A Broad Education

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.

In the coming weeks we will be going through individual subjects and looking at how we should view and teach them from a reformed Christian perspective. Before we do that, however, I want to make sure that we are understanding the context in which we do these things. While I will be talking about math and grammar and history individually, we are never to view these subjects as free-standing and unrelated disciplines.

This realization affects how we teach. It also affects what we teach. There is a time for specialization. That time is when one has a solid foundation of knowledge (and even then dabbling in other areas is quite useful intellectually). As our immediate concern is the education of children (pre-college) we are not too worried about that. There may be some level of concentration in the final years of high school, but most of what we are talking about is the years when one should be getting a broad, well-rounded education.

Why a broad education? In my recent  post on methodology  I discussed the kinds of evidence we can argue from. The biblical witness is, of course, always paramount, but, on issues to which the biblical text does not speak directly, we have recourse to logical reasoning and common sense on the one hand and observation  and scientific studies on the other. This particular issue is a good way to get our feet wet because arguments can and have been made from a number of starting points.

The trend in recent years has been to combine, or perhaps one should say recombine, various academic disciplines. This is exemplified by a change in acronymns.  Not so very long ago the buzz word of the day was STEM. STEM stands for sceince, technology, engineering and math. It was believed that to get ahead in this world (where getting ahead seems to translate to having the best technological innovations and therfore the best economic position) America needed above all a large number of students well-versed in these STEM subjects. This emphasis on one particular kind of knowledge led to an undervaluing of other subjects and an underfunding of the arts in particular. More recently,  popular opinion has backed away from this viewpoint and turned STEM into STEAM. The extra “A” is for arts as educators realized that the creativity which the arts engender is necessary for us to truly achieve their goals. [1]  Though the change is narrow (one wonders what has happened to history and the social sciences), the transition from STEM to STEAM represents a small concession to the idea that no one kind of learning can stand on its own.

While the STEM/STEAM movement pervades our elementary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities have also made a move towards what might be termed creativity education. In May 2013, Radcliffe Magazine reported on a conference with the title “Breakthroughs: Creativity across Disciplines.” The title of the conference sums it up. The keynote speaker, Richard Holmes, is reported to have said that “creativity, ‘with its criss-crossing patterns of inspiration,’ defies disciplinary borders” [Corydon Ireland, “How revolutionary leaps of insight occur across disciplines—they’re not always sudden,” Radcliffe Magazine (May, 2013)]. In 2014, the New York Times reported on the effort by a small number of colleges (four are listed in the article) to deliberately teach creativity.

“And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.” [Laura Pappano, “Learning to Think Outside the Box,” The New York Times (Feb. 5, 2014)]

The idea behind creativity education, as behind STEAM, is a very practical one — there are problems to be solved and crossing disciplines seems to allow one to solve them faster and more creatively.

Another buzz word,  “transdisciplinary” [2], implies a deeper philosophical viewpoint:

“Transdisciplinary teaching and learning operates from the belief that there is knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and actions that transcend subject area boundaries and forge the curriculum into a coherent transdisciplinary whole that is engaging, relevant, challenging and significant.” (“Transdisciplinary Teaching & Learning,” from Discovery College)

Such a transdisciplinary approach has been termed holistic in that it presents a worldview that seeks to unify all areas of knowledge:

“The transdisciplinary approach of holistic type, that overreaches the disciplinary fragmentation limits with its disadvantages, offers a vision of the world and life, as competent as possible, and has as starting point the human nature with all its complexity and diverse forms of manifestation.” [Daniela Jeder, “Transdisciplinarity — The Advantage of a Holistic Approach to Life,” Procedia: Social and Behavorial Sciences (July 9, 2014)]

The impetus of the STEM/STEAM movement is largely economic with some national pride thrown in. With transdisciplinary studies there is some awareness of a larger meaning. Ideas themselves are transcendent and there is some acknowldgement of a unifying truth behind it all. If, however, we begin with “human nature,” as in the quote from Jeder above, we will never get far or be able to establish a true unified view.

This is an argument Francis Schaeffer made numerous times and in numerous ways. Writing in the late 1960s, Schaeffer said that in humanism, or rationalism, “men and women, beginning absolutely by themselves, having only selves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value” (Francis Schaeffer, “The God who is There,” from Three Essential Volumes in One. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990). Because these men and women were not able to build a unified view of reality starting with themselves and having no idea of a Creator, they abandoned the effort:

“The philosophers came to the conclusion that they were not going to find a unified rationalistic circle that would contain all thought, and in which they could live.” (Schaeffer, p. 10)

In the 1960s and 70s, Schaeffer documented the abandonment of any effort towards a unified understanding of reality and with it the idea of absolute truth.

Now it seems that there is some movement back towards unification. This is a good trend and as Christians we should applaud it, but we also need to recognize that there can be no true and unified view that begins with man.

When we begin with God, we begin with unity. God is One (Deut. 6:4). It is He that has created all things, and this creation gives them their meaning (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11). It is also what gives them unity (Col. 1:17). As they have one Maker and one Sustainer (Heb. 1:3), they have one purpose as well (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 8:6) which is to glorify and reveal their Creator (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20).

We all tend to have subjects we don’t like. For one it is math, for another grammar or science or history. Yet the Bible tells us that all things are made by God and accomplish His purposes. Because they all both originate from and point to the same One, there is an inherent unity. On a practical level, we must learn our addition facts in one moment of the day and our spelling rules in another and our biology in still another. But as we do so we must always keep in mind that these things are part of one system because there is one Creator God.

Nebby

[1] There is no shortage of articles on STEM/STEAM available. One I found helful for explaining the trend and the changes in it is Christine Liao’s “From Interdisciplinary to Transdisciplinary: An Arts-Integrated Approach to STEAM Education.” [Christine Liao (2016) From Interdisciplinary to Transdisciplinary: An Arts-Integrated Approach to STEAM Education, Art Education, 69:6, 44-49, DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2016.1224873]

[2] One may see various similar terms — transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. While they do have distinct definitions, delving into them is beyond the scope of this post. It is enough for our purposes to note that the trend is towards combining disciplines or at least crossing boundaries between them.

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] on the theoretical side of things (see this summary post). On the practical side, we have discussed the need for a broad education and for an approach that is interesting but not entertaining. Today I’d like to talk about […]

    Reply

  2. […] that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and valuable for our children. (I have argued previously for a broad education that is not confined merely to the trendy STEM […]

    Reply

  3. […] that easy first step, you can begin to consider materials. So we talked about what to teach. I argued for a broad education that encompasses many subject areas [not just the trendy STE(A)M ones] based on the principle that […]

    Reply

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