Cornelius Jaarsma and the Four Ways to Approach Education

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.

Recently I have been reading various reformed thinkers on education and “narrating” to you their views along with some of my responses (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). The next thinker I will be posting on is Cornelius Jaarsma. Because he has so much meaty stuff to say, I wanted to take the time to meditate a little more deeply on his ideas.

In “The Christian View of the School Curriculum” [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) pp. 183-95], Jaarsma lays out four approaches to education: Knowledge-getting, Disciplinary, Social, and Psychological. The first two Jaarsma identifies as ancient or classical, being represented in the Greco-Roman traditions. The latter two are more modern. 

The first approach, knowledge-getting, focuses on content. There is a certain body of material and the goal is to get the student to learn it. This approach tends toward memorization and quantitative testing. It also tends to minimize the individuality of the student as it is the material to be learned that is paramount. This approach is most closely associated with the modern classical education movement

The disciplinary approach is about training and developing the mental faculties. It assumes that education is not so much about getting a certain body of information into the student but about teaching him how to use his mind. If you have heard it said “education is about learning how to learn,” that is the disciplinary approach. If you read any Charlotte Mason, she tends to rail against Herbart and others of her day who sought to train the faculties. Her objection to them was that they assumed that children are not complete but that there is something in them that needs built up and developed in order for them to be able to learn. The process is more important than the content in this approach. And, as Jaarsma says, “there is an external mold or pattern according to which the learner is to be formed” (p. 185). There is some of the disciplinary in the modern classical movement, particularly in the view that there are three stages through which a child progresses. Montessori schooling would also fit here as above all it seems to be about molding the child and developing his faculties. The Waldorf school may as well. It certainly views the child as something almost other than human who has to evolve into an adult.

The social approach focuses on the student as part of a society and strives to fit him for that society. This was the approach of John Dewey on whose ideas much of the modern public school system are based. This is the view John Taylor Gatto, the patron saint of unschooling, criticizes in his provocative books Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction. It is a very industrial approach to education which sees the individual as part of a machine. The mindset behind it is factory-like and very utilitarian in that the individual is fitted for a certain role. One can find elements of this approach on other circles as well. One of my criticisms of Rousas Rushdoony was that he seems to tend toward a kind of Christian utilitarianism that could fit this category as well. 

The fourth and final approach is known by a few descriptives. It may be called psychological, creative, or experiential. It emphasizes the individual and his responses. “Self-expression, self-appraisal, motivation, self-activity, and the like are the key words” in this approach (p. 186). Unschooling which more than any other philosophy emphasizes the individual would fit here. 

In truth, many educational philosophies combine two or more of these approaches. The last thinker we studied, Nicholas Beversluis, delineated three goals of education: intellectual, moral, and creative. The first and last of these correspond to the knowledge-getting and psychological approaches. The moral, which is about choosing based on knowledge, is a little harder to pin down. It does seem to bear some relation to the disciplinary approach in that the child it trained to choose what is right. There is a kind of molding going on here though it is not really a training of the faculties.

Beversluis, in the little I have read from him, does not allude to the social, but I think we need to keep in mind that the social approach can aim at different goals. We may think first and foremost of Gatto’s bugaboo — the evil state turning our children into cogs in its godless machine (though Gatto would not have minded the godless bit), but there is a way in which Christians also shape children for the good of the collective. The society in this case is the church. Though I found Rushdoony far too utilitarian, the focus need not be so overtly practical. Nicholas Wolterstorff spent a while arguing that as Christians we have an alternative society. His point was that we therefore need our own schools. But the basic idea is that it is this alternative society, the heavenly kingdom which is our true citizenship, for which we are preparing children.

The philosophy I have spent most time on is  Charlotte Mason’s. She too seems to combine approaches. She believes in truth so there is an element of the knowledge-getting. She would not, as unschoolers do, allow children to select their own curricula (though she certainly also makes clear that knowledge itself is not the goal). Against those in her day who said that the purpose of education is to develop latent faculties, she argued that children are born whole persons, already mentally complete. Yet at the same time, there is an aspect of her approach which is disciplinary. Habit-training is a major part of her program for children, the idea being that what is established by habit comes to shape character. Similarly, she provides children with good, wholesome materials so that they will develop a taste for them and not what she calls “twaddle.” This too is a kind of training of the tastes, though not a development of the abilities. Miss Mason expresses her goal in a few different ways in different places, but she does say at times that chidlren are being raised to be good citizens or to be of service to their society. Lastly, there is the creative or expressive approach. Because she had a strong view of the child as an individual person, Mason fits here above all. In her philosophy the child must take in what is presented to him and process it for himself. Not all children will get the same ideas even if they read the same books. So there is not the wide-open individualism of unschooling, but there is also not the cookie-cutter approach towards which classical schooling tends.

The reformed thinkers I have been reading of late for the most part seem to be trying to balancing the knowledge-getting and psychological approaches. From the Scriptures we learn both that there is absolute truth and that each child is an individual and unique person. Mason, I think, does this quite well, and that is why to a large extent I have followed her philosophy (though, as I have argued many times, she is not reformed, hence this series).

To return to Jaarsma, he, like Charlotte Mason and others, comes down in favor of a mixed approach to education:

“All the curriculum concepts we have discussed have elements or aspects of truth, according to the criteria we secure from the Scriptures. There is preexistent truth to be understood and mastered. Our mental resources gain power through their exercise in knowledge-getting. Our social resources are responsive and must be cultivated. And finally, we are creative beings, and our capacity for originality must be given opportunity for expression.” (Oppenwal, p. 190)

I find the categories Jaarsma presents very helpful in evaluating the various approaches to education and in determining best practices. Though we may not agree on all the particulars, I do agree with him that the end result must be something that combines two or more of these approaches.

Next time we will step back and look at Jaarsma’s views from a bit of a wider perspective.

Until then.


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Last time we began to look at Cornelius Jaarsma, focusing in the four approaches to education which… [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc, 1997)]. […]


  2. […] it calls the disciplinary view (not to be confused with the disciplinary approach as outlined by Jaarsma). The focus is on disinterested knowledge and the goal is to produce Christian citizens in […]


  3. […] fit in the long post.  Today I’d like to look at where my philosophy falls in terms of the 4 Ways to Approach Education outlined by Cornelius […]


  4. […] wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the […]


  5. […] one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the […]


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