Messenger of the Lord

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Chapter 29—Education-Part1: Principles and Philosophy.

Ellen White’s “able articulation of the role of Christian education as a prime vehicle for the transmission of religious values and purpose constitutes a profound theology of Christian education.” 1 MOL 344.1

Ellen G. White was recognized as the “prophetic thought leader of Adventist education from its inception until her death in 1915.... It is impossible to comprehend Adventist education either currently or historically without understanding the role and impact of Ellen White upon its development. She was not only a central figure in its development, but she was the only Adventist leader who was in constant prominence from its beginnings up through the end of its formative period (about 1910).” 2 MOL 344.2

Nowhere in the writings of Ellen White do we find the principles of the Great Controversy Theme more explicitly unfolded than in her writings on educational principles. Her understanding of redemption as “restoration” lies at the heart of her educational philosophy. 3 These educational principles were developed, on one hand, within the context of nineteenth century attempts to reform education, and, on the other, within the denominational context of “comparative indifference to education reform.” 4 MOL 344.3

Voices that attempted to reform educational systems in the nineteenth century sounded like lonely cries in the wilderness. The nineteenth century was a transition era from centuries of traditional thinking. In almost every area of American life—including theology, philosophy, medicine, industrialization, and education—the nineteenth century was in ferment. MOL 344.4

In education, the struggle focused on the old wineskins of classical education that focused on the words (ancient languages) and ideas (philosophies) of Western civilization. 5 The educated person, as a common denominator, was expected to read and discuss the ancient poets and philosophers in Greek and Latin. However, the question was being asked: With the emergence of democratic ideas, more leisure time, and changing work conditions and expectations, was this elitist, bookish education meeting the needs of “modern” times? John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Heinrich Pestalozzi, and others had been saying “no” for several centuries, but their efforts made little “dent” in traditional education. 6 MOL 344.5

However, two influences in the nineteenth century were significant and made some impact on Adventist educational reform. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was perhaps the leader in establishing the need for the public school elementary system in the United States. 7 He also wrote extensively on the early need for children to understand physiology and to get a practical education. 8 MOL 344.6

The other major influence centered in educational experiments with manual MOL 344.7

labor coupled with the emphasis on Biblical instruction rather than the traditional classics at certain academic institutions. Oberlin College (Ohio), the best known of these centers, promoted the Bible as “a textbook in all the departments of education,” integrated a manual labor program for all students, required physiology, and fostered a campus environment of non-competition in areas usually associated with prizes and honors. Its president/founder announced: “The system of education in this Institute will provide for the body and heart as well as the intellect: for it aims at the best education of the whole man.” But by the late 1850s these remarkable educational reforms had lost their initial enthusiasm and their programs soon conformed to the prevailing pattern of other American colleges. 9 MOL 345.1

Though Oberlin faded as a reforming institution, probably because it did not maintain a compelling spiritual context, other voices arose that emphasized a more practical education (progressive education) in unseating the classics with more “useful” subjects and in promoting manual education. The president of Johns Hopkins University in 1888 declared that manual training not only improved physical health but also “increased mental vigor.” 10 But these voices were not mainstream. MOL 345.2

The similarity between Ellen White’s educational reform message and that of a few, clear voices of her time rests on the obvious fact that all those involved in educational reform were contending with the same problems: classic curricula rather than a more practical education; poorly ventilated, poorly lighted classrooms; direct relationship between manual training/exercise with mental vigor, even spiritual values; and education as an important factor in character development. Especially when Bible-oriented reformers attempted educational reform, one would expect general agreement on principles and practice. Ellen White understood this when in her book Education she wrote this remarkable summation of educational principles: “We can trace the line of the world’s teachers as far back as human records extend; but the Light was before them. As the moon and the stars of our solar system shine by the reflected light of the sun, so, as far as their teaching is true, do the world’s great thinkers reflect the rays of the Sun of Righteousness. Every gleam of thought, every flash of the intellect, is from the Light of the world.” 11 MOL 345.3

Is there anything unique about Ellen White’s principles of education? Her special contribution lies in the unity and clarity of her educational philosophy, unencumbered with the fads and “false leads” of nineteenth century contemporaries. 12 Although a few contemporaries also saw the religious purpose of education, Mrs. White placed education within the Great Controversy Theme, including its vital role in eschatology (the study of last-day events). Originality is not the test of a prophet; dynamic freshness, coherence and unity that harmonize with the Bible are. 13 MOL 345.4