My Nature Lore Booklist

Dear Reader,

This is a question that came up on a discussion board and it’s one of those things I probably should have gotten together a while ago. You can find all my lists of living books here.

What is Nature Lore and How do you use it?

Simply put, “nature lore” refers to books that tell about nature and science-related topics in a literary way. I use the term because it is popular in Charlotte Mason circles. In reality, “creation lore” might be a better term. I fear that nature lore makes one think that we must read about nature only — animals especially and maybe a little about plants. I use “creation” to draw our attention to all that God has made, from the stars to the rocks, from weather to physical laws. Really any science related topic presented in a literary form is fair game.

If I could go back in time, I would do a lot less with my kids when they were little, but one thing I would definitely keep is reading nature creation lore aloud. The goal of science in the early years particularly is just to keep alive and feed children’s innate curiosity and love for knowledge. Most kids have a love for the world around them in some way. It may be a passion for dinosaurs or panda bears or a penchant for filling up your car and their underwear drawer with rocks and sticks, but one way or another it comes out.  Feeding this love requires two things: time outside and good books. (The former I hope is obvious but at any rate would be the subject for another post.) Books give us the knowledge to dig deeper into what we see with our eyes (and feel and smell and hear). They expand out horizons. We don’t all live near volcanoes and kangaroos. Books take us to the places we can’t go ourselves. Good authors communicate their own passion and inspire ours. They draw us in through their own enthusiasm for their subject. (For more on science and why and how we study it, see this post.)

The actual process of doing nature lore with your kids is simple: read and narrate, read and narrate. If you have multiple kids, have them take turns narrating what you read. Read chunks that are appropriate to their age and ability to retain. With the littlest kids, you may be reading a paragraph or two at a time only. If you have multiple ages, I usually gear my reading to just below the level of the oldest child participating. The oldest can still get something out of what it read but so can the next one or two. Don’t worry too much about littles. They will get more than you expect. One nice thing about science-y topics is that they often lend themselves to alternative forms of narration. Charts, pictures, and diagrams can be good ways to reproduce what one has heard. For instance, if you have just read about types of volcanoes, each child can take a few minutes to draw the various kinds and, depending on age and ability, label them.

Nature lore and time outside are really all you need for science in the elementary years. I know this can be hard to swallow and that you want to add in more but remember the goals — to encourage a love for creation, to build relationships with the things God has made, to encourage curiosity and observational skills. If your child wants to do some hands-on experiments, that’s fine, but you don’t need such things. (They will be getting some hands-on experience in their time outside as well. It is fun to make slime and watch things explode and I would not deprive any kid of those joys, but often science experiments made for young children are pretty preachy and basic anyway.)

Nature lore does not need to end. As my kids got older, meaning into middle school, I would often pick a topic for the year or the term. Things like meteorology or geology (again, look at my other booklists for some of those). Even in high school we continue to use living books as the basis of our science, adding in labs and definitely being more topical (a year each of biology, chemistry, physics). But that doesn’t mean you need to abandon nature lore. There are many wonderful books written for adults that keep alive that sense of wonder and that transport us to new places.

This is not going to be a complete list (if that were ever possible!). There is just too much out there and I am sure I have forgotten a lot of what we used when they were little. If you have other suggestions, please let me know and I will add them. Don’t be afraid to find your own books. Some of the best ones we’ve used were garage sale or thrift store finds that are not on anybody else’s nature lore list. After you have done this a bit, you will become more adept at judging books for yourself. You can usually pick up a book and read the first few paragraphs and get a sense if it is going to be an engaging book and if it is the appropriate level for your kids. If you get a little ways in and for some reason don’t love it, drop it and move on to another.

The books below are roughly sorted by age level, from the youngest to the oldest. I am very hesitant to give specific age ranges. Good nature lore often appeals to a wide range fo ages. Older children can still get something out of simple books and young ones will get more than you expect from books that seem over their heads.

Nature Lore Books for All Ages

Among the ………..People by Clara Dillingham Pierson — This series of books focuses on various environments — meadow, forest, etc. Each reading is fairly short, maybe 2 pages, which can work well with younger children. We had a one volume set that included all the books. My daughter did get tired of them after a while. I do think the whole lot might be a lot to do all at once.

Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster — This was one of those thrift store finds for me. It covers a wide range of topics (including reproduction!) at an elementary level. I include not because I expect it to be easy for anyone to find (though certainly pick it up if you do) but because look at that title — if you see an old looking book with a title like this, you should always buy it.

Millicent Ellis Selsam — Some authors are so good it is hard to pick one book by them. Selsam’s are fairly brief, mostly of the easy reader variety, and cover a variety f topics. She has books on seeds, microscopes, turtles, and more.

Robert McClung — McClung will reappear below as well. His easier books are fun, easy reader level books. We particularly liked the one about Stripe the Chipmunk.

In the Land of the Lion — Another thrift store find. Again, this is the sort of title you should perk up at if you see it. This book discusses various African animals which brings up another point: nature lore can also often be geography. It’s good to learn more details about nature close to home, but books also open the world to us.

Toklat: The Story of an Alaskan Grizzly Bear by Alfred Milotte — Some books are surveys of a time or place; some take us in depth on one animal. The title kind of says it all for this one. A quick search on Amazon shows me Milotte wrote others as well and I suspect they are all worthwhile.

How’s Inky (and sequels) by Sam Campbell — The story of a porcupine (if I am remembering correctly). Told with humor.

Tale of …………….. by Thornton Burgess — Burgess will reappear below as well. His books that are along the lines of “the Story of so-and-so animal” are wonderful for children learning to read chapter books. Each section is very short but manages to advance the story so one doesn’t get bored.  I prefered his books that stick to animals and was less enamored of the ones that feature Mother West Wind.

The Storybook of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre — This is one of my must reads because it covers so many subjects, from bees to volcanoes, even including some history as I recall. I am not actually crazy about its modus operandi which is to set the information as stories told my an uncle to his nephews and nieces, but is it still a good book. Fabre has many others though I am less enamored of those that stick to a single subject.

Jack’s Insects by Edmund Selous — There are some guides to go along with this book and it is quite popular on living book lists. We used it. I wasn’t crazy about it. Honestly, it might be a bit too much on insects.

Spotty the Bower Bird by Edward Sorenson — This was out foray into Australian animals. I lovely book if you can manage to find it.

Jacques Cousteau — The famous French diver and oceanologist has written a number of books for kids. We stumbled across two, one on dolphins and one on walruses and seals. Both were fairly well done and worth getting. They are from the series the Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I believe there are other series under his name that are a bit more textbook-y.

Naturally Curious by Mary Holland — This book focuses on New England (my area) and gives what to look  for in each month, what is blooming etc. It tends to list a few things and then go in-depth on one or two. This would not be an every day or even every week book but is good to check in with every month to get an idea of what one might expect to see.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot — Herriot’s tales of a vet and the people and animals he encounters are quite well-known. My daughters really enjoyed them. He has various volumes and you can also find shorter versions of his books that focus on one topic, cats for instance.

Forgotten by Time by Robert Silverberg — Silverberg is a favorite author of mine. He also has books on history and one called Scientists and Scoundrels. This one is on all those animals (and a few plants) that don’t quite fit our usual categories.

The Rhino with the Glue-on Shoes by Lucy Spelman — Tales from a zoo-keeper, I believe. My daughter liked this one when she was in middle school.

Curious Naturalist by Sy Montgomery — This book has short readings organized by season. It is good even for high school. The chapter on beavers is worth the whole book.

The Animal Book and  The Bird Book by Thornton Burgess — I told you he would reappear. These two books are longer and a bit more of a haul. We found the bird book a bit much all at once though my one bird-living daughter read some of it on her own. Beware that sometimes things change in science: rabbits are no longer considered rodents.

Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson — Silent Spring is quite famous and tells of the effect of pesticides on the environment.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Tells the author’s adventures on the Appalachian Trail.

A Walk through the Year, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm  and Circle of the Seasons by Edwin Way Teale — Teale has a number fo wonderful books. They can be read by adults but I also read one aloud to my elementary kids. Circle of the Seasons gives daily readings. A Walk Through the Year is organized by seasons and can also be found as four separate volumes. A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm  is more anecdotal and the title pretty much tells you where you are going with this one.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir — Muir is famous naturalist and I have heard he was a Christian. His love for nature comes through. This is the book of his we have used but I suspect his others are also worth the time.

Tristan Gooley — Gooley has a number of books that are good reads for high school boys who might be les enthused by nature books. They cover things like finding your way in the woods.

Lost Wild America by Robert McClung — McClung reappears with a book for the older crew. This one is on endangered animals and includes some historical context for each.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell — I loved this book. I laughed aloud in parts. It is an upper level book because, well, the family is included and there is some adult content. Read it yourself if you don’t want to give it to your kids. The Durrell family moved from England to Cyprus and the boy, Gerald, was quite the collector of animals. There is also a PBS series about them, though it strays quite far from the book.

As a reminder, if you are looking for specific topics like geology and environmental studies, click on the “lists of living books” link above and scroll down to the science section. There are other choices there that would work well for nature lore also but I didn’t want to repeat myself too much.

Happy Reading!



Reformed Thinkers on Education: W.H. Jellema

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education. The introductory post to this mini-series is here.

A number of the thinkers we will consider are represented in Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997), a volume edited by Donald Oppewal. The first of these is William Harry Jellema who worked in the 1950s as a philosophy professor at Calvin College among other positions. Two of his essays are included in Oppewal’s volume. The first, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” addresses specific decisions that Calvin College faced at the time with regard to revamping their curriculum. The second, “The Christian School a Prerequisite for and an Outgrowth of the Calvinistic World and Life View,” argues for Christian schools. Because the latter is more general, I will begin with it.

The thrust of “The Christian School . . . ” is contained in its title — Jellema argues the need for distinctly Christian schools. Though this rankles me a little as a homeschooler, I realize that he was writing in the 1950s when the modern homeschooling movement had really not begun so I will give him a pass and assume that this option was just not on his radar.

Jellema spends considerable time arguing for something that I have often said on this blog — ideas have consequences. In his words, our “life views” have practical “outgrowths” (p. 48). There are probably people who would contest this position, but I am not one of them nor do I suspect most of you are so we will not dwell on it overly much. Jellema’s argument is a philosophical one rather than a biblical one though I think this would be an easy point to argue from the Scriptures which ask of us not just faith but obedience. In the course of making his argument, Jellema shows that we are “rational moral” beings (p. 50) and that we embody biological, social, and religious impulses, all of which impact our actions (p. 53).

Jellema goes on to argue that, given that our beliefs have practical consequences, Calvinism will result in the need for Christian schools. This is a multi-stage argument. First he argues for the comprehensiveness of our worldview — that “the God who revealed himself in the Christ of the Scriptures” is “the source of ultimate principles for our world and life view . . . [S]uch a world and life view rooted in the Christian faith will issue in Christian education” (p. 56). But Calvinism “need not create its own social instrument” so he goes on to argue that we need to establish schools to provide this education.

His primary argument on this point is again one that we have seen before and boils down to the idea that there are no uninterpreted facts. Calvinism insists, he says, that “God is not only the object in a narrower sense of religious faith and devotion but is also the ground and end of all existence and truth and value” (p. 57). It is not sufficient to allow secular public schools to teach facts and to allow the church or home to provide religious instruction; the two must be merged and therefore a Christian institution is necessary to do the job.

Though in this essay Jellema does not say too much about the nature of education in the Christian schools he envisions, he does towards the end hint at a purpose for education:

” . . . only in the light of that view can my bits of knowledge become intelligible. And in the sphere of morality and character building this conviction means that my every experience of worth strengthens and deepens my appreciation of and loyalty to God . . . The cutting edge of our view is that intellectual or moral growth and the religious life are in each specific instance and at that moment inseparable . . . ” (pp. 57-8)

In other words, knowledge only makes sense in the light of our beliefs and this intelligible knowldge serves to point us to God so that we give Him glory and grow in Him.

Though I take issue with the idea that we need schools specifically, I am largely in agreement with Jellema thus far. His other article, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” leaves me a little more puzzled. As I said above, he is here arguing for specific changes in the curriculum and course requirements at Calvin College. I am not so much interested in the particulars but along the way he makes some general statements about education.

“Education is for wisdom” (p. 5), Jellema tells us. If this is meant as a definition, I am willing to accept it as such. But Jellema goes on to define wisdom saying it “consists very simply in the ability so to use nature as to achieve position in a society devoted to mastery over nature” (p. 5). Though wisdom is a topic covered at length in the pages of the Bible, this is no biblical argument nor is there  any appeal to the Scriptures. Jellema seems to be saying that our goal is mastery over nature — an argument which could certainly be substantiated by Genesis 1 — but he also says that nature shapes us, that our minds are molded by the patterns in nature. Though we know that God is revealed by His creation, we also know that creation was changed by the fall of man. There is no discernment here, no recognition that not all we find in nature as it now is would be worth emulating. He repeatedly calls this a “new idea of wisdom” (p. 15, 25) which I find quite disturbing given that wisdom is such a deeply-rooted biblical concept. It is not something that it seems we should have a “new” concept of.

Jellema’s overall argument in this essay is for a Christian liberal arts education. The liberal arts, he says, deal with the man as an individual and as a whole (pp. 16, 27). They educate the intellectual for the sake of the moral.  He implies that the ultimate goal of such an education is to fit us to discharge our moral responsibilities (p.16). Though a liberal arts education covers many subjects, he argues against a fragmented approach — a little here, a little there — and for an approach that looks to unifying principles across subjects. He speaks specifically of three or four minds, that is, ways of thinking. The Christian mind, which is associated with the Middle Ages, is primary but one also should learn the ancient and modern minds (pp. 21-22, 31). These minds are learned through the reading of their literature and also the learning of their languages. It is not enough to read the classics in translation but one should also learn Greek and Latin (p. 25).

I like some of the specifics here. I agree that we are much better equipped to understand someone when we learn their langauge (I argued as much in this post). I also like the idea of a broader more unifying perspective rather than a smattering of knowledge from a range of fields. I am a little confused by the minds thing. It may be true but I would like to see more on why these three distinct minds are valuable to know and understand. There is certainly Christian thought and non-Christian, but, as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. I am not so convinced that the ancient and modern are really all that different. There is also the matter of other minds. Jellema mentions a couple of times that we should learn the occidental (i.e. western) minds.  Perhaps the world has changed since his day; I am not sure we can so limit ourselves. Eastern philosophies pervade our culture.

The biggest issue I have with Jellema, however, is this idea of wisdom that he advances. I cannot get over a reformed thinker advancing a “new” idea of wisdom without any reference to the Scriptures. In the first article we discussed, Jellema hints at quite a good goal for education — it causes us to glorify God and it transforms us. I would have liked to see him pursue that train of thought rather than the “new wisdom.”


Living Books on Diseases

Dear Reader,

My eighth grader asked to learn  more about diseases for her science this year. Since it’s her last year before high school hits, I indulged her. She had studied medicine and anatomy last year; you can find that booklist  here. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Disease

IMG_0013Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery by Richard Hollingham — As its title suggests this book gives a history of surgery. It is fairly engaging and what tween/teen doesn’t love to read about all the gory mistakes of the past?

Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti — The story of typhoid in America and the mystery that led to the one carrier who spread it all.

Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif — This book is often recommended on homeschool lists and is well worth it. It is something of a history of microbiology through the stories of the scientists who advanced its study.

When Plague Strikes by James Cross Giblin and David Frampton — This book covers a number of “plagues” including the black death, small pox, and AIDS.

Breakthrough by Jim Murphy — Murphy’s books are good, fairly brief treatments of various issues, Breakthrough is about blue babies and the struggle to save them. She also read An American Plague by Murphy about yellow fever. Though we didn’t have time for it, his other books include The Invincible Microbe about tuberculosis.

The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson — The 1850s cholera epidemic in London told as a mystery story. Another book I considered in this particular epidemic is The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.

Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams — The story of smallpox in Boston and how Puritan preachers helped by preaching the need for immunization.

Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart — This is slightly off topic but I had checked it out and my daughter really wanted to read it. It is really more of a catalog with one page or so each on a variety of plants classified as deadly, intoxicating, etc. I’m not at all worried.

A couple more books we considered but didn’t have time for:

Hot Zone by Richard Preston — The story of an Ebola epidemic told as a suspense novel. Written for adults.

The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein — The true story fo a boy who plays with nuclear energy and poisons himself with radioactivity.

Happy reading!




Reformed Thinkers on Education: Peter Ton

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education, The introductory post to this mini-series is here.

I have written a number of times on the modern philosophy of education known as  Christian classical (see here and here). The long and short of it is, I am not a huge fan. I was excited to stumble across this article by Peter L. Ton. “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?” (2005) is Ton’s Master’s thesis from Dordt College. The lovely thing about a thesis is that it starts with an abstract that tells you exactly what the author wants to say. Thus at the beginning we get Ton’s conclusion:

“When compared to the Reformed understanding of covenant children as well as Reformed purposes and methods of education, classical Christian education is found to be too intellectualistic and elitist to be compatible with a Reformed Christian perspective on education.” (p. iv)

Because of his genre, Ton spends a lot of time defining terms. One of the first things that struck me is that he places the heart of Christian classical education in  Moscow, Idaho. This is a red flag for me. If you are unaware, Moscow is the home of Douglas Wilson, a prolific Christian pastor and author, who has, sadly, been associated with some at least borderline heretical movements. I know even within my own denomination there are some who love Wilson and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss him or his work. Suffice it to say, for me mention of Moscow and of Wilson is an indicator that I need to be discerning in what I read. The other major figure behind Christian classical is Dorothy Sayers. I reviewed her article, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which really inaugurated the modern movement here. The short story on that is that I had serious reservations about her own view of and attitude toward children. Ton notes that Sayers “tried her hand at teaching in an elementary school for a brief period, but gave it up quickly and without any misgivings” (p. 74).

Ton begins with a review of what Christian classical education, its origins, goals, and methodology. “Classical” refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Medieval educators went back to the classical model, and modern ones in turn went back to the classicism of the Middle Ages. When looking at the ideas behind the modern Christian classical movement, then, we have a number of layers to consider. What Ton finds in those predecessors is an emphasis on the intellectual and theoretical:

“Faith in human intellect, or intellectualism, clearly looms largest, while idealism
with its exaltation of ideas and denigration of matter is a close second.” (p. 21)

“Clearly evident also is the Greek glorification of theoretical knowledge.” (p. 23)

With such roots, it is not surprising that many “Christian educators uncritically adopted or synthesized many pagan Greek ideas in their curriculum” (p. 26). As I have said many times on this blog, not all ideas that come to us through non-Christian sources are necessarily wrong. Nonetheless, we must be discerning in adopting ideas that come to use with such a pedigree (p. 30).

Ton moves on to an examination of if and how these ideas have come through into the modern Christian movement. There are some more technical or methodological differences — grammar, for instance, is defined differently by Sayers than by her predecessors. There are also some common elements, including an emphasis on the social function of education:

“Quintilian and Wilson both assume education is to lead and govern” (p. 42)

Particularly concerning is a view of the child which comes through:

“The purpose behind Greek education was to make good adults, particularly good men, and they did not believe that infancy had much to do with the process’ (Castle, 1969). In fact, infanticide was practiced regularly, no cultural value forbade parents from selling their children into slavery and no civil law prohibited a father from condemning his child to death! This classical view of the child is necessary to point out because it has implications in today’s classical Christian schools. Classical Christian educators are, of course, innocent of such heinous practices as those just mentioned, yet remnants of this view of the child still linger in today’s classical Christian psychology despite their sincere attempts at articulating a Christian understanding of children.” (p. 45)

Ton then moves on to comparing the classical approach to the reformed view of education. He admits, however, that there is not just one reformed take on education. (I used the three-fold division he artiuclates in my introductory post.)  Ton himself takes the antithetical position which combines an emphasis on content with concern for the practical application. Education, he says, “equips the child for ampler and better oriented cultural activity” (p. 69). Which is to say education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are both important.

In his analysis of Christian classical education, Ton sees a conflict between covenantal and communal views of the child. The difference seems to be that a covenantal view emphasizes the need to educate all (covenant) children, even those whose natural gifts might be lacking (p. 47), and places a paramount importance on the role of the parents. Ton argues that Christian schools should not function in loco parentis and thereby diminish the parents’ God-given, even God-commanded, role in education (p. 51). One of the dangers in doing so it that education comes to be seen as the solution to all problems. With parents and church de-emphasized, education becomes almost salvific. It is seen as the solution to all society’s problems (pp. 75-76).

I agree with Ton when he concludes that Christian schools do not take the place of parents and can not, by themselves, apart from the parents, satisfy the demands of Christian education. But I am puzzled when Ton concludes: “A Reformed Christian community ought to encourage Christian school enrolment” (p. 53). Many of the arguments he has made would be good arguments for homeschooling so I don’t know why in the end he seems to dismiss this option.

With regard to the goals of education, Ton’s main criticism of the classical movement is that it is too intellectualistic. Biblical wisdom is lived out; it is not just head knowledge. Classical education, in contrast, views the content, the fodder of education if you will, as the main thing.

“[T]he program is oriented much more toward the mastery of content than to Christian discipleship. This emphasis on content over and above individual learning styles, pedagogic strategy, heart response, student application and discipleship is yet a legacy of the ancients’ faith in curriculum. ” (p. 55)

I recently reviewed a book on Jewish education which made just this same point. The education of the Jews from 550 BC to 220 AD was distinct from that of the Greeks and Romans in that it sought to make wisdom affect life. (In contrast, our previous thinker was Gordon H. Clark argues that reformed education should be “intellectualistic.“)

Because Ton believes that practical application is important as well as content, he ends up rejecting the methods of classical education which he sees as dividing these two enterprises. Modern classical education sees strict stages. Initially children are in the grammar stage and are memorizing but not analyzing. This is a misunderstanding, or at least a reinterpretation, on Sayers’ part of the classical term “grammar.” For Ton, it renders classcial education unacceptable:

“A Reformed philosophy of education insists that memorization, analyzing
and presenting are taught simultaneously, not consecutively. Upholding the
dignity of subject matter and student, this method underscores that knowledge and
skills are to be used, not stored away without comprehension or application.” (p. 76)

He rejects the classical methodology both because it separates memorization from application and because it does not recognize learning differences which he attributes to the unique image of God in each child.

While the first stage of a classical education, the “grammar” stage, according to Sayers and other modern classical educators focuses on memorization, the second stage, which roughly corresponds to middle school, is the logic stage. In it the focus is on argument because, they would say, children are naturally argumentative at this age. I agree with Ton here that it is wrong and unbiblical to attribute one particular, sinful characteristic to all children of this age and only to children of this age.

The third stage, the rhetoric stage, which corresponds to high school, Ton also criticizes. At this age students are said to focus on appearance and peer interactions. Ton argues that the training of the rhetoric stage will not combat these desires.

Ton spends most of his critique arguing against the broad outlines of classical education as delineated by Sayers. At the end of his analysis he briefly addresses Wilson’s arguments. Wilson uses some Bible verses to support the classical stages, saying that children get knowledge early on but must develop wisdom. I again agree with Ton that there is little true biblical support for this view and that a much more in-depth analysis of the biblical view of wisdom would be necessary.

When it comes to his analysis of classical education, I agree with a lot of what Ton has to say. I think he does a good job of describing this approach to education and showing why it falls short of the biblical view of wisdom, which is always very practical and applicable, and why it undervalues or misvalues children at the various stages of life. It has been my contention for years that any philosophy of education makes statements about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. Without necessarily using that language, Ton shows how the classical approach falls short on both these counts.

I am less convinced by Ton’s own philosophy of education. He states clearly that there are multiple theories about reformed education and he is up-front about his own position, but he does not defend or argue for his position. I understand that this is a master’s thesis and a more detailed presentation of his own view may have been beyond the scope of the work. I would like to see — from Ton and all the other authors I am reading — a truly biblical argument for why their particular philosophy of education is best.



Living Books on Geology

Dear Reader,

My senior chose geology for her science this year. She had a pretty busy year and she is aiming for an art school so I didn’t feel the need to make her science too tough. You might want to add additional books or some labs or other activities if you are looking for a more robust curriculum. You can find all my lists of living books here and a list of geology books we used at younger ages here.

Living Books on Geology

Secrets from the Rocks by Albert Marrin — Marrin is a favorite author of mine. He writes more often on history but has a few books, like this one, on science. This is a fairly simple book, ceratinly not high school level. It tells the story of one particular man in search of dinosaur bones.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee — This is a thick volume intended for adults and combines a number of works which the author published separately originally (I believe). McPhee is a well-known writer who has written for The New Yorker and other publications.

A Grain of Sand by Gary Greenberg — The story of sand and what we can know from different kinds of sand.

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester — The story of how one man noticed and deciphered layers in the earth and made a map to depict them.

Beneath Our Feet by Ron Vernon — An introduction to some of the basics of geology including basic forces and types of rocks. Includes lovely microscopic photos of rocks. 

The Rock Book by Carol Lane Fenton and Mildred Adams Fenton — A fairly detailed catalog of different kidns of rocks and minerals.

Happy reading!


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Gordon H. Clark

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.

I am endeavoring to look at more of what’s out there by other reformed thinkers on the topic if education. You can find my introduction to this series within a series here. Today’s thinker is Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) who was primarily a philosopher.  His “A Christian Philosophy of Education” was published in 1988 (apparently posthumously) in Trinity Review (this seems to be a shorter article summarizing a longer book originally published in the 1940s). The period from roughly 1965 to 1990 generated a lot of  Christian writing on education, most of which took the form of a call for a more distinctly Christian approach. Most of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern homeschooling movement has its roots in this era.

Clark, like these others, is clearly responding to a crisis he saw in his own day. He cites particularly modern advances — the telephone! and end to typhoid! — which though seemingly good can also be used for evil and do not make people inherently better (and, yes, he does see a downside to the end to typhoid as well; read the article to find out what it is 😉 ). One can only imagine what he would have made of the internet. If there is any specific event which seems to have generated this article it is the prohibition by the courts of prayer in schools, though he is not entirely opposed to such a prohibition, acknowledging that not all prayer is righteous prayer.

Like all those others whose books I have reviewed, Clark sees no compatibility between Christianity and public education. He spends some time on the origins of the public schools and notes that they have never been Christina institutions. Be their very nature, they must be opposed to true Christian doctrine. Though he laments the lack of good Protestant schools, he does not mention homeschooling (perhaps it was not at all on his radar). His call is a fairly general one — for an education based on Christian doctrine (he cites the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically as a proper ground for such education).

In the first half or so of this article, Clark seems to be focused on stemming the evils in society. Discipline in the schools seems to be an especial concern. Interestingly, the view of evil is cited as a key element behind one’s philosophy of education:

“The two philosophies [Christianity and secular humanism] and their educational implications differ on what to do, on what evil is, and on how it originates.” (Kindle loc. 100)

In the latter half of the article, Clark advances a particular theory related to the image of God in man. He argues that the image of God is reason. He sees reason as the thing which separates us from the animals. “Christianity,” he says “is intellectualistic” (Kindle loc. 180). Fellowship with God requires thinking and understanding. Morality as well is impossible without reason. The animals are incapable of sin, or of doing good, because they cannot reason. We could glorify God, he says, without reason, but we could not enjoy Him forever (Kindle loc. 189). The fall did not erase the image of God in man but it did corrupt it. Errors in thinking, even something as basic and concrete as arithmetic mistakes, are a result of the fall. “[S]alvation will improve a man’s thinking in all matters” (Kindle loc. 218). Education, then, is an intellectual endeavor. He rejects hands-on enterprises, carpentry, plumbing, even the making of music and art, as skills, God-given skills perhaps, but skills nonetheless. Education, for Clark, is about the mind because this is the focal point of his view of man. The art critic, for Clark, is higher than the artist because he thinks about art rather than making it.

“The object of education is truth; the transmission of truth to the younger pupils and the discovery of new truth by more advanced students. The aim of education, at least the aim of the purest and best education, is intellectual understanding.” (Kindle loc. 244).

This series exists because, to a large extent, I stand with these (slightly) older authors. Like them, I am issuing a call for a more distinctly Christian approach to education (and in my case, a reformed Christian approach). As a homeschooling mom, I find that their calls often stopped short of where I want to be. They don’t tend to get down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what are my kids going to be doing on Monday morning? I hope that I am advancing more towards this goal.

Clark stands in this body of work. His criticism of the public schools of his day and his call for a Christian education are not new or unique. He does get into some new territory when he discusses his own view of the image of God and its implications for education. There are many ways the image of God has been delineated in Christian thought and I am very hesitant to tie it down to one quality as Clark does. I would agree with him that the fall affected our reason and I like his point that this affects even our most concrete reasoning. Our kids would not make mistakes in math if they weren’t fallen  creatures. His emphasis on the mind, to the detriment of any physically based aptitudes, also makes me uncomfortable. It smacks a bit of a dualistic understanding which separates man’s mind and spirit from his body. I do not believe this is the Christian view of man.

My short take on “A Christian Philosophy of Education” would be that it stands firmly within the Christian writings of the time on education. There is a germ of a new idea here, but it is not one I can wholly subscribe to.


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Introduction

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.

Though I have been blogging for a while on a reformed Christian approach to education and slowly developing my own philosophy of education, I am realizing that there is a body of material I have not interacted with and should.

I have come to this enterprise with my own particular bent, coming from  homeschooling and having used Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. Most of these other authors come from Christian schools often with a classical bent, or at least influenced more by the Christian classical movement. My goal over the next months is to read and distill what they have written.

I have a few convictions that I come into this enterprise with. One, born of my readings in various approaches to homeschooling, is that every philosophy of education says something about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. I believe that the Bible is the “only infallible rule for faith and life.” The wording is from my  denomination’s membership vows and it is important. “Only” here modifies “infallible.” God’s Word is our only infallible rule, but not the only place we may go for guidance. I do not believe the Bible will give us all the answers to all the questions we have. I do not believe, for instance, that it tells us which diet is right. But, given that questions about education are ultimately questions about the nature of man and his purpose, we should expect to get a lot of insight from the Scriptures. Lastly, we need an approach to education which accounts for every child, not just covenant children. I find it quite odd actually that most Christian approaches are just for kids from Christian homes. Anyone who teaches can have non-Christian children under their care. This is certainly true in public schools but also in Christian schools unless they strictly limit enrolment. It can even be true in the home for those who take in foster kids or watch others’ children. There may be differences in how education is applied and received by covenant versus non-covenant children, but our statement of what education is should be applicable to all people.

One of the thinkers I will be looking at is Peter Ton. His master’s thesis, “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?,” following Vriend, lays out a few schools of thought among reformed thinkers on education, he distinguishes three categories: confessionalist, positive Calvinist, and antithetical. Though not everyone need fit into one of these boxes, I think it is helpful to have these categories in mind. They give us some sense of the issues at stake and some way to evaluate where a given thinker falls on the spectrum of belief. Confessionalists, Ton says emphasize content. It is not enough to put a Christian spin on non-Christian facts. We need to teach our own theology and confessions and history. This approach is more in line with classical education which also emphasizes content. Awareness is preferred over action. Little concern is given to learning styles and teaching strategy. The Positive Calvinist is more progressive and emphasizes process over content. The  response to what is learned is important. The goal is not so much to develop students’ minds as to practice stewardship, justice and compassion. Lastly, the Antithetical approach, which Ton himself takes, bridges some of the gaps between the other two. It states that all ages have their problems and there is no golden age to which we look back. It combines the content of confessionalist with the practical application of positive Calvinist. Education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are important. A distinctly Christian curriculum is also important.

Some questions to ask of each thinker, then, include:

  • What does he assume about the nature of man, including his ability to learn and to receive what is good?
  • What does he see as the ultimate purpose of man?
  • What is the purpose of education and how does it serve man’s ultimate purpose? Are they the same or is education a stepping stone?
  • Can these ideas be applied to all children, whether from believing homes or not?
  • Is there more of an emphasis on taking in knowledge or on application and action?
  • Is there a set body of knowledge that one needs to know?
  • How much individualism is allowed for?
  • What does it say about knowledge, especially knowledge that we get from non-Christian sources?
  • Is the method applicable to both home and school environments? Does it prefer one over the other?

Lastly, I will point you to a few writers whose work I have already reviewed:

J.G. Vos What is Christian Education?

Cornelius Van Til Essays on Christian Education

Rousas Rushdoony Philosophy of Christian Curriculum

Christopher Dawson The Crisis in Western Education (a Roman Catholic writer)

Greg Harris The Christian Homeschool

David Smith and Susan Felch Teaching and Christian Imagination

John Milton “Of Education”


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