Reformed Thinkers on Education: Synopses of Shorter Articles

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Most of the people I have looked at thus far are represented in a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997). There are a few articles within the volume that are from a committee or journal and stand alone. In this post I will try to briefly sum up two of them.

Thoughts from the Calvin College Curriculum Committee

In 1970 the Calvin College Curriculum Committee released “Christian Liberal Arts Education.” The purpose of this article was to lay out a plan and justification for a liberal arts education at the college level. Though this is not my area of interest, there are some points in the article worth considering. 

The Committee begins by detailing two approaches to liberal arts education, the pragmatist and the classicist. The former is utilitarian and focuses on problem solving. It relies upon the psychological claim that learning only happens when it is centered around the interests of the student and/or tied to the problems he faces. The latter focuses on knowledge-getting 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, they say, to focus on the problems of the moment as these may change and the student does not necessarily acquire skills that transfer to new situations. While it is good for students to be interested in what they learn, they do not need to have a stake in every subject. Education they define as the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. As for the classicist view,  the main objection is that it is too general and too disinterested. It focuses on critiquing culture but not engaging it in. Again, this sounds like Jellema who valued art criticism over creating art.

The view which the Committee favors 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 contemporary society. The article spends lot of time discussing academic disciplines and how they relate to one another. The basic idea seems to be that one should have a broad knowledge of all disciplines but should be able to delve into and apply the proper methods in one particular discipline. What unites them all is our conceptual framework which must be biblical. We do not get all we need to know about science or literature from the Bible, but it does provide us with the foundations in the form of a framework or way of thinking and viewing the various disciplines. Only a biblical framework can lead us to true knowledge. Other frameworks may provide some measure of truth. Not all non-biblical ways of thinking  are equally bad and some disciplines are going to be less affected by a wrong framework than others. 

Lastly, the Committee notes that our study is part of the cultural mandate. That is, is it part of the Christian commission to transform human culture. This is a commission given to the Church as a whole. It is not  necessary for every individual Christian to be so educated, but those who are able to engage in higher education should proceed in this way.

I balk instinctively at language which excludes some people and deems them uneducable (though the Committee does not by any means go so far as using that word). There are, of course, differences between people and some of these are in their mental capacity. But I also believe that education is a lifelong enterprise and that we should all be gradually getting more educated. We may not all get to the same place or go in the same directions, but I am wary of an approach which says that some people should pursue higher education and some shouldn’t. Which is again not to say everyone need to get a Ph.D., but education itself is not for some and not others. What I like about this article is the emphasis on the biblical framework which informs all the disciplines we might study.  The discussion of the various disciplines and how they relate to each other does not directly relate to what I am seeking in this series but it was interesting.

Anabaptists versus Reformists

In “Christian Schools: Anabaptist or Reformist?” [originally published in Christian Scholars Review, vol. 15., no.4 (1986)] Paul F. Scotchmer discusses how Anabaptist and reformed schools have differed and argues for the reformed approach. The underlying issue is not about the schools themselves but about the proper Christian attitude towards culture. Anabaptists have, historically, been separatists when it comes to culture whereas the reformed have sought to be in but not of the culture and ultimately to transform it.

Scotchmer provides some historical background and it is interesting to read how Luther, Calvin and others viewed the issue. The interesting point for me is what Scotchmer’s arguments have to say to more contemporary debates — whether Christians can and should use the public schools, what Christian schools should look like, and how homeschooling fits into the picture.

Scotchmer’s argument, and I think he is correct in  this, is that though schools were operated under the auspices of the state in Luther’s day and that of the other reformers, that the situation is not the same today. There was a time when the state and church worked together more or less as they should — that is, the state supported the church without interfering in its mission. This is not the case today. Scotchmer acknowledges a state interest in an educated populace, but what the public schools provide in America today is not a Christian or even a religiously neutral education. The argument is often made that Christians should use the public schools in order to engage the culture and ultimately to provide a witness to non-Christians. Scotchmer argues in opposition to this that sending one’s child into the public schools does nothing to transform the culture. The transformation we seek is more communal and not so individual.

Instead, Scotchmer argues for an approach to Christian schooling which can be transformative. Many of the thinkers we have studied have spoken of Christian education as if it is only for covenant children and this has been one of my major criticisms of them. Scotchmer says that Christian schools should be open to all. We transform by educating young minds. The Christian school, he says, should not be “so much a shelter from the winds of secularism as a nursery for the cultivation of Christian citizens” (p.302).

Scotchmer makes a good argument against modern public schools, while acknowledging that there may have been times and places in which government-supported, if not government-run, schools were quite acceptable. Though I am pro-homeschooling, I am not inherently opposed to the idea of schools. Scotchmer comes as close as I’ve seen to presenting a good model for how such schools could operate and serve not just covenant children but all children.



4 responses to this post.

  1. […] of the thinkers we have seen, being reformed and not Anabaptist (as one of the articles reviewed here explains), argue for some level of interaction with secular culture. Gaebelein does as well. He is perhaps […]


  2. […] endeavor fall under the cultural mandate so that the arts in particular are included in our study. As we have seen, the reformed approach has always been to engage and partcipate in culutral endeavors in contarst […]


  3. […] has been for Christians not to withdraw from culture but to seek to engage and transform it (see this post, especially the second half). With this, there is some acknowledgment that truth and beauty can […]


  4. […] Our conceptual framework must be biblical.  (Synopses of Short Articles) […]


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