Why We Need a Theology of Education

Dear Reader,

Last time I talked about the need for a truly reformed (Christian) approach to education. I want to expand a bit upon that now and say why I think we need not just a philosophy but a theology of education.

When I began to look at the various approaches to education, I found that they all were founded upon certain beliefs. Some are deliberate and up front about their beliefs; others may not even know they have these beliefs. But either way, they all make assumptions about two very important topics:

  1. They all assume something about the nature of the child. As the child is a person (or will at least become a person), this means that they are really saying something about human nature.
  2. Even the most basic has some idea of goals. If I write a spelling curriculum, I still have some belief about why we should teach this subject and what the desired end result is. Every approach to education has a goal in mind. Whether education is a life or the preparation for life, the goal of education tells us something about the purpose of life.

Whether you know it, whether your curriculum writers know it, these are the big questions they must answer: What is human nature? and What is the purpose of human existence?  If we believe in a Creator, we cannot answer these questions without asking how and why God made man.

In the next few weeks, I plan to look at two of the most popular Christian approaches to education, Charlotte Mason and Christian classical. Today I would like to begin to show you what I mean by looking at a secular (by which I just mean not inherently Christian) approach: Unschooling (see my original post on unschooling here). For my purposes today, unschooling is useful because it is philosophical — it has definite ideas behind it and knows what they are — and because it is not inherently Christian. While I do not think unschooling is compatible with biblical Christianity, I have a lot of respect for the unschooling parents I have met. More often than not, they are very involved, responsive and loving parents who truly want what they think is best for their children.

Unschooling has a very high view of the personhood of the child. So high that it says we should not impose our own views upon the child. The parent or teacher does not decide what should be learned; only the child is able to make those decisions for himself.  The underlying assumption is that the child is able to and will choose what is good for himself.  Individuality is highly valued. Janey may choose to learn calculus and use correct punctuation; if Johnny does not, that is fine for him. Looked at from one perspective, unschooling  says that the child can choose and do good. The flip side is that what is good is defined as what the child chooses. In other words, each person decides what is good for himself and what is good for one might not be good for another.

There are other assumptions at work as well. Each child is equipped to learn; learning itself need not be taught. There is a natural curiosity and love of learning which the child, unimpeded, will pursue.  Learning is to some degree an individual pursuit. Though unschooling parents are often quite active in providing materials, all education, in the unschooling environment, is self-education.**

In unschooling, the child learns not just what but when he wants to learn. Some of you will be saying, “Well, if I didn’t make my child learn, they never would.” Unschooling  takes a different approach; rather than looking at a child who might be coloring or playing video games or picking his nose and saying they are not learning, they look at the child and say he is getting what he needs. In other words, there is a kind of educational sanctification of all life. Whatever the child does is learning. There is no separation between education and life. All life is education.

If the material of an unschooling education is thus individualized, we should not be surprised that its goals are also personalized. Individual parents may have specific goals; an unschooling mom once told me her goal was for her children to be kind people. I am not sure that in the unschooling community as a whole that there is one clear idea of what the goal is, but I think there is an implied goal. If each child naturally acquires what is good for him, then, conversely, the goal of education is for the child to acquire what is good for him. But education is also life so we can say that the goal of life is for each person (not just children) to obtain what is good for them. Because my good may not identical to your good, we might say the goal is a kind of self-actualization in which each person achieves his own good.

So what assumptions have we seen in unschooling? Here’s my list:

  • The child has a natural ability to learn and an inborn love of learning.
  • The child is naturally good at least insofar as he will gravitate to what is good and necessary for him.
  • There is not one body of knowledge everyone needs to know.
  • There is not one “good” which applies to everyone. What is good for me might not be what is good for you. (I assume there are theists, if not Christians, who are unschoolers and hold to some higher standard of good beyond ourselves. I would love to hear how parents deal with things philosophically when their unschooling child chooses something that the parent thinks is not good. Another way to ask is, I suppose: how does unschooling account for the existence of “not good”?)
  • One does not truly teach another; “all education is self-education.”
  • Education is not separate from life. All life is education.
  • The purpose of education is for the child to acquire what is good for him.
  • Therefore the purpose of life is also for the individual, child or adult, to achieve his good.

I have used unschooling as an example so we can see how the ideas one holds manifest themselves in a philosophy of education. Unschooling embodies assumptions about: the nature of the child, his abilities and inherent goodness; how learning happens; what good is; how education relates to life as a whole; and what the purpose of one’s life is. If we were to change any one of these assumptions, the philosophy of education would change.

As Christians, we need to ask the same questions: What is the nature of the child? What are his abilities, both intellectual and moral? How does learning happen? What should one learn (is there a set body of knowledge that everyone needs)? What is good? (and perhaps: What is true and beautiful? and maybe even: What is evil/bad/not good and where does it come from?) What is the goal of education? How does education fit into the rest of life? To the extent that education either is life or prepares one for life, what is the purpose of life? Because we believe that there is One who created us and has a purpose for us, these will be for us inherently theological questions.  So to return to my initial claim: we need not just a philosophy of education, as if education were something apart from the rest of our beliefs, we need to see how our theology plays out in our approach to education. We need a theology of education.

Next time I want to talk a little about methodology, how  do we go about forming a theology of education? After that, I’d like to look at two popular approaches to education, Charlotte Mason and Christian classical, to see how they answer the questions above, to see the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Nebby

**I have often quoted this statement, “All education is self-education.” I looked up the source for this post; apparently it was first spoken by western author Louis L’Amour.

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. […] This is part of an ongoing series on reformed theology and education. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. […]

    Reply

  2. […] far we have talked about why we need a reformed Christian philosophy of education, why we need a theology of education, how we should decide on such a theology, and what we can learn from public education in the United […]

    Reply

  3. […] have been addressing the why, i.e. Why do we even need a theology of education (see this post and this one) and why isn’t what we already have good enough (see these posts on public schooling, the […]

    Reply

  4. […] my continuing quest for a reformed theology of education (see this post and this one), I have been focusing on special revelation — i.e. what God tells us in His Word– but […]

    Reply

  5. […] my concordance for this post. The point of all this, if you will remember, is ultimately to build a reformed Christian theology of education. We are in the beginning stages now where we are collecting evidence and simply answering the […]

    Reply

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