It seems that the Babylonians knew a thing or two about education. Clearly, Daniel's meteoric rise to responsibility was a work of God's grace in his life. The story makes it clear that it was "God [who] gave them learning and skill" (1:17).
But God's grace came to them in and through the three year education program devised by the Babylonians - which is surely an encouragement to all Christians who pursue further education in a variety of institutions. Who would have thought that a 3-year degree in 'Babylonian Studies' (with a major in 'Occult') could have prepared one of God's brightest and best for his high calling? But when we look at the focus of his studies, we see a hint of how God could use this program. What he was taught was "the literature and the language of the Chaldeans" (1:4).
These were the two key components of his education: literature and language. It was a foreign language that he had to learn, and we may be sure that the literature he had to read was filled with alien worldviews and philosophies. But this framework ensured that he would be "competent to stand in the king's palace" (1:4).
I believe it was Ravi Zacharias who commented that the Bible tells us that in the beginning was the Word, not in the beginning was the video. While we are surrounded with images of beauty demonstrating the glory of God, God's primary means of communication is language, and he has chosen to encapsulate that language in literary form. He speaks in words, and his words have become the Word. So it is no coincidence that there have been very few leaders who were not readers. Those responsible for Christian education should take note that wisdom cries aloud in the streets: even the pagan Babylonians (reflecting the reality that all men are created in God's image) recognized that the fundamental focus of education is language and literature.
What is fascinating in the story of Daniel is that he seems to have actually read the literature that was put before him. This is even more remarkable when seen in the light of the contrast depicted in Daniel 1, where Daniel refused to eat the food that was given to him (1:8). Both Jesus (Lk 10:8) and Paul (1Cor 10:27) would later tell us to "eat whatever is set before you". Refusing to eat was a big deal.
We understand that the food Daniel was supposed to eat was food that had been dedicated to idols. But that was also true of the food Paul was telling us to eat, in that context as part of our stepping into the world of unbelievers to be a light in a dark place (which was surely Daniel's calling). But in any case, it was not just the food that was dedicated to idols. The literature of the Babylonians was also dedicated to the demonic powers whose ideas were being propagated in the books Daniel had to read. Surely there was less at stake in eating a steak that had been prayed over by a pagan priest than in the poisonous ideas that these young students minds were being fed on and brainwashed with for three years?
Two observations come to mind in this contrast. Firstly, Daniel's personal holiness was a key component in the success of his education. In Daniel's day, Jesus had not yet come to declare all foods clean. He was being asked to do what God's Word forbade him to do. He refused. How can we grow in the Word if we violate the words in the Word? Growth in the learning that will prepare us for leading is contingent on obedience to God in a holy life, whether we are reading Bible books or Babylonian books.
Secondly, the difference between the books that were set before Daniel and the food that was set before Daniel was that he did not have to swallow the books whole. He could chew and spit.The value of literature in education is not simply in the intravenous imbibing of whatever content is fed to us: it is in developing the ability to think critically. Just as Daniel processed his diet through the filter of God's Word, so that same knowledge of the truth became his sieve to sift out the poisonous ideas he was being exposed to. His reading made him stronger, whereas his eating would have made him weaker. It is not quite sufficient to say of God's people, "he who reads, leads". Less pithily but more accurately: he who reads critically, leads.