Reformed Thinkers on Education: Peter Ton Tackles Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education, The introductory post to this mini-series is here.

I have written a number of times on the modern philosophy of education known as  Christian classical (see here and here). The long and short of it is, I am not a huge fan. I was excited to stumble across this article by Peter L. Ton. “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?” (2005) is Ton’s Master’s thesis from Dordt College. The lovely thing about a thesis is that it starts with an abstract that tells you exactly what the author wants to say. Thus at the beginning we get Ton’s conclusion:

“When compared to the Reformed understanding of covenant children as well as Reformed purposes and methods of education, classical Christian education is found to be too intellectualistic and elitist to be compatible with a Reformed Christian perspective on education.” (p. iv)

Because of his genre, Ton spends a lot of time defining terms. One of the first things that struck me is that he places the heart of Christian classical education in  Moscow, Idaho. This is a red flag for me. If you are unaware, Moscow is the home of Douglas Wilson, a prolific Christian pastor and author, who has, sadly, been associated with some at least borderline heretical movements. I know even within my own denomination there are some who love Wilson and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss him or his work. Suffice it to say, for me mention of Moscow and of Wilson is an indicator that I need to be discerning in what I read. The other major figure behind Christian classical is Dorothy Sayers. I reviewed her article, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which really inaugurated the modern movement here. The short story on that is that I had serious reservations about her own view of and attitude toward children. Ton notes that Sayers “tried her hand at teaching in an elementary school for a brief period, but gave it up quickly and without any misgivings” (p. 74).

Ton begins with a review of what Christian classical education, its origins, goals, and methodology. “Classical” refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Medieval educators went back to the classical model, and modern ones in turn went back to the classicism of the Middle Ages. When looking at the ideas behind the modern Christian classical movement, then, we have a number of layers to consider. What Ton finds in those predecessors is an emphasis on the intellectual and theoretical:

“Faith in human intellect, or intellectualism, clearly looms largest, while idealism
with its exaltation of ideas and denigration of matter is a close second.” (p. 21)

“Clearly evident also is the Greek glorification of theoretical knowledge.” (p. 23)

With such roots, it is not surprising that many “Christian educators uncritically adopted or synthesized many pagan Greek ideas in their curriculum” (p. 26). As I have said many times on this blog, not all ideas that come to us through non-Christian sources are necessarily wrong. Nonetheless, we must be discerning in adopting ideas that come to use with such a pedigree (p. 30).

Ton moves on to an examination of if and how these ideas have come through into the modern Christian movement. There are some more technical or methodological differences — grammar, for instance, is defined differently by Sayers than by her predecessors. There are also some common elements, including an emphasis on the social function of education:

“Quintilian and Wilson both assume education is to lead and govern” (p. 42)

Particularly concerning is a view of the child which comes through:

“The purpose behind Greek education was to make good adults, particularly good men, and they did not believe that infancy had much to do with the process’ (Castle, 1969). In fact, infanticide was practiced regularly, no cultural value forbade parents from selling their children into slavery and no civil law prohibited a father from condemning his child to death! This classical view of the child is necessary to point out because it has implications in today’s classical Christian schools. Classical Christian educators are, of course, innocent of such heinous practices as those just mentioned, yet remnants of this view of the child still linger in today’s classical Christian psychology despite their sincere attempts at articulating a Christian understanding of children.” (p. 45)

Ton then moves on to comparing the classical approach to the reformed view of education. He admits, however, that there is not just one reformed take on education. (I used the three-fold division he artiuclates in my introductory post.)  Ton himself takes the antithetical position which combines an emphasis on content with concern for the practical application. Education, he says, “equips the child for ampler and better oriented cultural activity” (p. 69). Which is to say education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are both important.

In his analysis of Christian classical education, Ton sees a conflict between covenantal and communal views of the child. The difference seems to be that a covenantal view emphasizes the need to educate all (covenant) children, even those whose natural gifts might be lacking (p. 47), and places a paramount importance on the role of the parents. Ton argues that Christian schools should not function in loco parentis and thereby diminish the parents’ God-given, even God-commanded, role in education (p. 51). One of the dangers in doing so it that education comes to be seen as the solution to all problems. With parents and church de-emphasized, education becomes almost salvific. It is seen as the solution to all society’s problems (pp. 75-76).

I agree with Ton when he concludes that Christian schools do not take the place of parents and can not, by themselves, apart from the parents, satisfy the demands of Christian education. But I am puzzled when Ton concludes: “A Reformed Christian community ought to encourage Christian school enrolment” (p. 53). Many of the arguments he has made would be good arguments for homeschooling so I don’t know why in the end he seems to dismiss this option.

With regard to the goals of education, Ton’s main criticism of the classical movement is that it is too intellectualistic. Biblical wisdom is lived out; it is not just head knowledge. Classical education, in contrast, views the content, the fodder of education if you will, as the main thing.

“[T]he program is oriented much more toward the mastery of content than to Christian discipleship. This emphasis on content over and above individual learning styles, pedagogic strategy, heart response, student application and discipleship is yet a legacy of the ancients’ faith in curriculum. ” (p. 55)

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 “intellectualistic.“)

Because Ton believes that practical application is important as well as content, he ends up rejecting the methods of classical education which he sees as dividing these two enterprises. Modern classical education sees strict stages. Initially children are in the grammar stage and are memorizing but not analyzing. This is a misunderstanding, or at least a reinterpretation, on Sayers’ part of the classical term “grammar.” For Ton, it renders classcial education unacceptable:

“A Reformed philosophy of education insists that memorization, analyzing
and presenting are taught simultaneously, not consecutively. Upholding the
dignity of subject matter and student, this method underscores that knowledge and
skills are to be used, not stored away without comprehension or application.” (p. 76)

He rejects the classical methodology both because it separates memorization from application and because it does not recognize learning differences which he attributes to the unique image of God in each child.

While the first stage of a classical education, the “grammar” stage, according to Sayers and other modern classical educators focuses on memorization, the second stage, which roughly corresponds to middle school, is the logic stage. In it the focus is on argument because, they would say, children are naturally argumentative at this age. I agree with Ton here that it is wrong and unbiblical to attribute one particular, sinful characteristic to all children of this age and only to children of this age.

The third stage, the rhetoric stage, which corresponds to high school, Ton also criticizes. At this age students are said to focus on appearance and peer interactions. Ton argues that the training of the rhetoric stage will not combat these desires.

Ton spends most of his critique arguing against the broad outlines of classical education as delineated by Sayers. At the end of his analysis he briefly addresses Wilson’s arguments. Wilson uses some Bible verses to support the classical stages, saying that children get knowledge early on but must develop wisdom. I again agree with Ton that there is little true biblical support for this view and that a much more in-depth analysis of the biblical view of wisdom would be necessary.

When it comes to his analysis of classical education, I agree with a lot of what Ton has to say. I think he does a good job of describing this approach to education and showing why it falls short of the biblical view of wisdom, which is always very practical and applicable, and why it undervalues or misvalues children at the various stages of life. It has been my contention for years that any philosophy of education makes statements about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. Without necessarily using that language, Ton shows how the classical approach falls short on both these counts.

I am less convinced by Ton’s own philosophy of education. He states clearly that there are multiple theories about reformed education and he is up-front about his own position, but he does not defend or argue for his position. I understand that this is a master’s thesis and a more detailed presentation of his own view may have been beyond the scope of the work. I would like to see — from Ton and all the other authors I am reading — a truly biblical argument for why their particular philosophy of education is best.

Nebby

 

One response to this post.

  1. […] There are no doubt parents who send their kids to a school and still stay very involved, but (as Peter Ton also pointed out) it is very hard to send your child away to someone else to educate for something like thirty […]

    Reply

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