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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Utilitarianism in Christian Education

    June 14, 2021 by Jessica Weatherford

    Do you know your educational philosophy? Do you know the “why” behind your curriculum choices? Our educational philosophy informs our curriculum choices whether we deliberately choose it to or just “trust our gut.” This subject of Utilitarianism is close to my heart because I feel like I am constantly going against my own instinct to just do what is necessary and cut out “extracurriculars.” It hit me like a train that I was steeped in Utilitarianism while reading about Charlotte Mason and Classical Education. It was further brought to my attention when completing Charlotte Mason Boot Camp taught by Brandy Vencel.

    Let’s start with defining terms. John Stuart Mill’s called Utilitarianism the “Greatest Happiness Principle.” To understand this better let’s look at the word utility.

    My friend Kara Titus of Titvs Classics e-mails a Latin word of the week to her newsletter subscribers. When I was thinking about writing this article, the word just so happened to be UTILITAS – Usefulness. This is where we get the English word utility. So, in Mill’s philosophy, happiness and usefulness are ultimately synonyms. Here’s a quote from Kara’s email:

    There is also a political and ethical theory called Utilitarianism. This theory believes that decisions should be made based off of the ability to achieve the highest level of happiness of the most amount of people.

    The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure… morality is grounded- namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

    John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

    Ok, great: happiness is useful. Not a bad thought, right? We like happiness and we like usefulness.

    Think with me about what this looks like in education, specifically public education. Usefulness = happiness. In our society this belief has been adopted in many ways. As our society as a whole abandons a usefulness for God, we have adopted a new god … Money.

    An educational system that is largely influenced by or built to serve Utilitarianism may look like this. What will achieve the highest level of happiness of the most amount of people? Careers will. The majority of students will be working class so the curriculum only needs to focus on what is most useful for the majority. The end goal of education is happiness. Happiness is synonymous with usefulness. Therefore, what is taught must be useful. What is most useful and creates the most happiness is Money. 

    We see this Utilitarian chain of thought in the public school system. I know it was there 15 years ago when I was in high school (I apologize, I’m a baby), and I know it’s there now. Here’s a common idea of the high school students of today: Whatever makes you a lot of money is morally ethical.

    My husband taught high school Spanish for 10 years. The classroom conversations did not always revolve around Spanish. This idea of whatever makes you money is good came from conversations my husband had with his students. He’d comment that *insert pop-culture icon* isn’t someone to look up to and the unanimous response from his students was “Well, they make a lot of money doing it so it can’t be that bad.”

    I have even seen this in recent years among the Christian homeschool community when Billy Eilish won Album of the Year at the 2020 Grammy Awards. They used her to validate their choice to homeschool. Is fame and money the end goal of home education and all education? If my child graduates from our homeschool to end up like Billy Eilish, then I will consider my years of labor an utter waste and complete failure. 

    This is a very crude picture of Utilitarian thought, I know, and it really doesn’t seem like a problem on the surface. We all need to make an income for our families to be fed and happy. We all need to learn skills that will help us in a career path. These are all good things. The problem lies in saying this is the end goal of education and choosing which subjects are useful and which are not.

    The Circe Institute gives this definition for Education:

    EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. It should be distinguished from training (for a career), which is of eternal value but is not the same thing as education.

    How has Utilitarianism shaped Christian culture and Christian education in America? Raise of hands … how many of you went to public school after the Industrial Revolution? Most of us, right? I know some of you are second generation homeschoolers and some of you had the blessings of private school, but how were your parents raised? It’s hard to escape a philosophy when it has seeped into the depths of how we educate.

    I was taught that education must center around your career choice and your career choice must focus on what will make you the most money and what will make you happy; it must be both. (That doesn’t make being a homeschool mom a very viable option, does it? I digress.)

    The conclusion I’m trying to lead up to is this: Utilitarianism by nature cuts out what is not useful.

    In a secular worldview, God and religion quickly become useless and are cut out of the happiness formula. In a Christian worldview, God and religion cannot be cut out, but other things can be. You can be a Christian homeschooling family and still fall into the heart of Utilitarianism. It’s the idea that if it’s not explicitly Christian, then it’s bad. So, not so all of a sudden, there are topics that become taboo to Christian Education because they don’t fit into a Utilitarianized view of the world. They aren’t useful to the Christian.

    Greek mythology, philosophy, Latin, art, some forms of music, fairy tales, Darwin, even the beloved Frog and Toad all become untouchable subjects of study because they are not explicitly Christian. In my finite reasoning this is a Christianized Utilitarian Education. I would argue that it is neither truly Christian or Education and it does a dangerous disservice to the student.

    While listening to Episode #90 of The Scholé Sisters Podcast, Background Knowledge (The Door to Reading), a light bulb went off in my head. There was a time in Christian history when it wasn’t taboo to study all the things. To quote a Saint,

    A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.

    Augustine, On Christian Teaching, p. 47

    Jesus himself tells His disciples to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” The Apostle Paul shows great knowledge of the pagan Greek gods in his efforts to share the gospel with them. I’m afraid a Christianized Utilitarian Education might produce students that are innocent as doves but with no wisdom of serpents.

    What happens to a dove that doesn’t recognize a snake, or a sheep that doesn’t recognize a wolf? They get eaten. They fly the coop and are quickly devoured. They sit helplessly in a field grazing without defense. Colossians 2:8 warns:

    See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ.

    See to it!

    I would like to wrap this up by highlighting the last two principles in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education which I believe are universal principles to all true Christian Education.

    19. Children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

    Children should be taught that one of their responsibilities as a person is to accept or reject ideas. As educators we help them by learning how to do this by giving them principles of conduct. We also do this by giving them a wide range of knowledge. When we strip a curriculum down to only to what is useful, even with the best of intentions, we are a hindrance, not a help to our students.

    20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

    What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The Holy Triune God of the Bible is our end goal. We want to glorify Him on this earth and in the age to come. There is no separation between school and Christ. The Holy Spirit who can use the Word of God to divide bone and marrow can give us, if trained to listen to His instruction, the wisdom to search out all the good, true, and beautiful things of His world. I’m going to repeat the quote from St. Augustine, because it’s worth repeating again and again.

    A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.

    Augustine, On Christian Teaching, p. 47

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    4 Comments

  • Reply Rachael June 15, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    I would challenge you to define ‘happiness’. What does it mean to be happy? Does it mean to have all that you want when you want? Is it having a smile all the time? Is it something deeper? How does this happiness work when our child says “I’ll be happy when you….” let me have more cookies, let me drink coffee at night, let me…

    And what if giving me the chocolate chip cookie will make me happy. But it will make my 10 year even happier, so should he get it? What happens when our ‘happiness’ is now in direct conflict? To make me happy means my child go to bed early, but to make them happy means to let them stay up later.

    Can you tell I’m married to a professional philosopher? And his PhD dissertation was all about this kind of utilitarianism. Though he was looking at Rawls, not Mill. And I think it was looking for how to give everyone ‘good’, which had to do with their happiness. Yeah, it doesn’t work in a Christian worldview, b/c the goal isn’t for me to be happy. Its to be holy.

    • Reply Jessica Weatherford June 16, 2021 at 8:11 am

      Great thoughts! I really think a entire book could be devoted to fleshing out this idea. There are so many aspects that can be better defined and fleshed out more. I am definitely not qualified to do that.
      The thought just hit me like a train and I had to put in words, but I have no background in philosophy other than staring out the car window and contemplating life.

      • Reply Racahel June 17, 2021 at 7:17 am

        There have been books written! If this is something to delve into Hubby’s dissertation critiqued Rawl’s ideas, while Rawl’s was critiquing Mill’s ideas. Such is the world of PhD work!

        And Hubby just clarified. This greatest happiness principle is not about your happiness, but the happiness if the total aggerate of living things. One critique is that we must now go out and figure out what makes clams most happy. Hmmm….

  • Reply Rachel June 15, 2021 at 9:50 am

    The idea of Christian Utilitarianism is something I have been meditating on for a while now but I had not put those terms to it. This is such a rich idea. Thank you for sharing it!

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