or contemporary education or religious education. For Chesterton, education was not something confined to an academic institution, a specialist, or even a certain time of the day or week. In fact, Chesterton often expressed that it was the educated classes which understood education the least, because it was the educated classes which had the worst understanding of things like children, parents, tradition, reason, nursery rhymes, religion, humor, original sin, and especially common sense. It is not the uneducated that must be educated, Chesterton expressed; it is the educated that must be uneducated. For Chesterton, a great education was something found in the most common life and found in all of life, and the most important and common things in life were what truly educated a man. There are at least five great truths about education we ought to learn from Chesterton:
First, everyone educates and everyone is educated. It is a common misconception in our day that if you want to be a teacher, then go get a degree in teaching and then get a certification. But this is not the truth, and it is indeed not how Chesterton saw things.
Of course, the main fact about education is that there is no such thing. It does not exist…education is not a word like geology or kettles. Education is a word like “transmission” or “inheritance”; it is not an object, but a method. It must mean the conveying of certain facts, views or qualities, to the last baby born. They might be the most trivial facts or the most preposterous views or the most offensive qualities; but if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education. Education is not a thing like theology, it is not an inferior or superior thing; it is not a thing in the same category of terms. Theology and education are to each other like a love-letter to the General Post Office. Mr. Fagin was quite as educational as Dr. Strong; in practice probably more educational. It is giving something—perhaps poison. Education is tradition, and tradition (as its name implies) can be treason… A little boy in a little house, son of a little tradesman, is taught to eat his breakfast, to take his medicine, to love his country, to say his prayers, and to wear his Sunday clothes. Obviously Fagin, if he found such a boy, would teach him to drink gin, to lie, to betray his country, to blaspheme and to wear false whiskers. But so also Mr. Salt the vegetarian would abolish the boy’s breakfast; Mrs. Eddy would throw away his medicine; Count Tolstoi would rebuke him for loving his country; Mr. Blatchford would stop his prayers, and Mr. Edward Carpenter would theoretically denounce Sunday clothes, and perhaps all clothes. I do not defend any of these advanced views, not even Fagin’s. But I do ask what, between the lot of them, has become of the abstract entity called education. It is not (as commonly supposed) that the tradesman teaches education plus Christianity; Mr. Salt, education plus vegetarianism; Fagin, education plus crime. The truth is, that there is nothing in common at all between these teachers, except that they teach.” (WW, 170-171)
“We have said that if education is a solid substance, then there is none of it. We may now say that if education is an abstract expansion there is no lack of it. There is far too much of it. In fact, there is nothing else. There are no uneducated people. Everybody in England is educated; only most people are educated wrong. (WW, 182-183)
For Chesterton, there is indeed no great and categorical separation from Wheaton’s degree in education and how the Chicago gangs go about their work. It is not that the gangs are raising up punks and prisoners while Wheaton raises up priests and principals. Both are educating as thoroughly and deeply as possible. We may even say that the gangs have been more effective educators, for their pupils are willing to die now for their cause.
Second, education is tradition. I’d like to refer us to a section of the longer passage I read a moment ago:
“Education is not a thing like theology, it is not an inferior or superior thing; it is not a thing in the same category of terms. Theology and education are to each other like a love-letter to the General Post Office. Mr. Fagin was quite as educational as Dr. Strong; in practice probably more educational. It is giving something—perhaps poison. Education is tradition, and tradition (as its name implies) can be treason.” (WW, p.170-171)
Therefore, we can conclude, with great assurance, that everyone who teaches is a traditionalist. Of course, the great question is “Which tradition?” Tradition is not only pathway of civilizations and worldviews, quite abstract and intangible things, it is also the pathway of homes and fathers and mothers, quite concrete and tangible things:
“Now I am concerned, first and last, to maintain that unless you can save the fathers, you cannot save the children; that at present we cannot save others, for we cannot save ourselves. We cannot teach citizenship if we are not citizens; we cannot free others if we have forgotten the appetite of freedom. Education is only truth in a state of transmission; and how can we pass on truth if it has never come into our hand?...There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all.” (WW, 173-174)
We consider Chesterton’s words and we rightly conclude that education is not just passing on a tradition, whatever that tradition be, it is person formation according to a tradition, and that person formation always has a posture toward the truth, even if the posture is that the truth is something altogether worse than a nursery rhyme.
Third, education is dogmatic. We now entertain one of those dreaded words for modern man: dogma. Other than the word progress, perhaps the most beloved word of the past two centuries is the term liberty, which has come to mean lacking any dogma, lacking rigidity, lacking boundary, lacking judgement. But if anyone sets his hand to educate, he is a dogmatist or he is no educator at all.
“The truth is, that there is nothing in common at all between these teachers, except that they teach. In short, the only thing they share is the one thing they profess to dislike: the general idea of authority. It is quaint that people talk of separating dogma from education. Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education. It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.” (WW, 171
As Dale Ahlquist states, “According to Chesterton, the whole point of education is that it should give a person a set of standards, eternal standards that can be used to judge fugitive standards. We have this backward, too. Our schools change their standards more often than they change the light bulbs. The modern mind cannot make up its mind.” (Ahlquist, Common Sense 101, p. 104)
Fourth, education is both closed-minded and narrow-minded. If you’ve read enough Chesterton, or even heard some of his quotes, it’s likely you’ve come across his sentiment that the open mind is a dangerous thing to have, and an ever-open mind is terrible thing to have, for the only purpose of an open mind is so that it will close on truth. Apply this to education, and we can see that from first to last, education must begin with a closed and narrow mind, and it must end, for both the pupil and the teacher, in a closed and narrow mind.
“Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist…Mr. Shaw and such people are especially shrinking from that awful and ancestral responsibility to which our fathers committed us when they took the wild step of becoming men. I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.” (WW, 177)
“The true task of culture to-day is not a task of expansion, but very decidedly of selection—and rejection. The educationist must find a creed and teach it. Even if it be not a theological creed, it must still be as fastidious and as firm as theology. In short, it must be orthodox… Out of all this throng of theories it must somehow select a theory; out of all these thundering voices it must manage to hear a voice; out of all this awful and aching battle of blinding lights, without one shadow to give shape to them, it must manage somehow to trace and to track a star.” (WW, 191-192)
In this way, the aim of education for Chesterton was nothing more than sanity, which always means closing one’s mind around the right things.
Fifth and finally, education contains much moonshine. The bulk of education, since a generation or two before Chesterton, has been based on modern academic fields like psychology, sociology, and evolution, and based on these in the worst way. And so we no longer base our education ideals on things like poetry, paradox, natural philosophy, literature, friendship, wonder, religion, the home, and especially mystery. We attempt things like social experiments and how the manipulation of physical space will create one kind of citizen over another. But man is too mysterious; the image of God is not easily manipulated by human hands.
“The idea that surroundings will mold a man is always mixed up with the totally different idea that they will mold him in one particular way… Education contains much moonshine.” (WW, 166-167)
Taking all this into account, then, and considering I’ve convinced you that all Chesterton has said thus far is true, what then are you and I to do? In a word, read. We are to read more Chesterton. We are to read ourselves. We are to read the world.
The first thing I suggest is that we should read more Chesterton, and realize that, if he takes his own advice, all he writes has the expressed intent to educate his reader, to give his readers eyes, to make his reader sane, throughout every genre, even down to the last villain. Chesterton’s characters are always teachers.
The second thing we should do is read ourselves, we should ask how we are being educated and who is doing the educating. We should do what Chesterton always asks of us: to evaluate and defend our position, and if we find it is indefensible, to throw it by and start at the base level. How deep into the modern cave have we built our schools, even as Christians?
The final thing we should do is read the world, to seek the educational element in all things. That is to say, we should ask how this or that field is always forming its participants. This is a very kind thing for us to do for our children. If my daughter wanted to be an architect, I wouldn’t first put her into modeling classes or draughting classes or classes on Vitruvius or Bauhaus. I would put her in classes on speech, language, and rhetoric. I would teach her that a building is a speech act, that a piece of architecture is emulating God’s creative speech, and that the power of this speech act is that it does something with the whole of the user’s body and imagination, and not just his errands.
We then see that Chesterton is no educational reformer, though he has the power to reform education in America. He is no educationalist or modern educational philosopher, though he can provide us the groundwork for the future of American education. When speaking of education, he is attempting nothing more than he attempts in all his works: to lead us to that grand romance of home, to show that man has a home, that he belongs there, and that all his endeavors, especially education, are to affirm and nurture what is already in the child at birth. Thank you.