Reformed Thinkers on Education: Nicholas Wolterstorff on Child-led 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.

Lest you think I am just a crank, I found a “reformed thinker” whose ideas I think. I introduced you last time to a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997). This volume contains selected articles on education. Today’s thinker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, is one of these. Wolterstorff was another philosophy professor at Calvin College. He has two articles in the volume: “Curriculum: By What Standard?” (1966) and “Looking into the Eighties” (1978). The latter was a speech given looks at the future of Christian education. The former discusses specifics of how to form a curriculum.

In “Looking to the Eighties” Wolterstorff asks “Is it possible to conduct alternative Christian education in a non-isolationist setting?” (p. 112). I began this series with some brief discussion (borrowed from Peter Ton who got them from Vried) of the spectrum of ideas about education. One of the biggest of these is the dichotomy between education as primarily an intellectual enterprise on one end and the 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 is also in the latter category. He argues that “Christian education is to imbue the child with a Christian world and life view” and that this view must not be purely intellectual. Education is not all about thinking but “the goal of Christian education is to shape a way of living” (p. 113).

Wolterstorff then makes an assertion: “every society and community educates its members for life in that community” (p. 114). This is a definition we have seen previously when we looked at Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education. Wolterstorff concludes fro this that we must indeed have our own alternative schools because we have an alternative community. How we do so in a way which does not totally reject or isolate us from the culture is the problem he seeks to address.

Before getting there, Wolterstorff takes a detour to look at how we learn how to act. He has already established that education should shape not just our thinking but our actions so how do we do that? He refers to scientific studies to show that children copy what they see others do. If their role models act one way and speak another, they also will become hypocrites, acting as they see others act and speaking as they see them speak (p. 116). If they have diverse role models, there is no way to predict whom they will model themselves after. To top it off, digital models (those on TV or the internet, though he didn’t know the internet) are just as effective as live ones. And this is the crux of the problem because in today’s world — even more than Wolterstorff could have imagined — children are surrounded by these bad influences. And even the good influences which they hopefully get at home and school and church are ultimately imperfect people who will not always represent the best. Wolterstorff rejects the Amish solution, making a truly alternative community with no interaction with the rest of the world, but then returns to his base question: how do we do it?

The first answer he gives is to be a community of love. Though we are imperfect, sinful people, we need to give as authentic and loving a community as we can. Beyond this, we need to give reasons for acting the way we do. Relying once again on studies, he argues that children will respond better to those who give reasons for their actions. The talking heads on our screens do not, but we can and so we can win the battle (p. 118). On a practical level, this means that our curricula need to allow us to discuss real issues and how Christians have, historically, reacted to them and we should react to them (p. 119).

I like most of what Wolterstorff says here. His main arguments come from general revelation, i.e. scientific studies, but they do not contradict Scripture and they do seem to contribute to our understanding in a helpful way. As Paul says in Corinthians, “Bad company ruins good morals” (I Cor. 15:33; ESV). I do think we could add a detail — though we are indeed sinful and therefore imperfect role models ourselves, the work of the Holy Spirit in our children’s lives can cover a lot. It is not entirely up to us to set a good example; God knows we cannot do that. And then sometimes seeing adults sin and repent is a more powerful witness than just seeing us be as perfect as we can all the time (which is not an argument to sin on purpose of course; Rom. 6:1-2).

In his other article, “Curriculum: By What Standard?” Wolterstorff presents some propositions for establishing a curriculum. His assumption again is that we are looking at Christian schools. I will say as I did when we looked at Jellema, that we need also to include homeschooling in our line if sight, but it would be anachronistic to ask them to do so as they wrote before the modern homeschooling movement took off.

Once again, Wolterstorff begins with an assertion: “education is inescapable” (p. 97). We are all learning all the time. The question is not if we will learn but what we will learn. This is where discernment comes in; we must be deliberate and selective in what we learn or we will learn whatever comes across our path which will likely not be good.  This is a very Charlotte Mason thing to say and, though I have in many ways moved away from her philosophy, it is one I agree with. Though he doesn’t use the language, Wolterstorff adds an idea from economics: opportunity costs. We cannot learn everything, not even everything good, so we must choose between available options. Too often teachers use bad criteria when choosing what to teach. They may just follow what they themselves were taught and not really choose at all. Or they may follow their own tastes. Wolterstorff argues that education “must always have its face towards the student. It must answer to his needs” (p. 99).

Here we see another dichotomy that we saw when looking at approaches to homeschooling: child-led on one side versus parent/teacher-led on the other. Those who, like Wolterstorff, take a more child-centered approach, do so, as he does, because they have a high view of the personhood of the child.

Wolterstorff then asks another important question: which life are we preparing the student for, his present one or his future one? (p. 100). I love this question. (It is an issue we have touched on before. See this post.) I also like his answer which is that both lives are in view. We are preparing the child for what will come in his life but he is also a child of God right now. As Wolterstorff says, “The child is not merely a lump of clay . . . For in the Christian view, the child is already a person, demanding love and respect” (pp. 100-101). Our curriculum must equip the child for both his present life and his future service.

Wolterstorff goes on to give four principles for such a curriculum. The first is that man is both body and soul and that we must not neglect the physical by concentrating only on the intellectual. The practical application is that physical education should be part of the curriculum of Christian schools. I do not disagree with him here, but I did have a slightly different take. In developing my own philosophy of education, I defined education as focusing on the mind. This is a definition and was not meant to deny that we must also develop the body, and, I would add, the emotions and the spirit. I also agree that these things, though we speak of them as distinct, are not really separate but all work together. I do not think we are actually on different pages here, however, but only that we are defining terms differently.

Wolterstorff’s second principle is that the Christian life is one of faith, faith not in a set of propositions but in a Person. His practical application is that our curriculum needs to emphasize “the Christian approach to contemporary social issues” and “how the diverse responses of men to God become articulated in their cultural endeavors” (p. 105).

Thirdly, Wolterstorff says that we live in a community. His emphasis here is that we each have a role to play in that community. We cannot all be hands, as the apostle said (1 Cor. 12:15). So we must equip each child to fulfill his unique role. It cannot be a cookie-cutter curriculum. Nor should we exalt certain professions above others.

While we are in a Christian community, we are also in a wider society. Our curriculum should enable us to understand that society. With proper guidance, “Hemingway and Sartre must be read, Stravinsky and jazz must be heard, Picasso and Dubuffet must be viewed” (p. 108).

Lastly, Wolterstorff argues that we must fulfill the dominion that was given us in Genesis 1. He sees, or at least discusses this, as primarily a cultural dominion: “The life of the redeemed is a life of serving God in the whole range of cultural tasks. Not Christ or culture. Not even Christ and culture. Christ through culture is what we must seek” (p. 109). He goes on to say that “Mathematics and natural science belong in the curriculum of the Christian school as surely as do theology and moral instruction” (p. 110). In contrast to Jellema who exalted the art critic over the artist, Wolterstorff argues for creativity. Artistic creativity but also creativity in thought. Students must experiment and argue.

Wolterstorff never refers to the Bible in either of his articles yet his thinking is clearly biblical. Though his appeals are to scientific studies or logic, he often ends up in the same places I have in my own thinking. We do define things a bit differently, but I like a lot of what he has to say. I am particularly struck by his point that we do not all play the same role therefore we should not all have exactly the same education. I think there is a sound biblical basis for this doctrine. Though I am also probably more on the child-led end of the spectrum, I am slightly uncomfortable with some of the things he says. I could see that these things may be taken too far. We must still hold to truth over personal preferences. But some of this difference may be in our experience; I doubt he was surrouded by unschoolers . Overall, I am pleased with Wolterstorff. I have gleaned a couple of new insights which I hope to apply.



3 responses to this post.

  1. […] begins by accepting the view propounded by Jaarsma and Wolterstorff that we must view humans holistically and educate the whole child. His view of knowing will be […]


  2. […] 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 Oppewal’s  Voices from the Past: […]


  3. […] is exalted over the other. Donald Oppewal specifically rejects the Platonic view which, following Wolterstorff, he calls “‘an anti-Biblical conception'” (Oppewal, A Reformed Christian […]


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