Education and Formation: Personal and Public, Civic and Spiritual


A Closing Editorial

Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso
Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso

Is the rise of polarized politics due—at least partly—to the decline of mainline Protestantism? And why do mainline Protestants see education as such an ethical value? This is an editorial reflection on a very rich issue and a look ahead to another but very different education-related Unbound theme for another day.

The first question about polarization gets argued various ways, as a decline in social capital, the erosion of ‘mediating institutions’ between the individual and the state, and the loss of broad and diverse enough places where politically conservative and liberal people could get to know each other as people, as well as people of faith. People intuit that in some way the qualities of public education have something to do with public life, and that education in general prevents extremism.

The mainline church is usually not driven by ideology and hence is a place where people of all political persuasions can worship and serve together. I would argue that that is a secondary effect of a primary commitment to a style of education that is exploratory rather than authoritarian. Education based in wonder and awe is key the mainline church, encouraging discovery over repetition and responsibility over obedience. For it needs be said: many a dedicated Southern Baptist or Mormon studies their scriptures and attends an adult Sunday school before or after worship every week. Chances are, though, their classes are not called ‘discussion forums’. And chances are that even home-schooling mainliners teach evolution, climate change, and respect for other cultures and faiths.


Is the rise of dysfunctional public life due to an immoral disregard for truth that comes from a profound disrespect for education?

But this editorial is not about how to have less polarized politics, or more acceptance of scientific evidence. It is about why we favor education almost to the point of idolatry, without imagining that education is ever value-free. In fact, education is shaped by values even as it shapes them. Good education respects both learners and teachers, and these roles depend on each other. From a Protestant Christian viewpoint, the role of the Spirit in leading us to “all truth” is reflected in a respect for all facts, for honoring knowledge as good-in-itself, for celebrating many forms of knowing and yet recognizing that knowledge is (see John 16:13) not the whole of understanding. Ray Roberts, in his article on the theology of education, is right in seeing education as involving both inner and outer sources. Wisdom is more than reason – more than reason and experience – when it recognizes the limits of factual knowledge and welcomes the faith and courage that lead to commitment.

books public domainSo to re-phrase the question: Is the rise of dysfunctional public life due to an immoral disregard for truth that comes from a profound disrespect for education? And does the mainline Protestant position depend on a linkage between education and ethics, a linkage that is being swamped by knowledge-for-power and knowledge-for-wealth? For some readers it may simply be enough to point to low teachers’ salaries and disdain for teachers’ unions to show where our society puts its values. And for better or worse, mainline congregations mainly attract those with decent educations, members of a middle class that is under considerable pressure. But at a deeper level, the truths of faith and the truths of all disciplines are under one Heading, or capital “T.”

All truth in this sense is sometimes ‘inconvenient’, as in a large sense we are to conform to reality rather than vice-versa. We share a thirst for truth even as we dislike hard truth, so denial is our biggest form of disbelief. In this mainline worldview, majorities of people can be misguided or simply wrong, but proven truths of fact can never conflict with the truths of God. Societies go wrong through hubris or pride when they make themselves the measures of truth, rather than recognize Truth as a universal, reflecting a Creator/Indweller, and requiring humility of all of us. Certain forms of skepticism may in fact be forms of humility rather than hubris, though this believer would argue that most reductionism falls on the hubris side. Intellectual humility is seen in the capacity for self-criticism, and that quality helps the well-educated see needs for on-going reformation and reformulation.

To get at this educational ethic that fuels a commitment to education for all, an early Presbyterian (and generally Puritan) statement may be illuminating. Here is one of the key “preliminary principles” in the Presbyterian Book of Order, still retained from the 1700’s:

“That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a person’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.” (F-3.0104)

Thus discovering AND embracing truth can be a form of discipleship, if not worship. Truth inevitably has Justice on its side. Public education, that is universal education, reflects part of the nature of truth: to hold true for everyone. Some facts may be depressing or tragic, but if they are true, they deserve some reverence. To deny them is a form of lying and is destructive of the larger community. Jan Ressenger is right about the place that education has in the social covenant of a healthy society.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

So why do people deny or insist that they do not ‘believe in’ things like climate change, or other inconvenient truths, such as truth about torture, or war crimes one’s own nation has committed, or health effects for which one’s company may be liable?

Upton Sinclair provides a fundamental test of education and ethics when he notes: “It’s difficult to get a man (sic) to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Al Gore, author of the book and protagonist of the film, An Inconvenient Truth, has quoted both Sinclair and Mark Twain: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” This second quote brings us from self-deception and denial to ideology and false belief. Conversely, a great illustration of the public effect of a conviction of truth would be James Lowell’s poem-turned-hymn, “Once to Every Man (sic) and Nation,” written initially to oppose the Mexican war.

But don’t mainline churches suffer from the ideology of ‘centrism’ – of assuming that being in the middle is right? Education, in this sense, forms people who distrust extremes and may miss situations that are genuinely critical. This is middle class formation perhaps, more than the formation of conscience, character, and independent judgment. The challenge here is recognize that the traditions of the Bible and church are sometimes quite radical and prophetic – and sometimes call for self-criticism and repentance. But what is the relation of prophetic Christianity and public education?


All truth is sometimes ‘inconvenient’, as in a large sense we are to conform to reality rather than vice-versa. We share a thirst for truth even as we dislike hard truth, so denial is our biggest form of disbelief.

In her beginning editorial on a holistic and moral “Common Core” of educational purposes such as advancing reconciliation and civic virtue, Ginna Bairby implicitly raises the question of where the spiritual fits in. Critics of ‘liberal’ education are right in that the public schools, by having no explicit faith component, suggest at least implicitly that faith formation is not important—particularly for those children who are not part of any Christian or other religious education. Yet the many teacher testimonies of this Unbound issue show how much ethos and even spirituality of education is missed by that approach. Still, what is the church’s witness and evangelism strategy that is complementary to public education?

bible-open-to-psalm-118-1378400894gXP -Public DomainThis points us toward a future issue of Unbound where we will focus on education for faith—though part of this editorial is to suggest that there is already a certain faith in education. Certainly teaching and learning are core to Protestant forms of ‘formation’; David Wigger is right in saying that the earliest years are “incredibly formative.” And Eileen Lindner underlines the liberating, community empowerment that is part of public education. But of course, the good work and mission they describe is distinct from the mission of Christian education.

Lindsay Carnes’ article about the non-doctrinaire education at the Kirk School raises questions we will want to return to: What relationship should exist between nursery and primary schools (and childcare) open to the public and Christian education programming? How much interfaith curriculum meets the deep needs of our diversifying society AND gives a place for the host church to introduce its own faith stories? It could be argued that mainline churches should start as many pre-schools and after-school programs as possible precisely in order to build relationships with as many families as possible. Such relationship-building can be key to church growth. Even in the careful boundary-keeping described in Dave Brown’s article, relationship-building between parents in the before-and-after-school programs and the church are inevitable and welcomed.

“Truth is in order to goodness,” and education is in order to Truth, in all its forms. This is not to conflate education and salvation, but to see some good news in all good education.


AUTHOR BIO: Christian Iosso, General Editor of Unbound, is the son of public school teachers, though his mother went on to run a perception studies office at Bell Labs. His father taught high school for more than 30 years. Both were also Sunday school teachers at various times.

Read more articles from this issue: Pedagogy for the Distressed!

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