The Nature of the Student, Part IV

So far we have heard the modern view of man (part 1) and the Christian view of man (part 2 and part 3), and we’ve seen that these two views are not compatible. What remains is to examine the classical view of man. We’ll get to the key question concerning man’s nature in a short while. But since we’ve heard the modern view and the Christian view of the origin of man, we should begin similarly with the classical view. Therefore, let us ask Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid, Aristophanes, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch: what is the origin of man, and is man by nature good or evil?


According to the Greeks and Romans, man can trace his source to the gods, though there’s some cloudiness regarding the exact manner in which man came into existence. Hesiod’s Theogony is one of the oldest documented classical origin myths (700 BC), and partway through he suddenly begins speaking of man as a race without any explanation of whence man came. Not long before the birth of Christ, Apollodorus wrote in his Bibliotheca, “And Prometheus, after forming men from water and earth, also gave them fire” (Bibliotheca, 1.71).

Ovid (born 43 BC) includes a similar account of man’s creation in Book I of his Metamorphoses:

Man was born: whether that crafter of things, the beginning of a better world, made him with divine seed, or the ground, young and recently parted from the lofty sky, yet retained seeds of kindred heaven, which, being mixed with rain waters, the son of Iapetus [i.e. Prometheus] fashioned into the image of the gods who regulate all things. (Metamorphoses, I.78-83)

While in Ovid’s Metamorphoses there’s a rather high view of man, in the older account man seems a mere pawn and afterthought on the stage of the gods.


Thus far the creation of man. Now what of man’s relations with the gods? According to Homer’s Odyssey (which, along with the Iliad, was the equivalent of the Bible to the ancient Greeks), man rebelled against the gods. When Odysseus journeys among the dead in book 11 of the Odyssey, he sees a woman named Iphimedeia, of whom it says:

And she bore two sons, but they were both short-lived,
Godlike Otus and far-famed Ephialtes,
Whom the budding earth brought up by far the tallest
And much the fairest, after glorious Orion.
For at nine years old they were both nine cubits
Broad, and nine fathoms tall;
Who indeed did even threaten against the immortals on Olympus
To raise the battle cry of furious war.
They endeavored to set Ossa upon Olympus, then upon Ossa
Pelion with its quaking leaves, in order that heaven might be scaled.
And they would have accomplished it, if they had reached the measure of hardy youth.
But the son of Zeus, whom fair-haired Leto bore, destroyed
Them both, before the first whiskers under their temples
Bloomed to cover their cheeks with blossoming down.
Odyssey, XI.307-320

The boys purposed to stack two mountains, one atop the other, and so ascend to Mount Olympus, the realm of the gods, and raise war. Apollo nipped that in the bud, and killed the two lads. They perished for their rebellion. Yet did their rebellion affect them alone?

In Plato’s Symposium (Greek for “drinking party”), a man named Aristophanes gives a discourse on man’s original state, and how it changed at this rebellion. Aristophanes rather humorously describes man as originally having four hands and four feet, one head with two faces – in many ways rather like two people joined together. Man could walk on his legs, like we do; or alternatively, using all eight limbs as something like spokes on a wagon wheel, could roll around at great speed. Aristophanes says, “Now fearful was their strength and might, and they had great thoughts, and they attacked the gods” (Symposium, 190b).

As the punishment for man’s insolence, Zeus decided to cut everyone in half, and he assigned Apollo the task of patching up the severed bodies of mankind. The result was the present human form. While we might giggle at Zeus’s threat to halve people again and make them hop about on one leg should they attempt another uprising, we nevertheless see how, according to at least some Greeks, that first rebellion against the gods had drastic consequences for man’s physical nature. After that attempt on Olympus, man was never the same again.

Divine Intervention

Now this isn’t to say that the gods hated mankind. Some gods and goddesses took a particular liking to certain people. If grey-eyed Athena hadn’t felt sympathy for Odysseus, he would still be stuck on an island with the nymph Calypso. And if Athena had withdrawn from Odysseus, Poseidon would have eagerly obliterated the poor sea-tossed man. But Athena did have sympathy, and was a bulwark for Odysseus throughout his journey.

So Close…

In all of this we see how close the classical authors come to the truth in some cases. Now since we have the real truth in the Scriptures concerning God and creation and original sin and our heavenly Father’s steadfast love toward us, we therefore do not hold the classics as reliable sources regarding our origin, nature, standing in the world, or value in the eyes of God.

But the classical authors do have this over modern man: they’ll at least open their eyes and take an honest look at the world. Something made us. We are creatures, not accidents of nature. There is also something wrong with us. We long to be whole; we yearn for a restoration to some former way of things, even if, left to our own devices, we can’t figure out exactly what that former way of things was. There is some being in the universe who is greater and more powerful than we are, to whom we owe our obedience and willing service, of whom we can inquire, and to whom we can pray.

Christians share some ground with the ancient Greeks and Romans (even if we often find ourselves having to correct them). We share some ground because we have dwelt in the same world, which itself testifies to God, as it says in Romans 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

Meanwhile the “advanced” secular humanist has advanced all the way to a Neverland that exists only in pseudo-science and wishful thinking, and that can only be seen on the backs of his eyelids. It turns out, historically speaking, that we’re not the odd ones: believing in a divine creator, worshiping, holding religion as an integral part of what it means to be human. The infantile voices of John Dewey and his ilk find themselves drowned out by the booming chorus of antiquity.

The Nature of Man

But now what of the real question of man’s nature? We’ve heard what Aristophanes said about the changed physical nature of man. But, according to the classical world, is man by nature good or evil?

We have one of the clearest answers to this question in Plato’s Republic. In Book 4, Socrates and Glaucon dialogue about what have come to be known as the cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice). Here follows part of the conversation about temperance, with Socrates doing the bulk of the speaking:

S: Temperance is a sort of order and control over certain pleasures and passions. As they say, ‘He is quite a master of himself,’ I know not in what manner, and other such phrases, by which one picks up its tracks, so to speak. Is it not so?
G: Most certainly.
S: Then is not the phrase ‘master of himself’ absurd? For he who is master of himself would doubtless also be the slave of himself, and the slave the master, for the same man is addressed in all these phrases.
G: Undoubtedly.
S: Rather, this phrase seems to me to want to say that there is in the same man, regarding his soul, a better part and a worse part, and whenever the part that is better by nature is master of the worse part, the phrase ‘master of himself’ expresses this – it is praise indeed! But whenever, by bad upbringing or certain company, the better part, being smaller, is overcome by the magnitude of the worse part, the saying censures this with a rebuke, and also calls the man who is thus disposed a slave of himself and undisciplined.
Republic, 4.430e-431b

Socrates speaks of man much in the same way we speak of regenerate man. There is an internal battle between good and evil, which we recognize as the Holy Spirit warring against our corrupt flesh. Now to be clear, the classical authors were not regenerate men, and there is no “better part” of unregenerate man. Nevertheless, this pagan Socrates rightly recognizes that there is an evil part of man, and that evil part is to be resisted.

Objective Morality

Fundamental to Socrates’ thinking is his belief in objective right and wrong. As Christians, Romans 2:14-15 helps us to understand why pagans still believe in right and wrong:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

The law of God is written on the human heart. Now after the Fall, that writing is blurred in some places and can only be known in its fullness from the divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures. Still, objective morality remains largely intact. While modern man generally tries to silence the voice of conscience as it reads that law on the heart, the ancients generally heeded conscience and the law of God, even if they didn’t realize why they called right right and wrong wrong.

The ancients believed in the objective nature of morality, and they were honest enough to say that acting morally upright did not come naturally, at least not for most. And so Socrates and Glaucon and others conversed about virtues, and how to instill them. Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he expounded the Golden Mean and showed that we can stray from virtue by two extremes. For example, when commenting on courage, or fortitude, Aristotle notes that an excess of fear makes one cowardly, and that an excess of fearlessness makes one rash (III.vii). Aristotle also shows the danger of vice: while we can voluntarily form ourselves in a habit of vice, that doesn’t mean we can voluntarily stop. A man can throw himself into a pit, but he can’t throw himself out (III.v).

Besides the philosophers, the ancient historians also focus on morals, and they wrote their histories with a view of turning their readers away from vice and toward virtue. Herodotus does this very well, although Plutarch’s Lives is the most masterly example of moral history. In the course of history we see that the same vices accompany the downfall of man again and again; whereas men are honored for the same virtues generation after generation.

Now you only care about instilling sound morals if you believe that there’s something in man that you must hinder or correct (or bolster). However, if you believe that man is just right as he is, then all you’ll care about is self-affirmation, and entertainment, and silencing the voice of conscience (and the voices of those who agree with your conscience). Here we see very clearly how the view of man’s nature determines his education.


Well now, what have we learned from all of this reflection on man’s nature? May I put it bluntly? We have learned that the modern approach to education is based on a lie about man’s nature: the lie that man is the result of unguided evolutionary change and is by nature neither good nor evil. This is false and wrong, and Christian parents should think twice about entrusting their children to such liars who will deaden their consciences and teach them to affirm sin.

Man is by nature evil, and it is only by the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ that we are anything other than that. But thanks be to him, he has saved us through his Gospel and given us his Holy Spirit, who fights against the sinful nature. This means that there is a great battle being waged within every Christian, including Christian children.

Our war-torn Christian children need the shield and soothing balm of God’s Word. When our children go to school, they should be like Solomon dwelling securely within the walls of Jerusalem, and not like Uriah forsaken on the front lines and left to die.

Even though they were pagans, and even though, when it comes to religion, they had ugly stick figures compared to the beautiful portrait of Christ in the Holy Scriptures, the ancient Greeks and Romans do have masterpieces on morality and ethics and language that can be of great use to us in raising our children.

So let us give our children God’s Word, and employ a selection of the Greek and Roman classics. Let us give them Christ, and sound instruction in right and wrong. Let us treat them like what they are; let us treat them according to their nature. And let us forsake the lie.

Painting: The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

Translations of classical authors are my own.

Thank you to Dr. Christian Kopff for pointing me toward Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, and to Rev. Christian Preus for introducing me to Hesiod’s Theogony.

The Nature of the Student, Part III


In the second part of this series on the nature of the student, we heard how according to the Christian view, ever since his first sin in the Garden of Eden, man is by nature evil. We must all sing:

Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
Lutheran Service Book, 556:2

But notice the use of the past tense. This hymn stanza is not the full story. The Lord was not content to sit idly by while the pinnacle of creation – made in the image of God – threw himself headlong into death and hell. And therefore our song continues:

But God had seen my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And mindful of His mercies great,
He planned for my salvation.
He turned to me a father’s heart;
He did not choose the easy part
But gave His dearest treasure.
LSB, 556:3

The heavenly Father’s dearest treasure is his Son, Jesus. Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. And Jesus has died on the cross and risen from the dead for our salvation. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans. 5:6-8).

Jesus’ death saved us from sin, because Jesus took up all our sins from us, bore them in his own body, and crucified them in himself on the cross. Jesus’ death defeated death, because while death laid claim to us sinful mortals, it could not lay claim to the sinless Son of God. Jesus’ death conquered the devil, because by his death Jesus redeemed us from the devil’s kingdom and unraveled all of the devil’s schemes. And Jesus’ resurrection has restored to us the hope of everlasting life.

Simul Iustus et Peccator

This salvation is an excellent gift. Even though we are corrupt flesh, Jesus has had pity on us and redeemed us, and he has promised us a glorious resurrection on the Last Day, in which our bodies will no longer be sinful by nature, but will have once more the native righteousness originally bestowed on man in creation. And yet Jesus has not made us wait until the Last Day for our renewal. Certainly our renewal is not complete until then, but even now Jesus has baptized us with water and the Word, cleansed us, and given us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.

This means that even though we still have a sinful nature that inclines away from God and toward everything contrary to his commandments, we as Christians now also have the Holy Spirit, who fights against our depravity and gives us new desires and impulses: directing us toward Christ, toward good, and away from evil.

The presence of both the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit means that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator, Latin for “simultaneously saint and sinner.” The Christian has two conflicting things within him, as St. Paul comments: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17). The Christian is at war – and it is not primarily a war waged within the world, but a war waged within oneself. The war will cease with the destruction of the sinful nature at death, but until then, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, we fight against our evil passions.

I. Teach the Word of God

What does all of this mean for education? First of all, if we’re educating Christians then one of the chief goals of education is to keep the students Christians. If faith in Christ is what makes one a Christian, and faith comes through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17), then the student must hear the Word of God daily, and hear it pure and unadulterated.

This means that a child should hear the Word of God at home each day with his parents in life and conversation, learn to pray, and have family devotions. This also means that Christian parents should send their Christian children to schools where the teachers complement and reinforce the family devotion to God’s Word. Christian schools should ideally have chapel every day, conducted by a faithful pastor. Teachers in Christian schools should know how the Word of God relates to their areas of expertise, and, in addition to instilling knowledge, should instill a love of God’s Word. Students should expect harmony between the home, the church, and the school: a common worldview (to use a popular term), or, more specifically, a common language, namely the language of the Scriptures.

Now this emphasis on God’s Word does not mean that all children should become pastors or deaconesses. Any vocation is a holy calling when a Christian carries it out. The interest in God’s Word is not for the sake of conferring a marketable skill, but for the sake of the salvation of the students. Again, the Word of God is not the topic of discussion every minute of every day; in fact, chapel, prayer, and catechesis don’t even occupy a majority of the day. The Word of God is rather the common tongue of parents, students, and teachers. The nature of the student as simultaneously saint and sinner means that we give students the Word of God, which alone strengthens the saint, rebukes the sinner, and gives eternal salvation.

II. Teach Virtue and Vice

Second, if the Christian student has within him the Holy Spirit warring against the sinful flesh, then the student should learn to practice virtue and learn to avoid vice. This is not for the sake of earning salvation, but for the sake of living according to God’s will, avoiding God’s displeasure, serving the neighbor, and giving no opportunity to the flesh, lest it enslave us once again to sin.

Virtue is summed up most succinctly in the Ten Commandments. It is a virtue to have the right God. It is a virtue to honor one’s father and mother. It is a virtue to be content with what God has given you (and conversely, a vice to covet what belongs to your neighbor). These virtues are not works of the Law when a Christian does them, as if we only did the right thing because God was cracking a whip or threatening hell. No, when a Christian does these works of virtue, the works are properly speaking fruits of the Spirit.

A document in the Lutheran Confessions called The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord puts it this way:

[W]hen people are born again through the Spirit of God and set free from the law (that is, liberated from its driving powers and driven by the Spirit of Christ), they live according to the unchanging will of God, as comprehended in the law, and do everything, insofar as they are reborn, from a free and merry spirit. (Solid Declaration VI.17)

Christians are glad to do what is right in God’s sight (virtue) and cheerfully avoid whatever displeases him (vice). One might then wonder why we should teach Christian children virtue and vice. There are two main reasons.

a. Instruct the Saint

First, the saint wants to know what God’s will is and live according to it. While we do have the law of God written on our hearts, ever since man’s fall into sin, that image of the law on the heart is not a perfect image. We must receive instruction from God’s objective Word in order to have a complete understanding of his will. Without this instruction in the commandments it becomes all too easy to devise our own works and declare them to be precious virtues in the sight of God, while at the same time neglecting that which he has commanded.

Besides this, the Christian student lives in a world that calls virtue vice and vice virtue. There will be confusion and uncertainty about the right course of action unless we teach the young saint what is truly right and wrong, virtue and vice, pleasing and displeasing to God.

The words of the commandments teach this will of God clearly enough. The saint also finds it useful to hear illustrations of God’s pleasure toward those who do his will. Take, for example, Joseph the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, and Joseph resisted her advances. But then Potiphar’s wife said that Joseph had tried to seduce her, and he was thrown in prison on this false accusation. At this point a student might wonder, “Did Joseph do something wrong? Was God displeased with him?” But then we hear how Joseph prospered, even in prison, and then became second in command over all Egypt. We learn that even if we must suffer for righteousness’ sake, nevertheless God is pleased with those who do his will, and he shows us favor even in the midst of suffering, and he will yet vindicate us and change our fortune. The saint needs these illustrations, both for the strengthening of faith and for instruction in virtue.

b. Curb the Sinner

So that’s the first reason why we teach virtue and vice to Christian students, namely, because the saint wants to know his Father’s will. The second reason is because the Christian student is not only a saint, but a sinner. Christians only do the will of God from a free and merry spirit “insofar as they are reborn.” The Solid Declaration puts this very pointedly:

For the old creature, like a stubborn, recalcitrant donkey, is also still a part of them, and it needs to be forced into obedience to Christ not only through the law’s teaching, admonition, compulsion, and threat but also often with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations until the sinful flesh is completely stripped away and people are perfectly renewed in the resurrection. (Solid Declaration VI.24)

Whereas the Christian as a saint does the will of God because, by the Spirit, he wants to, the Christian as a sinner only does the will of God because he has to. He must hear “admonition, compulsion, and threat.” The sinful flesh must hear such things as, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

But like the saint, the sinner learns particularly well through illustration. He might want to misuse God’s name, but when he hears how the Lord ordered the son of Shelomith to be stoned to death for that offense (Leviticus 24:11-16), he will think twice about doing it. The sinful flesh will grudgingly refrain from sin (sometimes) simply because it doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of sin. Therefore, to aid the student in the war against the flesh, we curb the flesh with the fear-striking examples of God judging other sinners.

God also curbs the flesh “with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations.” In other words, if we insist on sinning, God will let us have the consequences. He disciplines us, not seeking our destruction, but seeking to turn us away from evil. So it is with teachers. If words aren’t enough to curb the flesh, then there’s always clapping the erasers, wearing the dunce cap, writing sentences. Modern education sees these things as harmful to the student’s self-esteem, and as a result, not only is there no discipline in the classroom, but the students never learn that the consequences of offending against God are far worse than a slight blow to self-esteem.

Christians don’t care about self-esteem. It’s too close to the great vice of pride. We care about having a gracious God who made us in his image and gave his own divine Son to redeem us. There’s real esteem! Now if the sinful flesh is seeking to turn us away from this gracious God by despising his Word and going its own way, then we hinder it however we rightfully can. If it takes a little public shame, then so be it. Better the flesh be ashamed than be in control.

c. Mind the Simul

Now the teaching of virtue is not only for the saint, and the teaching of vice is not only for the sinner. Not only does the saint want to know what to do to be doing the will of God, but also what to avoid so that he does not grieve his Father. Not only is the sinner compelled by the threat of punishment; he is also enticed by the hope of the earthly reward that accompanies virtue. We can draw a distinction by saying that delight in the law belongs to the saint, and terror of God’s wrath belongs to the sinner. But I want to make it clear that we teach the full teaching of God’s law to the Christian as he is both saint and sinner.

Learning virtue and vice is good for the Christian as he is simul iustus et peccator because hearing God’s law brings to light our sins and our need for Christ, and, thus despairing of ourselves, the Gospel comes along and gives us refuge in Jesus. To put it succinctly, teaching God’s law shows the student his need for a Savior. Therefore, training in virtue and vice also serves the purpose of keeping Christian students Christian, not by making them hope in their works for salvation, but by showing them that their works are a false hope for salvation.

III. Teach Love

So, when teaching Christian students we teach, first, God’s Word, second, virtue and vice; and third, we teach the Christian student how to love and serve his neighbor. The sinful flesh may be incurvatus in se, but as a new creation in Christ the student is turned out from himself. The saint desires to love his neighbor, and so a Christian education makes the Christian student a knowledgeable and skillful servant to those around him. You can read more about love as a goal of education here.

Educate Christian Children according to Their Nature

The Christian view of the Christian student is that he is simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. Educating this Christian according to his nature, we instruct him in God’s Word, teach him virtue and vice, and give him the knowledge and skills necessary to be of service to the world wherever he is needed. This Christian education is far different from modern education, because Christian education has a far different view of the nature of the student when compared to modern education.

We ought to educate our children according to what they are by nature, not according to a lie about man’s nature. Modern education is not for us, nor for any human being. Now the question remains: is classical education any better suited to the student’s nature than modern education? Read The Nature of the Student, Part IV.

Painting: Crucifixion by Peter Gertner, 1537

Hymn quotation: Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice by Martin Luther

Quotes of Solid Declaration are from The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Kolb & Wengert

Scripture quotations are from the King James Version.

The Nature of the Student, Part I

A Diagnostic Question

Is man by nature good or evil? Some might try to give a nuanced answer, “Man is mostly good, with the occasional evil impulse.” Others might say, “Both. Man has good and evil fighting within him.” Still others might object to the question entirely, “Good and evil are social constructs, and therefore man can’t be either one of them by nature.” For this last group we might rephrase the question this way: Can man in good conscience indulge his impulses and desires, with the assumption that if they arise naturally then there can’t be anything wrong with them? Or should a man regard his natural impulses and passions with suspicion, as if they have been corrupted in some way and should more often be met with resistance than indulgence? This is what I mean when I ask, “Is man by nature good or evil?”

The answer to this question has immediate consequences for education. For example, if man is by nature good, then he will naturally incline toward good things and desire good things. The teacher should simply stay out of his way, offer guidance as necessary, and facilitate this good man’s exploration of the world around him and his pursuit of whatever seems good to him. Hindering this good man’s passions and impulses – saying, “Stop taking your pen apart and parse this Latin verb” – would be nothing short of oppressive.

But if man is by nature evil and corrupt, then the teacher is duty bound to exercise discipline in the classroom, instill virtues and show their good fruits, rebuke vices and reveal their harmful consequences, and curb the corrupt passions of the student. In this case the teacher should also dictate what the curriculum is going to be (since the student shouldn’t be creating a curriculum based on his whims), and point the student toward objective texts – good words and thoughts that come to the student from the outside, not the inside. Giving free reign to this corrupt man’s passions and impulses would be like standing idly by while a child walks ever closer to the edge of a cliff, listening apathetically to his terrified screams as he hurtles to his death, and then awarding him a diploma.


This article will have four parts, examining the way that three groups answer the question, “Is man by nature good or evil?” First we’ll examine the modern view of man; second, the Christian view of unregenerate man; third, the Christian view of regenerate man; and fourth, the classical view of man. Each answer suggests a particular approach to education; therefore, when we determine the nature of man, we will thereby also determine the sort of education that man ought to receive. At the same time we will recognize and reject any form of education that is contrary to man’s nature.

The Modern View of Man

So, is man by nature good or evil? What does the modern world have to say? The prevailing view in many fields, including the realm of modern education, is that man is the result of evolution, has no soul, and is neither good nor evil by nature.

There’s an important document from 1933 called the Humanist Manifesto I that summarizes the modern view of man in this way: “First: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. Second: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process. Third: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.”

The Humanist Manifesto II, signed in 1973 by such people as author Isaac Asimov and behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, expanded on the point: “Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces.”

The Humanist Manifesto III, signed in 2003 by Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, two dozen Nobel Prize winners, and many others, puts it very succinctly and affirms the views expressed in the previous two Manifestos: “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.”

This series of Humanist Manifestos is important for two reasons that relate to the topic at hand. First, the Humanist Manifestos summarize a widely-held modern worldview. And second, Humanist Manifesto I is of particular note because it was signed by none other than John Dewey, sometimes called The Father of Modern Education.

Through his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey reformed education in America. He aligned teaching methods to the tenets of humanism, thereby influencing all who passed through the public schools. And control of such things as schools was the stated goal of humanism: “Thirteenth: Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life. The intelligent evaluation, transformation, control, and direction of such associations and institutions with a view to the enhancement of human life is the purpose and program of humanism” (Humanist Manifesto I, emphasis added). Or in other words, humanism, under the guise of “the enhancement of human life,” turned schools into centers that act on and instill a secular humanist worldview.

Man: Amoral and Good?

Thus far we’ve seen the modern view of man, and how it found its way into the schools. But what of the initial question, “Is man by nature good or evil?” While the modern view doesn’t speak of man in terms of inherent morality, nevertheless there is great optimism about man and his capabilities. In the modern view there is no fall into sin or corruption of the way we were made, and therefore man is exactly the way he is “supposed” to be, with the caveat that there is no “Supposer,” and so any implication of divine purpose must be excluded. Man is also the most superior life form that we know of (having abandoned belief in a God or gods), and therefore man is man’s own greatest hope. So in short, even though the modern view rejects such labels as “naturally good” and “naturally evil,” it ends up treating man as if he were naturally good.

John Dewey makes this plain enough in My Pedagogic Creed (1897):

The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. (Article I)

In his later writing, Experience and Education (1938), Dewey contrasts traditional schools with the new progressive schools:

If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal… (pg. X)

In both of these writings Dewey extols “the child’s own instincts,” “his own initiative,” “free activity,” and acquisition of skills as they make “direct vital appeal” to the student. And now after several generations of this approach to education, what can we say about it? Have “the child’s own instincts” been as good as we thought? Has the student’s “own initiative” led to a love of learning that was absent in traditional schools? Or has the student’s own initiative initiated boredom and aversion to learning? Have children felt “direct vital appeal” for the things that they need in life? Or have they felt direct vital appeal for things that don’t matter at all – or worse, things that are harmful to themselves and others?

The Dark Reality of Man’s Nature

Anyone who has ever been a human being can likely guess the answers to these questions, especially those who have had contact with public schools. Our “own instincts” don’t often lead us to desire the good of others, or to love learning what is best for us to know, or to pursue virtue. Our own instincts often lead us to be lazy, selfish, mean, fascinated with gimmicks and bored with real substance. Our own instincts seek immediate pleasure in this present moment with little thought to the future or the consequences. Our own instincts abuse “free activity.” And as for the activities that make “direct vital appeal,” we would be ashamed of them if our own instincts knew how to blush.

In the opening section of The Silver Chair (book six in The Chronicles of Narnia), C. S. Lewis notes the real results of modern educational reform:

It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym. She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ‘Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ‘mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others. All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but at this school they weren’t. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favorite than otherwise. (Chapter 1, pgs. 1-2)

Good: What Man Isn’t

So is man by nature good or evil? The modern world rejects the validity of the question; and yet the modern world treats man as if he were by nature good. If the modern world would but open its eyes, and use the power of observation, and examine the empirical evidence that it claims to love so much, perhaps it would see the true nature of man. Perhaps it would see that we are far from good.

Continue reading: The Nature of the Student, Part II

Painting: Mythological Portrait of the Family of Louis XIV by Jean Nocret, 1670.  The artist has depicted the family members as various gods in the Greek pantheon.

The Humanist Manifestos are from the website of the American Humanist Association, tagline,“Good without a God.”

John Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” is from “School Journal” vol. 54 (January 1897), pgs. 77-80