Trinitarian Foundations for Education, Part One


In the history of educational theory, a dichotomy or paradox has arisen between two separate goals. Since the Enlightenment, educational theorists have battled with the friction between the individual and the collective. The question is rather simple: Ought educators to set as their goal the making of autonomous, independent individuals, or ought they to make the formation of contributors to the greater collective their desired end? The answer, however, is not quite as simple as the question. This is more than a question merely touching the education of individual children, but a question also concerning the greater welfare of the society at large. The question this paper seeks to answer is even more foundational than the one posed above, though: What is the ultimate source and model of the natural, relational character of all human beings? Offering biblical and historical evidence, this paper demonstrates that the doctrine of the Trinity is foundational in the education of human beings, insofar as they bear the image of a triune God.

Rousseau’s False Dichotomy

Near the end of his life, enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a treatise on the education of children. In so doing, he formed as his founding premise a peculiar view of the natural state of man. His natural man was fully autonomous, whole, and complete in his unique individuality. It was this individual spirit that Rousseau contested ought to be nurtured in all pupils in any proper education.[1] Rousseau, known to be somewhat of an introvert,[2] was dogmatically anti-institution and anti-society. He quipped, “These two words, country and citizen, ought to be expunged from modern languages,” and, “I do not regard as a system of public instruction these ridiculous establishments called colleges.”[3] Such institutions compromised the integrity of the natural man in Rousseau’s eyes; they did not promote it.

For Rousseau, man must be autonomous, or he ceases to be a man. Once the goal of education becomes the formation of a functioning member of a society complete with a sense of civic duty and commonality, the pupil has ceased to be a man and become nothing more than an unnatural citizen. A citizen is never complete, never whole. Rather, he is only a fraction of a whole. One must choose in the very beginning of the educational endeavor what is the desired product: a man or a citizen, a complete unit or a fraction of a unit.[4] For Rousseau, there is no other option. Search as one may, there is no solution to this paradox: “I am waiting to be shown this prodigy in order to know whether he is man or citizen, or how he manages to be both at the same time.”[5]

This is not only a stumbling block for those endeavoring to determine the proper foundation for education. It is also a major source of friction for those seeking to establish other social conventions, such as governments. One issue that the fledgling democracy in America faced was the question of how to bring a sense of solidarity to an overly individualistic society. One early French observer of the American experiment, Alexis de Tocqueville, suggested that one remedy the founders discovered was to use the common desire for the perpetuation of personal liberty as a source of common solidarity. He called this the doctrine of interest.[6]

This basic idea, which Tocqueville had discovered in the ideas of America’s founders, was a larval form of utilitarianism. Tocqueville was convinced that early Americans truly believed that “man, in helping his fellow men, helps himself, and that his individual interest is to do right.”[7] This notion of common interest is the most basic tenet of utilitarianism. However, hindsight shows that this is not the proper fix to Rousseau’s paradox. Though the spirit of American rugged individualism still persists in certain corners of the now 236 year old nation, and even provides a sense of solidarity among those for whom it is still worth dying, it has started to wane under growing Socialistic sentiments and calls from the masses for the sacrifice of individual freedom at the altar of the common good.

[1]Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. William H. Payne (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003), 5-6.

[2]William H. Payne, “Introduction by the Translator,” in Emile (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2003), xxii.

[3]Rousseau, Emile, 6-7.

[4]Ibid., 5.

[5]Ibid., 6.

[6]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Stephen D. Grant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 219-222.

[7]Ibid., 220.


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