Education and Renewal

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris

Here at Regent University School of Divinity we study renewal and attempt to unpack its “dynamics.” As I continue to study the history of Christianity, I have noticed that the internal renewal of the human person and societal renewal have occurred during periods of educational renewal. What I mean by educational renewal is the development of new models and approaches to education that more effectively shape human beings and thus society as a whole.

At its best, it seems to me that the educational enterprise has a twofold purpose. First, it is a humanism because education attempts to make humans better human beings. In Christian terms, education is about discipleship through renewing the mind (Rom. 12:1-2) in which both educators and students seek to cooperate with the Spirit in the process of transformation. Second, education is a humanism because “transformed” students enter the world in order to bring change to societies in ways that promote the common good of humanity as a whole. Sometimes, we think of education primarily as a means to an end: a good paying job. And yet, for Christians, the job really was not the ultimate aim; instead, it was a means to the larger goal of pursuing one’s calling in life, a calling to change the world for Christ.

In this and the next blog entry, I want to survey the various points in the history of western Christianity in which renewal of educational models brought about positive renewal for humans and society. I think this is important to consider at this time in history because we are currently undergoing a change in educational models from on-campus delivery systems to online delivery systems. There is a question as to whether online education represents a genuine renewal that brings about positive change. The best way to ask this question is to consider how educational renewal happens.


1. Carolingian renewal of education

The first period of renewal within the West is during the time initiated by Charlemagne the Great, which historians refers to as the Carolingian era (750-ca. 900). Faced with an ineffective priesthood and a vast amount of territory to oversee, Charlemagne worked to set up a new structure for the church and a new way of doing education. The structure involved the creation of archdioceses and archbishops to oversee them. Up to this point in the history of Christianity, bishops provided oversight to local congregations in a particular city (Augustine of Hippo). However, in the vast unexplored terrain that would become Europe, there were no cities of significant size. Instead, there were various smaller villages separated by vast amounts of land. What was needed was an archbishop who provided oversight to a number of cities separated by long distances (a diocese).

Cathedrals were built in a city that then became the seat of the archbishop, and in those cathedrals, “schools” were established to educate the clergy. The point of these schools was to disciple future ministers who could go into villages and pastor the people of that village. We might think of these schools as the first “Bible schools” set up at the early medieval equivalent of the megachurch. Each “school” had a magister, which means teacher in Latin. The magister not only used the books of the Bible as his texts, but also other works as tools of more effective interpretation of the Bible.

By the eleventh century, these schools were in prominent centers. In addition, some monasteries set up their own schools that became important places of study. Cathedral and monastic schools developed a method by which individuals could more effectively learn and so discover the truths about scripture and the world. This method involved small-group discipleship centered around a mentor or master who was the educator. At monastic schools, the abbot was the master, and he led the students down the rigorous path of memorizing large chunks of texts. Chanting the Psalms was about memorizing the Psalms so that an individual could be changed by them.

2. Twelfth century renewal

At the beginning of the twelfth century two enormous changes were afoot. First, a number of popes were attempting to bring about reform and renewal to the priesthood and the church in general. It was a top-down kind of renewal in which the popes began to enforce celibacy and make other changes. Second, a number of monastic schools were beginning to pop up around the Cathedral school of Notre Dame in the city of Paris.

The creation of so many schools in Paris was the beginning of what would become the university of Paris in the early thirteenth century. The university became a new educational model and its method became known as scholasticism. The university attempted to retain the goal of forming future ministers, but it expanded this to include future professionals like those who could serve as administrators for kings, university professors, leaders of religious orders, and serve as administrators in the church. Thus the reach of education was expanded.

In addition to expanding its reach, the university model also attempted to systematize knowledge. The goal of education became the development of a systematic body of knowledge that individuals could easily learn. It was at this time that systematic theology was first developed, the best example of which is Peter Lombard’s Sentences, which served as the theological textbook for the rest of the Middle Ages. Systematization helped students learn a large body of knowledge in a shorter period of time. Finally, scholasticism represented a new method that applied logic and new philosophical resources (like Aristotle’s works) to sticky theological problems. It recovered and developed the liberal arts as disciplines that provided the tools to liberate the mind to pursue truth.

However, there was resistance to this new model. Some, like Bernard of Clairvaux, thought that intellectual pursuits were being separated from moral formation. To turn out a student who had “head” knowledge without any change in heart was not to engage in “true” philosophy, which meant a change of behavior. Education must always be about transformed living and thinking. A second problem was that the universities served the church by separating themselves from the church in some respects. These were no longer Cathedral schools located within a church, but they had their own buildings. The universities also produced a professional class of theologians for the first time whose task was to write theological commentaries in order to articulate answers to all of the difficult theological questions.

What can we learn about educational renewal? The models of the Cathedral school and the monastic school were restricted to small groups of learners who spent years together. To learn was to become a member of a community of learners, at the center of which was a master. This was largely an apprenticeship model where one engaged in the craft of learning. It required the slow, steady assimilation of knowledge through memorization as its primary method. But memorization was woven into worship through singing the Psalms or reading aloud the scriptures. The university model allowed for the education of larger numbers while attempting to retain the small group approach. Oxford University continues to use this approach through its colleges in which small groups of students are tutored through subjects. The university model also sought to systematize all knowledge in the service of humanity. It developed a professional class for the first time through a curriculum that took students from the liberal arts to theology.

These models raise questions about education: how can we best hold together intellectual pursuits and moral formation? how does systematizing knowledge help in the pursuit of truth? What is the role of the liberal arts? Do they indeed liberate the mind to pursue the truth? All important questions.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, July 1st, 2010 at 6:40 am and is filed under Church History, Faith & Culture, Leadership, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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