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Essentially Defective

By Dr. Christian Overman

In stating that the foundation of education is virtue, as I did last week, I don't mean to imply that the facts of math, science and history are unimportant, or that the transfer of information is of little value. Yet, for many students and teachers, education has come to be viewed as little more than information being transferred, or the development of certain study-and-research skills. Our current concept of “schooling” has been reduced to the accumulation of facts, or to the development of certain mental skills and abilities that allow people to be "good learners."

Many parents, teachers, students, and curriculum designers have bought into the curious notion that students are educated through the development of mental skills or the capacity to learn what one needs to know. But the fact is, such students are only half-educated. To see the development of mental capacities and rational skills as the purpose of education while neglecting underlying virtue is, as Noah Webster put it, “essentially defective.”

In a letter he wrote to David McClure on October 25, 1836, Noah Webster, the most influential American educator of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, a "Founding Father" of this country, and the author of the original Webster's Dictionary of 1828, said: "...any system of education...which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the character of citizens, is essentially defective."

In the early days of America, nearly all schools were extensions of the church. In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French historian, came to find out what made America tick, he noted that almost all education was entrusted to the clergy. Nearly all American schools were established by Christians for Christian purposes. Developing people of virtue to take active roles in all arenas of human endeavor was one of those compelling purposes.

By the way, with the exception of the University of Pennsylvania, every collegiate institution founded in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War was established by some branch of the Christian church, be it Puritan, Presbyterian, Baptist, or the Church of England. These collegiate institutions in the New World included Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, William and Mary, and Columbia. What’s notable is that prior to the Revolutionary War, there were nine chartered, degree-granting colleges in the Colonies while in mother England there were just two: Cambridge and Oxford.


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