Principles of Reformed Education: Pick Your Teachers Well

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.

How do we grow in knowledge? How does one learn anything? Depending on the sort of knowledge we have in mind, there can be varying answers. I would not say I know how to scuba dive if I have only read a book on the topic. In all disciplines there are people who go out in the field or go back to primary sources and analyze and develop new theories.

Though some kind sof knowledge require hands-on experience and though there will always be the need for discoverers who return to the sources, none of us starts from scratch. We all get some base of knowledge from those who have come before. And most of the time, for most of us, the bulk of our knowledge comes to us through other people, whether in person or through books and, increasingly, other media. This is as it should be; God created us to be in relationship with one another (Gen. 2:18), and He commands us to pass on our knowledge to the next generation. This is especially true in the family (Deut 6:7) but is not exclusive to the family (Tit. 2:4-5).

Today’s principle is fairly simple: Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. 

God Himself is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Acts 7:10; Jam. 1:5). Because we, in Adam, were created in His image as spiritual beings (i.e. ones with a spiritual as well as a physical nature), we also are capable of obtaining wisdom and knowledge. Note that I do not say we originate knowledge. All knowledge comes from God. We “discover” it when God reveals it to us.

Though there are no doubt many ways in which we as a race go astray and follow wrong ideas, there is some progression in human knowledge. I am very grateful that we live in an era in which we know about bacteria and viruses. I have a child who is alive today because God allowed a man (Frederick Banting) to discover insulin and its role in controlling blood sugar. Still, we will never know everything there is to know.

There are “Eureka” moments in human history in which God allows one person to dicsover some truth that no human had ever thought before. But these “discoveries” are not built on nothing. The discoverer already has some base of knowledge, some reason to be looking in the corner they are looking in or to be running the experiment they are running. And when they make that great discovery, we do not all have to make it again. The knowledge gets passed on and built on.

As we discussed last time, when we want to convey specific knowledge, we use words, whether oral or written. This use of langauge seems to be inherent in how we are made. We were created by God’s Word and it is how He, who created and knows our natures, communicates with us. When He chooses to communicate specific truths to us (special revelation as opposed to general revelation), He uses words.

And so we use words to communicate with one another. When we think of teaching, we often think of one person standing in front of a class and lecturing and this is certainly a valid method of conveying human knowledge. But the words and ideas that flow from mind to mind can come to us in various media. In our day and age, we can preserve a lecture and share it with others. This has not always been the case. More than anything else the written word has been the means of preserving and transmitting human knowledge. Last time, I made the case for books as the primary tool of learning and for particular kinds of books which we are calling “living books” (see this post).  Today I’d like to focus not so much on the books themselves as on the authors.

As I have argued many times before, God’s knowledge can come to us through non-Christian sources (though we should also expect more truth to come through Christians).  Our “teachers” — live or on paper– will come to us from many walks of life and with many different worldviews. There are no uninterpreted facts. Even in the most mundane, practical subjects, there is some level on which the author’s beliefs will be reflected in what he writes. Because this is so, we must be discerning in who we learn from.

How shall we choose our teachers? It is not simply a matter of Christian versus non-Christian.  There are times when we will have things to learn from non-Christians and there are Christians who will either be factually wrong or who will, despite a profession of faith, have a wrong outlook. When one is young, either chronologically or in one’s faith and knowledge, it is better to keep a narrower circle. There are books I would give to my teen that I would not give to my kindergartner (apart from content considerations of course). The more we know what we believe, the easier it will be to be discerning when we need to evaluate others’ beliefs.

At this stage of my life, I spend a lot of time in the car. I have taken up listening to theological podcasts for entertainment on long drives. While it is occasionally interesting to listen to someone I know is radically different from me, for the most part I pick people who are from the same end of the theological spectrum — i.e. reformed Christians, even other Presbyterians. But even within this realtively narrow corner of the spectrum, I hear things which make me wonder “Is that really true?” But there is one podcast that is done by members of my own (small) denomination including an ordained elder and the president of the seminary.  I’ve never met these men but I know their pedigrees and I know that they have the stamp of approval of a denomination I have already chosen to give allegience too. There might be things they say that I would disagree with but as I listen to them, I am more relaxed because I know that I can have some level of trust in what they say.

My point is this: I have made a broader choice, that I will cast my lot in with a particular church, so when my “teacher” is someone from that body, I can have a certain level of trust. I do not need to vet everything to the same degree I might otherwise. We all make similar choices. We rely on indidivual reputations but we might also look at broader criteria: where a person was educated, what church they belong to, etc. These are not infallible standards but, when well chosen, they are far better than no standards.

When I rely on my church’s seal of approval, I am in some sense accepting their recommendation. We live in a age of reviews. I would caution you to also vet those from whom you get recommendations. Quite often I see people post on homeschool message boards “What curriculum should I use?” If you are going to ask someone for recommendations, make sure they are someone who thinks like you, who has the same goals and standards. Knowing the subject area is a bonus too. Your pastor may be a wonderful, godly man but that doesn’t make him the best person to recommend a grammar curriculum.

To some extent we can develop relationships with particular authors, even those long dead. We become familiar with their thought, and we can develop a trust in them. When you have collected a body of trusted teachers, you do not need to do as much work each time.

While I don’t believe there are any truly secular subjects, there are areas in which I am going to be more careful. I don’t research the religious views of the authors of my children’s math and grammar books, but I am pretty careful of what theology they read and also of what science and history.

Though the primary intent is to give us discernment in religious matters, the Scriptures do offer some criteria for evaluating teachers:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30; ESV)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.'” (Matt. 7:15-17; ESV)

These two passages give us two kinds of tests — Acts speaks to intellectual content and Matthew to practical outworkings.

In Acts we are told that false teachers draw men away from true doctrine. Good teachers, whether they themselves give glory to God or not, inspire us to praise. God’s general revelation should draw us to him (Rom 1:19-20). A teacher who knows his subject well and truly loves it can often lead us to see God in it even if he himself does not. I think, for example, of biologist E.O. Wilson (see this earlier book review). I do not agree with his belief in godless evolution, but when he speaks of his primary field, entymology, his delight in God’s smallest ceratures shines thorugh and though I am not big fan of insects myself, I grow to appreciate them and their Creator more.

Where Acts speaks to a teacher’s affect on us, Matthew addresses his own life. If I am reading a historian and find out that he was involved in eugenics programs, I am probably going to either drop his book or read it with a lot more discernment. I have blogged at length in the past about evolutuion and creation without coming to a solid conclusion. The one thing that has driven me away from Darwinian evolution in recent years more than anything else is  seeing how Darwin’s ideas played out in theology and philosophy. The consequences of the man’s ideas, in his own life and in those who took his ideas to their extreme conclusions, speak volumes about the ideas themselves (I discussed this a little in this earlier post).

If there is a general principle here it is: Be very careful who you let into your head. The rest are guidelines. There will not be one answer for all people. One may be able to read a book discerningly while another may be bothered by it. To sum up, the guidelines I am proposing are:

  • The abiity to discern grows with age and spiritual maturity. Those who are older, both chronologically and spiritually, will be able to make use of a wider variety of teachers.
  • Know what you believe. The better you are educated in your own worldview, the more you will be able to discern and avoid the fallacies in another’s.
  • Vet sources. Look at where a person was educated and what they believe.
  • Get to know your teachers. You can learn to trust particular sources.
  • Seek recommendations only from those you trust.
  • Look at outcomes in your own life. Does reading this person give you a greater sense of awe or does it pull you away from God and His truth?
  • Look at the outcomes in the teacher’s life and at how his ideas have played out through time.

Nebby

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] We have spoken some on the past of the need to vet our authors – and to use caution with those…. Now we must add to that list: check their academic credentials and propensity for honesty. Sad to say, I find it is often the “Christian” historical fiction which seems to go the farthest in terms of inventing people, events, and feelings or motivations. A certain level of sentimentality anda tendency to explain the feelings and thoughts of others shoudl raise red flags for us to proceed with caution and a grain of salt. This does not mean we need to reject narrative-style living books altogether; there are books which use narrative but do a better job of sticking to the facts without assuming motivations and thoughts. Rosenberg admits as much citing Guns, Germs, and Steel as one such book (The Verge). […]

    Reply

  2. […] to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is […]

    Reply

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