Reformed Thinkers on Education: W.H. Jellema’s “New Wisdom”

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.

A number of the thinkers we will consider are represented in Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997), a volume edited by Donald Oppewal. The first of these is William Harry Jellema who worked in the 1950s as a philosophy professor at Calvin College among other positions. Two of his essays are included in Oppewal’s volume. The first, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” addresses specific decisions that Calvin College faced at the time with regard to revamping their curriculum. The second, “The Christian School a Prerequisite for and an Outgrowth of the Calvinistic World and Life View,” argues for Christian schools. Because the latter is more general, I will begin with it.

The thrust of “The Christian School . . . ” is contained in its title — Jellema argues the need for distinctly Christian schools. Though this rankles me a little as a homeschooler, I realize that he was writing in the 1950s when the modern homeschooling movement had really not begun so I will give him a pass and assume that this option was just not on his radar.

Jellema spends considerable time arguing for something that I have often said on this blog — ideas have consequences. In his words, our “life views” have practical “outgrowths” (p. 48). There are probably people who would contest this position, but I am not one of them nor do I suspect most of you are so we will not dwell on it overly much. Jellema’s argument is a philosophical one rather than a biblical one though I think this would be an easy point to argue from the Scriptures which ask of us not just faith but obedience. In the course of making his argument, Jellema shows that we are “rational moral” beings (p. 50) and that we embody biological, social, and religious impulses, all of which impact our actions (p. 53).

Jellema goes on to argue that, given that our beliefs have practical consequences, Calvinism will result in the need for Christian schools. This is a multi-stage argument. First he argues for the comprehensiveness of our worldview — that “the God who revealed himself in the Christ of the Scriptures” is “the source of ultimate principles for our world and life view . . . [S]uch a world and life view rooted in the Christian faith will issue in Christian education” (p. 56). But Calvinism “need not create its own social instrument” so he goes on to argue that we need to establish schools to provide this education.

His primary argument on this point is again one that we have seen before and boils down to the idea that there are no uninterpreted facts. Calvinism insists, he says, that “God is not only the object in a narrower sense of religious faith and devotion but is also the ground and end of all existence and truth and value” (p. 57). It is not sufficient to allow secular public schools to teach facts and to allow the church or home to provide religious instruction; the two must be merged and therefore a Christian institution is necessary to do the job.

Though in this essay Jellema does not say too much about the nature of education in the Christian schools he envisions, he does towards the end hint at a purpose for education:

” . . . only in the light of that view can my bits of knowledge become intelligible. And in the sphere of morality and character building this conviction means that my every experience of worth strengthens and deepens my appreciation of and loyalty to God . . . The cutting edge of our view is that intellectual or moral growth and the religious life are in each specific instance and at that moment inseparable . . . ” (pp. 57-8)

In other words, knowledge only makes sense in the light of our beliefs and this intelligible knowldge serves to point us to God so that we give Him glory and grow in Him.

Though I take issue with the idea that we need schools specifically, I am largely in agreement with Jellema thus far. His other article, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” leaves me a little more puzzled. As I said above, he is here arguing for specific changes in the curriculum and course requirements at Calvin College. I am not so much interested in the particulars but along the way he makes some general statements about education.

“Education is for wisdom” (p. 5), Jellema tells us. If this is meant as a definition, I am willing to accept it as such. But Jellema goes on to define wisdom saying it “consists very simply in the ability so to use nature as to achieve position in a society devoted to mastery over nature” (p. 5). Though wisdom is a topic covered at length in the pages of the Bible, this is no biblical argument nor is there  any appeal to the Scriptures. Jellema seems to be saying that our goal is mastery over nature — an argument which could certainly be substantiated by Genesis 1 — but he also says that nature shapes us, that our minds are molded by the patterns in nature. Though we know that God is revealed by His creation, we also know that creation was changed by the fall of man. There is no discernment here, no recognition that not all we find in nature as it now is would be worth emulating. He repeatedly calls this a “new idea of wisdom” (p. 15, 25) which I find quite disturbing given that wisdom is such a deeply-rooted biblical concept. It is not something that it seems we should have a “new” concept of.

Jellema’s overall argument in this essay is for a Christian liberal arts education. The liberal arts, he says, deal with the man as an individual and as a whole (pp. 16, 27). They educate the intellectual for the sake of the moral.  He implies that the ultimate goal of such an education is to fit us to discharge our moral responsibilities (p.16). Though a liberal arts education covers many subjects, he argues against a fragmented approach — a little here, a little there — and for an approach that looks to unifying principles across subjects. He speaks specifically of three or four minds, that is, ways of thinking. The Christian mind, which is associated with the Middle Ages, is primary but one also should learn the ancient and modern minds (pp. 21-22, 31). These minds are learned through the reading of their literature and also the learning of their languages. It is not enough to read the classics in translation but one should also learn Greek and Latin (p. 25).

I like some of the specifics here. I agree that we are much better equipped to understand someone when we learn their langauge (I argued as much in this post). I also like the idea of a broader more unifying perspective rather than a smattering of knowledge from a range of fields. I am a little confused by the minds thing. It may be true but I would like to see more on why these three distinct minds are valuable to know and understand. There is certainly Christian thought and non-Christian, but, as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. I am not so convinced that the ancient and modern are really all that different. There is also the matter of other minds. Jellema mentions a couple of times that we should learn the occidental (i.e. western) minds.  Perhaps the world has changed since his day; I am not sure we can so limit ourselves. Eastern philosophies pervade our culture.

The biggest issue I have with Jellema, however, is this idea of wisdom that he advances. I cannot get over a reformed thinker advancing a “new” idea of wisdom without any reference to the Scriptures. In the first article we discussed, Jellema hints at quite a good goal for education — it causes us to glorify God and it transforms us. I would have liked to see him pursue that train of thought rather than the “new wisdom.”


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] authors we have looked at, we saw that Gordon Clark defined education as intellectualistic but W.H. Jellema took the more practical view. Wolterstorff is also in the latter category. He argues that […]


  2. […] and tends toward a general education. As described it sounds much like the philosophy of Jellema whom we looked at previously. The Committee rejects both of these models. The former it finds too utilitarian. It does no good, […]


  3. […] next thinker on this series within a series is Henry Zylstra (d. 1956). Like Jellema and Wolterstorff, he worked at Calvin College and is represented in Donald […]


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