A Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

I have been working on this series for almost two years now. In that time, I have read a lot of books and done a lot of posts. As promised, I am now ready to offer some conclusions. Of the making of many books there is no end; neither will this be the end of my study of this topic. My hope is that it is enough of a beginning to aid those of you who seek to educate others, in whatever context.

I am going to offer my modest proposal as a series of bullet points which I hope work together to gradually build up a philosophy of education founded on Reformed Christian principles. As I said, I have been working on this series for two years (and there were years of preliminary study behind that). What follows is a summary of what I have read and gleaned. While there is some logical sequence, the numbers are given mainly to aid in discussion. [Unfortunately, WordPress does not seem to allow me to use a continuing sequence of numbers; if you look at the Google Doc version of this proposal (link below), you will see that it is actually a 100-point plan.] Behind all this is the belief I started with, that any philosophy of education, as it makes assumptions about the nature of man and about his ends, is an inherently theological enterprise (see here, here, and here). 

As much as possible I have given links to the posts in which I originally discussed each concept. If you have any questions or disputes, I encourage you first to click through and read the arguments behind each one. After that, I am happy to discuss so feel free to comment below or to contact me

Proposal for a Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education 

[This proposal can also be viewed as a Google Doc here]

Epistemology: The Source of Knowledge:

  1. The Triune God is the source of all wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty. (John 14:6; Gaebelein on Truth; Bavinck on Art; Frank Gaebelein)
  2. Truth, goodness, and beauty stand apart from man, outside him. 
  3. God has graciously chosen to reveal some measure of His truth, goodness, and beauty to humankind.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. He does so through His two “books” which we call special and general revelation; they are His written Word in the Scriptures and His Creation respectively. (Gaebelein on Truth; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  5. In the pre-Fall world, the two books or revelation would have been equally accessible and operated in perfect unity.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: Man’s Ability to Know:

  1. The Fall has not changed God’s general revelation to us. The knowledge which God gives is still out there, uncorrupted and in theory available to all people, believers and non-believers. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  2. The Fall has corrupted man’s reason by which he accesses and evaluates this knowledge.  In this life at least, man’s reason is imperfect and incomplete. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology)
  3. Reason was never meant to be and cannot be our sole means of knowing.  It is a tool and was not meant to function apart from Revelation. (Crisis in Epistemology; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. Only those who are united to God by faith can rightly know, though their knowledge too is limited and often corrupted by the effects of sin. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology; Frank Gaebelein)
  5. Non-believers suppress the right knowledge of God. Nonetheless, non-believers still have reason, now corrupted, through which they access knowledge. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  6. The unregenerate say many true things and their scholarship and creative arts may be useful to and appreciated by us. (Common Grace, Part 1; Christianity, Science and Truth)
  7. Though at times they may deceive us, our senses are basically reliable. We are able to use them to know about the world around us.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: The Nature of Knowledge:

  1. Knowledge, because it is of God, is good in and of itself. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth)
  2. Knowledge should be a source of delight. (John Edwards, History of Education:1500-1800;  John Milton on Education; The Christian Home-School)
  3. True knowledge is not merely rational but is intimate. (Oppewal on Epistemology; History of Education:1500-1800)
  4. Knowledge is also relational. To know is to have a relationship. (Jaarsma on Uniting the Heart and Mind; Oppewal on Epistemology)
  5. Knowledge, as the Bible uses the term, is never just head-knowledge. It is practical in that it affects one’s behavior and life.  
  6. Godly knowledge — and goodness and beauty — are active, effective, and transformative. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth and On Frameworks and How We Know What’sTrue; Lockerbie on Teachers)

Epistemology: What We Know:

  1. The Creation reflects the character of its Creator. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty)
  2. There is no field — from history and anthropology to chemistry and mathematics  — which falls outside of God’s dominion. The laws and forces behind each have been created and are sustained by Him. (Frank Gaebelein)
  3. Each area of study has the potential to tell us something about God.  (Frank Gaebelein; In Defense of Truth and Beauty; A Broad Education; Fine Arts; Bavinck on Art)
  4. This limit will come earlier in some fields than in others. The more subjective a field, the more it deals with God and man directly, the more quickly it will go astray. (Frank Gaebelein)

On God’s Providential Workings:

  1. God is the Giver of all knowledge and wisdom.
  2. God rules over all, but He does not rule over the elect and the nonelect in the same way.
  3. For the elect, the knowledge God gives is part of their sanctification and is ultimately for their good that they may be reunited with Him.
  4. For the unregenerate, God, by the common workings of his Holy Spirit, still gives knowledge, but this knowledge because it does not cause them to glorify God or to respond in humility and obedience, ultimately serves to condemn them all the more. (Common Grace, part 1)

The Nature of Man, and of the Child:

  1. 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. (Children in the Bible)
  2. 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. (Deut. 6:5; Mk. 12:30; Hearts and Minds; The Tech-Wise Family)
  3. All aspects of our nature were corrupted in the Fall (WCF IV:II) and are in need of redemption and transformation (WCF XIII:II). 
  4. Our minds and hearts are thus corrupted and in need of redemption. It is God who is able to restore the heart/mind. (Education and the Covenant Child)
  5.  Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law. (Children in the Bible)
  6. Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course). (Children in the Bible)
  7. Because knowledge is intimate and relational (see #s 15 & 16 above), even the youngest children are capable of knowing. (History of Education:1500-1800; Babies Can Think)
  8. 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. (Children in the Bible)

On the Nature of Education [1]:

  1. Education acts on the mind and heart. We must always be aware, however, that the mind/heart does not operate in isolation from the other parts of the person.  (Hearts and Minds; Defining Education; Education and the Covenant Child;
  2.  God’s General Revelation is the fodder of education.  In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has revealed. (Common Grace, Part 2) [2]
  3. God Himself is the ultimate Educator of all men. This is true of all areas of knowledge. Whether practical skills, creative arts, intellectual knowledge, or spiritual wisdom, God is the source. (History of Education: Church Fathers; also Teaching in the Old Testament) [3]
  4. Because education is ultimately a work of God, we cannot force children to learn. How knowledge is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit. (Teaching in the New Testament)

On the Purpose of Education: the Big Picture:

  1. Education will work differently in the life of the believer and the non-believer. (cf. #26 above)
  2. In the life of an unregenerate person, the effect is that of a Call. Either the person will, by grace, respond in faith, or, if he does not, the effect will ultimately be for his condemnation. When we educate 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. (Common Grace, Part 1 and Part 2; Van Til on Education)
  3.  In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. When God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done, they are transformed. This transformation is an element of what we call sanctification.  (Education and Sanctification; Education and the Covenant Child; Lockerbie; also CM and the Puritans on Education)
  4. In so far as it transforms the minds and hearts of God’s people, election builds up the Church and glorifies God.  (Education and the Covenant Child; see also History of Jewish Education)

On the Purpose of Education: Human Perspective: [4]

  1. Education is part of God’s ordinary means. This is particularly true in the lives of covenant children for whom education is a means God uses to fulfill their baptismal promises. (Louis Berkhof)
  2. The purpose of education is to be found in the purpose of man’s life. To the extent that man’s purpose is to “know God and enjoy Him forever,” this also is the purpose of education.  (Henry Zylstra; Nicholas Beversluis)
  3. Education is a part of God’s grand plan, the end of which is His own glory. It brings His general revelation to men.  (JG Vos on Education; The Purpose of Education, Part 1; Common Grace, part 2)
  4. While there are certainly larger and more societal aspects to education, the primary goal on a day-to-day basis should be for the individual. (The Purpose of Education, Part 2)
  5. While education can serve both long- and short-term goals, because they are more likely to be lost in the business of life, we should keep the long-term goals always before us. (The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  6. In the lives of the elect, the primary goal of education is the long-term transformation of the individual more and more into the image of Christ. It is then a part of the process we call sanctification. (cf. #41 above)
  7. To be transformed is to become more and more “whole-hearted.” The effect of sin is to divide us, to make us double-minded beings. Our hearts and minds are transformed when the effect of sin in them grows less and they more and more are united to a single purpose which aligns with the will of God. (Henry Schultze on the Integrated Personality; Lockerbie on Christian Paideia)
  8. Education thus serves to undo the effects of the Fall. (John Milton on Education; JG Vos on Education; Goals and Purposes)
  9. There will be secondary goals which are achieved along the way as well: a man will be prepared for the work God calls him to; the Church will be built; God’s kingdom in this world will be furthered. These are not secondary goals because they are unimportant but because if we, in our fallenness, make them primary goals of education, we tend to go astray. In God’s providence all things work together for His purposes which are many-layered. We are not God and so when we take the focus off of the sanctification of each individual we tend to go astray. 
  10. While there are certainly good, practical outcomes to education, we must guard against a degeneration into utilitarianism. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth; Mathematics)

Practical Aspects: The Student:

  1. Because children are sinners and because of the ignorance of their youth, they are in need of training. There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. Our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We cannot, as the Unschooling movement does [5], trust children to their own devices. (Children in the Bible; Core Knowledge)
  2. Learning continues throughout life . . .  (Teaching in the Old Testament; The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  3.  . . . But children are particularly in need of instruction.  (Children in the Bible)
  4. Children all complete persons with the same spiritual capacity as adults. Therefore we must not hinder them or deprive them of the things of God.  (Children in the Bible; see also Babies Can Think)
  5. Education is for all people, male and female, those whom society deems exceptional or average or backward. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)

Practical Aspects: The Role of the Teacher:

  1. The attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. He should expect that God will work in the lives and hearts and minds of his students, whether they are regenerate or not. (A Teacher’s Expectation)
  2. 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. (A Teacher’s Attitude; Frank Gaebelein)

Practical Aspects: The Framework:

  1. Proper understanding, in any area, is not possible without a godly framework. (History of Education: Church Fathers; Framework) [6]
  2. The most important thing we can convey to our students is a proper framework in which to understand all that they learn. Other words which might be used to describe this are mindset or worldview. ( Framework; Zylstra on Frameworks)
  3. Our conceptual framework must be biblical.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  4. Not all non-biblical frameworks are equally wrong. (Synopses of Short Articles)
  5. Even many “Christian” worldviews are either insufficient or unacceptable. We need a distinctly reformed view. (Van Til on Education)
  6. We must be careful that we are not too narrow in our worldview. What we are seeking is something broad and all-encompassing, not a narrow worldview which boils down all of God’s Truth to a few propositions.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Practical Aspects: What We Learn:

  1. All subjects are the fodder of education and all are under the sovereignty of God. There is no “sacred” and “secular.” (Calvinist Beliefs and Education; CM and the Puritans on Education)
  2. Children should be given a broad education, covering a wide range of subjects. (A Broad EducationCore Knowledge; CM and the Puritans on Education; History of Reformed Education)
  3. It is reasonable and logical to require children to learn certain basic skills. (Core Knowledge)
  4. But we should not deprive young children of real, meaty learning by withholding bigger ideas until later years. Even young children should be put in touch with the things of God. (Core Knowledge)

Practical Aspects: What We Teach & Materials:

  1. There is no culture [7] that has a monopoly on truth or culture. All are fallen. While they may make some contributions, they will also contain error. All should be approached with discernment, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. (Hebraic vs. Hellenistic Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of Western Education; Van Til on Education)
  2. Christians are not called to and should not withdraw from the culture. (Synopses of Short Articles; Frank Gaebelein)
  3. We can and should use non-Christian books and resources . . .  (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Love of Literature)
  4. But we should also expect more truth to come to us through Christian sources. (Christianity, Science and Truth)
  5. We must not rob children of the inherent delight and interest they should have in the things of God by making education boring . . . (The Christian Home-School)
  6.  . . . But neither should we try to dress up the things of God to make entertainment for children. (Interesting but not Entertaining)
  7. Language is inherent to how humans communicate and therefore learn. Narrative is a powerful medium and is a primary means used by God Himself to communicate with His people (Language; Literature; The Power of Narrative)
  8. Words, and particularly books, should be the backbone of our approach to education. (Living Books and the Living Word; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks)
  9. Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. (Two Views of the Teacher; See Pick Your Teachers Well for tips on how to do so)
  10. So too we must pick our books well. Our goal should be to use “living books.” Living books are written by people who love their subject matter and know it well.  (See Living Books and the Living Word for more criteria for discerning living books; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks; Literature)
  11. Because one is unlikely to succeed when he expects to fail, we should use discernment in how we set the bar for children. On one hand, we should not provoke them to despair with things that are too far beyond them or which generate repeated failure. On the other hand, education is work and it is through our trials that character is built. The best image I can think of is one of stretching, providing work which does not break but constantly requires more of the child. (The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard; Frank Gaebelein; The Tech-Wise Family)
  12. Because man is both spirit and body, education should also involve the physical. This “hands-on” side of education should not involve merely physical action but should seek to employ the body in ways which also engage the mind. The ideal is not what we today call “physical education” but a kind of hands-on, technical, educated craftsmanship.   (Whitehead Follow-Up)

Practical Aspects: Learning Outcomes & Testing:

  1. The Fall has corrupted man’s relationship with work. Education, as the work of the child, will at times be frustrating and fruitless. Nonetheless, we are called to persevere and, by God’s grace, we are also able to see fruit and to rejoice in the work we are given. (Whitehead Follow-Up)
  2. Each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.  (Core Knowledge)
  3. In evaluating children and measuring what they have learned, we should be wary of provoking them unnecessarily with tedious exercises which are for our benefit, not theirs. (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating Students)
  4. Because each child is a unique individual and because education is ultimately the work of God in his life, even when presented with the same materials, we should not expect every child to glean the same knowledge.  (Synthesizing Ideas; see also The History of Worksheets)
  5. Narration — telling back in one’s own words — is highly recommended as a way for children to synthesize and reproduce what they have learned. This is because it: a) allows each child to express what they have learned rather than being required to reproduce a set body of facts determined by the teacher; b) makes use of a capacity (retelling what they have learned or done) which is inherent to children; and c) reflects the biblical practice of retelling events as a way of both teaching the next generation and of expressing thanks.  (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating StudentsThe Tech-Wise Family)
  6. There are subjects and times when more standardized forms of evaluation and reproduction are warranted. Narration must not become an excuse for complete subjectivity.  (Synthesizing Ideas)
  7. We must be careful in teaching that out methods do not tend to substitute lesser, immediate goals (the obtaining of small prizes, pleasing one’s teacher) for the larger, more primary goal of building the child’s character and furthering his desire for knowledge, which is of God. (Motivating Students)

Practical Aspects: On Schooling:

  1. There are three God-given institutions: the Church, the Government, and the Family. (History of Education: Biblical Times; Church, State . . . and School?)
  2. The school is not a God-given institution. (Church, State . . . and School?; Lockerbie on Schools)
  3. Parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children. (Church, State, and School)
  4. It is not wrong for parents to use other resources in educating their children, but they cannot cede their God-given authority in this area.  (Church, State, and School)
  5. The Church should support and encourage parents in educating their children. (History of Reformed Education)
  6. Parents who do not feel able to educate their children should seek to “qualify themselves to the task” as best they can (Erasmus, History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)
  7. If parents use other teachers or outsource aspects of their child’s education, they should remain intimately involved in their children’s education. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation) [8]
  8. In the ideal society, the State supports the work of the Church. Modern American society is not ideal.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  9. The basis of thought in the public schools is not and cannot be neutral. Neutrality does not exist. (History of Education: the 1800s)
  10. State-supported education will have state-ordained goals. (The Crisis of Western Education)
  11. It is impossible to confine public education to academic spheres. Education is inherently intrusive and naturally draws in other parts of the person and other aspects of life.  (Public Education in America)
  12. Modern American public schools are based on ideas which arise out of an ungodly, evolutionary mindset. (John Dewey, Evolution and Socialization; Evolution is a Mindset; Education and the Source of Evil)
  13. Education in our public schools today has a fragmentary effect — it fragments knowledge into discrete subjects and it fragments people from each other and from other communities. (Public Education in America)
  14. Every school, every curriculum, every approach to education rests on certain underlying philosophical and/or theological principles. Each one makes assumptions about man and his nature. Parents should therefore be discerning, whatever method they choose. (Implementing a Christian Education)
  15. We live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect people. There is not going to be any perfect education choice; each will have pros and cons. Whatever choice they make for their children, parents should stay involved and make the best of the situation they have. (The Christian Home-School; see Implementing a Christian Education for ideas on how to do so)

[1] Many of the points in this section were given previously in this earlier post.

[2]  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.

[3] Augustine called Christ the magister interior, the inward teacher.

[4] This post on goal and purposes also explains the points in this section. 

[5] For some background on Unschooling, see this post and this one.

[6] Augustine said credo ut intelligum, “I believe in order that I may understand,” which is to say that true understanding is only possible through faith. 

[7] The only possible exception would be Old Testament Israel, though in practice more often than not they did not follow the rules and customs God gave them. 

[8]  Erasmus says they should visit the schoolroom often.

— Nebby

 

 

 

The Socialization Question

Dear Reader,

Since reading The Hurried Child by David Elkind (my review here), I have been thinking more about socialization. If you have even considered homeschooling, you have probably had this word thrown at you. The first thing I always recommend when someone asks the dreaded question “What about socialization?” is to ask them what they mean by that term.

Socialization means different things to different people. I’d like to suggest that there are three main categories. Socialization can mean simply social time, i.e. time spent with peers. It can refer to specific habits and practices which people are expected to learn and use. I am thinking here of things like standing in line, saying please and thank you, and more subtle social skills like how to participate in a group discussion. Lastly, socialization can refer to one’s ability to be relational — to form,  build, and negotiate relationships. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

For some socialization just means time to socialize. It is spending time with peers. It is hard to deny that most school kids get way more time with their peers, but I would like to suggest that when discussing what is best for a given child that we consider the following:

  • Quantity is not the same as quality. Many school kids have to be told not to socialize in the middle of class. Homeschooled kids may have less overall time (probably do) but their interactions tend to come in contexts in which they are allowed and even expected to chat and play.
  • The need for social time varies, both among individuals and over one’s lifetime. My own very unscientific observation is that little kids really don’t need much social time with people other than family. The drive for social time at this age often comes from the parent’s need and expectations, not the child’s. Middle age kids (maybe 7-11) seem to need a bit more and teens are even more peer-focused. But there are also individual variations. I have one child who just sick of being around people very quickly. (She is quite happy in quarantine right now.) Again, parents need to distinguish between their own needs and that of their child. If your child is happy, you don’t necessarily need to push for more (though there may be separate issues when there are developmental concerns). In a family, even with just one parent and one child, there may also need to be some compromise here. Until you can leave a child home alone (or let them drive to a friend’s house alone), the more social may need to do with a bit less and the less social to get out a bit more than they like.
  • How much social time happens naturally as a part of your family life? If you have 9 kids, odds are your 8-year-old already has someone to play with. If you have an only child, you may need to make more effort to find him playmates once in a while.
  • We don’t always want what is good for us. Another very unscientific observation: the teens who seem to crave a lot of time with peers are also those who are most insecure and most easily influenced and led. Of course, in these days of social media, homeschooled kids are not protected from this kind of social mania just because they stay within their own four walls.
  • Which leads us to — not all social time is good social time. Peer pressure is a thing. The time your child spends with other kids may either a) make him unhappy or b) make him happy but teach him things you don’t want him to learn.
  • Peer social time is not the only option. Peers are good. I am not suggesting we isolate our children from other kids their age, but homeschoolers are more likely to get social time with people not born within 12 months of them.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of a little loneliness and boredom. Being forced to be on our own sometimes helps us become who we are (and perhaps a little less of just who we want our peers to think we are).

The second kind of socialization is the learning of skills. What the important skills are could be a big discussion  but here again are some points to consider:

  • Some skills can be learned, and perhaps learned better, in real world contexts. Homeschooled kids below a certain age have to go places with their parents. Places like the grocery store and the bank. Here they will learn valuable real-life skills like waiting in line. And they will do so in real world contexts.
  • Not all school kids are well-socialized. I have watched the socialized school kids in tennis camp with my kids. They are awful at waiting in line. Just sayin’.
  • Some skills are harder to learn at home. In this category I would put things like participating in group discussions. This doesn’t need to be a deal breaker, however. Being aware of the gaps, of what your homeschooled kid might be missing out on, lets you know what you might need to seek out or work on.
  • Some skills are better not learned. Oddly one of the big ones you hear is “how will your kids learn to deal with bullies if they don’t go to school?” Personally, I would rather my kid not have to deal with a bully. Not that there aren’t bullies in the adult world but knowing what is normal and acceptable behavior is hugely important. Thinking that bullying is normal and regular is not good IMO. My oldest said one of the hardest things when he went to college was dealing with all the drama his peers were wrapped up in all the time. It was new to him. But I would rather he is able to see the drama for what it is and know that human relationships don’t have to be that way.
  • On a related note, there are good skills and bad skills one can learn. Both are available on the playground.

Lastly, we come to what is probably the most important kind of socialization: Being able to build and maintain relationships. Here I would refer you again to Elkind’s The Hurried Child. He lays out his theory of how parents socialize their children which boils down to: we relate to one another through social contracts. The parent-child one is multifaceted and subtle. It is about freedom and responsibility but also about trust and loyalty. Elkind argues that this primary relationship is unequal and that kids need peer relationships too because they are equal and require a different kind of negotiation. I think he goes a little far on this point but essentially what he says makes sense. But it also means that it is in these close, long-term relationships that we really build relationship skills. My dad was a grouch at home but he was always very friendly and chatty with grocery store check-out ladies. My mom said it was because there was no depth there. You chat for two minutes once a week and nothing more is asked of you. It is the long-term relationships in our lives that challenge and stretch us. Elkind implies that a young child going from home to school to daycare is hurried and suffers for it emotionally. He has too many relationships to juggle and they don’t come with the loyalty and trust that the parent-child relationship does. I would argue that the homeschool environment is much better for being able to build these long-term relationship skills that are really the most essential type of socialization. The relationships a child has may be fewer but they have depth.

So the next time your mother-in-law says the S-word to you, ask her what kind of socialization she means and hopefully you will have some arguments to show her that homeschooled children are not inherently disadvantaged in this area.

Nebby

Psalm 126: Captivity and Restoration

Dear Reader,

Background:

God’s Word is living and it is deep. We can come to it again and again and find new meaning. I do not claim that my way of approaching the Psalms is the only way or the best way. My aim is merely to give a perspective that I think is often missing when we read the Psalms in translation. My contention throughout this series has been that the form of the Psalms conveys meaning. Though our English translations often obscure this deeper level of meaning and beauty, we do not all need to learn Hebrew to begin to see and appreciate the Psalms on a deeper level. What we need are, first, good translations that take into account the structure of the Hebrew and its word choice, and, second, a few detection skills which can easily be learned. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here.

Some times a Psalm is so familiar that it is hard to translate. I can’t read Psalm 126 without hearing the metrical version in my head. It doesn’t help that this Psalm has at least one big issue which needs to be decided from the outset. More on that in a moment. For now, read through the Psalm. Print it out and get out those colored pencils and see what you can notice about it. Look for parallel structures, repeated words, and major divisions within the Psalm. Think about the context a little too. What kind of situation do you think the psalmist was in as he wrote this? When in Israel’s history might it be set?

Translation of Psalm 126  [1]

A Song of Ascents 

  1. When the LORD restores the captive-band [1] of Zion —
  2. We were like dreamers — 
  3. Then will be filled with laughter       our face 
  4. And                       our tongue [with] a shout. 
  5. Then they will say among the nations: 
  6. “Great things the LORD did for these.”
  7. Great things the LORD did for us;
  8. We were rejoicing. 
  9. Restore, LORD, our captive-band
  10. Like streams in the desert.
  11. Those who sow     with tears
  12. With a shout          will reap.
  13. He indeed [2] goes weeping,             bearing a trail of seed;
  14. He will indeed come with a shout, bearing his sheaves. 

Notes:

Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. 

[1] The word for “captive-band” is slightly problematic. If it is not from the same root as “restore,” they do at least sound as if they are. It seems to be a collective noun thus my choice of “captive-band.”

[2] The construction in lines 13 and 14 is idiomatic. In Hebrew it reads something like “going he goes” and “coming he comes.”

Verb Tenses Make Me Tense

The big issue in Psalm 126 has to do with the verb tenses. Hebrew is a little fuzzy in tenses (from our perspective as English speakers). First off, there are really only two finite verb forms, one which roughly corresponds to the past and one to the future. Though it would be better to think of them as completed and non-completed actions. There is none of this “would have been” business and other such complexities. That’s the simple version of the story. To make it more complex, I could add that sometimes one verb form looks like the other and vice-versa.

It is clear in verse 4 (line 9 in my translation above) that the psalmist is asking for the Lord’s deliverance. The verb here is an imperative –“Restore!” — and in what follows we see his hope for the future. The problem is with the first half of the Psalm — is it a recounting of a past deliverance or a request for deliverance? The Hebrew actually has a mix of verb forms so that neither answer is completely satisfying. The first verb, “restores” in line 1, is not a finite verb. In Hebrew it would literally be “In the Lord’s restoring of the captive-band of Zion.” “We were like dreamers” and “we were rejoicing” in liens 2 and 8 respectively are past tense verbs. And I should add that Hebrew doesn’t often need or use “to be” verbs so perhaps it is significant that we see them here. But in lines 3 and 5 we have the future form  — will be filled, will shout. [2]

I went back and forth and back and forth on how to translate these verbs. How we take them depends on the context in which we think the Psalm is set. Are these completed past events or is the psalmist looking to a future deliverance? In the end, for the purposes of translation, I decided to leave the Psalm ambiguous as it is in the original.

However, taking the easy way out on the translation does not mean that we can leave the issue there. We still need to decide how to understand Psalm 126. Lines 9 through 14 are about the future. If we take the first half of the Psalm as being about a past event, then this Psalm is speaking fo two separate acts of deliverance, one completed and one looked for. If we take the first half as future, then there is one act under consideration and only one time frame to identify.

The biggest captivity in Israelite history is the Babylonian captivity which began around 586 BC. If there is one event being considered in this Psalm, then that is the natural one to look to and we would have to say that the psalmist is still in the midst of that period. Deliverance has not yet come. If, on the other hand, there are two captivities and two deliverances being contemplated, then either the psalmist is in the midst of the Babylonian captivity and is looking back to past deliverance as a source of hope for the future or he is living after the Babylonian captivity and the return from exile and is looking back on them as a source of hope as he looks for release from another kind of captivity, perhaps an eschatological one.

To sum up thus far:

Option 1:                                                                    Option 2:

Lines 1-8 are past tense                                             Lines 1-8 are future tense

Two captivities ate being considered                                   One Captivity is being considered

May be set during the Babylonian captivity                                             Most likely set during

OR may look back to the Babylonian captivity            the Babylonian captivity (586-530 BC)

Analysis

We’ll circle back around the to issue of the tenses and setting of the Psalm. Now let’s look at some of the other structural elements of Psalm 126. Here is how I marked up this Psalm:

IMG_2958

As we noted earlier, the imperative in line 9 — “restore!” — marks the beginning of a new section. Each half of the Psalm begins with the combination of related words, “restore” and “captive-band” (lines 1 & 9). Within the first section lines 2 and 8, both of which have “we were . . . “, form a kind of bookends. In the middle, lines 3 through 5 hang together and introduce lines 6 and 7 which also hang together. Notice the chiasm in lines 3 and 4. “Laughter” parallels “shout” and “face” parallels “tongue,” but the order is reversed so that when we draw lines between the parallel elements, we make an X (the Greek letter chi hence the name of this feature). Lines 3 and 5 are also connected by their first word: “then.” Lines 6 and 7 are nearly identical. In 6, it is the peoples speaking and in line 7 the sentiment is repeated by God’s people.

The second half of the Psalm, lines 9 through 14, contains 2 images. In line 10, the picture is of the dry river beds of Palestine. These dry beds, or wadis, are empty most of the year, but when the rains come they are all of a sudden full of the life-giving water that the land and people so desperately need. Lines 11 through 14 have one image, that of the farmer sowing his seed. He weeps to scatter the precious seed but will rejoice at harvest time. Though I have not divided it up this way, because line 10 contains a different image and is not directly connected to what follows, it is probably better to think of it with line 9, as one thought which introduces the second half of the Psalm.

Other than “LORD” which occurs four times in this Psalm, there is one word which is repeated in both halves of the Psalm. Did you notice what it is? It is “shout” in lines 4, 12, and 14.  The shout in this case is a good thing — it is the exultant cry of victory which comes when the people return from captivity (line 4) and when the farmer celebrates his harvest (lines 12 and 14).

Conclusions

The big question for Psalm 126 is the setting. When is the psalmist living and what is the restoration that he looks for? In the first half of the Psalm, lines 1 through 8, we get a few clues which point is to a historical setting. There is the mention of Zion (line 1) which ties us specifically to the nation of Israel. And there are the nations in line 5 who witness the restoration and see the doings of the Lord (line 6).

In the second half of the Psalm, there is surprisingly little that points to a specific historical crisis. The talk is of fairly ordinary events — the yearly rains and the agricultural cycle of sowing and reaping. Now I don’t want to diminish the importance  of these things and the anxiety they produce for an agricultural society dependent on the yearly harvest, but there is no big, unique situation that is called to mind.

Psalm 126, in the Hebrew and in my translation, has some ambiguity as to the verb tenses and the time frames. My suggestion is that the psalmist is looking back on a specific historical act of deliverance in which the Lord saved His people, most likely the Babylonian captivity, and that he is using this as an inspiration and source of hope for God’s continued provision and deliverance, even in relatively ordinary times. If there is one emotion or theme which dominates Psalm 126 I think it is found in that exultant cry which is repeated in both halves of the Psalm. Though it looks back to some very hard times, this is not a sad Psalm. It is a cry of victory because the Lord has granted, and will again grant, deliverance.

Nebby

[1] You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here. If you use it outside your home, please give me credit.

[2] If you are interested in exploring this issue further, here is a small selection of online articles I found on the verb tenses in Psalm 126:

Howell, James. “Commentary on Psalm 126,” from Working Preacher.org.

“Psalm 126: We Were Like Dreamers,” from Rav Kook Torah 

Samet, Rav Elchanan. “Shiur 36: When the Lord Brought Back the Return of Zion: Psalm 126,” from Etzion.org.

 

 

 

 

The Hurried Child: How Socialization Happens

Dear Reader,

If you are a homeschooler, you are probably sick of the “S” word  (if you are not, that word is “socialization”). Often used as a weapon by mothers-in-law and doubting friends, it is a slippery little word with so many possible meanings that it becomes hard to defend oneself against the “they won’t be socialized” accusation.

But it turns out there are actual scholarly definitions of socialization and theories about how it happens, or fails to. I recently picked up an older book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, Ph.D (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007; 3rd edition). Elkind is a professor of child psychology who originally wrote this volume in the 1980s to argue that America’s children were being hurried into growing up too fast to their detriment. Even the revised revised volume I have is somewhat dated, but there is still some meat here which is worth considering.

Elkind does not start from the same place I would. There is no evidence he is a Christian; his view of human nature seems to be entirely physical, ignoring any spiritual element. He relies heavily on thinkers that I would consider suspect: Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget among them. And his idea of the child vis-a-vis the adult is not mine.

Yet a lot of the scholarship here supports and adds to some of the ideas about education which we have been discussing. A small example: I have argued, along with Charlotte Mason and others, for a broad education that does not allow the child to specialize too early. Elkind provides arguments from his clinical experience to back this up:

“Premature structuring is most often seen in children who have been trained from an early age in one or another sport or performing art. What often happens is that the child becomes so specialized so early that other parts of his personality are somewhat undeveloped.” (pp. 198-99)

Some other ideas Elkind presents with which I would agree:

  • Multi-age groupings of children are beneficial (p. 69).
  • Standardization in education is detrimental (p. 50).
  • Sex ed in the classroom does not work (p. 65).
  • Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.]

There were also a number of ideas I got from this book which I had not considered previosuly but which make a lot of sense:

  •  The motivation for learning to read is primarily social (p. 38).
  • A certain amount of repression is a good thing. Kids need to learn the rules, for instance the rule of romantic relationships, before they learn to break them. Thus movies and the like with adult themes do damage to kids. They see the breaking before they learn the rules (pp. 95f).
  • Grammar and algebra are best taught after age 11 or so. Both these subjects require is to think about thinking. Until that time kids are not ready to learn them (pp. 132f). [I need to think more about this one; I have generally resisted delineating stages in education.]

The biggest topic which made me think here is the one that seems to be uniquely Elkind’s theory. It is about how kids are socialized. He does not offer one clear definition but Elkind’s working definition of socialization seems to be that it is how children learn to live within a society (p.142).  Much to my pleasure, he places the primary locus of this teaching squarely within the family. After reviewing a few models of how socilization happens, Elkind presents his own which incorporates the others but is broader. His theory is that parents and children interact through a multi-faceted social contract. This contract has three axes which might be called the achievement-support axis, the responsibility-freedom axis, and the loyalty-commitment axis. Over time on each of these there will be change and renegotiation. Parents initially control the whole contract and set it terms but over time children are given more say in the contract (p. 147). When parents break the contract, or ar perceived to do so, children have problems. It is important to note as well that the elements of this contract are often implicit; they are not laid out or communicated verbally but are nonetheless understood on a number of levels (p. 155).

The responsibility-freedom axis is perhaps the easier to understand. The child is given more freedom over time in proportion to the responsibility he is able to take. This axis of the contract in particular prepares the child to be a responsible member of society. He learns that there is a trade-off between freedom and responsibility (p. 148).

I am a little looser on my understanding of the acheivement-support axis (pp. 149ff). Elkind argues that parents need to give their children support for their achievements (such as going to recitals and sporting events)  while also acknowledging that the child should not be made to feel that his success is for the parent’s gratification — which is all well and good. It does not seem to be as much of a trade-off, however, as the child’s achievement is not for the parent’s benefit and is certainly not something he owes the parent.

The loyalty-commitment axis is particularly interesting.  It says that parents expect a certain amount of loyalty and give their commitment (pp. 152ff). I think Christian parenting books especially are prone to identifying the responsibility-freedom axis accurately but to omitting the other axes. I haven’t thought of all the implications of this yet but I wonder if and how our strategies would change if we took this definition of social contracting between parent and child and applied it in a Christian context.

For Elkind the contract between parent and child is the primary means of socialization but it is not by itself sufficient. The parent-child relationship is a hierarchical one. The child also needs relationships with peers, those on his own level, with whom he has more equal contracts which also require much more negotiation (p. 155). And as he grows, he will also likely be the parent to a child. Elkind argues that he cannot learn the parent side of a contract directly from his parent (p. 155).

Overall I think there is a lot in this theory that fits well with Christian theology, and particularly with reformed covenant theology. Covenant theology says that God relates to us through a covenant which is essentially a contract. That we would also relate to our children in this way makes sense to me. For Elkind the parent-child contract does not actually teach the child how to be the dominant party in an unequal contract. I would argue that our contracts are actually mutli-tiered. We parents do our parenting as agents of God. We do so by divine, delegated authority. Thus even as we are authorities to our children, we are under authority to our God. Our children learn from us both how to be in authority and how to be under authority (if we are doing it well).

Elkind does not draw the lines he might between this theory of social contracts and our educational system He does at times say that requiring young children to move from daycare to school and back to daycare hurries them by forcing them to make more transitions than they are capable of but he does not go much farther than this. I would argue that every relationship is in some sense a contract. Asking young children to make too many contracts, particularly unequal ones in which they have little or no say, is dangerous ground. These kinds of contracts are in some sense in loco parentis. That is, because of the young are of the child, they mimic the parent-child contract, They can’t help but do so. Yet they offer some of the axes — responsibility-freedom and achievement-support — without offering all of them. Loyalty-commitment in particular is left out. And while I agree with Elkind that is is good and necessary for children to have peer relationships that require them to make equal contracts, I also wonder if throwing them into situations in which they are around 10 or 20 or more peers for long hours requires them to do too much negotiating. The deepest, most regular relationship, like those with siblings, are often the hardest to negotiate but can also be the most rewarding. Perhaps we were not meant to make so many “contracts” at a young age.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am fairly pro-homeschooling. I understand, however, that this is not always a possible or even the ideal choice. I have concerns about how this social contract theory plays out when young children in particular are placed in the typical public school environment. But that does not mean that these problems cannot be overcome. If we are aware of the hazards, I think we can prepare our children for the many relationships they will have to negotiate. The main way to do this (that I can think of) is simply to be involved, to be aware of the relationships one’s child has, especially the unqueal ones which put the child in the subordinate position  and to make sure they are good relationships. And to always make the child aware that the parent is still involved and will have the commitment to them that they require.

As for that socialization argument that your mother-in-law badgers you with — Elkind’s theory provides is with some pretty good answers. If to be socialized is to learn to live in society, then the family is the first and primary society in which to learn this skill. Though it is a smaller classroom, it is an intense one and in it a parent can do more to ensure that the lessons learned are the right ones. It is a question of quality versus quantity. Better a few good relationships which involve all the axes the child needs than a large number which are yet only partial contracts.

Nebby

 

Books Read: May 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine is quite a productive time for reading, isn’t it? I find it helps to have a lot of books going at once, especially now. Here is what I finished in May:

Books Read May 2020

Main Travelled-Roads by Hamlin Garland — Another of the books I’ve been reading that could be called American provincialism, i.e. they give a picture of life in the US in one particular region and time. This one is a collection of shorter stories, almost all set in Wisconsin and the midwest in pioneer times (one story is clearly Civil War era; the others are more vague on decade). Settlers of Scandinavian descent are frequent characters. I almost dropped the book after the first two, they were so depressing. But others are more cheerful. Overall I would say it was an okay book but as with the others of this genre I have read there is a lot of “American values are to be nice and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and not a lot of real character presented.

Johann Sturm on Education (ed. Spitz and Tinsley) — Part of my continuing series on reformed Christian education. Sturm is an older writer, like contemporary of Luther and Calvin old. His approach to education is classical. In all honesty I did not read the whole book but it is a collection of letters and the like and a few key ones serve to give a pretty good overview of his approach. He was quite influential, on both Portestant and Catholic education, though I found a lot of what he had to say dated. Read my full review here

Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education — I had seen Whitehead quoted by a number of classical educators and decided if he was so influential I needed to read him. His book gave me a lot to ponder but in truth he is not Christian not classical and his philosophy is very modern and a little weird. I am not really sure why he gets quoted so often (it is just one line that they particularly like). Read all my thoughts on Whitehead here. An interesting read but not essential.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” — I heard someone on a podcast say that Christians don’t have horror, that it doesn’t work in a Christian worldview in which God is in charge. I am not sure that is true but it inspired me to read a little more Lovecraft. These are two of his longer (though still fairly short) and more famous stories. There are distinct similarities between them. The worlds and beings Lovecraft created inspired a kind of religion but as I read them (and from what I read about him) Lovecraft himself has being facetious and critical of those who look for deep meaning in old tales and mythical creatures. They are interesting stories though. Maybe not action packed enough for kids but I enjoyed them.  And if you have thoughts on Christian horror I’d love to hear them. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot — I listened to this one as an audio book and it took months. Not a bad story, a little slow at points. It turns out to be quite a bit about marriage which I didn’t get till the end. I am not sure I could have made it through in book form but I make myself a bit of a captive audience with the audio books. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan — True confessions time. I had never read this all the way through. So I force myself too (well, part 1 at least which is about Christian). I had never made it through because I could never quite get into it. And (sit down for this one) I am still not a huge fan. I think it is the allegory that just doesn’t appeal to me. I find something like Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina just has a lot more moral complexity. I find Pilgrim’s Progress a bit like one long sermon example. Sermon examples have their place but they don’t make good books.

What have you been reading?

Nebby

Alfred North Whitehead Follow-Up

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 recently gave my take on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education as presented in his Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Though Whitehead is not Christian and has as his basis a rather modern and godless philosophy, along the way he manages to say some insightful things and so I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the ideas I gleaned from his book.

As we saw last time, Whitehead, though often cited by classical educators, made classical education (or some derivative thereof) just a part of his approach to education. He added to this “literary education” both scientific and technical education (p. 48). It is the latter I particularly want to look at.

In the many books on education which I have read, there have been various ways of incorporating hands-on elements. Christian writers are quick to point out that man consists of both body and spirit and that our approach to education should somehow recognize and accommodate this fact. For my own part, I have tended to define education as the intellectual and to leave aside the physical, hands-on aspects. I am convicted by Whitehead that this is perhaps not quite the right tack.

Part of what had led me to this intellectually-based approach to education was a discomfort with the various ways in which the physical seemed to be artificially tacked on to education.  Whitehead also recognizes that a lot of what passes for the physical in education may be physical but is not really education:

” . . . in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies. This is exactly the mistake of the post-renaissance Platonic curriculum. But nature can be kept at bay by no pitchfork . . . being expelled from the classroom, she returned with a cap and bellsin the form of all-conquering athleticism.” (p. 50)

In other words, medieval classical education did not include or acknowledge the physical side of man which nonetheless refused to be excluded. People need to be kept active and so sports — what we now call physical education — came to take the place of something equally physical but more educative.

What should real “physical education” look like? Whitehead calls it technical education which perhaps gets a little closer to the idea though it also conjures up some false ideas based on the modern use of the term. For Whitehead, technical education, while hands-on is by no means un-intellectual. Though the hands may be engaged, the mind is still very involved. A technical education such as Whitehead proposes is more akin to what we would call craftsmanship. It is the sort of education which can produce master carpenters and plumbers, those who not only know how to cut a board and fix a leak but who can trouble shoot, who understand, almost on an intuitive level, the materials of their trade and can use and apply them, who can plan and execute complex projects.

If this technical education is excluded, Whitehead tells us, the intellectual will suffer as well:

“The disuse of hand-craft is a contributory cause to the brain-lethargy of aristocracies . . .  Great readers, who exclude other activities, are not distinguished by subtlety of brain.”(p. 51)

Though the two are spoken of as separate categories, “[t]here can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical” (p. 48).

Whitehead has a high view of work which, though he abandoned his Christian upbringing, seems quite biblical. It is at least in part from this view that his advocacy of technical education arises. He also, again quite biblically, recognizes that since the Fall man’s work is not always as easy or delightful as it should be (p. 44). One of my big criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy which has led me to try to devise my own approach to education is her underestimating the effects of the Fall. Here in a non-Christian author, I find some hint of what needs to be added to our approach to account for those effects. It is simply this: Kids aren’t always going to enjoy learning and they aren’t always going to be good at it. By God’s grace, there will be times when their little eyes light up with joy and understanding, but we must not be surprised when they struggle and when they resist us.

This is one of the biggest questions I hear in my local Charlotte Mason discussion group when moms actually get together and talk about the nitty-gritty of how we do this: Why doesn’t my child love the good books I am putting before him? Why isn’t this all clicking like Miss Mason said it should? There is a reason we are not unschoolers. Unschooling says that children will gravitate towards that they need to know, that they by nature will recognize and acquire what is best for them. It assumes a very positive view of human nature. Charlotte Mason does not go quite so far but she also does not do enough to account for the fallenness of man. Education is a lot like sharing one’s faith. We do so in the hope that God will act but we must also not be surprised when what we offer is rejected. That rejection also does not mean that we don’t try again the next day with the same enthusiasm.

These are the two big ideas I got from Whitehead’s work. There are a number of smaller ideas to be gleaned as well. In the interest of time, I will present them as bullet points:

  • “The curves of history are more vivid and more informing than the dry catalogues of names and dates . . .  ” (p. 8)
  • “But mankind is naturally specialist . . . I am certain that in education whenever you exclude specialism you destroy life” (p. 10).  Whitehead, like Mason, argues for a fairly broad education and for not allowing children to specialize (i.e. to concentrate almost exclusively on one subject area) until a fairly late age, and yet he makes this statement. We have all known those kids who are obsessed with one area or idea. It may end up being a life long obsession or they may move in and out of various obsessions. This quote makes me think that we may need to do more to accommodate these passions which still requiring that broad education.
  • We must not postpone harder subjects. The hardest things kids have to learn they learn first in life — understanding language and talking (p. 16).
  • Like Charlotte Mason, Whitehead argues that the thing most analogous to education is eating. To educate is nto to shove things in like packing a suitcase.  Education is like food which must be assimilated by the organism. “When you put your boots in a trunk, they will stay there until you take them out again; but this is not at all the case if you feed a child with the wrong food” (p. 33).
  • “The great English Universities, under whose direct authority school-children are examined in plays of Shakespeare, to the destruction of their enjoyment, should be prosecuted for soul murder.” (p. 57)

And finally this: “education is a difficult problem, to be solved by no one simple formula” (p. 36).

Nebby

 

Homeschool Curricula by Approach & A Quick-Start Guide

Dear Reader,

Where I am at least, the number of people considering homeschooling in the coming year (2020-21) has skyrocketed. With them in mind, I created this list of homeschooling curricula by subject. If you need direction in what approach to choose, please see this page in which I list all my posts on the various philosophies of education including questions to ask yourself and a quiz to help identify your style. There are two versions of this list. The full one lists the curricula by approach and the quick-start guide narrows things down even more if you are still overwhelmed.

Homeschool Curricula by Approach (opens a Google doc)

Quick-Start Homeschool Curriculum Guide (opens a Google doc)

I am sure there are inaccuracies and curricula I have missed so feel free to comment and I will try to keep the documents updated.

Nebby

Alfred North Whitehead and Classical Education

Dear Reader,

In my quest for a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I have read a lot of books. One I had seen cited by others a number of times was Alfred North Whitehead’s Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Since he seemed so influential, I figured I had to read his book eventually and the time finally came during this lovely quarantine.

As its name implies, Aims of Education is a compilation of essays, most but not all of which are on education (a few later in the book are on science which I suppose is not a wholly unrelated subject).  There are a number of stimulating ideas I got from this slim volume which we will get to in a follow-up post. Today I’d like to look at Whitehead’s take on classical education and his influence on later classical educators. Specifically, I would like to ask these later educators, particularly the Christian ones: Why on earth are you quoting this guy?!

It’s not that Whitehead doesn’t have some good ideas. And it’s not that his own philosophy does not appeal to classical education. But Whitehead himself is not Christian. He is in fact fairly anti-religious and is an adherent of process philosophy (we’ll get to what that is in a minute). His use of classical sources and methods is as part of a larger philosophy of education and my impression is that he uses them in a very utilitarian way (which will appeal to some modern classical people but not others). Finally, the one most famous line from Whitehead, which I have seen cited multiple times, is, I think, taken out of context and used to mean something very different from what he meant.

I’ve made a lot of accusations so let’s begin to unpack this a bit. With Whitehead’s work, more even than others we have looked at, the ideas behind the philosophy of education are pivotal. These ideas come from the mind of a man and so it is with the man that we will begin.

The Man and His Ideas

Alfred North Whitehead was first and foremost a mathematician. He was British but worked in the US for some time at Harvard University. He lived in the early 1900s and the volume I am reviewing seems to have been written during his time at Harvard after WWI. We have seen in the past that so many philosophies of education arose in the wake of the Great War. [1] It really affected people on a profound level and the answer for many was to say, “How can education help us ensure that this never happens again?” Whitehead’s father was an Anglican minister [2], and he seems to be knowledgeable about the Bible. He is, as Frank Gaebelein said in another book I read recently, immersed in the world of the Bible though he does not subscribe to it. [3]

In terms of his intellectual context, Whitehead was a follower of John Dewey and the teacher of Bertrand Russell, with whom he wrote his most famous work, Principia Mathematica. Russell is perhaps best-known for his 1957 volume Why I am Not a Christian. Dewey is known as the father of the modern American school system. I have reviewed his ideas previously in this post and this one. One of the things we noted when we looked at Dewey was that his ideas come very much from an evolutionary mindset. They are materialistic in that they consider the material world and discount a spiritual element, and they are evolution-based in that they see life and education as a process of adapting to one’s environment. Dewey himself was influenced by William James, a psychologist known for his radical empiricism which says that “the world and experience can never be halted for an entirely objective analysis; the mind of the observer and the act of observation affect any empirical approach to truth.” [4]

In the final chapters of Aims of Education, those which deal with science, we can see the influence of the materialism and evolutionary mindset of Dewey and the pragmatism of James most clearly. Here Whitehead lays out his views of what science does. I will admit upfront that a fair degree of this went over my head. My quick synopsis would be as follows: What we know we know through our senses. We perceive the world not in instants but in small chunks of time. The fodder of science, what it has to act upon, is these “sense-objects,” which is to say objects as we perceive them. Whitehead recognizes that mankind cannot agree about science if it does not agree about “what really is” (p. 122). He recognizes as well that science should be related to metaphysics or ontology. It is the “determination of the nature of what truly exists” (p. 121). In practice, however, he sees that there are many factors which affect our “sense-presentation.” Memory affects us. Our presuppositions affect us. The time and space in which we encounter a given object affect how we perceive it. [5] The miracle is actually that we have any common ground with one another. Thus while there may be a reality behind it all, we can know it only through our senses which are affected by many external and internal factors.

Whitehead gives many examples. My favorite is that of a cat (pp. 125-26). We say that we see a particular cat but in reality in a few years it may contain a completely new set of molecules. Yet we still somehow know that this is Fluffy and not Patches. We may determine that Fluffy is glad to see us, but all we can perceive is mewing and leg-rubbing. Our minds fill in and give meaning to these sensations. In the dark we may just hear the mewing but again we say that we perceive a cat.

When I say that I perceive something like a chair and speak of it, I assume that you have roughly the same experience of this “chair.” “[T] he vision of a chair” occurs “for some definite person at some definite time . . . It is his vision, though each of us guesses that it must be uncommonly like our vision under analogous circumstances” (p. 135). What we perceive are certain molecules and waves of light as they play upon our sense organs, but we say “chair” and we assume that the other person perceives things in roughly the same way.

Both the chair and the cat, for Whitehead, are intellectual constructions (p. 136), “hypothetical thought-objects of perception” (p. 133). That is, we have certain perceptions and we make conclusions about cats and chairs. “The material universe,” says Whitehead, “is largely a concept of the imagination which rests on a slender basis of direct sense-presentation. But none the less it is a fact; for it is a fact that actually we imagine it. Thus it is actual in our consciousness just as sense-presentation is actual there” (p. 133).

And what of human beings? For Whitehead, what we are is a product of our self-determination. We cannot control our circumstances but we can control how we take them. Though sensation and perception are important, we are not entirely controlled by them. We can determine how we feel. [6]

Whitehead does not deny that there is something absolute out there, but in practice, we cannot know anything absolute. What exists exists in our minds because that is all we can know. Everything, for us, is ultimately experiential. [7] He acknowledges that there is an “infinitude” we are trying to grasp but at the same time says that “All truths are half-truths.” [8] Elsewhere he does speak of God. Whitehead’s God is the source of novelty and change and gives value and beauty to the world [9], but He is not a personal God — either in the sense of having a relationship with man or of being Himself a Person.

Speaking of religion, Whitehead says that it is “‘the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within'” yet he seems to believe that though men strive they are never able to know this thing that gives it all meaning. [10] Religion may be used for good or evil or be morally neutral. It has been “‘the main instrument for progress'” but also has done quite a lot of ill. [11]

This is my very primitive understanding of Whitehead’s personal philosophy. The question before us next is what his philosophy of education is and how it reflects his views.

Whitehead on Education

Education for Whitehead is the acquiring of ideas which are then to be utilized. He warns against “‘inert ideas'” which “are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (p. 1). This need to apply ideas is not entirely utilitarian. Whitehead does value understanding for its own sake (p. 2). “By utilising an idea,” he says, “I mean relating it to that stream compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires, and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life” (p. 3).

Because he seeks to imbue children with active and not inert ideas, Whitehead eschews those methods which tend to make education more of a dead thing. He is against standardizing the curriculum or standardized examinations (pp. 5, 9, 13). His ideal is a small class whose curriculum is determined by the teacher as being best able to tailor it to his particular students (p. 9). It is always possible to “pump into the minds of a class a certain quantity of inert knowledge” (p. 5), but this is not the goal. His goal for education is not facts but an understanding of broad trends such as “the curves of history” (p. 8).

We have seen in many (if not all) the approaches to education that we have looked at, certain underlying assumptions about the nature of children. Though Whitehead sees ages 16 through 30 as the major time of self-development and speaks of birth through age 12 as a time of training (p. 1), yet he also seems to see children as having minds as capable as those of adults. The mind, he says, is always active. It does not need to be honed before it is used, though there does seem to be honing which goes on (p. 6).

Whitehead also stresses the interconnectedness of all subjects. “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations” (pp. 6-7). Though man naturally tends to specialize, this should be discouraged until later years (pp. 10-11).

Getting more to specifics, Whitehead says that “Life is essentially periodic” (p. 17). His approach to education is also periodic on a few different levels. Each subject has a trajectory from romance to precision to generalisation (p. 17). Not all subjects will be in these stages at the same time, however. One begins with subjects like history and science comes later so that one may be in the precision stage in one subject and the romance stage in another. There is a rhythm as well of freedom and discipline that the student again moves in and out of in the various subjects (pp. 29-31). Education, for Whitehead, is very cyclical, with these patterns repeating themselves (p. 19).

What we often think of as education — the learning of facts, the grammar stage of classical education — is the second stage, that of precision (p. 18). But it must always be preceded by the romance stage, that which captures the imagination (this is akin to the poetic knowledge of which James K. Taylor speaks). The final stage, generalisation, is that of fruition or synthesis (p. 19). In the end one aims not to know facts but to grasp principles so that the facts may even be forgotten when the whole is grasped (pp. 26, 37). As the student moves through the various stages and phases of education, there is a strong emphasis on imagination. The initial romance stage of any subject is to capture the imagination and in the final generalisation stage one returns to it. [Whitehead spends a chapter discussing the importance of imagination at the university level (pp. 91ff).]

Though the role of the teacher is at times important, especially in the stages of precision and discipline (p. 35), the goal is for the student to be self-disciplined and to develop as an individual (p. 39). The role of the teacher is to “elicit enthusiasm by resonance” and to create an environment which makes knowledge and purpose desirable (pp. 39-40).

The curriculum itself has three sides: literary, scientific, and technical (p. 48). Whitehead spends some time arguing for the necessity of the technical which tends to be either neglected or misunderstood. He is thinking here os something hands-on but not intellectual. Technical education produces workmen who know and love their field. The image is of the expert woodworker or plumber who is able not just to build according to specifications but to innovate and to troubleshoot. Literary education has to do with all those subjects which involve language and is most akin to classical education. Thus we see that classical (which we will return to below) is one part of education for Whitehead, but not the whole. Scientific education has to do with natural phenomena. It should largely involve first-hand knowledge. No education could possibly hope to be complete and a given individual will tend to emphasize one of these three over the others, but all should have some of each in their education.

For a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, many of the words Whitehead uses sound good — imagination and ideas particularly. Yet we need to be careful to understand these words in the way Whitehead himself does and to view them in the light of his broader philosophy (while at the same time acknowledging that his philosophy of education may not always match his overall philosophy — we humans can be inconsistent). When Whitehead talks of ideas and imagination, it is because these for him are reality. At least, they are all of reality we can know. What we know is not what is but our perception of what is. We have some control over this perception and so our reaction to our environment is very important as well. Facts are less important and can even be forgotten at higher levels because they are not ultimately what is true for us. Thus the goal of education is to develop the individual’s imagination because it is in his imagination that his reality exists.

Whitehead and Classical Education

Whitehead is often cited by later proponents of the neo-classical movement and he does indeed spend some time discussing classical education, but I think it is a bit of a jump to say that he himself is classical. As we have seen, what might be thought of as traditional classical education forms one part of education for Whitehead. It roughly corresponds to his literary curriculum.

Because classical is a very broad term, I recently did a post on the characteristics of classical education. I think it would be helpful to look at Whitehead’s approach in terms of this list to see where he does and does not line up with classical. Note that one does not need to meet each of these criteria to be considered classical. There is no solid line between classical and not-classical but having all or most of these characteristics certainly makes one classical and having a few  only probably means one is not classical.

The characteristics are:

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

Starting at the top, we find that while Whitehead discusses some of the ancients (#s 1 & 2 above), he does not trace his overall philosophy of education to them.  He uses some ancient sources but also advocates the use of more modern sources for certain subjects. He does not, as many more modern writers do, place Greek and Roman authors on a pedestal, saying instead that “the ancients can boast over us no superiority” (p. 29). He finds the traditional western, classical cannon too narrow and recommends more modern authors as well, naming Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin. Looking beyond western civilization, he also says, “I have my doubts of a selection which includes Xenophon and omits Confucius” (p. 47). Though he advocates the learning of Latin and the reading of Roman authors for their disciplinary and historical value, he is quite critical of them: “One of the merits of Roman literature is its comparative lack of outstanding genius . . . Very little Roman literature will find its way into the kingdom of heaven . . .” (pp. 67-68).

Whitehead is critical of classical methods as well:

” . . . [the ancients] erred sadly. To put the matter simply, their popular practice assumed that wisdom could be imparted to the young by procuring philosophers to spout at them.” (p. 30)

Yet Whitehead is not entirely negative on classical education. He says that the “Platonic Ideal has rendered imperishable services to European civilisation” (p. 46). Yet it is not the be-all and end-all of education for him. A classic liberal arts education, he says, is a very good education for certain people (p. 46).

Regarding virtue (#3&4), Whitehead again has some reference to virtue and his philosophy allows for the idea of a higher ideal out there somewhere but I would not say that he makes virtue the main goal in the way classical educators do. The development of the imagination, more than virtue, is the goal for Whitehead and, as we have seen, imagination has more to do with one’s concept of reality than with virtue. (This is a topic we will return to below as well when we discuss Whitehead’s most oft-quoted sentence.) To the extent that he has higher values, it is not virtues like godliness or honesty of patience or bravery that Whitehead extols. His highest good seems to be the aesthetic sense, the appreciation of beauty (pp. 12, 40).

Whitehead does have a fairly prominent role for the teacher (#5&6), especially at certain stages, though this role is meant to diminish over time (an idea not unfamiliar to other adherents of classical). His approach is at times disciplinary (#7) in that certain subjects are learned for their shaping or molding value. This is especially true of those elements of classical which he includes. That is to say, he incorporates classical bits like the learning of Greek and Latin for their disciplinary value. They are not valued so much for their own sake, as pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but as “subsidiary means for the furtherance of this ulterior object” (p. 63). Thus Latin stimulates mental expansion (p. 65) but it does not even matter in the long run if one forgets one’s Latin so long as one retains the skills learned.

Numbers 8 through 12 all have to do with what stands outside of man, with absolutes. Again, Whitehead has some belief in absolutes, especially with regard to beauty, but he also does not believe that man can ultimately know these truths (#12). This is a significant departure from classical thought. To some extent the truths which may be out there are irrelevant to Whitehead’s philosophy because we cannot truly know them.

The end of the list, numbers 14 through 21, have to do mostly with more practical specifics. We will run through these fairly quickly — Whitehead makes no reference to dialectic (#14) or to a hierarchy of knowledge (#21). Nor can I find that he particularly uses or addresses rhetoric (#15) and argumentation (#17). He does include the learning of classical languages (#16), albeit for purposes of training the mind more than for their own sake. While I would not say that Whitehead rejects purely scientific knowledge (#18), his approach to education and philosophy is quite modern and scientific in that he begins with man’s senses and what he can know and works from there. Modern science is a part and not the whole of his education, but scientific presuppositions underlie it all. Yet there is some understanding of what might be called poetic or non-scientific knowledge (#19) that shows up particularly in the first and third stages of his educational cycle, romance and generalisation. In each of these it is the love of knowledge which is the focus. There is, as we have seen, a kind of staging of education here (#20) but it is not at all like Sayers’ three-stage view of education. For one thing, it is cyclical so that one may be in all three stages at once, albeit in different subjects.

In discussing the place of classical education in the modern world (which for him was the early 1900s), Whitehead extols the past virtues of the approach but at the same time says that “Humpty Dumpty was a good egg so long as he was on top of the wall, but you can never set him up again” (p. 61). Thus, to sum up Whitehead’s take on classical and his use of it we must say that while he acknowledges its benefits, especially its past benefits to society, and takes from it some elements, he does not identify himself as classical and does not see a classical education as a complete education or one appropriate to the modern world.

“The Habitual Vision of Greatness”

There remains one topic for us to delve into and that is to parse out that most-oft quoted line of Whitehead’s:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” (p. 69)

This quote is taken to mean that we must give students an ideal — a vision of greatness– which is placed before them regularly (habitually) in order for them to develop virtue (moral education). Thus the classics are used as these “visions of greatness.” The present an ideal. Some Christian authors will note that this is an ideal we can never reach on this life and even perhaps that there are models beyond the classical to which we should look, but the idea is the same: that we use classical sources with their emphasis on virtue in order to present an inspiring ideal. [12]

In this understanding the greatness spoken of is something external to the individual which inspires him to do and be more. But this does not seem to be quite what Whitehead is saying. First of all, we must notice that he looks primarily to Roman and not Greek sources, though he sees the former as the arbiter of the latter. Secondly, he is honest about the failings of these sources. We have seen that he does not view them as great literature. Though not himself a Christian, he notes that it is Rome which is condemned by the Book of Revelation as the harlot and the Great Babylon (p. 68). Her vices, he says, are as great as her virtues (p. 69). It is in this context that Whitehead then makes his famous statement. Here is the full context:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue. Now the sense of greatness is an immediate intuition and not the conclusion of an argument. It is permissible for youth in the agonies of religious conversion to entertain the feeling of being a worm and no man, so long as there remains the conviction of greatness sufficient to justify the eternal wrath of God. The sense of greatness is the groundwork of morals.” (p. 69)

Greatness here is not a goal to which one aspires. It is the foundation. It must come first. The Christian conviction of sin and of humility before God is at best a brief stage and even in the midst of it one must feel some sense of self-importance, enough at least to merit the wrath of God. Whitehead says here, as I understand him, not that we should be good because we look to an Ideal but that we should be good because we are great. Now it is possible that this is how some secular or non-Christian proponents of classical would understand the thing, but this is a distinctly un-Christian idea and it is usually taken, as often as I have seen it quoted, out of context.

Wrapping Up

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education has its feet in two worlds. He stands at the end of a tradition of classical education which to some extent he still acknowledges and incorporates to a degree that more modern educators do not. Yet in his personal philosophy is so very, very modern in the sense of being scientific and relying on the presuppositions of modern science and not on faith, religion, or even morality. There are some good ideas in his book (which again I will return to in another post) and there is certainly a lot to make one think. But in the end, everything he says must be taken with quite a large grain of salt recognizing that his beliefs and presuppositions are very different from our own. At times the words he uses may sound familiar and right but we must be careful to read them in light of the ideas behind them. Though he is often referred to and quoted by advocates of modern classical education, he is not a classical educator and does not identify himself as one but distinctly rejects classical education.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] Other educational thinkers from this period include Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf Method). Charlotte Mason worked in this period as well though her work began in the late 1800s.

[2] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[3] Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomal Press 1985) p. 190.

[4] “William James,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

[5] Whitehead also met Abert Einstein and was very much interested in his theory of relativity (“Alfred . . . ” in Stanford). We can perhaps see traces of this idea here — our perception, and therefore our reality, is affected by the time and space in which we perceive it.

[6] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smitha, p. 2.

[9] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Frank Gaelebein, one of my favorite writers, is among those who quote this line. He is also one who looks not primarily to classical but to biblical ideals:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead lets us down as he points to the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome as ‘the habitual vision of greatness.’ Certainly for the Christian writer, ‘the habitual vision of greatness’  is not classical history and literature but the Bible, the Word of the living God.” (Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth ,p. 189)

I had it in my head that Clark and Jain in The Liberal Arts Tradition also quote this particulat line though I cannot find the passage now. For more on the classical ideal see this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility

Bibliography

Alfred North Whitehead,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (revised 9/4/2018).

“Alfred North Whitehead,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

Smitha, Frank E. “Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead,” Macrohistory: World History (accessed 5/7/2020).

Book List: Bible and Theology

Dear Reader,

One goal for the summer is to get out a series of booklists with titles we have used over the years. I thought that I had at one point given a list of Bible and Theology books we have used but upon searching find that doesn’t appear to be true. For this topic, more than any other, I think it is important to know where I come from. My approach to education has been largely influenced by Charlotte Mason though I have my own philosophy of education. Most importantly, I am a Reformed Christian (aka Calvinist). If you come from a different theological perspective, this list may not fit your needs. I would recommend consulting your pastor or older (homeschooling) moms within your church for their suggestions.

You can find all my booklists here.

Bible and Theology Resources

Bible

This may seem obvious but one of the best books you can use to study the Bible and theology is . . . (wait for it) . . . the Bible. I myself am pretty comfortable with just opening up the Bible and reading and discussing  [1], but I realize others may not be there yet.

The Beginner’s Bible — I am not a huge fan of children’s Bibles. In general, my advice would be to try to move tour kids to the full Word of God as soon as you can. But little kids are little kids and sometimes a children’s Bible can be helpful. My husband in particular read stories from this one to our kids. I am less comfortable than I used to be with the depictions of Jesus in the New Testament. This one is at a picture book or preschool level.

The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos —  Vos has another children’s Bible. This one is more at an elementary level. I tried to use Vos’ volume with my preschool Sunday school class thinking it would be easier and found that often the stories were actually longer because of the commentary interspersed in them. If you yourself are uncomfortable commenting on the text, then this might be a way to go as it provides some interpretation along with the text (though as it is written you might not know what is text and what is interpretation).

The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study by Starr Meade — This is a workbook-y series for children which guides you through reading the Bible itself. Again for my tastes it was too workbook-y but we did it aloud and I didn’t have my kids fill in all the blanks (or any of them for that matter). I do like that it divides up the Bible into manageable chunks.

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola — This is a thinner volume that guides you through reading the epistles as well as sections from the book of Acts. Viola has his own slant — he is very pro-house church — but it gives some good background to the epistles and their contexts. I would use this one with older children (middle school +).

What’s in the Bible by R.C. Sproul — This is more of a reference book. It could be good to use yourself to get some background on a biblical book you plan to read (part of that getting more comfortable with that text yourself) or to give to an older child to aid their reading. Another similar book is How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Fee and Stuart.

The Life of Jesus Christ for the Young by Richard Newton — I ran across this two-volume series after my kids were beyond the age for it. I actually stumbled across Newton’s work because Simply Charlotte Mason uses quotes from him frequently in their copywork series. I don’t know a lot about Newton’s theology. He seems to have been an Anglican minister (which doesn’t narrow it down much, but they say Spurgeon recommended him. I’d say these are elementary level. A similar set which Charlotte Mason used but which I would not recommend are J. Paterson Smythe’s guides for teachers. You can read about why I don’t recommend them for reformed people here.

Herein is Love series by Nancy Ganz — Though I have not used them, I am including Nancy Ganz’s series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. I have heard very good things about them and Ganz is a member of my denomination. Elementary level again.

General Theology

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children by James Beeke — Beeke goes through basic doctrines at a child’s level. His take on things is not identical to mine. He is King James only (I edited the verses he gives as I read them) and his denomination uses the three forms of Unity which mine does not. But the basics of the theology here pretty solid. Topics covered include sin, the covenant of grace, Christ as mediator, etc. It is a bit workbook-y for my (Charlotte Mason-y) tastes but again I edited a but as I went. We did it all aloud as a family. There are also older children versions of these volumes which seem to cover the same material just at a higher level.

What is a Christian Worldview? by Philip Ryken — This is a thin book, practically a pamphlet. The title is a bit misleading. Basically, this is an explanation of the five points of Calvinism. I gave it to my kids in middle school. It’s a great volume to give to friends interested in what Calvinism is as well.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis — A classic on why one should believe in God. I had my kids read this one mainly because it is a classic and I felt that they should be familiar with it. Of course, Lewis has a number of other volumes that could be good as well.

31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God by Rick Stedman — This book is similar to Mere Christianity in some ways. It is fairly basic. I believe I had my children skip some chapters as it gets a bit repetitive. We used it in middle school.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by  Daniel Treier — I picked up this newer book recently and read through it. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I did so and decided I would have my two high schoolers read is, or selections from it, next school year. My plan is to have them read a couple of pages at a time and then to discuss it with them. This is an introductory book (as its title suggests) and does not go in-depth on any particular topic. Its strength is that it gives the lay of the land, outlining possible positions, on a number of issues. I will post our reading schedule when I have it typed up (likely in the fall). You can also see my review here.

Calvin’s Institutes — At some point we should all read the quintessential Calvin. I found it much more accessible than I had anticipated (for me) but it is not an easy book. This one is definitely high school level and probably upper high school (though if you have a range of kids as I do some may be getting it earlier than others). I read it aloud to my kids in short chunks over a three year period. I would read a day ahead of time. We skipped some sections and some whole chapters. Calvin often argues against the other opinions popular in his day and/or gives a number of biblical verses as evidence so I did find that there were bits we could skip.  Once you get the hang of how he constructs his arguments, it makes more sense. Don’t feel you need to read the whole thing in order. The last chapter on the Christian life is one of the most accessible and wouldn’t be a bad place to start. One project I have in mind is to arrange the Institutes much as Plutarch is laid out on Ambleside Online in short readings with some notes and questions so if that is something you would use please let me know.

Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof — Of course there are a lot of systematic theologies out there. I happen to own Berkhof’s and to find its concise style fairly accessible as a reference work when I want more information on a given topic. I wouldn’t read this one from cover to cover but it is nice to have such a resource on hand when questions arise.

Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts and sometimes this can work better for children too. I had one high schooler do a series on theology/apologetics by listening to podcasts, the primary one being the Reformed Brotherhood. You can find the schedule for that here.

Christian Living and Encouragement

A Handful of Stars and other books by Frank Boreham — Boreham is one of my favorite authors. He was a pastor in the early 1900s (I believe) in Australia and New Zealand. His books are collections of short essays. He was not reformed but I still love a lot of what he wrote. He is more pastoral than theological, For kids, I’d recommend the volumes that give brief biographies and talk about the passages that influenced particular people’s lives. Many are available free or very cheap on Kindle.

A Little Book on the Christian Life and Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin — Though he is known for his in-depth theology, Calvin has a few volumes which are brief, pastoral, and very encouraging.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken — The story of a man’s spiritual journey after the loss of his wife. A tear-jerker.

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss — Another tear-jerker. This one is the spiritual journey of a young woman into adulthood and motherhood. Probably not for boys (not inappropriate, just girly). You (moms) should read it yourself if you haven’t.

Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper — This book is essentially an abridged version of Piper’s Desiring God. I have a few reservations about Piper’s view, called Christian hedonism, but I also like the encouragement this little volume gives to delight in God.

Specific Topics

The Hand of God and Satan Cast Out by Frederick Leahy — I believe Leahy was an Irish pastor. His work is solid and fairly accessible for middle school and up. The Hand of God is about God’s sovereignty and Satan Cast Out  is about, you guessed it, Satan. My kids really liked reading about Satan. I think it’s one of those subjects they have a natural curiosity about but aren’t likely to get a lot of preaching on.

Discovering God’s Will by Sinclair Ferguson — It’s been years since I read this book but Ferguson is a solid author and the topic is a very timely one for teenagers.

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker is Catholic but he is one of my favorite authors (you will see him a few times on this list). This volume is about how things from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare show the Creator.  High school level and up.

Worldview and Philosophy

God-Breathed by Rut Etheridge — This volume is written to teens and young adults who were raised in Christian homes but have become disillusioned or never really gotten what true Christian faith is. I was not crazy about this book but there are some good bits, particularly those in which Etheridge discusses philosophy. My full review is here.

The Deadliest Monster by J.F. Baldwin — I am not crazy about this book but there are some good parts. I appreciated his comparison of Frankenstein and Dracula and, if I am remembering the right book, the French and American revolutions.

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer — This is the don’t-miss book for this section. We do both the book and video for this book to make sure my kids get it. Schaeffer traces western thought from Roman times to 1980 or so (when he lived) and shows how it played out in the arts as well.

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner — I am not a huge fan of  the term “worldview” and how it is used in Christian circles. Even less so of “worldview education.” Yet if that is a thing, it should mean not just learning the “right” worldview but learning how to discern the worldview of others on their writing and art. Horner’s Meaning at the Movies is a good, short book for helping one learn how to discern the view behind a work of art. Movies are short, quick glimpses into another’s mind and kids like watching them. I have my high schoolers do one year of “movies as literature” using this book (see this post for some specifics).

On that note I also used Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in middle school. The book is the story of their book club for kids. You could have high schoolers read it but it is better to read it yourself and then read the books they sued and discuss them. Along the way you will both hopefully learn something about delving into the ideas behind a book. I like that the Goldstone’s use fairly simple books. My opinion is that it is easier to start with books that are too easy for your kids. I have a number of posts that narrate out book studies based on Deconstructing. The first one is here.

My oldest son also did a year on political philosophy. You can find the full booklist for that here. A couple I would highlight that you might want to use and which come from a Christian perspective are Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read and The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul.

Politics

Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion by Benjamin Wiker — Another Wiker book. Very well done. High school level plus.

Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore — This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

Messiah the Prince by William Symington — This is the classic Reformed Presbyterian work on Christ’s Messianic Kingship. I usually have my kids skip some chpaters as they don’t really need to read about Christ’s rule over the church. There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited but I think it loses something.

Creation and Evolution

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker does a great job of showing how Darwin’s personality and beliefs affected his famous theory.

We usually cover this topic as part of high school biology. I have my kids read books on a couple of sides of the issue and then for their exam for the term write what the various views are and what they find most convincing. I also have a post on dinosaurs in the Bible here. 

Gender Related Issues

It is hard to avoid these subjects today and your kids will encounter them (of they haven’t already) when they go to college. My gender and marriage booklist is here. I have my teens read Rosaria Butterfield’s conversion story in her Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and the position papers of the RPCNA, The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (published by Crown and Covenant).

Art

I have one child who is particularly interested in art and it is one of those subjects in which one needs to think a bit about how to do it Christianly. Two books I would recommend for that are:

Liberated Imagination by Leland Ryken (my review here)

The Christian, the Arts and Truth by Frank Gaebelein (my review here)

Church History

History Lives series by Mindy Withrow — A four volume set with manageable chunks on church history from the earlier times on. I did find it a little bit undiscriminating in who it calls a hero of the faith but overall it is very good. Begin reading it aloud in the elementary years.

Sketches from Church History by Houghton — There is also a student workbook which I would skip but the book itself is not badly written. Middle school level I believe.

Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken — A wonderful, fair book on Purtian life and belief. We included it in history but it could also be read with theology or church history.

Here I Stand by Roland Bainton — Classic life of Martin Luther.

The Reformation 500 Years Later by Benjamin Wiker — A Catholic writing on the Reformation = I don’t agree with everything here but it is a well-wrtten, easy to read book and may make you think. It does a good job of showing all the threads that played into the Reformation. I gave my kids specific questions to answer in place of straight narrations. You can find those here. My review is here.

Nebby

[1] My degrees are in biblical Hebrew though I think that ultimately every Christian should be or get comfortable with their Bible, while acknowledging that we do not read it apart from our interpretive traditions.

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Johann Sturm

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 returning again to my “Reformed Thinkers on Education” series-within-a-series to look at Johann Sturm. Sturm is an older writer — about as old as you can get and merit the label reformed! — a contemporary of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. I have just read a few essays from Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning [ed. Lewis Spitz and Barbara Sher Tinsley (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995)], but I think they are enough to give me a pretty good idea of his approach and philosophy. Though he is an older writer and in many ways what he has to say may not seem applicable to today’s world, his influence on later educators, both Protestant and Catholic (p. 12), has been great so it is well worth our time to see just what Sturm was all about.

Sturm’s philosophy of education is very definitively classical (see this recent post on the characteristics of classical ed). Like much of classical education, morality was the goal of education, and an education based in literature (p. 57) was seen as the way to produce good morals (p.71).

“For there is nothing in the nature of the universe that cultivates morality as does the study of letters.” (p. 72)

Sturm acknowledged the place of nature and experience but argued for the role of learning in further shaping character (p. 73). This learning, of course, might not be available to all but was a powerful force in the lives of those suited to it. [Sturm’s educational program was not universal. He did advocate for the inclusion of select poorer boys but girls were left out entirely (p. 16) as were those deemed “slow” (p. 78).]

Though definitively Christian and reformed — he “represented a Calvinist element within the church” (p. 350) — Sturm valued classical authors, seeing them as “a harbinger of rather than a challenge to Christian morality” (p. 45).  In practice, classical authors were exalted even above Christian ones. They were assumed to give the proper moral base and distinctly Christian subjects like dogmatics were left out of the core curriculum (p. 50).  Despite this lack of Christian sources, the teacher was expected to be a Christian and to provide the right mindset and perspective through which to view the materials studied (p. 54). And education was said to be useless if not “imbued with sound Christian values” (p. 347).

As is common in the classical tradition, Sturm placed a high value on being able to speak well, saying that “eloquence without knowledge was as dangerous as knowledge without eloquence” (p, 49). This indeed seems to have been the motivating factor in Sturm’s approach to education and his return to classical sources — he saw in his own day a lack of learning which paled beside the vision he had of the ancients and turned to classical sources and oratory as a way to recover learning (p. 119). The early years in particular were given over to the development of morality and proper speech (p. 74) so that these habits, ingrained early, might form a proper basis for the later years. The end goal was a “wise and eloquent piety” (p.85), combing the three goals of morality, knowledge, and eloquence.

Sturm advocated for a large role for parents in the early years (p. 19), but ideally expected qualifying boys to enter school around age 6 (p. 86). At that time they would go to centralized schools. Sturm preferred a very centralized education, both in terms of geography and curriculum. Thus boys would be expected to go to the big city (wherever that might be) and the curriculum was standardized. Large classes were the ideal (p. 84). This was not interest-led learning. Even individual teachers did not make decisions about what was to be taught, but everything was standardized across the school so that all students would learn the same material.

In “The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters (1538)” Sturm presents his program, year by year, outlining which books of Cicero, for example, were to be studied in which year. The first nine years, to age 15 or so, would be for general “boyhood education” and then five more for advanced education (p. 85). In terms of methodology, Sturm was very modern in that he threw everything he had at students. Many different approaches were tried so that if one didn’t work with a particular student, another might (p. 51). He advocated strongly for the use of rewards and prizes as motivations to learning (pp. 51, 88), playing upon students’ innate desires for validation and victory in competition (p. 65).

Though there is a strong emphasis on competition as a motivating factor for the boys, yet Sturm seems to have valued cooperation above all in his teachers. The students’ ambition was used against them (or for them, depending on your perspective) to urge them on in their studies. Yet, for his faculty, Sturm says “nothing corrupts religion more than ambition . . .  When men are contorted by envy and tossed by ambition, there is no loyalty in them, and nothing perfect” (p. 116). The theory in the younger years seems to have been that competition breeds friendship among boys (p. 117). I am not a male so perhaps this is lost on me, but this seems like a very fine line to tread, using a quality you ultimately don’t want to inculcate.

Though he was not opposed to corporal punishment, above all his goal seems to have been to make learning enjoyable for students, to keep their motivation up. To aid in this, lessons were to be kept short and varied (p. 92). Yet too much variation in one day was also to be avoided; Sturm advocated no more than three subjects per day (p. 93). In all this, there was a large role for the teacher in keeping up students’ motivation and appropriately varying the curriculum (yet without varying it too much).

Latin and Latin authors were the backbone of the curriculum. One began with Cicero in grade 9 (which was the youngest grade; Sturm counted from grade 9 up to grade 1; p. 89). Sturm made much use of memorization (p. 55) and in the early years one goal was to train the faculty of memory (p. 91). Greek and Greek authors would be introduced in fifth grade (p. 95). In the last years (grades 2 and 1 for him), the emphasis was particularly on “ornate speech” (p. 102), defined as speech which is “literary, embellished by learning, worth of a free man, and appropriate to the occasion and the person” (p. 103). Subjects like math and astronomy would also come up in these last years.

Though, as we have said, “Christian” subjects were not part of the main curriculum, they were included in some ways. Festival days were for “sacred lectures” and boys were expected to know “the entire history of Christ and the apostles” (p. 104). When this was supposed to happen is not clear, but there was apparently a good amount of reading expected to be done apart from school hours. In all subjects original sources were preferred to later commentaries (p. 48) and this was true of the Scriptures as well (p. 106). In the last years of schooling, the catechism would be explained and Hebrew grammar taught (p. 104).

Sturm believed all subjects were inter-related and warned against over-specialization especially in those first nine years of education. As we have seen, the curriculum was very much a top-down, standardized affair so that there would be few if any options for boys.  Older students, those in the five years of advanced education, were at the age of specialization but were also encouraged to attend lectures in fields outside their main interest (p. 49).

There is no doubt Sturm has been influential, on both classical and non-classical educators, Protestants and Catholics. He lived at a time when the reformed church, brand new itself, had a new situation to deal with. Education had been the work of the Roman Catholic Church and Luther and others sought to break it free (see this post on the history of education during the Reformation). The Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures led to a desire for not just an educated clergy but an educated laity as well, yet in an environment in which few structures were already in place.  Sturm was called in to build a school system essentially from scratch, a rare opportunity.

As he began to do so, Sturm looked around and saw an appalling lack of education in his own day, especially in comparison with the educational level of the past (or at least the perceived level). At a time when the gospel was once again begin preached and spread abroad, it is no wonder he felt very much the need for not just Christian morality but eloquence. The great orators of Greece and Rome seemed to provide just the model he needed and so it was to them that he turned, developing an approach to education which was almost the definition of neo-classical.

I have not made a secret of the fact that I am not a big fan of classical education. As we evaluate Sturm’s work we need to keep in mind the environment in which he lived and the resources available to him. What he created was of incredible value for the church and the society of the time. But we must also realize that we live in a different situation. We have many more centuries of thought about education behind us. We have different needs, different ways of communicating, even different bodies of knowledge, and many, many more resources. We can appreciate Sturm’s work, and take from it what might still be useful to us, but it would be foolish to try to recreate his system today. My critique of much of modern classical education (see this recent post in Clark and Jain’s work) is that it assumes a classical foundation and builds up from there without asking if this is the proper foundation. Sturm does this as well. In his case, I think it was much more excusable; he was in a unique situation and had little else to turn to. We don’t have the same excuses.

Nebby

Living History Books, Settlement and Native Americans

Dear Reader,

Last year in our homeschool we covered the Middle Ages so this year we are up to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Exploration. In term one our emphasis was more global as we looked at the big ideological trends. In terms 2 and 3 we looked at the settlement of the new world and Native Americans respectively.  You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living History Books: Settlement

There are relatively few selections in these sections as I mostly had my two kids read the same books. If you are looking for books for younger kids, check out my lists from the first time we covered this period of history: this one on Colonial New England and on the Settlement of Virginia and on the Colonization of America more generally.

Sweet Land of Liberty by Charles Coffin — My oldest son actually used this book years ago when we covered settlement (see links above). It covers quite a span of time and does so fairly thoroughly without having overly long chapters. A great spine book for this period. 

Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken — I really like this book on the Puritans. I think it gives a very fair portrayal of them. 

The World of Captain John Smith by Genevieve Foster — I read this one (or sections thereof) aloud to them in our time together. Foster’s books are wonderful and are often used at younger ages but I find they still have quite a lot to tell to high schoolers. They contain a lot of info. I chose this one mainly because it gives an international perspective and brings in events in Europe (and beyond) from the time period. And frankly, I couldn’t find anything better for that.

Living History Books: Native Americans

We ended the year with a term on Native Americans and the various wars and battles involving them. I had dated going right into the Revolution but didn’t think we could miss the French-Indian Wars entirely. I had them both continue with Sweet Land of Liberty (see above).

Flames Over New England by Olga Hall-Quest — This is a nice, not too long volume on King Philip’s War. You might skip over these events if you live elsewhere but we are in new England and actually quite a lot of things around here are named for Philip. (My son took drivers’ ed at King Philip High School.)

The Struggle for a Continent by Albert Marrin –Marrin is one of my favorite authors for this age because he covers so much ground in a readable way. This one is on the French and Indian Wars. 

Nine Years Among the Indians: 1870-1879 by Herman Lehmann– I was looking for something on Native American life for each of my kids. I had my son read this one. It is about a boy who was originally kidnapped by Native Americans and later decides to stay with them, joining a couple of different tribes. Amazon had a few books with titles like this one but this seemed the most readable. 

The Tracker: The True Story of Tom Brown, Jr. by Tom Brown — My daughter expressed an interest in “how Indians know how to do what they do in the woods.” I am not sure this book is what she had in mind but I read it myself first and thought it was fabulous. It would be a great nature lore book even apart from the Native American element. The author was actually a white boy who learned Native American ways from a friend’s grandfather. There is a bit of a pantheistic/nature-is-God element but I did not think it was too obvious in this book (though it appears to be in some of his others) and I don’t worry too much about my kids getting messed up on that point at this age. 

Happy Reading!

Nebby

Calvinist day-school

...bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool

dayuntoday

my musings, wise or otherwise

StrongHaven

A Literary Homestead

journey-and-destination

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more

weeklywalrus

Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Afterthoughts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Homeschooling Middle East

A Homeschooling/Unschooling Adventure from Bahrain to Dubai that's a story for anyone, anywhere who's interested in offering their kids an educational alternative. Please have fun visiting and have even more fun commenting! We have now moved to Granada, Spain and I will write again once we've settled down!!

Exclusive Psalmody

For the Encouragement and Preservation of Biblical Worship

Charlotte Mason Institute

Supporting an international conversation toward an authentic Charlotte Mason education - awakening to delightful living