Reformed Thinkers on Education: Gordon H. Clark on the Image of God

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.

I am endeavoring to look at more of what’s out there by other reformed thinkers on the topic if education. You can find my introduction to this series within a series here. Today’s thinker is Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) who was primarily a philosopher.  His “A Christian Philosophy of Education” was published in 1988 (apparently posthumously) in Trinity Review (this seems to be a shorter article summarizing a longer book originally published in the 1940s). The period from roughly 1965 to 1990 generated a lot of  Christian writing on education, most of which took the form of a call for a more distinctly Christian approach. Most of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern homeschooling movement has its roots in this era.

Clark, like these others, is clearly responding to a crisis he saw in his own day. He cites particularly modern advances — the telephone! and end to typhoid! — which though seemingly good can also be used for evil and do not make people inherently better (and, yes, he does see a downside to the end to typhoid as well; read the article to find out what it is 😉 ). One can only imagine what he would have made of the internet. If there is any specific event which seems to have generated this article it is the prohibition by the courts of prayer in schools, though he is not entirely opposed to such a prohibition, acknowledging that not all prayer is righteous prayer.

Like all those others whose books I have reviewed, Clark sees no compatibility between Christianity and public education. He spends some time on the origins of the public schools and notes that they have never been Christina institutions. Be their very nature, they must be opposed to true Christian doctrine. Though he laments the lack of good Protestant schools, he does not mention homeschooling (perhaps it was not at all on his radar). His call is a fairly general one — for an education based on Christian doctrine (he cites the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically as a proper ground for such education).

In the first half or so of this article, Clark seems to be focused on stemming the evils in society. Discipline in the schools seems to be an especial concern. Interestingly, the view of evil is cited as a key element behind one’s philosophy of education:

“The two philosophies [Christianity and secular humanism] and their educational implications differ on what to do, on what evil is, and on how it originates.” (Kindle loc. 100)

In the latter half of the article, Clark advances a particular theory related to the image of God in man. He argues that the image of God is reason. He sees reason as the thing which separates us from the animals. “Christianity,” he says “is intellectualistic” (Kindle loc. 180). Fellowship with God requires thinking and understanding. Morality as well is impossible without reason. The animals are incapable of sin, or of doing good, because they cannot reason. We could glorify God, he says, without reason, but we could not enjoy Him forever (Kindle loc. 189). The fall did not erase the image of God in man but it did corrupt it. Errors in thinking, even something as basic and concrete as arithmetic mistakes, are a result of the fall. “[S]alvation will improve a man’s thinking in all matters” (Kindle loc. 218). Education, then, is an intellectual endeavor. He rejects hands-on enterprises, carpentry, plumbing, even the making of music and art, as skills, God-given skills perhaps, but skills nonetheless. Education, for Clark, is about the mind because this is the focal point of his view of man. The art critic, for Clark, is higher than the artist because he thinks about art rather than making it.

“The object of education is truth; the transmission of truth to the younger pupils and the discovery of new truth by more advanced students. The aim of education, at least the aim of the purest and best education, is intellectual understanding.” (Kindle loc. 244).

This series exists because, to a large extent, I stand with these (slightly) older authors. Like them, I am issuing a call for a more distinctly Christian approach to education (and in my case, a reformed Christian approach). As a homeschooling mom, I find that their calls often stopped short of where I want to be. They don’t tend to get down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what are my kids going to be doing on Monday morning? I hope that I am advancing more towards this goal.

Clark stands in this body of work. His criticism of the public schools of his day and his call for a Christian education are not new or unique. He does get into some new territory when he discusses his own view of the image of God and its implications for education. There are many ways the image of God has been delineated in Christian thought and I am very hesitant to tie it down to one quality as Clark does. I would agree with him that the fall affected our reason and I like his point that this affects even our most concrete reasoning. Our kids would not make mistakes in math if they weren’t fallen  creatures. His emphasis on the mind, to the detriment of any physically based aptitudes, also makes me uncomfortable. It smacks a bit of a dualistic understanding which separates man’s mind and spirit from his body. I do not believe this is the Christian view of man.

My short take on “A Christian Philosophy of Education” would be that it stands firmly within the Christian writings of the time on education. There is a germ of a new idea here, but it is not one I can wholly subscribe to.

Nebby

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] I recently reviewed a book on Jewish education which made just this same point. The education of the Jews from 550 BC to 220 AD was distinct from that of the Greeks and Romans in that it sought to make wisdom affect life. (In contrast, our previous thinker was Gordon H. Clark argues that reformed education should be “intellectu…“) […]

    Reply

  2. […] need for practical, life applications on the other. Among authors we have looked at, we saw that Gordon Clark defined education as intellectualistic but W.H. Jellema took the more practical view. Wolterstorff […]

    Reply

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