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How the Irish (Christians) Saved Education


The Christian commitment to advancing education is part of the historical record. While not wholly consistent in every time and place, the Christian view of life and the world (especially its view of a created, ordered reality and the divine imprint on every human person) has been history’s most fertile ground for advancing learning and knowledge.

In a Christian worldview, the value of education isn’t merely utilitarian. Instead, it grows from the rich soil of Christian beliefs: in a God who wants to be known, Who created an ordered and knowable universe to be stewarded by humans, to whom He gave the ability to learn and the capacity to use knowledge in His service.

That worldview framework has been uniquely fruitful for advancing education, even (and perhaps especially) at times of civilizational crisis. For example, during the decline of the Roman Empire’s authority in Western Europe, education went into sharp decline. Centuries worth of accumulated knowledge and learning were at risk of being lost forever, except In Ireland, where monks preserved learning that they’d later reintroduce to Europe.

Irish monks viewed the preservation of literature and knowledge as part of their task as Christian scholars and clergy. More than merely preserving learning, they innovated in the methodology of education. Up to this point, the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew languages were written in an unbroken stream of letters with no capitalization, punctuation, or word spacing. The Irish changed that and, in doing so, made writing a primary method of learning.

The Irish also had a hand in the recovery of education on the European continent in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Having built an empire, Charlemagne realized that he desperately needed educated officials to govern it. So, he searched for the best scholar in all of Europe to head his educational reform program and found the Irish-trained Alcuin of York.

Alcuin reintroduced liberal arts as the foundation for education in Europe. He started schools in monasteries, cathedrals, and even the palace itself. Alcuin also oversaw the systematic copying and preservation of any and all ancient texts that he could find. In fact, many of the oldest copies of classical works still in existence today date from copies produced under his direction.

Within a generation or two after Charlemagne, however, all but the monastic schools had collapsed. Then, around the year 1000, Europe experienced a significant turnaround. As the population grew, cities were founded, and government became more centralized, there was a greater demand for education.

Because rural monasteries were more concerned with the training of monks than educational needs in the cities, urban cathedral schools were reestablished. This led to a tremendous expansion of education, and a great deal of new, creative scholarship. The result is what medieval historians call the Renaissance of the 12th Century.

As cities grew and bishops took on more administrative duties, they could not devote the resources necessary to continue the cathedral schools, so these schools spun off into universities. The first was the University of Bologna, founded around 1150 and focused primarily on law. The University of Paris was founded around 1200, with other universities following.

The liberal arts continued to be the foundation of the curriculum, with advanced study available in theology, law, and medicine. Because logic was the foundation of the scholastic methodology used in these schools, the works of Aristotle, translated from Arabic texts in Muslim Spain, were particularly important during this period. Along with great scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas, medieval thinkers like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon helped lay the intellectual foundations for the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Christian advancement of education also happened elsewhere. In the late 14th through 16th centuries, the Brethren of the Common Life provided basic education for students in the Low Countries and most of Germany. Their goal was to equip the population to read the sources of the Christian faith. By training students such as Erasmus, Gutenberg, and Luther, the Brethren of the Common Life helped lay the foundation for the Protestant Reformation.

History is replete with these stories of the impact Christianity had in advancing education. The question for us in our civilizational crisis is, will we follow suit? There’s never been a greater opportunity for Christians to take the lead in education than in our current cultural moment. We’ve seen a dramatic shift in public confidence in the existing systems over the last several years. Parents are looking for new educational solutions for their children.

The Colson Center is heavily invested in training educators, especially in this current cultural crisis, by equipping homeschool parents as well as Christian school leaders and other leaders in educational innovation.

If you would like to join us, every gift given to the Colson Center this month will go to support the Colson Center’s work in supporting educators with a Christian worldview. To learn more, visit www.BreakPoint.org/september.

Publication date: September 30, 2021

Photo courtesy: Prateek Katyal/Unsplash

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

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