We saw that in Charles Dickens’ day, school was all about cramming heads with Facts. Dickens’ fictional proponent of this philosophy, which was the subject of his ire in Hard Times, was the fitly-named Thomas Gradgrind. Here was a man who meant no harm but did it anyway.

Gradgrind’s well-intentioned ideals disintegrated in the hard times that befell his loved ones as a direct result of his educational philosophy. In particular, his daughter Louisa met with great sadness. When she finally returned to the room where she had been a studious child, Gradgrind began to see the emptiness of his worldview:

“’Some persons hold,’ he pursued, still hesitating, ‘that there is a wisdom of the Head and a wisdom of the Heart. I have not supposed so; but, as I have said, I mistrust myself now. I have supposed the head to be all-sufficient; how can I venture this morning to say it is! If that other kind of wisdom should be what I have neglected, and should be the instinct that is wanted, Louisa...’ He suggested it very doubtfully as if he were half unwilling to admit it even now.”

So what is Dickens appealing for in education that touches the Heart as well as the Head? Are his hopes fulfilled in the teaching of a professor in modern times telling his class of future language arts teachers:

“More important that content or thinking are the students’ feelings. You are not there to feed them information, but to be sensitive to their need for positive reinforcement, for self-esteem”?
[quoted by Charles Colson: How now shall we live, p.332]. 

Is this the alternative to Gradgrind, advocating a wisdom of the Heart rather than the Head?

Dickens would not have been so simplistic. Even in his diatribe against rationalism gone wild he balances the character of Louisa with Sissy, a helpless orphan from the circus whom Gradgrind takes into his own home and raises by his own system. She represents all that is lacking in that system – a girl of the heart, a hopeless romantic. But Dickens makes clear as the story unfolds that had it not been for the kindness and the education she received, she too would have been lost, but for the opposite reasons. Her father was an uneducated clown, a man of fancy rather than fact. Dickens was not advocating Heart instead of Head, but Heart AND Head. Education for whole people.

Christian schools must be careful not to simply buy into the modernist mindset that sees education as almost exclusively an academic exercise. There is some pressure to do so as many concerned parents want a “back to basics” approach; “traditional schools” are thriving with a revived emphasis on basic academic disciplines instead of the new-fangled subjectivity and relativism. But the desire to help little Johnny do his sums properly may degenerate into Gradgrind territory. Johnny may be locked in a dungeon of information and facts with no preparation for life in the real world. He may buy into the lie that educated men can solve problems by their own reason without reference to God.

However, our rejection of the modernist model that sees as students as nothing more than rational animals must not simply be the postmodernist knee-jerk reaction to modernity. The wisdom of the head is still a vital part of the education process. Environmental sensitivity and enhanced self-esteem do not prepare students for the real world any more than heads filled with facts and figures. Our students must learn to think. And in a world where more people feel than think, the ability to think will set them apart. But they must think with their hearts – hearts that are rooted in a relationship with God and a commitment to serve people, hearts that set a direction with a worldview that frames all that they are learning with the perspective of the Kingdom of God. For it is out of the heart that all the issues of life spring (Prov 4:23).