“Heads and hands of the Apostles” by Raphael Sanzio, 1514

What an interesting idea. Apostles have heads and hands! The notion challenges the way we think about education. We expect children to bring their brains to school with them. A packed lunch helps, but an active mind is crucial. Learning is about thinking. School is about what goes on between the ears. But what about hands?

While it is true that knowledge and understanding are a huge part of the purpose of education, we must not see school as a brain packing plant, a production line that crams heads full of information like so many bottles on a conveyer belt in a pop factory. Charles Dickens, in Hard Times, bemoaned the predominant view that school children were “vessels arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full.”

Dualism has dogged the church for centuries – the tendency to separate reality into upper and lower spheres. Heads up; hands down. Mind over Matter. In Christian circles, the great divide has been between the so-called upper storey spiritual realm and the lower storey secular realm. But in many ways the origin of this dichotomy was in Plato’s exaltation of the realm of ideas above the realm of matter. This philosophy continues to haunt us with its false message that heads are more important than hands. Our culture believes that lie, as seen in the fact that manual labour is generally paid less than work that requires brainpower. And our schools perpetuate the myth in the priorities they pursue.

Plato showed no interest in physical work; in ancient Greece that was done by slaves. The Hebrews, in contrast, understood that the material world was the work of the hands of the Creator. Unlike the Greeks, they never made good philosophers; but they did have a great appreciation for skilled labour. It was expected in Jesus’ day that every Rabbi would have a trade. Rabbi Hillel was a woodcutter, Shammai a carpenter (like Jesus!), Paul a tentmaker. The Talmud says, “Just as a man is required to teach his son Torah [the Law], so he is required to teach him a trade” (Kiddushin 29a).

But Greek thinking has affected Christianity as much as Judaism. Few parents set out with high hopes that their son will become a tradesman. University is considered preferable to trades schools. We are immersed in Greek rather than Hebrew models of education.

Of course there should be no dichotomy. Education is not a matter of heads or hands; nor is it a matter of heads being more important than hands (or vice versa). Christian education values heads AND hands. Dualism decapitates our students, severs the head from its connection to the body. But neither heads nor hands can work in such a state. Christian education connects thinking and doing.