Reformed Thinkers on Education: Henry Zylstra, Or the Transforming Power of Truth

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.

The 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: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997). Four essays by Zylstra are included in the Oppewal volume. Each is fairly brief so we will take them in turn.

In “Modern Philosophy of Education,” Zylstra takes on “New Education,” that philosophy of education associated with John Dewey and William James which arose in the 1950s. Their view makes the mind a tool and denigrates knowledge. Zylstra argues for “traditional education” which emphasizes the freedom of the mind.  He sees knowledge as integral to man, calling is his “destiny” (p. 65).

On a practical level, Zylstra argues that the content of education is important. “Knowledge is more important than ability” (p. 66). This content is not an amorphous collection of facts but requires unity or “the curriculum breaks” (p. 67). We have seen various dichotomies which help delineate the views on education: intellectualistic versus active; long-term versus short-term goals. Zylstra brings forward another one: content-driven versus personality-driven. Zylstra comes down firmly on the side of a content-driven education. In this first essay, he rejects a program dominated by the teacher’s personality. As we will see below, he also rejects a program driven by the child’s personality. Though Zylstra does not argue specifically for an intellectualistic view of education, the two tend to be connected. Those on the intellectualistic end of the spectrum tend to favor a set content, a “common core” of knowledge, if you will. Those on the other end of the spectrum argue that what we believe must have an outworking; it must affect what we do. Their emphasis then becomes less content-driven and more dominated by practical concerns — moral outcomes, service, etc. But Zylstra raises a key point: “it is truth that forms and fulfills” (p. 67). Out of his four essays, it is this line which contributes most to our overall discussion. We do not need to view the intellectual as the antithesis of the practical. Those who argue for a more active education are correct that our beliefs must be actualized. But they miss this key fact: truth has power to transform. This too is a biblical concept. God’s Word is living and active. To the extent that what we teach is His Truth, we should expect it to have power in the lives of our students.

It is Truth that teachers present to their students. Zylstra argues that culture more than nature conveys this truth. This is much like Van Til who argued for history as the cornerstone of the curriculum. God reveals Himself through both science and the humanities. It is in the latter that Zylstra finds “the human, the moral, the free, the rational element” (p. 68). He further argues for a continued study of the classics as they are “large and comprehensive readings of life. They chart the course of the human spirit, and exhibit alternative answers to man’s religious and philosophical quest” (p. 69). Lastly, he argues for the study of language as “one of the spiritual arts” which “reveals reality, truth; it speaks to mind and mind responds to it” (p. 70).

The second article in Oppewal’s book, “Christian Education,” is an argument for something that is both education and Christian. Here Zylstra argues for the school as an institution distinct from the church. The school, he argues, should not be focused on converting students; that is the role of the church. Its goal is to teach “the student how to express and gives him means to express a responsible human citizenship in the kingdom of Christ” (p. 75). While some schools aim to make students into fit citizens of this world, Zylstra’s goal is to make them fit citizens for the kingdom of Heaven. That they will then also be good citizens on earth is a side effect.

In “‘Interests and Education,” Zylstra returns to the content-driven versus personality-driven debate. Here he argues that the student’s interests should not drive what they learn, at least not entirely. Interests are not static but can develop, and be developed. This is the heresy of unschooling; it assumes that what the child gravitates towards what is best for him. It does not acknowledge our sinful nature, that we may not be attracted to what is good for us. But even within the realm for what is good, there is room for cultivation. Zylstra gives the example of a student who might only read comic books until he is pushed into Reader’s Digest and then from there may be pushed more until he reads real literature.

In his final essay in this volume, “The Contemplative Life,” Zylstra makes the case for contemplation. He once again criticizes Dewey’s emphasis on action and argues instead for thought. To know, particularly to know God, he says, is a human passion. It is indeed the purpose of our life — to know God and enjoy Him forever. As such, knowledge needs no purpose beyond itself. Here he makes an argument for art which is “like religion; it does not want to be vindicated by its usefulness” (p. 91). As we saw when we looked at the study of the fine arts, the very impractically of art serves to push us towards God. It shows us the value of something that is not utilitarian in this very utilitarian world.

There is a lot I like in these few short essays from Zylstra. His most valuable contribution to our discussion is the observation that Truth itself is powerful and transforms. We do not necessarily need to construct a curriculum full of applications. What we do need is to place Truth before our students (see this post). Though I am not sure I agree with his reasons, I do agree with Zylstra (and Van Til) that the humanities, and history in particular, should be the cornerstone of a curriculum. I also like his arguments for language and art and the arguments he makes when discussing interest-driven education. I don’t know if I would go so far as he does. I do think there is balance here. As Wolterstorff argued, there is a place for acknowledging the unique personhood of each student as well.


7 responses to this post.

  1. […] Reformed Thinkers on Education: Henry Zylstra April Reading […]


  2. […] tradition whom Lockerbie chooses is Henry Zylstra whose philosophy I have discussed previously here. My own brief study has led me to believe that there is not quite so much uniformity in this branch […]


  3. […] Books are powerful things. Through them we encounter other minds which may be separated from us by time and space. We believe there is good and evil in this world so we do not want to give our children free rein to all that is out there, especially at a young age before they have developed any discernment of their own. But we do want them to be able to interact with these other minds. Our tendency, I think, is too often to jump in and interrupt this conversation. Textbooks are simply not as good a choice a living books by one author who knows and loves his subject. They add layers, making the conversation more like a game of telephone. They bring more voices in and they mute the original voices by taking them out of context. If we want to use textbooks, Oppewal is perfectly right that Christian ones are preferable. But there is even a better way — actual, real, living books. In the words of Henry Zylstra, […]


  4. […] 1958). Though there is a good section on this book on education (which I will return to; see also this earlier post on Zylstra), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first half of the book is devoted to his thoughts […]


  5. […] University of America Press, 1997), and I have previously read and commented on them here. Today I’d like to look at the remaining essays on education and in particular the final one […]


  6. […] from one well. I have argued that in education we week to transform the men’s fallen minds through the innate power of God’s own truth, beauty, and goodness. I would like to emend that a bit — it is the heart, in the Old Testament biblical sense, […]


  7. […] Knowledge, because it is of God, is good in and of itself. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth) […]


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