A Teacher’s Attitude

Dear Reader,

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

Last time we looked at the expectation a teacher should have. Today I’d like to examine a very closely related concept — the attitude of the teacher.  My assumption in all this is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does.

What we are going when we educate is to bring before students the things of God and specifically His General Revelation. Whether the students are able to receive this material depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s eternal purpose (all this is explained in more detail in this post). Last time we said that, as the outcome is ultimately dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, that the expectation of the teacher should always be that God will work in each child to enable them to receive what is good and beautiful and true.

If expectation is about outcomes, attitude is more about our own day-to-day interactions with the student and the material. What we teach children is God’s revealed truth — whether the subject at hand is math or science or history or art or language, it comes from God and we can learn about His actions and character through it (See this post. My intent is to go through these subjects one by one in the upcoming weeks and to show you how each reveals the Creator. So if you are skeptical, stay tuned.).

The problem is that, in the midst of the daily grind, we often forget that the stuff we are presenting  to our students is all part of a bigger picture, a landscape, if you will, of divine thought and action. Teaching (and learning) math facts and spelling rules and Latin declensions is not always fun for teacher or student. Our students are not going to see the big picture and to exult in the glory of God as revealed in calculus or cloud formations if we cannot do so oursleves.

The antedote to the sense of drudgery which threatens us all is to remember our own place in the scheme of things. Education is the sanctification of the mind. That is something which happens in a special and intense way in childhood but it is not exclusive to children (again see this post for an explanation of the theory behind all this). Though as teachers we have some authority over our students, it is the authority of one who is further along in the process, not one who is outside it. If we are stagnating in the sanctification of our own minds, we are not going to be able to long help those who are growing in their own. All Christians, but perhaps especially teachers, need to be actively feeding their minds the good things of God and seeking His truth, goodness and beauty.

The attitude of the teacher then should be this: We need to revel in God’s truth and beauty as it is revealed to us in the subjects we teach.

Now here’s a big caveat: you can’t fake this attitude. If you don’t believe that what you are presenting to your students are the things of God, then you need to find or recover that perspective. Besides prayer, the best thing you can do to inspire your own sense of awe at what God has done is to study His works. The more we learn, the more we will be in awe of what God has done and the closer we will draw to Him. If you are not making progress, find someone who is. There is nothing more inspiring than someone who loves their work.

Last point of the day — if you have the right attitude, if you see God in what you are teaching, then you won’t need to beat your students over the head with how He is revealed in a particular subject. When a scientist truly sees the Creator in his work, this shines thorugh when he talks about his area of study. He doesn’t need to tell you all the time what God  has to do with physics; he can just talk about his work and you see how he delights in it. Not that it is wrong to ever point out the obvious (“see how God put the right king on the throne at the right time”) but we shouldn’t need to constantly state the obvious. If we love the Creator and we see Him in what we study, our own attitude will reveal itself in many subtle ways; we don’t need to draw attention to it and it may be counter-productive to do so.

The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them. Of course, we are all going to have off days (and off years), but this is the ideal — to share something we love, because it is from God, with our students.

Nebby

Comparison of CM Curricula — updated!

Dear Reader,

I just updated my charts comparing Charlotte Mason curricula. Find them all here.

Nebby

Movie Review: Calvinist

Dear Reader,

This is not inherently education related but I am going to try to tie it in 😉  (You can see all the posts in my current series on reformed Christian education here.)

The Calvinist Movie was made fairly recently by a guy names Les Lanphere. It is available on DVD, Blue-Ray or as a digital download from his website here. My short take on this is that it is well worth watching and even buying (price to rent is $5 and $15 to buy). There are really two parts to the movie– the bulk of it is about trends in evangelicalism and how and why Calvinism has become hip and new again. Sandwiched in the middle is about half an hour (of 1.5 hrs total) which explains Calvinism with lots of biblical quotes and (intentionally?) cheesy graphics.

The best part of this movie is the middle bit exlaining what Calvinism is. I could definitely see showing this section to anyone who asks “Reformed? What does that mean?” (which actually happens a fair amount when I say the name of my church). Admittedly they are preaching to the choir with me, but I went away from this section thinking “Why on earth wouldn’t anyone believe this?” They do a very good job of highlighting (literally) biblical verses to support all they say. The one lack, if there is one, is that while they show reformed theology to be biblical, little is said about what comes between the New Testament and the Reformation. I’m sure time was limited and one had to pick and choose but you wouldn’t know from this video that there was any good theology in the early church which the reformers were returning to.

Two-thirds of the movie is about the trend that has been called “Young, restless and reformed.” I think I am old enough that I am not part of this trend though my own journey (from Catholicism to 4 or 5 years as a generic evengelical to reformed faith) is not so different from many in the video. It was interesting to me as the study of a social movement. I don’t think this bit would be for non-Christians. I do plan to show it to my soon-to-be college student because, though he has been raised in the reformed faith, I think it would be good as he goes out in the world to have some sense of where his Christian peers may be coming from.

The Calvinist Movie does a good job of showing where the evengelical movement is lacking and how the continual altar calls with no emphasis on what comes after have left church kids empty and anxious. Though this is not my own experience, the feelings I got from growing up Catholic, with the continual need to repent, were similar. The movie makes the point that we have been depriving our kids by exiling them to children’s church where they are basically entertained. We need to treat them like people and to include them in the worship of the church, a position I fully support (see this post on children in the Bible).

A major theme in the movie is that what we believe matters; we can’t just boil down the gospel to the simplest terms. People (children too) need the meat of theology. This is a point I have been making on this blog for years — ideas  matter. To bring it back to the topic of this series — it is why we need a reformed theology of education. There is one particularly good quote near the end where one of the interviewees (Joel Beeke, I believe) says that theology changes us and flows out and affects our feelings and actions as well.  I completely agree with this. I would extend it and say that, perhaps to a lesser extent, the other, not inherently theological, ideas that we take in do this also. Our ideas shape us.

If there is one flaw in this movie, it is that it doesn’t go far enough. The core beliefs of reformed theology (I have just learned we call now these  “the doctrines of grace”) are clearly presented but beyond that there is no effort to present a biblical ecclesiology or a biblical doctrine of worship. And while I would agree that there is some diminishing importance and that we can’t get hung up debating every point small point of doctrine, some of these other issues are still quite important. I am not going to dwell on worship because though the film shows mostly what I would consider unbiblical worship, I hear that the filmmaker has since come to a more biblical understanding of worhip and that his next project will be on the Regulative Principle of Worship.

In the latter half of the film, Lanphere addresses Mark Driscoll, a popular reformed pastor who suffered a dramatic downfall from his ministry.  He then moves to talking about the various reformed Confessions, the implication being that adhering to Confessions will keep us from getting into situations where we are too dependent on the personality of one charismatic leader. Confessions are good, but I would argue that what we need is a biblical ecclesiology. In the movie’s defense, it uses the word ecclesiology a lot but it fails to take that added step and argue that there is a biblical ecclesiology and that we need to adhere to it (I would argue that what the Bible depicts is essentially a Presbyterian structure — one with a lot of accountability).

I definitely recommend the Calvinist Movie. The bulk of it is best for those who are already Christian and even reformed but the half an hour in the middle (actually about 15 minutes in, I think) is a very good, concise and clear way to present reformed theology to anyojne who shows an interest.

Nebby

A Teacher’s Expectation

Dear Reader,

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

Last time I laid out for you the theory behind my philosophy of education. Today we begin to move into the specifics of how one teaches. I want to start with something  intangible but which is actually fairly foundational to all we do — the expectations and attitude of the teacher.

As we move into the practical details and away from the pure theory, we are moving away from the clear testimony of the Scriptures and into the realm where we are using the sense God gave us and the wisdom He gives us through General Revelation, which includes both scientific research and personal observation. Today’s comments have to do with matters that are not directly addressed in Scripture. We need instead to rely upon our own discernment. As such, we should not hold to them too tightly but should be willing to revise and correct as God gives is greater wisdom.

Having said which, the underlying belief I am working with today is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can to more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. I am basing this largely on my own observation, from seeing the education and discipline of my own children and others. I do not think it is a particularly radical stance to say that a teacher’s mindset affects her students so I hope that you will be willing at least to venture forth with me in what follows . . .

If we will admit that this principle is true and that the teacher’s expectations and attitude affect the student’s learning, we must ask what those expectations and attitude should be.  There are actually two very similar ideas here — that of expectation and that of attitude — so I am going to divide what I have to say into two posts. Today we will focus on the expectation of the teacher.

My thesis for the day is this: A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. Again this is not going to seem to be a radical opinion. I think it is worth spending a moment on, however, because there are going to be many times when it is hard to do just that.

Last time I argued that when we educate we place before children the General Revelation of God. Whether our efforts bear any fruit depends upon the responsiveness of the child which is turn relies upon the work of the Holy Spirit. In the covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith, the intended goal is his sancitfication, specifically the renewal of his mind. For the unbelieving child this presentation of God’s self-revelation in His Creation is a part of the external call of God.  The ideal outcome is that he will recognize and begin to respond to the things of God.

In education we bring before the child what is good, true, and beautiful, and yet the one who is unregenerate is not able to choose or do good. This sounds on the surface like quite a fruitless exercise. It is as if we are giving children food which they do not have the ability to digest. We can pour as much as we like down their throats but they are unable to get the good of it.  And if it were not for the role of God in all this, that would certainly be the case, not just for the unbeliever but for the believer as well. Ultimately, education is the work of the Holy Spirit . As teachers, we need to see ourselves as His instruments and we need to expect that He will work.

There are going to be times when teaching seems to bear no fruit. We should not be surprised when our students’ hearts are hard and they do not take in the food we present. This is the natural human state and a certain amount of futility is to be expected. Even in the believing child, there is still a sin nature which fights the work we are doing. Nonetheless our expectation must always be that God will work. When we present the gospel to someone, we do so in the hope that they will receive it. Though in education our message is more general, we are nonetheless bringing the things of God to our audience. We should do so in the hope that they will respond positively and in the knowlegde that God can enable them to do so.  I would even go beyond this and say that if God has placed an unregenerate child in the care of a reformed Christian teacher like you that He probably has plans for that child’s life and that there is a good chance He will make His words effective unto salvation and save that child.

I only teach my own covenant children in a homeschool setting and I can testify that there are times when it is a discouraging enterprise. If you have a larger class and have unbelieving children in it or perhaps even teach in the public schools in a setting in which you cannot speak as cleraly as you’d like, I imagine the temptation to despair is even greater. But we must, as always, see with the eyes of faith and know that the seeds we sow may be germinating though we see no little shoots sprouting yet. We sow the seed; it is up to God to bring the harvest, but we must always — with prayer — hope that He will bring that harvest.  This is the expectation of the teacher.

Nebby

 

Reformed Christian Education: Drawing Some Conclusions

Dear Reader,

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

I began this series in January by arguing that we need a distinctively reformed Christian approach to education.   It is now July and we have looked at a number of different issues. I would like to try and draw some of these strands together and to propose some conclusions. Thus far most of what I have said has been on a fairly theoretical level — it is about the why of education more than the day-to-day hows. I can’t promise there won’t be more theory in the future but my goal moving forward is to look more at the practical details and to begin to show how we can implement the theory in real life.

Early on, I tried to show that every philosophy of education makes some assumptions, whether acknowledged or not, about who the child is and why we educate. As such education is a very theological enterprise. If our theology is distinctive — and as reformed people we do tend to be pretty picky about theology — we should expect those distinctives to show up in our philosophy of education.

My goal today is not to say something new but to combine everything in one place so we can see how it all fits together. If you want more depth on any point and/or to see where I got these ideas, click on the links provided (or, again, all the posts in this series can be found here). First we will look at  who we are educating by reviewing the nature of the child. Then we we will look at what we are teaching. Finally we will look at what happens when you bring the two together, what is the desired outcome and how does it come about.

The Nature of the Child

Every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the child, his nature and abilities. We looked at the child in both the Old and New Testaments and saw that:

  • Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults.
  • All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others.
  • Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law.
  • Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course).
  • Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities.

Anyone who educates assumes that his pupil is in some way incomplete or imperfect. If he were both perfect and complete, there would be no need for education. The child’s lack of certain abilities, what we might call his immaturity, is generally not in dispute. An infant cannot eat steak or talk or walk or write his ABCs or do calculus. There are both physical and intellectual milestones which he has not acheived and cannot acheive in his current state.

One big question any philosophy of education needs to answer is how the child begins to be able to do these things. Will he pick up reading and calculus as naturally as he does walking and talking? Does he need input from adults to master these skills and if so, how much input?

How we answer these questions about the child’s physical and intellectual development is often tied closely to our view of his moral development. Those who view the child as inherently good tend to want to leave him to his own devices on the intellectual plane as well, trusting that he will aquire what is needful to him. This is the approach known as  unschooling.  Radical Unschoolers do not discipline because they trust the child to grow in correct ways on his own, not just physically and intellectually but morally and emotionally as well.

Most professing Christians would not go quite so far. Though all major branches of Christianity have some understanding of man’s fallen nature, how this is interpreted and what it means varies widely (see this post or this one).  The Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants as well, accept the idea of Original Sin but stop short of the reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) lays out,  we believe that all the parts of human nature as being affected by sin (WCF IV). To the extent that the mind in particular is affected, this is going to alter how we educate and how successful we can be in education.

To sum up, as we look at who we are educating, we need to see that the child is fully human with all the aspects of a person, mind, soul, heart, and body. On the spiritual place, he is called to obey God’s law, but, like his parents, has a sin nature which makes him incapable of doing so. Nonethless, he also, again like his parents, is capable — by God’s grace alone — of true saving faith. His other aspects are not independent of his spiritual nature or of each other. They too have been affected by the Fall. His body, heart, and mind are not just immature due to his age and abilities but are corrupted.

The Fodder of Education

Before going too far, I want to reiterate a point that I made last time: when I speak of education I am defining it fairly narrowly as an intellectual activity. Because we are all made up of parts, the mind cannot be separated entirely from the other aspects of a person. This is easy to see on a practical level: we cannot easily educate a hungry child or one in the midst of emotional truama. So too education is also closely tied to discipline, but it is not discipline (see this post of biblical discipline). Nonetheless, education, as I am definfing it (and this is largely a matter of definition), is an affair of the mind.

If we want our children’s bodies to grow as they ought, we give them good food and exercise. If we want their minds to grow, we must also nourish and work them. Most of us already have some idea of what we want our children to learn — they must read and write and do at least basic math.  They should have some knowledge of history and science and maybe learn a foreign langauge. When we get into the specifics later this year, I will address each of these subjects and talk about why teach them and how. For now I hope that we can at least all see that there is some body of knowledge that comprises education whatever that may be.

All this stuff we teach, the fodder of education if you will, falls under the heading of Natural or General Revelation.  The Scriptures are God’s Supernatural Revelation to us in that they come not through the laws of Creation which God has ordained but directly from God Himself. They are also termed Special Revelation because they give specific knowledge to man about salvation and redemption. In contrast, God’s Natural or General Revelation comes to us through His Creation and teaches us about God in a more broad way.

Too often, I think, we limit General Revelation. We may take a brief walk in the woods and say some things about beauty and order and then we move on. But there is a lot more to General Revelation than we can get from a quick surface observation. The testimony of scientists, both believers and non-believers, is that the more we delve into the universe and look at how it works, the more wonder we find. Nor is General Revelation limited to the physical universe. God also reveals Himself through events  and through people:

“General revelation does not come to man in the form of direct verbal communications. It consists in an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature, in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience or history.” Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1981 (originally published 1933)] pp. 26-27

Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation. For a glimpse into how many of the traditional school subjects reveal the Creator, see this post.

What Happens in Education

Imagine yourself in front of a class of children. Some are from Christian homes. They are what we call covenant children. By God’s gracious decree, we assume them to be part of His covenant people. They are redeemed and, while still sin lives in them, they are capable of choosing and doing good. Others in your class are not from Christian homes. As yet we see no evidence of salvation in them, though of course we hope and pray that they will be saved. These children are not (yet) capable of choosing and doing good. When you teach a lesson to these children, they hear the same words and read the same books, but what is happening in them is fundamentally different because they are fundamentally different.  While there is one thing we do when we educate, there are two fundamentally different purposes, one for the believing covenant child and one for the (as yet) unsaved child.

Thus far we have looked at who the child is and at what we are teaching him. Now it is time to see what happens when we take the fodder of education and present it to our pupil. In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has given is in His General Revelation. How this is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is actually a little easier to discern what is happening with the non-believer. Paul tells us in Romans what the purpose of General Revelation is in the life of the non-believer:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:20-21; ESV)

General Revelation is a revealing of the Creator God. To the extent that men fail to see the Creator behind the creation, it serves to condemn them. Of course, if we are educators, we hope — and pray — that this will not be the case for our students. We desire that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they will recognize their Creator in the things He has made and done.

Perhaps your student has seen a tree (I hope!) but maybe he has never appreciated the intricate process by which sunlight becomes food for the plant and ultimately for us. When we bring these things before our non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity (see this post). [1]

A covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith is in a bit of a different situation (for my previous discussion of this point, incuding a lot more verse references, see this post).  The base condition of man is to be unable to choose or do good. As discussed above, all aspects of his being are affected and are fallen or corrupted.  But once the Holy Spirit has begun to dwell in a person this is no longer the case. We are still pretty sinful people, but we are no longer ruled by our sin natures. We are in the midst of a process called sanctification which will last throughout this life. Sanctification means that we are gradually being made more holy. The image of God in us is being perfected as we are made more like Christ who is Himself the perfect Image of God (Col. 1:15).

As reformed people, we believe that the Fall affected all aspects of our natures. So too sanctification affects all aspects — body, mind, heart and soul (WCF XIII:II). In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. What happens when God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done? They are transformed (cf. Phil. 4:8-9) —

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:1-2; ESV)

This renewal of the mind is one piece of sanctification and should be something we desire and actively seek for ourselves and our children.

We are often tempted to concentarte exclusively on the moral aspect of sanctification. We focus on whether we have sinned today and how much and is it any less than yesterday. Fighting specific sins on our lives is essential, but it is not the whole of sanctification. There is a lot to be said also for immersing ourselves in the world God has made not because it will make us better — though it will – but simply because He has made it. As I argued in this post, the pursuit of knowledge and beauty for their own sakes is valuable because all true knowledge and beauty come from and belong to God. Nonetheless, because all the aspects of our beings work together, we should expect that as we actively participate in the sanctification of our minds by feeding them the things of God that we will become better people as well. As I discussed in this post there is an intimate connection between faith and knowledge.

Conclusion and the Most Important Point

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7; ESV; cf. Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 9:10)

You can’t go far in the book of Proverbs without seeing that faith and knowledge go hand in hand. True knowledge comes from God (James 1:5). When we educate we bring before people — no matter their age — the things of God. We show them what He has made and how it works and what He has done in history and how He has made us. These are things we should all spend more time contemplating.

What happens when we bring these thinsg before a particular pesrons depends not on us but entirely on the eternal plan of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life. Let me say that again because it really is the most important point I can make today: We don’t “teach” anyone anything. We bring to them the things of God and whether they receive those things or not is dependent upon the work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives. If the student before us is not a believer, we hope and pray that they see God in what we show them and that it will be the beginning of faith. If they already have faith, we expect that they will grow in that faith and in their understanding of God as they  contemplate what He has done.

Nebby

[1] A side bar: You may be asking yourself: Why not just present Special Revelation, i.e. the message of the Scriptures, to the unbelieving child? Of course in the end we all need to understand the particulars of the gospel message. If you are teaching unbelieving children in a Christian school or in your home, you should certainly make the Bible part of their shcool day. But you might be teaching in a setting in which you cannot do that (a public or non-Christian school) or it may be that your student is not ready for the meat of the gospel yet. Special Revelation is essential to salvation in a way that General revelation is not, yet General Revelation is one of the ordinary means God uses to prepare hearts for the work of His Spirit.

Defining Education

Dear Reader,

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

I hope soon to give you a post which pulls together all the threads we have been following and begins to truly answer the question “What is reformed Christian education?”  It seems a little late in the game to define education but I am going to do so nonetheless in preparation for that post.

“Education”  is a word which seems to absorb new meanings and ideas. This is in fact due to the nature of education itself. It is very hard to address just one part of a person. Those who seek to educate tend to find themselves dealing with issues which may not strictly fall under that heading, from diet to discipline.

When I speak of what education should be in a  reformed Christian context, I am thinking of education in a very narrow sense — I am talking about what we might term schooling, education as the imparting of intellectual knowledge. So when I begin to lay out for you principles for reformed Christian education, know that these are about our kids’ minds — what we put into them, how it gets there, why we bother doing it at all, and what the end game is.

Having said which, our children are more than mind. They are bodies and souls and hearts as well (Mark 12:30). The Bible never speaks of people as being easily divisible into their parts. We cannot believe one thing and do another or love contrary to our convictions. The person is a whole. This is precisely why education tends to be so expansive. You can’t teach a hungry child. Or one that is emotionally traumatized. Or tired. (Nor, I will argue elsewhere, can you do much for one whose soul is dead in sin.) So our schools start offering free lunches and breakfasts. And then they offer counseling for children and their families and lessons on birth control and other controversial topics because they know that they can’t teach children when the rest of their lives is out of control.

Nor can you teach a child who is misbehaving. Education cannot be separated from discipline. We need some level of obedience before we can teach. Education, ideally, also produces correct behavior. Knowledge in the Bible is practical and leads to changed behavior.

All of which is to say that when I speak of reformed Christina education, I am speaking primarily in a very narrow sense of how we build up our children’s minds while acknowledging that we cannot divide the person into parts and that intellectual progress is linked to their physical and emotional states and that discipline must both come before and follow out of education.

Until next time,

Nebby

Book Review: Train up a Child

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.

In my quest to define what reformed Christian education should be, William Barclay’s Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) has been an absolutely invaluable resource. It provides something I was sorely lacking: historical background. Barclay goes through the educational systems of five different societies in great detail. He is not an unbiased author (who is?) but he clearly has put much effort into his research and quotes primary sources extensively making his book a must-read if this is a topic you, like I, want to tackle seriously (but if you are content to settle for my digested form, read on).

The societies Barclay addresses are: Israelite/Jewish, Sparta, Greek, Roman, and early Christian. For each he begins with broad brushstrokes and theories and then narrows in and discusses specifics of when and how they educated. I am not going to, and could not possibly, recap everything he has to say but I will give you the big bullet points on each so that we can then return to our main topic and discuss how we as reformed Christians should educate and what we can take from each of these traditions.

Israelite and Jewish Education

Barclay lumps Israelite and Jewish education in one chapter and though he makes clear where he is historically as he writes, I think it could be easy for a reader, especially one with less historical knowledge, to miss that this is not all about what God’s people did in Old Testament times. In fact, most of what he has to say is about Jewish education after the time of Christ.

The truth is there is not much in the way of formal education in Old Testament times, i.e. before the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. Barclay’s main flaw is that when he has little to go on, he speculates. With regard to Israelite education, he says:

“Long before there was any formal education lads and young men must have been trained in the simple processes on which food and life depend; and in that training they could not help, perhaps half-unconsciously, perhaps by the process of soaking them in rather than of learning them, acquiring these beliefs in their hearts. For the Jew to work on the land must have been to be educated continuously in the ways of God.” (p. 19)

Note the use of the words “must have been” and “perhaps.” Barclay is assuming here and while his assumptions may be logical, they are nonetheless assumptions. The truth is, we know little about education in the pre-exilic period. (You can read my own post on teaching and education in the Old Testament here.) I agree with him that what happened most likely happened not in formal schools and through ordinary life in the family but the fact is we really don’t have much to go on.

In later Judaism, the synagogue became the center of learning. It was not so much a place of worship as of instruction (p. 24). Schools as such do not seem to have existed until 70 AD or later (p. 32). Because of the importance of the Scripures, literacy was highly valued. Though education was highly valued, it was also limited: it was for boys only (p. 37) and the only textbook was the Scriptures (p. 38). In fact, children were forbidden from studying Greek (which would have been the lingua franca of the day) (p. 38). Teaching was oral and education amounted largely to memorization through repetition (pp. 39-40). Knowledge was intended to be practical in that the Law should not just be known but lived (p. 39, 47). A common definition we have run across is that education enculturates and this was very deliberately true for the Jewish people; they educated to preserve their unique culture and to distinguish themselves from their neighbors (p. 47).

Spartan Education

I am going to breeze over Spartan education fairly quickly. Nobody seems to use Sparta as an example, for good reason. Suffice it to say the Spartan system would make a good basis for a modern dystopian novel for teens. I will make this one point: Ancient Greece was not one unified culture. Those who trumpet “classical” and “Greek” education as the high point of learning would do better to specify “Athenian.”

Athenian Education

Which brings is to our next society: Athens. Here we find what has become the root of “classical” education (I use the quotes because classical can and has been defined in many ways). The Athenian Greeks, through their influence on the Romans (see below), have been perceived as the high point of philosophical thought and of education.

So what was education in ancient Athens really like? Though education was highly valued, it was very much an intellectual enterprise. Education was a head thing and practical skill learning was despised (though exceptions were made in some fields such as medicine and architecture) (pp. 78-83).

The goal of education was to form an ideal person. Valor and wisdom above all were valued (p. 84). This was character education designed to suit the boy to an ideal life which was a life of leisure.

Homer served as a kind of Bible for Greek education. His writings above all were the textbook of education (p. 109). Though this involved a lot of memory work, it was done through games and play and as such was no doubt not unpleasant (pp. 106, 114, 122-23). Poetry was highly valued and was taught before prose (pp. 117-18).

As in Jewish culture, education was a male affair. Though the home was  important in education, most mothers were not equipped to participate in any way. Nor were girls educated (pp. 91, 95, 141).

Because of the emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the despising of practical skills, Athenian education produced an educated but largely useless elite. Barclay goes so far as to call it a system based on slavery (p. 141). “[T]he fault of Greek education,” he says “was that it remembered culture but forgot duty” (p. 142).

Roman Education

Roman education can really be divided into two stages, before and after Greek influence.

In its early days, Roman education was not systematized but centered around the home. It was a kind of populist ground-up affair which embodied peasant values and placed the child and family before all (pp. 144-47). Notably in the ancient world, the mother was involved (p. 150). Education was largely through imitation and perpetuated a way of life built on family values and family gods. This lasted until about 240 BC.

When Rome became an empire, and thereby encountered other cultures, education changed. Schools were introduced. Because the Romans had little culture of their own, they taught Greek culture and like the Athenians, emphasized poetry (pp. 180-81).

But the methods and goals of education were different. Play and games were not the backbone of Roman education. Elementary education, Barclay tells us, was characterized by boredom and fear (p. 166). Severe punishments were used (p. 164). There was a practical turn to Roman education. Mathematics was learned only insofar as it was useful (p. 168). Music too was utilitarian, not aesthetic (p. 188). The goal of Roman education, the ideal product, was to produce a skilled orator (pp. 190-91).

Despite the harsh methods of Imperial Roman education, it is from this period that we get the three-stage approach so characteristic of modern classical education. In Rome, they were defined by the litterator, the grammaticus, and the rhetor (p. 160). The first stage, that of the litterator, was defined by the elements of knowledge, the three R’s taught through “senseless repletion” (p. 160). Most would have only had this first stage of education. Those who did go on would be taught right speaking and poetry by the Grammaticus (pp. 178, 183). [Barclay does not describe the third and final stage, that of the rhetor.]

Early Christian Education

The issue for the early Church was how to respond to all of this, what to accept and what to reject. And, possibly, what to replace it with. As Barclay paints the picture, there were two competing trends in Christianity. On one hand, there was an anti-intellectualism which tended to reject learning because it was so often built on pagan writings (pp. 198-99). On the other hand, many Christian apologists were themselves quite educated and were not opposed to using the pagan philosophers as it suited their purpose (pp. 205, 209-10). They were willing to acknowledge some level of truth in the philosophers and to use what was good while rejecting the bad.

Though Christian parents were held responsible for training their children, the early Church was never in a position to establish schools and did not attempt to do so (p. 238). The result was that children were sent to pagan schools as a necessity (p. 240). The schools themselves, which still based education on Homer and other pagan writings, were often pawns in the various persecutions against Christians. Their attitude essentially boiled down to: use the schools for what they can teach but it is the parent who shapes the child (pp. 258, 261). In other words, the pagan schools were a tool but the real influence was still the Christian parent.

Lastly, I will note that there is some evidence that Christian girls were taught as well (p. 254).

Pulling It All Together

There is a wealth of material in Barclay’s book. My goal in reading it and in presenting it here is to circle back around to the purpose of this whole blog series and to ask what knowledge we can glean that will aid us in constructing a reformed Christina approach to education.

It is hard having read this book not to revisit the topic of Christian classical education (and, frankly, I am not resisting very hard). The picture I have always been given is this: education was at its height in ancient Greece (read: Athens); the Romans took over the Greek approach and then the early Church did as well. This is still the best approach to education and is the ideal for us which we should adopt, albeit perhaps with some Christina tweakings. Barclay shows is that there was not just one model for education in the ancient world and that each approach had its flaws as well as its merits. This is true of the Athenian model as much as, if not more than, many of the others.

The other big point I think we should take from this book is that all our struggles regarding education are not new. The early Church faced many of the same dilemmas. They too were faced with schools that were taught (often) by pagan teachers and used pagan materials. They were not above using these schools but they never ceded all control to them.

I have tried in this series not to wade to far into the public school vs. Christian school vs. homeschool battles.  The one thing I will say clearly is that however we choose to educate our children, we as Christian parents must always view ourselves as ultimately in control of their education and training. Perhaps we, like the early Church, can use the pagan schools (I say perhaps because I do not know if we can and maybe the answer will vary by location) but we must never turn them over to the schools to the point that we abandon our children to them and cede our God-given parental authority to a pagan institution.

I would like to have read in this book that there was some other good model on which we can base education, something we can return to as we seek to rebuild. Sadly, I haven’t found one model that stands out above the others. Little is known of Israelite education and, in truth, there probably was little education. Jewish education was scriptural but did not extend beyond this and gives us no model for how to incorporate other learning, nor, with its emphasis on rote memorization, is it particularly appealing. Sparta is, if anything, a model of how not to do anything. The Athenians valued knowledge in its own right, but too much so — there is no practicality here and the end result is not a functional member of society. They also give the lowest role and place the least importance on the mother. Roman education before the empire actually has quite a bit to recommend it. It is family-based, religious, and practical (albeit based on pagan religion). It does not, however, value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some Christians seem content with such an approach (see this book review); I could not be. Finally, when we look at the early Church we find people who faced much the same problems as we do. Their solution is compromise and perhaps we will end up in much the same place. I do think we have resources they did not, however, and I think we can at least aspire to something more ideal.

Nebby

 

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