Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge?

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.

One of the big questions we have to answer as we seek to build a philosophy of education is what are we to teach? Is there a necessary core of knowledge that every student needs to learn? This is an issue which divides philosophies of education and has practical applications for how we teach and test as well.

On one end of the spectrum is the unschooling movement which says that no, there is no one body of knowledge that every child needs. The child, left alone, will learn what is necessary to him. Even if he shows no interest in some basic subject, it is not to be pushed. On a practical day-to-day basis, an unschooler, though not setting out perhaps to teach basic math skills, will often find himself doing so through every day activities like cooking. Many of the unschoolers I have known have been very diligent, busy parents. They may not set an agenda for what their child should learn but when he asks about dinosaurs, they are all over the library finding every resource they can on the topic.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of knowledge. It is often defined very much by western culture, relying heavily on Greek and Latin classics as well as more modern works from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. A classical educator is likely to make use of old-school techniques like memorization and traditional testing.

In between these two extremes there are of course other positions. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, on which I have blogged extensively, tries to bridge the gap. Miss Mason did believe that there is appropriate fodder for education but also acknowledged that one can never force another to learn and that each pupil is an individual person. This is an approach which takes the horse to water but does not force him to drink. The material is presented but the student must ingest it for himself. Again, this can be seen in the techniques used. Memorization is not prioritized nor are other methods which require the child to reproduce precise bodies of information (worksheets, true or false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank). Narration replaces these and allows the child to be more selective in what he or she gets from a given lesson.

It is perhaps easier to understand the differences if one considers how studying a classic book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would look in each of these philosophies. The unschooler does not require her child to read the book. She might get it from the library and leave it lying around the house (this is called strewing). And certainly if the child were to ask for it, she would obtain it. After the child has read the book, the unschooler might have a casual discussion — “Did you like the book?”– but would not require any sort of report or testing. The Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooler and the Classical educator would both require the student to read the book. In CM’s approach, the child narrates what he reads, that is, he tells what he has read, deciding for himself what is interesting or worth noting. This may be done orally or in writing. For the classical homeschooler, there would be more concrete ways of integrating the knowledge. These could include such things as reading comprehension questions and worksheets. There would be certain facts that the child would be expected to know — who the author is, for example, or the names of the main characters and some details of setting and plot.

We are going to return next time to how the student reproduces the material and how his learning evaluated. Today I would like to focus on what we are teaching — is there a set body of knowledge? And if so, to what extent should we enforce its learning? I hope the above examples show that this is in some sense a foundational question to answer before we can begin to talk about the hows of education.

Though we are ranging more and more into the realm of general revelation –i.e. topics about which the Scriptures may not have anything specific to say — we should always begin by asking what they do have to say, either overtly or more subtly through the principles we can derive from them.

When it comes to the knowledge of God, His Word makes clear that there is a specific body of knowledge we are to communicate to our children. Not only so we present this knowledge to our children, we fairly drill it into them, keeping it always before them (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude 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 subjects.)

As reformed Christians, we believe that there are absolute standards of truth and beauty. We also believe that all people are sinful and that all their faculties have been tainted by sin. Combining these two facts, we can draw two conclusions: There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. And, secondly, our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We must, therefore, reject the unschooling end of the spectrum which allows the child to choose entirely what he will learn. We do not believe that the child left on his own will gravitate towards what is good or what he needs.

The flip side of the Bible being the only infallible rule for faith and life (“only” modifies “infallible” in this phrase) is that nothing else is infallible, not Calvin, not your homeschool curriculum. All human culture bears the stamp of our race’s sin. The pagan cultures which form the basis of so much of our western civilization carry with them pagan presuppositions and ideas. We must be especially wary and discerning because the underlying assumptions are often just that – underlying and not overt. We will not realize we are accepting ideas built upon ungodly bases. Which is not to say that we must reject them altogether; I do believe (as I have argued here) that all truth is God’s truth and that it may come to us through non-Christian sources. My argument is not that it is wrong to study the likes of Plutarch but that we must do so with great discernment.

We must be equally wary of “Christian” culture. There is no doubt Christianity has had some profound and real effects on western culture, but much of what passes for Christian culture (including Christian homeschool curricula, of which there is an abundance these days) does not reflect a reformed (which is to say, biblical) understanding of God, creation, and man. [1]

All work can, rightly done, being glory to God. While there is greater responsibility and therefore potentially greater glory (or greater rebuke) for the preacher and pastor (1 Pet. 5:1-4; James 3:1), the Bible teaches us that man is made to work and that all work can bring glory to God. (Gen. 2:15; Prov. 16:3; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:22-24; 2 Thess. 3:10). If the work of a farmer or a physicist or a poet or an accountant is good and, rightly done, able to bring glory to God, then it follows that the study which gets him there is also good and that God can be glorified in our learning about plants and atoms, literary devices and spreadsheets.

The child is a person and no less capable of bringing glory to God through what he does. In our society, the work of the child is to be educated (and, I would argue, the Bible also depicts childhood as the ideal time for education). Just as his elders can work to the glory of God no matter their profession, so he can learn to the glory of God no matter the area of study (for a little background see this post on the child in the Bible).

Practically speaking, there are skills and ideas which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is needed to understand certain scientific concepts. There will be rare exceptions of children who are truly not capable of learning even the basics. We must be careful not to view them as less than persons and we must not deprive them of whatever learning they are capable of. For most, however, it is reasonable to require some basic common knowledge which will be needed for further learning.

One caution — just because some learning is foundational does not mean that  the early years must be spent on the basic and only the basics. He is capable of a relationship with his Creator from birth or before so we must nto deprive him of the tools of redemption and sanctification no matter his age.

As we get beyond the basics, I believe it is reasonable to require our children to learn certain things. The subjects we teach are general revelation, that is, they reveal God to us, and, as Creation has One Creator, they work together as a unified system (see this post). We would be neglectful to teach only history and omit any sciences (or, as our society increasingly does, to teach the sciences and neglect the humanities), because we would not be allowing our children to see the big picture of how God works throughout His Creation.

Our goals can affect what we teach. The Bible sets a good precedent for us to teach history as the story of what God has done for us so we often begin children on local history. The history of one’s own state or country teaches that God works in my life. If we then expand to world history, we see that He works throughout the world in the lives of all people. Similarly, in studying the sciences, we learn first that God makes the plants grow and created all the animals unique. But then as we delve deeper, we see also that He is involved in His Creation as levels we can’t even see – in the minutest atoms and in the farthest reaches of space. When we get to higher levels of math, we learn that even the intangible principles behind Creation are orderly and beautiful. Not every child will learn every subject and certainly cannot do so in depth. God and His Creation are so vast that none of us can ever be comprehensive, or even close to it. Nor do we all need to learn exactly the same things. We may start in the same places – with the foundational building blocks of further knowledge, with subjects that are close to home– but, because we are all unique persons, we will expand in different directions. I believe that we bring greater glory to God by doing so. We express our unique personalities, which He has given us, more fully, and we, as a race, are able to learn more of God’s work and therefore give Him greater glory.

Summary

Because this has been a very long post and has covered a lot of ground, I would like to end with a summary of the main points we have seen:

  • What we study, and whether we believe there is a set body of knowledge to study, will affect how we study and measure learning.
  • As reformed Christians, we must reject the view that children will, on their own, gravitate towards what is good and what they need to know.
  • When it comes to “religious” knowledge, the Bible makes clear that there is a fixed body of knowledge that we are to teach our children.
  • In other fields, we must use discernment. Because there are absolute standards of truth and beauty and goodness, there are also things that are bad and false and ugly.
  • All human culture has been affected by the fall and, while truth can come to us through non-Christians, no one culture has a monopoly on such truth.
  • Much of what passes for Christian culture is also not based on biblical ideas and it should also be approached with discernment.
  • As it is possible to glorify God through one’s work, so we may glorify Him through study.
  • There are some basic concepts which are foundational to later learning and should be required of all children (barring severe mental incapacity).
  • As even the youngest children are fully human, it is not a matter of memorization of basic facts for the young while withholding bigger ideas for later years. Even the youngest children deserve to learn ideas which will point them to their Creator.
  • Because we have One Creator, all areas of knowledge have an inherent unity. They all point us to God yet each teaches us something slightly different and new about Him. For these reasons, we should require a fairly broad curriculum.
  • Nonetheless, 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.

Nebby

[1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here).

 

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge? […]

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  2. […] that all knowledge comes from God and as He is One so it is ultimately unified. More recently, we tackled another trendy question: Is there a core body of knowledge all people need to learn? With some qualification, my answer to […]

    Reply

  3. […] unique, individual — people and that we don’t all have to learn the same things (see this post on core curriculum). So perhaps you don’t have to learn […]

    Reply

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