Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to answer as we seek to build a philosophy of education is what are we to teach? Is there a necessary core of knowledge that every student needs to learn? This is an issue which divides philosophies of education and has practical applications for how we teach and test as well.

On one end of the spectrum is the unschooling movement which says that no, there is no one body of knowledge that every child needs. The child, left alone, will learn what is necessary to him. Even if he shows no interest in some basic subject, it is not to be pushed. On a practical day-to-day basis, an unschooler, though not setting out perhaps to teach basic math skills, will often find himself doing so through every day activities like cooking. Many of the unschoolers I have known have been very diligent, busy parents. They may not set an agenda for what their child should learn but when he asks about dinosaurs, they are all over the library finding every resource they can on the topic.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of knowledge. It is often defined very much by western culture, relying heavily on Greek and Latin classics as well as more modern works from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. A classical educator is likely to make use of old-school techniques like memorization and traditional testing.

In between these two extremes there are of course other positions. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, on which I have blogged extensively, tries to bridge the gap. Miss Mason did believe that there is appropriate fodder for education but also acknowledged that one can never force another to learn and that each pupil is an individual person. This is an approach which takes the horse to water but does not force him to drink. The material is presented but the student must ingest it for himself. Again, this can be seen in the techniques used. Memorization is not prioritized nor are other methods which require the child to reproduce precise bodies of information (worksheets, true or false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank). Narration replaces these and allows the child to be more selective in what he or she gets from a given lesson.

It is perhaps easier to understand the differences if one considers how studying a classic book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would look in each of these philosophies. The unschooler does not require her child to read the book. She might get it from the library and leave it lying around the house (this is called strewing). And certainly if the child were to ask for it, she would obtain it. After the child has read the book, the unschooler might have a casual discussion — “Did you like the book?”– but would not require any sort of report or testing. The Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooler and the Classical educator would both require the student to read the book. In CM’s approach, the child narrates what he reads, that is, he tells what he has read, deciding for himself what is interesting or worth noting. This may be done orally or in writing. For the classical homeschooler, there would be more concrete ways of integrating the knowledge. These could include such things as reading comprehension questions and worksheets. There would be certain facts that the child would be expected to know — who the author is, for example, or the names of the main characters and some details of setting and plot.

We are going to return next time to how the student reproduces the material and how his learning evaluated. Today I would like to focus on what we are teaching — is there a set body of knowledge? And if so, to what extent should we enforce its learning? I hope the above examples show that this is in some sense a foundational question to answer before we can begin to talk about the hows of education.

Though we are ranging more and more into the realm of general revelation –i.e. topics about which the Scriptures may not have anything specific to say — we should always begin by asking what they do have to say, either overtly or more subtly through the principles we can derive from them.

When it comes to the knowledge of God, His Word makes clear that there is a specific body of knowledge we are to communicate to our children. Not only so we present this knowledge to our children, we fairly drill it into them, keeping it always before them (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and valuable for our children. (I have argued previously for a broad education that is not confined merely to the trendy STEM subjects.)

As reformed Christians, we believe that there are absolute standards of truth and beauty. We also believe that all people are sinful and that all their faculties have been tainted by sin. Combining these two facts, we can draw two conclusions: There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. And, secondly, our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We must, therefore, reject the unschooling end of the spectrum which allows the child to choose entirely what he will learn. We do not believe that the child left on his own will gravitate towards what is good or what he needs.

The flip side of the Bible being the only infallible rule for faith and life (“only” modifies “infallible” in this phrase) is that nothing else is infallible, not Calvin, not your homeschool curriculum. All human culture bears the stamp of our race’s sin. The pagan cultures which form the basis of so much of our western civilization carry with them pagan presuppositions and ideas. We must be especially wary and discerning because the underlying assumptions are often just that – underlying and not overt. We will not realize we are accepting ideas built upon ungodly bases. Which is not to say that we must reject them altogether; I do believe (as I have argued here) that all truth is God’s truth and that it may come to us through non-Christian sources. My argument is not that it is wrong to study the likes of Plutarch but that we must do so with great discernment.

We must be equally wary of “Christian” culture. There is no doubt Christianity has had some profound and real effects on western culture, but much of what passes for Christian culture (including Christian homeschool curricula, of which there is an abundance these days) does not reflect a reformed (which is to say, biblical) understanding of God, creation, and man. [1]

All work can, rightly done, being glory to God. While there is greater responsibility and therefore potentially greater glory (or greater rebuke) for the preacher and pastor (1 Pet. 5:1-4; James 3:1), the Bible teaches us that man is made to work and that all work can bring glory to God. (Gen. 2:15; Prov. 16:3; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:22-24; 2 Thess. 3:10). If the work of a farmer or a physicist or a poet or an accountant is good and, rightly done, able to bring glory to God, then it follows that the study which gets him there is also good and that God can be glorified in our learning about plants and atoms, literary devices and spreadsheets.

The child is a person and no less capable of bringing glory to God through what he does. In our society, the work of the child is to be educated (and, I would argue, the Bible also depicts childhood as the ideal time for education). Just as his elders can work to the glory of God no matter their profession, so he can learn to the glory of God no matter the area of study (for a little background see this post on the child in the Bible).

Practically speaking, there are skills and ideas which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is needed to understand certain scientific concepts. There will be rare exceptions of children who are truly not capable of learning even the basics. We must be careful not to view them as less than persons and we must not deprive them of whatever learning they are capable of. For most, however, it is reasonable to require some basic common knowledge which will be needed for further learning.

One caution — just because some learning is foundational does not mean that  the early years must be spent on the basic and only the basics. He is capable of a relationship with his Creator from birth or before so we must nto deprive him of the tools of redemption and sanctification no matter his age.

As we get beyond the basics, I believe it is reasonable to require our children to learn certain things. The subjects we teach are general revelation, that is, they reveal God to us, and, as Creation has One Creator, they work together as a unified system (see this post). We would be neglectful to teach only history and omit any sciences (or, as our society increasingly does, to teach the sciences and neglect the humanities), because we would not be allowing our children to see the big picture of how God works throughout His Creation.

Our goals can affect what we teach. The Bible sets a good precedent for us to teach history as the story of what God has done for us so we often begin children on local history. The history of one’s own state or country teaches that God works in my life. If we then expand to world history, we see that He works throughout the world in the lives of all people. Similarly, in studying the sciences, we learn first that God makes the plants grow and created all the animals unique. But then as we delve deeper, we see also that He is involved in His Creation as levels we can’t even see – in the minutest atoms and in the farthest reaches of space. When we get to higher levels of math, we learn that even the intangible principles behind Creation are orderly and beautiful. Not every child will learn every subject and certainly cannot do so in depth. God and His Creation are so vast that none of us can ever be comprehensive, or even close to it. Nor do we all need to learn exactly the same things. We may start in the same places – with the foundational building blocks of further knowledge, with subjects that are close to home– but, because we are all unique persons, we will expand in different directions. I believe that we bring greater glory to God by doing so. We express our unique personalities, which He has given us, more fully, and we, as a race, are able to learn more of God’s work and therefore give Him greater glory.

Summary

Because this has been a very long post and has covered a lot of ground, I would like to end with a summary of the main points we have seen:

  • What we study, and whether we believe there is a set body of knowledge to study, will affect how we study and measure learning.
  • As reformed Christians, we must reject the view that children will, on their own, gravitate towards what is good and what they need to know.
  • When it comes to “religious” knowledge, the Bible makes clear that there is a fixed body of knowledge that we are to teach our children.
  • In other fields, we must use discernment. Because there are absolute standards of truth and beauty and goodness, there are also things that are bad and false and ugly.
  • All human culture has been affected by the fall and, while truth can come to us through non-Christians, no one culture has a monopoly on such truth.
  • Much of what passes for Christian culture is also not based on biblical ideas and it should also be approached with discernment.
  • As it is possible to glorify God through one’s work, so we may glorify Him through study.
  • There are some basic concepts which are foundational to later learning and should be required of all children (barring severe mental incapacity).
  • As even the youngest children are fully human, it is not a matter of memorization of basic facts for the young while withholding bigger ideas for later years. Even the youngest children deserve to learn ideas which will point them to their Creator.
  • Because we have One Creator, all areas of knowledge have an inherent unity. They all point us to God yet each teaches us something slightly different and new about Him. For these reasons, we should require a fairly broad curriculum.
  • Nonetheless, each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.

Nebby

[1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here).

 

Movie Review: The Test and the Art of Thinking

Dear Reader,

Thanks ot a local homeschool group, I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” a movie on the SATs. I wrote this review for my local group and thought I would share it here as well.

Not surprisingly, this movie was critical of the SATs (and ACTs though less time was spent specifically on them) as criteria for college admissions. It began with a brief discussion of the original purpose of the test. This was not actually entirely bad. Though it was the era of eugenics and most scientists expected the test to show differences between those of us who are more evolved and those who are less so, it also had an egalitarian purpose. Prestigious schools of the day each had their own admission tests and only offered them to students who were already at high level prep schools. A common test allowed students from different backgrounds to compete.

The main criticism of the test was that it does not really measure intelligence. This is true for a number of reasons including: There is not just one kind of intelligence. It is very hard to measure or even define true intelligence. Beating the test has itself become a game of tricks in which those who can pay for expensive prep classes have an advantage.

There was also some talk of the power of the test in society. Though started by those not looking to make money, it is now big business. While some colleges have dropped testing requirements for admissions, the big names still use it and it is hard for others not to follow suit. It was implied that these elite colleges somehow must benefit from using the test though it was not specified how. The national rankings of colleges also play a role and people watch them closely and the average SAT score of admitted students is considered in them (though it was not abundantly clear to me how large this one measure plays in overall rankings).

This movie was best when it was specific and showed ways the test can be “gamed.” They demonstrated for instance that in the essay portion (which is no longer required or even wanted by most schools in my experience) that a long essay gets high marks even if its content is complete drivel. They also showed some tricks prep agencies teach for getting probable right answers without even reading the problem.

I had a number of issues with or questions about the movie:

  • It relied heavily on test prep people and admissions staff (or former admissions staff). Every time a College Board (the people who run the SATs) person was talking it was recorded from some other forum. It may be the College Board refused to talk directly to them, but then this should have been said.
  • It was very low on statistics. In fact, there were almost none that related to the success or bias of the test. There was an allusion made to gender differences but no facts on what these are. Again, it was said in passing that test scores do not correlate to college success and that all they correlate to is parents’ educational level (all things I have heard before in other contexts), but hard numbers to back these things up would have been more persuasive. Nor was there any real discussion of how poorer and otherwise marginalized groups do on the test.
  • There is no doubt schools rely on test scores. What I have heard is that even top schools do not rely solely on test scores. Harvard gets a lot of 1600s applying and they look beyond scores for something more. The movie presented things as black-and-white, we use scores or we don’t. I think an honest assessment would need to look at how schools really evaluate students and how much of a role those test scores actually play. (I know a lot of this information is proprietary and that schools do not want to share how they make decisions but we need to at least acknowledge that it is not a simple process.)
  • The movie is dated. Though it was made in 2018, the SAT has changed recently and the essay is no longer required and (from looking at schools for my son last year) most schools don’t even want it. The best criticism the movie had was of how essays don’t even have to be true (see above) but it is no longer relevant. I laughed in appreciation when they said the reading selections are like articles from Time Magazine and there are still a number like this, but my experience with my children is that they are also now including passages from real literature (like Jane Austen novels). In my observation there has been some real improvement in the latest changes which was not addressed.
  • Most of the tricks shown which cheat the system had to do with the math section. There may be similar tricks for the reading and writing potions but this was not made clear. So I am left wondering if those portions are also as game-able.
  • At one point one of the talking heads talks about a hypothetical question about who was president during WWII and how some answers, though wrong, are still better than others. I get his point, but it wasn’t well related to the test which does not have these sorts of factual history questions. I assume he was meaning to say something about the reading portion which often asks for the best answer out of a selection of possible ones but this connection was not made clear.
  • Obviously some people pay oodles of money to learn the tricks of the test. I would like to know how much they actually improve their scores by doing so. My kids who have taken the test improved some by doing practice tests at home. How does this method of preparation compare to those expensive classes? How much can a 1400 kid (on a first try) imporve versus a 1000 kid? Again hard numbers are needed.
  • There is an underlying value system here which I don’t buy into anyway which says that one needs to get into the elite colleges and therefore needs the best scores. When my own son was looking for colleges, we saw that the elite ones require a certain number of SAT subject tests or AP tests. Knowing he would hate to do all that extra prep and testing and feeling that it would be a waste of his time, we eliminated such schools from our list under the assumption that if they attract people that are so focused on such things they are probably not good schools for him anyway. It is hard to avoid the SAT (or ACT) in our society, but one can keep it in perspective and get by without buying into the whole system.
  • Not really a criticism of the movie: The test was not originally game-able (even in the 1980s when many of us parents were taking it, this was not a big thing). Since it has become so, because people have discovered ways to get right answers without actually doing the problems, the whole thing has become a game and of less value overall. The film used a lot of test prep people who make lots of money teaching rich kids how to trick the system. (I don’t honestly know how these people live with themselves, but that’s a side issue.) I think we should not be surprised that human beings cannot create an un-game-able test but how this comes through in test questions thereby making them game-able seems like it would be a fascinating psychological study to me.

“The Test and the Art of Thinking” did not really provide new information. I went in expecting it to tell me just the things it told me: that the test is game-able, that those who can afford expensive test prep have an advantage, that it does not measure true intelligence. I didn’t find that there was much new added to the discussion here and I would really have liked to see the hard numbers to back all this up.

Nebby

The Power of Narrative, for Better or Worse

Dear Reader,

Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has recently published a book entitled How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories which describes why we are so attracted to narrative and how it can lead us astray. I have not (yet) read the book but only some articles on it. The two I have run across are: Rosenberg, Alex, “Humans are Hardwired to Tell History in Stories. Neuroscience Tells Us Why We Get Them Wrong,” Time (Oct. 10, 2018), and Chen, Angela, “A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history,” The Verge (Oct 5, 2018). Though my introduction to his work has been brief, I would like to examine Rosenberg’s ideas a bit.

Rosenberg’s contention is that we humnas “like to have all our knowledge packaged in stories — narratives with plots that involve people (and animals) with reasons and motives, carrying out their aims and designs, in cooperation or conflict, succeeding or being thwarted” (Time). This instinct, he says, leads us astray because we attribute emotions and motives to people when we cannot possibly know if they are accurate. His theory has a distinctly evolutionary basis — we have this propensity to ascribe motives to others because it helped us in a primitive environment (he mentions the African savannah). But to do so is false because: “neuroscience shows that in fact what’s “going on” in anyone’s mind is not decision about what to do in the light of beliefs and desire, but rather a series of neural circuitry firings” (Ibid.). “So,” he continues, “the brain can’t “contain” beliefs at all.”

Now obviously there is a lot here that from our Christian context we must reject wholesale. But there is also a kernel of truth that I think we need to acoount for.

On one level, I respect Rosenberg’s science. Most godless [1] evolutionists end up inconsistent. They want to believe in something beyond the physical though their presuppositions do not allow for a spiritual element. Rosenberg admits that his worldview is a purely physical one and that physical causes must account for all things — even what we term beliefs and emotions. Because of this, he does not just say we wrongly guess others’ motives; he actually says we cannot guess motives because there are no motives, only the products of neural firings.

As Christians,it is pretty fundamental to our belief system that there is a spiritual element to creation, and to humans in  particular, for which the physical alone cannot account. We also believe that we humans are capable of true belief [2] and that we do have motives, i.e. reasons we do things, even if our reasons are not always reasonable.

We may agree with Rosenberg, however, that narrative is instinctual to our race and that it is powerful. Charlotte Mason (whose educational philosophy I have blogged on extensively though I do not agree with her in all things) relies heavily on narrative as the basis for learning for just the reason Rosenberg cites — because we are programmed to learn informaiton through stories. The biblical text supports this view; narrative more than any other mode is how God Himself has chosen to communicate with His people. Our faith is largely belief in a story and this story is a powerful one (Heb. 4:12). So, while we do not come at the issue from the same direction, we can agree with Rosenberg that narrative is both fundamental and powerful for people.

Rosenberg goes one step further and argues that narrative is deceptive and even manipulative. As mentioned above, we do not need to reject all narrative as false as Rosenberg does because we do believe in motive. But he is correct is saying that narrative can be deceptive, whether deliberately or unintentionally. To that extent that such deception is deliberate it is also manipulative. In all honestly, even true narratives can be to some extent manipulative in that they are used to create a change in the audience.

Though there is a spectrum, narrative is apt to add to its subject matter. A historical novel often invents entire characters and situations. A biography may stick to real people and events but may makes unfounded surmises about how people felt and why they did things. A textbook may not take such liberties but often ends up as a dry compendium of facts which, as I think Rosenberg would agree, is hard to learn from.

Those of us who seek to use “living books” in our schools and homeschools (as I argued we should here)  need to take this crisitcism seriously. Too often we choose books based on the recommendations of others or from various lists which circulate and do not consider whether what they have to say is true. I remmeber reading two books about the pilgrims when my children were little and finding that they gave some very different versions of basic facts, even names and dates. These things were relatively easy to fact-check, though if I hadn’t been reading both books I would never have known there was anything to fact-check. And the more a book gets into motives, the more we are at the author’s mercy.

We have spoken some on the past of the need to vet our authors – and to use caution with those whose worldview differs from our own. Now we must add to that list: check their academic credentials and propensity for honesty. Sad to say, I find it is often the “Christian” historical fiction which seems to go the farthest in terms of inventing people, events, and feelings or motivations. A certain level of sentimentality anda tendency to explain the feelings and thoughts of others shoudl raise red flags for us to proceed with caution and a grain of salt. This does not mean we need to reject narrative-style living books altogether; there are books which use narrative but do a better job of sticking to the facts without assuming motivations and thoughts. Rosenberg admits as much citing Guns, Germs, and Steel as one such book (The Verge).

On a day -to-day in the trenches basis, this is a pretty thorny issue. If I were a university professor developing a class which I would be teaching again and again, I would spend a fair amount of time researching my sources and making sure that they balance narrative with truth. As a homeschooling mom who needs to find new books for multiple kids to read in about eight subject areas every twelve weeks and who is limited by what’s available at the local library and used off Amazon, I don’t have the time or resoucres to find the best of what’s out there every time.

I do think we can use a little discernment, however. With practice and with an awareness of the problem, we can make some fairly educated guesses about which books seem to give accurate acocunts and which clearly are supplying lots of suppositional information.

In sum, then, Rosenberg has raised some concerns which we need to take seriously. Though there are apsects of his theory which Christians cannot accept, he is correct that narrative is fundamental to how we learn and that it is powerful. Like most power, it can be used for good or ill. While I do not agree with him that all attempts at finding motive are in vain, it is true that we often make wrong suppositions about others’ motives and that narrative can thus be deceptive and even manipulative.

Nebby

[1] I do not mean this term derogatively. I am simpy refering to those who accept an evolution without any divine mind behind it. Those who believe in a divinely-guided evolution would not fit in this category.

[2] This is not a statemnt about total depravity and our capacity for good, but simply about our ability to believe in anything.

The Holy Spirit in Education (A Podcast Review)

Dear Reader,

I am writing this having just listened to a recent podcast from A Delectable Education. Given the non-written nature of the material, I want to reflect on it while it is fresh in my mind. A Delectable Education, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast devoted to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. The episode in question (#140) is entitled “Live from Charlotte Mason Soiree Retreat Q&A” and was released on September 28, 2018.  As its title suggests, this podcast is actually the audio from the Q&A session of a recent retreat. The portion I am interested in comes about 35 minutes into the podcast episode.

The panel of speakers is asked how if, as Charlotte Mason says, the Holy Spirit is the prime mover in education, we can educate our children if they are not yet saved and have not yet been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There are two answers given: that God is the source of all truth and that He does work in our children’s lives.

I am sorry I am not good at identifying which of the female panelists is speaking when, but one of them provides the first answer (not first in the order they say them; they go back and forth a bit), that all truth comes from God. This does not actually get to the heart of the question but it is a statement I heartily agree with. Art Middlekauff (the only male member of the panel) adds that just because we get a certain truth through say, Euclid, that does not mean all he has said is worth listening to. In other words, God may speak through an unbeliever on one topic or one set of topics but that does not mean all they say is inspired. This is a good reminder to us to use discernment.  In our own culture, we tend to put too much faith in anyone who does anything at all impressive from movie stars to sports heroes. I have read for instance that  Isaac Newton had some really wacky ideas on theology. This does not detract from his scientific theories but neither do his scientific theories lend credence to his theological ideas.

The second point, which is made primarily by Middlekauff, is that the question is flawed because our children are saved. My own church, like his, baptizes infants and considers them part of the body of believers. Middlekauff’s explanation is a good one as far as it goes. It addresses the case of Christian homeschooling parents educating their own kids.

We are left still with the question of other children. Whether at home or in a school context, we may find ourselves teaching children who do not have believing parents. Middlekauff partly addresses this issue. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing, not an exact quote): even if you do not believe your children are saved, it is still the Holy Spirit that works in them and since your primary concern is presumably that they be saved you should very much desire and rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Again, I agree largely with what Middlekauff has to say, but I do have two concerns. I believe that it is the Holy Spirit that is working even if our students are unregenerate. If there is any good to be done in and for them, it is He that does it. Charlotte Mason’s philsophy of education relies upon the student being able to choose the good and I would not say that the unregenerate (children or adults) have any power to do so. I think then that more needs to be said about how this philosophy can work for such children. (I do have my own theories about the purpose of education in the lives of both regenerate and unregenerate children; you can read them here.)

My second concern is that I am just not convinced that this is how Miss Mason herself thought of the issue. I *think* that Middlekauff is saying something very similar to what I have been saying in my current blog series, that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of regenerate covenant children and that if any are outside of the covenant we still educate them while praying and hoping for His work in them too. (I hope I am not misrepresenting his ideas; this is how I took what he had to say. Though we seem to get to the same place, I am not sure our reasoning is the same.)

In contrast, when I read Charlotte Mason’s writings, what I understand her to say is that her education is for all children (she is particularly concerned to include those her society would have deemed uneducable). I do not think she makes a distinction between regenerate and unregeneate children because I do not think that she sees such a difference. She had a very different view (from mine) of what it means to live in a “redeemed world” (her term) and of the general moral and spiritual ability of people apart from the saving work of Christ. (I just did a long post on that here.) The long and the short of it is that her philosophy relies upon the ability of all children to choose the good because she believed that all children were capabale of doing so. She does not address what we do with unregenerate children because she did not believe in them as such. She believed all children had, through Christ’s redemptive work, been given some ability to choose and do good.

So I guess my conclsuion on this episode is that I like a lot of what the panelists had to say. I was surprised, in fact, to find myself agreeing so much with them. I am less convinced that how they explain the situation is how Miss Mason herself saw things. I still think we need a philsophy of education which considers all children — whether from believing parents or not — and which finds its origins in a reformed understanding of human nature and the purpose of life.

Nebby

Free Reformation Day Book

Dear Reader,

My 13 year old made a book on Reformation Day, complete with pictures. Feel free to download and share. All I ask is that if you share online that you link back to this page.

martin luther the book gloria van vlack

Enjoy!

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Pick Your Teachers Well

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

How do we grow in knowledge? How does one learn anything? Depending on the sort of knowledge we have in mind, there can be varying answers. I would not say I know how to scuba dive if I have only read a book on the topic. In all disciplines there are people who go out in the field or go back to primary sources and analyze and develop new theories.

Though some kind sof knowledge require hands-on experience and though there will always be the need for discoverers who return to the sources, none of us starts from scratch. We all get some base of knowledge from those who have come before. And most of the time, for most of us, the bulk of our knowledge comes to us through other people, whether in person or through books and, increasingly, other media. This is as it should be; God created us to be in relationship with one another (Gen. 2:18), and He commands us to pass on our knowledge to the next generation. This is especially true in the family (Deut 6:7) but is not exclusive to the family (Tit. 2:4-5).

Today’s principle is fairly simple: Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. 

God Himself is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Acts 7:10; Jam. 1:5). Because we, in Adam, were created in His image as spiritual beings (i.e. ones with a spiritual as well as a physical nature), we also are capable of obtaining wisdom and knowledge. Note that I do not say we originate knowledge. All knowledge comes from God. We “discover” it when God reveals it to us.

Though there are no doubt many ways in which we as a race go astray and follow wrong ideas, there is some progression in human knowledge. I am very grateful that we live in an era in which we know about bacteria and viruses. I have a child who is alive today because God allowed a man (Frederick Banting) to discover insulin and its role in controlling blood sugar. Still, we will never know everything there is to know.

There are “Eureka” moments in human history in which God allows one person to dicsover some truth that no human had ever thought before. But these “discoveries” are not built on nothing. The discoverer already has some base of knowledge, some reason to be looking in the corner they are looking in or to be running the experiment they are running. And when they make that great discovery, we do not all have to make it again. The knowledge gets passed on and built on.

As we discussed last time, when we want to convey specific knowledge, we use words, whether oral or written. This use of langauge seems to be inherent in how we are made. We were created by God’s Word and it is how He, who created and knows our natures, communicates with us. When He chooses to communicate specific truths to us (special revelation as opposed to general revelation), He uses words.

And so we use words to communicate with one another. When we think of teaching, we often think of one person standing in front of a class and lecturing and this is certainly a valid method of conveying human knowledge. But the words and ideas that flow from mind to mind can come to us in various media. In our day and age, we can preserve a lecture and share it with others. This has not always been the case. More than anything else the written word has been the means of preserving and transmitting human knowledge. Last time, I made the case for books as the primary tool of learning and for particular kinds of books which we are calling “living books” (see this post).  Today I’d like to focus not so much on the books themselves as on the authors.

As I have argued many times before, God’s knowledge can come to us through non-Christian sources (though we should also expect more truth to come through Christians).  Our “teachers” — live or on paper– will come to us from many walks of life and with many different worldviews. There are no uninterpreted facts. Even in the most mundane, practical subjects, there is some level on which the author’s beliefs will be reflected in what he writes. Because this is so, we must be discerning in who we learn from.

How shall we choose our teachers? It is not simply a matter of Christian versus non-Christian.  There are times when we will have things to learn from non-Christians and there are Christians who will either be factually wrong or who will, despite a profession of faith, have a wrong outlook. When one is young, either chronologically or in one’s faith and knowledge, it is better to keep a narrower circle. There are books I would give to my teen that I would not give to my kindergartner (apart from content considerations of course). The more we know what we believe, the easier it will be to be discerning when we need to evaluate others’ beliefs.

At this stage of my life, I spend a lot of time in the car. I have taken up listening to theological podcasts for entertainment on long drives. While it is occasionally interesting to listen to someone I know is radically different from me, for the most part I pick people who are from the same end of the theological spectrum — i.e. reformed Christians, even other Presbyterians. But even within this realtively narrow corner of the spectrum, I hear things which make me wonder “Is that really true?” But there is one podcast that is done by members of my own (small) denomination including an ordained elder and the president of the seminary.  I’ve never met these men but I know their pedigrees and I know that they have the stamp of approval of a denomination I have already chosen to give allegience too. There might be things they say that I would disagree with but as I listen to them, I am more relaxed because I know that I can have some level of trust in what they say.

My point is this: I have made a broader choice, that I will cast my lot in with a particular church, so when my “teacher” is someone from that body, I can have a certain level of trust. I do not need to vet everything to the same degree I might otherwise. We all make similar choices. We rely on indidivual reputations but we might also look at broader criteria: where a person was educated, what church they belong to, etc. These are not infallible standards but, when well chosen, they are far better than no standards.

When I rely on my church’s seal of approval, I am in some sense accepting their recommendation. We live in a age of reviews. I would caution you to also vet those from whom you get recommendations. Quite often I see people post on homeschool message boards “What curriculum should I use?” If you are going to ask someone for recommendations, make sure they are someone who thinks like you, who has the same goals and standards. Knowing the subject area is a bonus too. Your pastor may be a wonderful, godly man but that doesn’t make him the best person to recommend a grammar curriculum.

To some extent we can develop relationships with particular authors, even those long dead. We become familiar with their thought, and we can develop a trust in them. When you have collected a body of trusted teachers, you do not need to do as much work each time.

While I don’t believe there are any truly secular subjects, there are areas in which I am going to be more careful. I don’t research the religious views of the authors of my children’s math and grammar books, but I am pretty careful of what theology they read and also of what science and history.

Though the primary intent is to give us discernment in religious matters, the Scriptures do offer some criteria for evaluating teachers:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30; ESV)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.'” (Matt. 7:15-17; ESV)

These two passages give us two kinds of tests — Acts speaks to intellectual content and Matthew to practical outworkings.

In Acts we are told that false teachers draw men away from true doctrine. Good teachers, whether they themselves give glory to God or not, inspire us to praise. God’s general revelation should draw us to him (Rom 1:19-20). A teacher who knows his subject well and truly loves it can often lead us to see God in it even if he himself does not. I think, for example, of biologist E.O. Wilson (see this earlier book review). I do not agree with his belief in godless evolution, but when he speaks of his primary field, entymology, his delight in God’s smallest ceratures shines thorugh and though I am not big fan of insects myself, I grow to appreciate them and their Creator more.

Where Acts speaks to a teacher’s affect on us, Matthew addresses his own life. If I am reading a historian and find out that he was involved in eugenics programs, I am probably going to either drop his book or read it with a lot more discernment. I have blogged at length in the past about evolutuion and creation without coming to a solid conclusion. The one thing that has driven me away from Darwinian evolution in recent years more than anything else is  seeing how Darwin’s ideas played out in theology and philosophy. The consequences of the man’s ideas, in his own life and in those who took his ideas to their extreme conclusions, speak volumes about the ideas themselves (I discussed this a little in this earlier post).

If there is a general principle here it is: Be very careful who you let into your head. The rest are guidelines. There will not be one answer for all people. One may be able to read a book discerningly while another may be bothered by it. To sum up, the guidelines I am proposing are:

  • The abiity to discern grows with age and spiritual maturity. Those who are older, both chronologically and spiritually, will be able to make use of a wider variety of teachers.
  • Know what you believe. The better you are educated in your own worldview, the more you will be able to discern and avoid the fallacies in another’s.
  • Vet sources. Look at where a person was educated and what they believe.
  • Get to know your teachers. You can learn to trust particular sources.
  • Seek recommendations only from those you trust.
  • Look at outcomes in your own life. Does reading this person give you a greater sense of awe or does it pull you away from God and His truth?
  • Look at the outcomes in the teacher’s life and at how his ideas have played out through time.

Nebby

Psalm Study: Psalm 111

Dear Reader,

For an introduction to how and why we do Psalm Study, see this post.

Do you remember being in elementary school and writing the letters of the word “MOTHER” down the side of your page and then thinking of words to describe your own that begin with each of them (“M is for makes me cookies . . . “)? If so, you have written an acrostic poem.

The Book of Psalms also contains acrostic poems. They don’t spell anything out anything but they do follow the Hebrew alphabet, one line for each letter.

Sidebar: The Hebrew alphabet contains 22 letters. Actually, I should say 22 consonants. Hebrew was originally written with just consonants. Vowels were added later as people began to forget the langauge (Aramaic, a close cousin, became the spoken langauge). In order not to change the base text of the Old Testament, the vowels were added as little points and dashes above and below the letters (“jots and tittles”). Hebrew words are based on a tri-literal (three letter) root system which makes it a little easier to use just the consonants, but we could read without vowels too. Give it a try: W wlkd th dg ystrdy. Not too hard, right?

Today we are going to look at one of these acrostic poems, Psalm 111. When you made the MOTHER poem in second grade, it probably wasn’t the finest poetry. The psalms that are acrostics, because they have to adhere to the pattern, also will not display all the features we expect of Hebrew poetry. We are less likely to see parallelism and the poem itself often sounds choppier.

Not surprisingly, word choice is very important in acrostics. Though the lines may seem unconnected at first, there are often common words which reappear through the course of the poem. And, of course, each line must start with a certain letter. Sometimes the word that begins the line is a relatively insignificant one (“in”, “the”), but often the psalmist does what you probably did — he thinks about the subject of his poem (God for him, mother for you) and thinks of what word beginning with the appropriate letter best fits that subject.

Psalm 111

  1. Praise the LORD.

  2. I will laud the LORD with all [my] heart.

  3. In the assembly of [the] upright and [the] congregation,

  4. Great — the deeds of the LORD,

  5. Sought by all who delight in them.

  6. Glorious and splendid — his work.

  7. And his righteousness stands for ages.

  8. [A] remembrance he made for his wondrous things.

  9. Gracious and compassionate — the LORD.

  10. Food he gave to his fearers.

  11. He will remember forever his covenant.

  12. [The] strength of his deeds he told to his people.

  13. To give to them the inheritance of nations.

  14. [The] deeds of his hands — truth and justice.

  15. Faithful — all his precepts,

  16. Established for all ages and forever,

  17. Done in truth and uprightness.

  18. Ransom, he sent to his people.

  19. He commanded forever — his covenant

  20. Holy and feared — his name.

  21. [The] beginning of wisdom — the fear of the LORD.

  22. Recompense of good to all who do them.

  23. His praise stands for ages.

Because this Psalm is a little different, a few translation notes are in order before we begin:

  • First words are important here. Due to the differences between langauges, the word that is first in Hebrew doesn’t always end up first in our English translation. This often happens because Hebrew uses one word where we need a few. For example, “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) is one word in Hebrew. In English the boring words like “in” and “the” have to come first. So you will know which word comes first in the Hebrew I put the first word of each line in bold. If mutliple words are in bold, it is because they are one word in Hebrew.
  • Sometimes English requires words that Hebrew doesn’t. I usually put these words in brackets [ ] to show that they are added. You will see that there are a few words in brackets in my translation. Often what comes in brackets is a present tense “to be” verb (is, are) as Hebrew does not require these when English does. There are a number of lines in this poem where I could have added such a verb, and normally would have done so, but chose not to for this psalm. Consider, for exmaple, line 4. In Hebrew it says “Great the deeds of the LORD.” While we would normally add an “are,” I did not here. Remember that in the style of the acrostic it is as if the psalmist is thinking of a word that reminds him of God. In line 4 the word is “great.” After he gives this word, he then explains a little of why it reminds him of God. In this case, it is the deeds of the LORD that are great. It is as if in writing about your mother you the first H word you thought of for her was “hugs” and so you wrote “Hugs — she gives them to me.” That is how this poem sounds to me in Hebrew so it is how I rendered it in English.
  • The first line is not part of the acrostic pattern. Line 2 (as I have it written) begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As a reminder, line numbers are not verse numbers but are for discussion purposes.

Your job before you read on is to print out the psalm and to get out your colored pencils. As you read through Psalm 111, notice which words come first in each line. You might even just want to list them all on your paper. Also look for other repeated words and words which are synonymous and express similar ideas.

Hopefully, now you have done your homework. Let’s start by looking at those first words. Focusing on the main words (not the ‘and’s and ‘the’s which are prefixes in Hebrew), here is my list: praise, laud, assembly, great, sought, glorious, righteousness, remembrance, gracious, food, remember, strength, give, deeds, faithful, established, done, ransom, commanded, holy, beginning, recompense, praise.

There are a number of ways we could view this list. If you were working with a class, you could even put them all on slips of paper and sort them (let the class decide how to sort them). The first thing I noticed is that the psalm begins and ends with praise. This sort of bookending is not uncommon.

Not suprisingly, a lot of the words are adjectives describing positive characteristics of God: great, glorious, gracious, faithful, established, and holy. There are a couple of nouns which fit this category too: righteousness and strength. Sought is an interesting one because it might not be a word that comes readily to mind.

A few of the words have to do with God’s actions — give, deeds, and done. I think we can add food and recompense to this list too as they are things God gives us. In fact, throughout the psalm there are lots of words that have to do with doing. Deeds, works and making are mentioned in lines 4, 6, 12, 14, and 17.

Another theme which runs throughout is that of eternity. There are two terms for forever used in this psalm. I have translated one as forever and the other as for ages to keep them distinct but I don’t know that there is much difference in their connotations. They occur in lines 7, 11, 16, 19 and 23. On a not unrelated note, two of our first words have to do with remembering (lines 8 and 11).

Clearly Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise. But there is a little more going on here too. Just as your MOTHER poem would have told something about who mother was, so this acrostic poem tells us who God is.   The Bible frequently uses lists to do just this. Consider God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.” (Exod. 34:5-8; ESV)

This listing of attributes, I dare say is the standard way for us to define or describe God. We can’t sum Him up in one word and even such losts as these could never fully capture who He is, but the more such words and phrases we can give, perhaps the closer to the truth we get.

What can we conclude from Psalm 111 then? Some psalms depict God as a judge who sits on His throne. Others call upon His covenant love. In Psalm 111 there is reference to the law (line 15) and the covenant (line 19) and also to divine justice (line 22) but none of these seems to be the main theme of the psalm.  The two most prominent themes I see in Psalm 111 are doing and eternity. This an active God and an eternal one.

One final note: we mentioned that this is a psalm of praise but we also have a hint of its probably context. Lines 2 and 3 read: “I will laud the LORD with all [my] heart. In the assembly of [the] upright and [the] congregation.” This is communal praise, a psalm for God’s people to sing when they are together, to proclaim to each other the attributes of God.

Nebby

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