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Knowing and Doing and What It Means to Be Human

What Dietrich Bonhoeffer can tell us about the true aim of classical education

When Dietrich Bonheoffer spoke at the 1934 ecumenical conference in Fano, Denmark he sent many of the delegates reeling. The Nazis had only been in control for one year, but Bonhoeffer was absolutely prescient in his understanding of what would come to pass in the near future if Christians did not take a stand against the National Socialist Church in Germany. He exhorted the Christians present at the conference: “It must be made quite clear—terrifying though it is—that we are immediately faced with the decision: National Socialist or Christian” (Metaxas, 234). Most of the people at the conference did not sense the urgency that Bonhoeffer did. It seemed a bit alarmist to them at the time, but he was able to persuade more than a few that he should be heeded, and before long everyone could see that Bonhoeffer had been all too accurate in his assessment.

Eric Metaxas, in his biography of Bonhoeffer, comments on Bonhoeffer’s participation in the conference in this way:

This was likely Bonhoeffer’s most important contribution at Fano, and in many other circumstances, rousing others to action, away from mere theologizing. His thoughts on this would be expressed in his book Discipleship, in which anything short of obedience to God smacked of “cheap grace.” Actions must follow what one believed, else one could not claim to believe it. Bonhoeffer was pushing the delegates at Fano to see this, and he mainly succeeded (Metaxas, 240).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was classically educated and grew up in one of Germany’s most brilliant intellectual families. His father, Karl, was one of the most prominent neurologist/psychologists in the world. His mother, Paula, was one of the few women with a university degree at the time. His brother, Karl Friedrich, worked with Max Planck and Albert Einstein. The Bonhoeffer house, with its eight children, was always alive with activity, prominent guests, concert quality musical performances, and rich intellectual discussions. Dietrich’s intellectual capacities certainly bordered on genius if they did not cross the line altogether, and yet he maintained the uncanny ability to converse easily with anyone he met. However, Bonhoeffer is remembered and revered not so much for his intellectual brilliance or for the works that he wrote but because he knew that right acting must follow right thinking. Knowing the right thing to do is one thing; doing that right thing is something else altogether.

The true aim of education is to produce people like Bonhoeffer – those who are able not only to discern what is right but are also able to act on that knowledge. David Hicks boldly states in the Preface to the 1990 edition his book Norms and Nobility that, “the end of education is not thinking; it is acting. It is not just knowing what to do; it is doing it” (vi). Hicks wants us to believe that education is not merely a training of the mind; it is the cultivation of the human soul so that a person is able to act on what he or she knows to be right and true. Education should be mainly concerned with teaching students to be wise and virtuous.

This Hicksian approach to education requires foundations that are set in absolute values and truths. If there is nothing objective or certain that one can claim as a foundation upon which to judge right from what is wrong, then right and wrong are only personal preferences, relativistic concepts that are malleable and plastic. If every person has his or her own definition of right and wrong then there is no such thing as right or wrong in an ultimate, absolute sense. And if there is no absolute right or wrong, then it doesn’t make sense that right acting must follow right thinking for, in such a case right thinking doesn’t exist. There is only subjective thinking about what is right and wrong which doesn’t provide any motivation to act in any particular way.

Generally, modern education has abandoned the concept of absolute truth and has accepted relativism as an acceptable basis for educational practice. It is no longer assumed that education is aimed at right action. Rather, the highest goal of education has become career preparation. Students are taught a body of knowledge and a set of skills and strategies so that they can construct their own reality and value system. The idea that there are absolutes – or norms – has been supplanted with pragmatic, operational concerns. Instead of asking value-laden questions such as, “What ought to be done?” the progressive educator only prompts a student to ask, “What can be done?”

This shift has led to a deficit in the educational system that has reaped unwanted consequences even more serious than rampant illiteracy and poor math skills. Hicks writes:

We are a nation at risk, but not simply because our children cannot read and write, or keep up with the Japanese, or think and talk intelligently about the basic ideas of our intellectual tradition. We are at risk because modern pedagogy has severed the vital link between knowing and doing, because the moral marrow of who we are and of what our purposes are is being schooled out of our children, because we have become uncertain of our norms and have abandoned education’s transcendent and ennobling ends (Hicks, ix).

Because norms and values have been jettisoned, education has become something common and banal instead of something ennobling. The vital link between knowing and doing has been severed, and virtue and wisdom are no longer considered essential. The situation is far worse than a generation of young people who lack academic skills. This is a moral problem that leads to a generation of young people who don’t know what it means to be human.

Hicks observed this almost a quarter century ago, but he was not the first. C.S. Lewis also noted the problem, although he framed it a little differently in his Riddell Lectures, which were published as The Abolition of Man in 1943. Lewis claimed that subjectivism and relativism create “men without chests”, that they pay no attention to the central part (the “heart”) of a human being and yet we expect our students to be courageous and just. These oft-quoted lines are revelatory:

And all the time—such is the tragic-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

But Lewis was not the first to see the importance of this vital link either.

Long before him, the Apostle James wrote the following:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has not deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).

Doing what one knows to be right manifests integrity. It relates the wholeness and consistency that is part of a life well-lived.

One of Bonheoffer’s students at the seminary in Finkenwalde once said of him that he “was a person about whom one had the feeling that he was completely whole, . . . a man who believes in what he thinks and does what he believes in” (Metaxas, 279). He was truly educated in the Hicksian sense. He he didn’t merely think well; he also had the mettle to act on that thinking, not in the manner of doing something heroic, but as a matter of course.

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