On education

John Haldane describes some of the institutions that Christianity gave to the West.



John Haldane describes some of the institutions that Christianity gave to the West.


So a whole other area in which one might look at the influence of Christianity on Western culture, particularly in its sort of higher forms, is the whole area of education. And I could sort of point to two significant moments, as it were, historically, one of which points in the direction of the Catholic tradition but the other one, actually, interestingly, in the direction of the Calvinist tradition as that’s embodied in John Knox, an important Scottish figure in the Reformation tradition.

Within the Catholic tradition the great gift, I suppose, to the West are the medieval universities. After the collapse of the Western Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries in Rome, the Eastern empire continues in Constantinople for another thousand years – which we easily forget. But in any rate, in the West there’s a period – we refer to them as the Dark Ages – in which really the old imperium, the old order that Rome had created, breaks down and there’s nothing. And I mean Europe is a very dangerous period in that time and it’s a period of, as I say, you know, five or six centuries. But by the year of 1000, there is a beginning to … kind of a gathering of the forces and some re-establishment. But the agent of that reestablishment is the church.

The church finds itself in the role of providing for that rebuilding in a whole variety of ways. One is just … is obviously by providing religious counselling and services and so on to princes, to sovereigns – but also through … initially through the abbey schools and then through the universities, it’s training people for a civil administration. So the universities come into being as part of the rebuilding of Western Europe, and that continues on and is very important. My own university, where I’ve served most of my academic career, the University of St Andrews, is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. The first is Oxford, the second is Cambridge, the third is St Andrews, and we recently celebrated our 600th anniversary. And, you know, it’s important to remember that these institutions – and if we go to Bologna, Naples, and so on, we’re talking about institutions that are now getting on for being a thousand years old – so their contribution has been enormous.

But the second moment I would refer to – I’ll just give an example of it, but there are other ones – again I’m going to refer back to Scotland. And that’s in 1560 when the Reformation takes place, one of the things it does is bar the practice of the Catholic religion in Scotland. The Mass becomes illegal and so on. But interestingly, for all that discontinuity, one of the great innovations that Knox, John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, introduces is the introduction of parish schools. So he – it’s part of the legislation from 1560, and then developed in subsequent legislation over the next decade, that every parish shall establish a school. And so Scotland has, certainly by the end of the 16th century, a system of parish schools that are unmatched anywhere else, and certainly contrast very sharply with England. And just to illustrate further that in England and Wales the first part of compulsory education comes at the end of the 19th century with elementary schooling – in Scotland it’s the 1495 Education Act which requires every landowner, or manager of land, to send their eldest son to university. And that’s reinforced then after 1560 by the idea that every parish must have a school.

Now this is coming from different aspects of the Christian tradition, but what they both testify to is the tremendous commitment of Christians to the process of education. And also not just, as it were, a verbal commitment but actually the creation of institutions which we take for granted today. We take for granted today universal schooling, certainly in the West; we take for granted today the importance of higher education. But these are not things that just, as it were, popped out of the ground. They are themselves cultural creations and their cultural foundation lies with the Christian church.