Book Review: Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum

Dear Reader,

[I apologize if there are weird font things going on in this post. WordPress and I are not on the best of terms this week.]

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian theology of education, I recently read Rousas John Rushdoony’s The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2001; originally pub. 1981). 

This is now the third or fourth book on Christian education which I have reviewed. They were all written some 30-40 years ago, are all quite critical of modern American public schools, and all advocate Christian education as the only way to go, some quite vociferously. Rushdoony’s book falls in line with the others and makes a lot of the same arguments (he quotes Van Til extensively). I do think it is worth adding to your reading list, however. Philosophy covers a lot of ground, and while there are some foundational ideas I disagree with, there are also a number of good points made along the way.

 

Two advantages of Rushdoony’s work are that it deals with the education of children – not just college-level education – and that it begins to delve into specifics. By comparison, Vos and Van Til were much closer to where I am theologically, but they are both concerned with education at the university level. Wiker, though Catholic, makes some great arguments but again seems to focus mostly on the renewal of the Christian university. Dawson, another Catholic writer, is focused on the education of children but (besides being virulently pro-Catholic and anti-protestant) offers little in the way of specifics. Ultimately, what I want is something that provides not just the theory but gives guidance on how we actually teach day to day. (None of these books, including this one, mentions or even considers homeschooling as an option though I am told that Rushdoony was big in the early days of the modern homeschooling movement.)

 

I am not going to be able to cover everything Rushdoony has to say in this one post, though I am sure I will come back to his ideas in the future one. For today, I’d like to focus on his foundational ideas. Before diving in, a few words about the man himself and his thought — Rousas Rushdoony was a pastor and philosopher who seems to have been most active from 1960-1980. On first glance he has a lot to recommend him in my eyes — Calvinist, Presbyterian, pro-homeschooling. He was apparently a big fan of Van Til whose work I find myself quoting a lot. In fact, as I read his book, I wondered what he thought he had to add to Van Til’s work as he quoted him so often. While he wrote on and advocated for Christian education, Rushdoony is known more for his association with the Christian Reconstructionism, a political movement advocating theonomy, i.e.  applying Old Testament law to modern society. Van Til distanced himself from Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in 1972. [1]

I bring this all up to show where Rushdoony stands in the scope of things. If I could sum up his thought and my own reaction to it in one sentence it would be this: “Yes, he makes a lot of points which sound good on the surface but he just seems to go too far.”  The Wikipedia article on him says:

“Rushdoony developed his philosophy as an extension of the work of Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til. Van Til critiqued human knowledge in light of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. He argued that sin affected a person’s ability to reason . . . Rushdoony attended to the implications – where Van Til held true knowledge came from God, Rushdoony asserted that ‘all non-Christian knowledge is sinful, invalid nonsense. The only valid knowledge that non-Christians possess is ‘stolen’ from ‘Christian-theistic’ sources.’ ” (“Rousas Rushdoony,” from Wikipedia.org; April 20, 2018).

In other words, Rushdoony took Van Til’s ideas to an extreme. In the end, this led him to say that there is no true knowledge can come through non-Christians. While Van Til makes similar statements, he also acknowledges that non-Christians make real contributions to both science and the arts. [2]

Rushdoony’s approach reminds me very much of the Biblical Principle Approach (I have no idea what if any his connection to that approach actually is). It seeks to find the justification for every subject in the Bible and the end of every effort in the service of God, which sounds good, but it defines both these things too narrowly. Certainly the Scriptures are God’s special revelation and tell us the things we need to know for salvation. But they are not God’s only source of revelation. The Bible also tells us quite clearly that God can be known through what He has made. And while the Scriptures are more special, general revelation is more abundant. We do ourselves a disservice when we neglect that knowledge that comes to us through it [3]. I think Van Til would agree with this assessment as he places education within the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14) which Scripture in turn places in Creation (Rom. 1:20) [4]. My first disagreement with Rushdoony, then, is this: He defines education too narrowly by tying it so closely to special revelation at the expense of general revelation. [5]

My second major disagreement is perhaps tied to the first — Rushdoony undervalues knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Though undeniably Christian, his goals for education are overly practical. His concern is with results — How will we use this or that subject to further the spread of the gospel? How can we use it to witness to others? A couple of examples will show his attitude:

“Mathematics should be geared more to management, accounting, and a variety of practical needs of the modern world.” (Kindle loc. 243)

“Latin was once the language of scholarship and an international language; its only value now is to historians and classical scholarship. Green and Hebrew are important to a Christian society, but basically only to the biblical scholarship of that society.” (Kindle loc. 243)

I would argue that if all these things — science and history and language — are part of God’s creation and, as Scripture tells us, reveal His character, then they are worth studying in and of themselves. Our God is a God of truth and to the extent that we learn more of that truth, we become more like Him and bring glory to Him. This is apart from any value that this knowledge may have in our witness to non-believers. I would add that it is not just truth in terms of true facts but the beauty and poetry of creation which merit our attention and study (Phil. 4:8). Rushdoony, in contrast, calls knowledge for knowledge’s sake and art for art’s sake humanistic ideas (Kindle loc. 484).

These, then, are my two major disagreements with Rushdoony: he undervalues general revelation and he undervalues knowledge and beauty for their own sake. I feel less equipped to critique what Rushdoony has to say o n Christian schools since we have never used them, but, as his stance is so forceful, a review of his book would seem incomplete without at least alluding to it.

All of the authors I have looked at this far have advocated for exclusively Christian education and denigrated public education. Rushdoony is among the most extreme in his rejection of public education:

“Hence, for Christians to tolerate statist education, or to allow their children to be trained thereby, means to renounce power in society, to renounce their children, and to deny Christ’s lordship over all life.” (Kindle loc. 2343)

He even argues against Christian schools seeking accreditation (Kindle loc. 1609) and has very particular ideas about how a Christian school should operate.  I find some of what he says disturbing, for example:

“‘Scientific’ tests have indicated that there are racial and sexual differences.” (Kindle loc. 2023)

A brief statement but one that raises my hackles. Rushdoony does not expand upon the racial differences. He does argue for separate education for boys and girls. Some of this may come from considerations of how children learn best, but he also claims that girls are not as capable of abstract thought (Kindle loc. 2032). He stops short of saying that girls need not have higher education but given his overall practical stance, it would not surprise me if he ultimately came to this conclusion. This line of reasoning — a girl’s place is in the home therefore girls don’t need higher education — stems from the same sort of thought Rushdoony does evidence, that knowledge is only valuable for what we can do with it outside of ourselves and not in its own right. 

One of my goals in formulating a philosophy of education is to have something that can be applied to both Christian and non-Christian pupils. A number of the other writers I have read seem to assume Christian children in their schools. Rushdoony does not, but what he has to say about the discipline of children in his (proposed) schools also leaves me with concerns.  I am all for discipline of children and agree with Rushdoony that it should fall under the heading of discipleship. When it comes to practical matters, however, he seems to go too far–

“St. Paul is here describing the necessity under God to purge out delinquents, the sinners. His words apply to every Christian institution, the school as well as the church.” (Kindle loc. 1844)

I will probably write another whole post on the idea of a Christian school. Rushdoony is not the only writer that speaks of the school as a separate, almost divinely-inspired, Christian institution. Whether it is or not (and I expect to argue it is not), I don’t see any reason to apply the passage in question (which is 1 Cor. 5:6-7) to anything but the Church. Then there is the practical question of how such discipline would be applied which Rushdoony does not fully answer. I am left after reading the book with the idea that his school would be rather strict and that its teachers would be a bit distant and not necessarily caring (Kindle loc. 1865).

Despite my differences with Rushdoony, there is still a lot in his book to make it worth reading. He begins with a history of education which provides a nice background. He provides some good criticisms of both classical and modern education, both of which he deems statist, humanistic and secular.  As he gets into specific subjects, he provides us with a starting place for evaluating how to teach them, and he has a number of intriguing statements that I’d like to return to in future posts. So while I have some very fundamental differences, I do think Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum is one to add to your reading list.

Nebby

[1] Since it is not my main subject, I hope you will forgive me for admitting that most of this background information is from the Wikipedia articles on “Rushdoony,” “Theonomy,” and “Christian Reconstructionism” (all as of 4/20/2018).

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) pp. 89-91.

[3]  I would include under general revelation not just what we can observe casually but also what we can know of God through more in-depth investigations into science and history and culture.

[4] Van Til, p. 91.

[5] Re history, Rushdoony says: ” . . .for the Christian historian and teacher, the basic textbook is the Bible” (Kindle loc. 685). And even grammar is tied to the Bible: “Our ideas of grammar, of tense, syntax, and structure, of thought and meaning, bear a Christian imprint. Very clearly, our language and grammar are relative, but relative to a heritage of biblical faith” (Kindle loc. 809). And a general statement: “If the Bible is what it declares itself to be, then it is the most basic book in education” (Kindle loc. 1223) and again: “The sovereignty of God means that our educational standards must be derived from Scripture, not man” (Kindle loc. 2402) and “. . . the Bible must establish, govern, and condition the curriculum, or else we do not have Christian education” (Kindle loc. 2451).

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] final quibble — I am once again (as I was with Rushdoony) uncomfortable when Harris talks about education for boys versus that of girls (pp. 119-20). He […]

    Reply

  2. […] the fact that both Cornelius Van Til and Rousas Rushdoony (see my reviews of their books here and here respectively) speak of the Christian school as an almost divinely-inspired body complementary to […]

    Reply

  3. […] “Similarly, in mathematics. much of the curriculum is important to future mathematicians, not to the overwhelming majority of peoples. Mathematics should be geared more to management, accounting, and a variety of practical needs of the modern world.” [Rousas Rushdoony, Philosophy of Christian Curriculum, () Kindle loc. 243; see my review here] […]

    Reply

  4. […] value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some Christians seem content with such an approach (see this book review); I could not be. Finally, when we look at the early Church we find people who faced much the same […]

    Reply

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