Cornelius Jaarsma and the Argument for Schools

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian  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. One of my criticisms has been that most, if not all, of the thinkers we have looked at assume traditional schooling — i.e. kids leaving home daily and going to some sort of building where professional teachers take charge of their education. I have been trying to restrain myself because I know that most of them lived and wrote before the modern homeschooling movement and that educating one’s own kids at home was just not an option that was on their radar. But now I have run across a brief article by Cornelius Jaarsma (whom I covered once before in this post) in which he at least begins to present arguments for schools and so I have a pretext to vent a little 😉

I should be clear that though I am a homeschooler and though I think it is a very good option that could work well for a large number of families, I do not think schools as an institution are inherently evil (for some brief discussion of the public/private/Christian school issue, see this post and this one).

What I do think is that we need to approach schooling critically. Jaarsma and his contemporaries seem to accept that institutional schooling is the way to go without much consideration or argument. The article I am looking at today is paired with another, “An Overview of Christian Education” by John De Beer (in “Towards a Philosophy of Chrostian Education,” Calvin College Department of Education, June 2000; orig, pub. 1953). De Beer cautions that while “the Christian school is constantly to improve ways of teaching” and “may borrow-freely from whatever source is available,” that discernment should be used in adopting the practices developed by non-Christians as their goals, methods and results may not coincide with our own (p. 4). My argument is that it is not just the practices which we need to question but the very institution itself.

In the second part of this publication, “A Brief Overview of Christian Education” by Cornelius Jaarsma, we are rightly told that “[a]ccording to the Scriptures . . . [p]arents are assigned the task to ‘train up’ their children, ‘bring them up,’ and teach them commandments of God” (pp. 10-11).  Jaarsma goes on to argue that, as we are inherently religious creatures, education, even in seemingly non-religious subjects cannot be separated from this religious “bringing up.” Thus all of the child’s education, not just the religious part, is mandated by the Scriptures to the parent and the responsibility for it is theirs and theirs only (p. 13).

Thus far I agree completely with Jaarsma. And I agree with him as well when he says that parents may “seek assistance in their God-assigned task” (p. 13). In my own denomination when the parents at their child’s baptism vow to provide him with a God-centered education, the members of the church also vow to assist the parents. Those who choose to educate at home often find that homeschooling involves selective outsourcing. Hopefully one’s church family does help, but one can also get help from a variety of other sources from grandparents to co-ops to online classes. Which is to say that we must not think of schooling versus home-education as a dichotomy. There is a spectrum of options from the parents doing everything themselves with no outside help on one end to the parents doing nothing themselves at the other end. Neither end is acceptable (or biblical) but that still leaves a lot of room and a lot of possible choices in the middle.

The question before us today is, within this range of options, why institutional schools? As I have said before, the Bible establishes certain institutions including the family, the church, and the civil government. It does not establish schools. This does not mean schools are inherently wrong or unjustify-able. There are other non-biblical (but not un-biblical) institutions which most of us make use of and am quite grateful for — hospitals come to mind. But as we are adding something that is both cultural and is not mentioned in the Bible, it is worth asking if this new institution is at least in line with biblical principles. This is particularly important because what that institution does– educate children — is a task the Scriptures have particularly assigned to a God-ordained institution — the family.

Jaarsma and others we have looked at do not deny that the Bible charges parents with educating their children. They account for the schools doing so by arguing that they do so in loco parentis, that is, with authority specifically given them by the parents. All authority in heaven and earth belongs to God. He delegates some of it to others for specific tasks including giving  parents authority over their children and their education. There are ways in which I as a parent and a homeschooler may delegate my own authority to others on a temporary basis. Every time I leave my child with a sitter or drop him off at Sunday school or enroll him in a class I am delegating  a bit of my authority. One may argue that if I drop my child off at school for six hours every weekday that I am doing the same thing — temporarily delegating my authority to another – and to some extent this is true. The problem is in the practical application; it is very hard to delegate such a large chunk of authority and still to pick it up again at the end of the day.  There are no doubt parents who send their kids to a school and still stay very involved, but (as Peter Ton also pointed out) it is very hard to send your child away to someone else to educate for something like thirty hours a week and to still stay in control. At the very least, I would say that using a school, even a Christian school presents certain dangers and that one must be very careful how one uses the school and relates to it.

While the responsibility may be primarily on the side of the parents to ensure that they are maintaining their authority, Christian schools also bear some responsibility to make sure they are not usurping the authority that has been given to parents. In the article we are looking at, Jaarsma paints a picture of the role of the teacher which seems quite pervasive:

“The personal loyalty of the child to the teacher is strong. The child must still feel the security afforded by the solidarity of family life as represented in the parents, and he comes to feel this in the teacher. In school this security transfers to the teacher.” (p. 23)

What he describes here, and even advocates for, is not a temporary delegation but a new relationship which is being created and which is on par with that between the child and his parents. It is easy to see how such a bind could begin to rival the parent-child bond. I do think a wise, active parent can send their child to a school and still maintain his own God-given role to educate his own child, but I think it is difficult because even with the best Christian teachers and the best of intentions, the very nature of the school environment tends to undermine parental responsibility. The school is not in loco parentis  in the same way the babysitter who watches my child for a few hours at a time is but comes, by its very nature, to usurp and thereby undermine the parents’ God-ordained responsibility. In some sense the danger is even greater with Christian schools. Those who send their children to public or secular private schools are more likely to be aware that the schools will be more cognizant of the school’s shortcomings and more aware of their own need to stay involved. Any Christian school needs to define clearly where its own authority begins and ends. It needs to work closely with parents and deliberately keep them in the process. It needs to recognize that any authority it has is delegated by the parents. It needs to not allow the parents to get lazy and to not stay involved. It needs to always see itself as the agent of the parents.

While Jaarsma acknowledges the God-given authority of the parents over their children’s educations, he favors institutional schooling because, he says:

“Parents have neither the time nor generally the qualifications to lead children to maturity in the complexity of modern life.” (p. 13)

There is a lot in this statement and though Jaarsma does not pull it apart for us, he does throughout the article give us clues that we can use to unpack what he means —

Maturity is the goal of education. This Jaarsma defines for us:

“In the covenant of grace the parent assumes the responsibility of giving immature child-life the direction of the ‘new obedience.’ . . . Maturity is the stage when the child assumes this responsibility for himself. The way of the ‘new obedience’ must become his own commitment, his freely chosen way . . . When the youth has come to accept life in the ‘new obedience,’ he is said to be mature.” (pp. 12-13)

Note that Jaarsma acknowledges again that we are within the framework of the covenant here and that it is the parents’ covenant responsibility to help the child to mature into what he calls “the new obedience.”

If this is the task of the parents — as Jaarsma himself says repeatedly — why do they not accomplish it themselves? Jaarsma says that they “have neither the time nor generally the qualifications.” There are two elements here. I am not going to dwell too much on the time except to ask: what other God-given obligations do you not make time for? As for the issue of qualifications– In some sense none of us are qualified to do anything of the things Gods calls us to do, but He gives us grace to do them nonetheless. If God in the Scriptures assigns this task to the parents, I think we can also assume that He will give us the grace to fulfill it.

The key for Jaarsma seems to lie in the end of the quote: “in the complexity of modern life.” Apparently, something has changed and in the modern world, one needs additional qualifications to lead children to spiritual maturity. Specifically, one must have professional qualifications (p. 13).  Jaarsma notes that the schools as we know them are both modern and cultural. They did not exist as such 150 years ago (Jaarsma writing in the 1950s says 100 years ago).  They are a mere flash in the pan historically speaking. Again I appeal to what De Beer said in the companion essay to this one — we may accept cultural developments which come to us through secular or non- Christian sources, but we must not do so uncritically. So we must, as De beer said, analyze their methods, goals, and results. This Jaarsma does not do (he may elsewhere, but he does not in this essay). Instead, he accepts the structure of schooling as it is because “parents cannot effectuate this cultural task in the complexity of modern life” (p. 14). The problem for Jaarsma seems to be one of modernity – something has changed and parents are no longer equipped to be the primary educators of their children.

One might expect Jaarsma to point to the vast bodies of knowledge that have been discovered and the many subjects which students are now expected to learn. Though Jaarsma clearly favors a class of teachers with “academic and professional learning” (p. 14), when he lists qualifications for Christian teachers, he mentions first love and faith as the key elements and obedience as the goal. One wonders for which of these the parents are unqualified — is to love their children? To have faith or demand obedience?

Jaarsma goes on to say that education is largely about differentiation. He gives the example of a small child who initially makes a seemingly random collection of noises which then become refined into distinct words. The basic process he sees is one of “great differentiation and corresponding integration” which “[t]he school is especially equipped and organized to deal with” (p. 19).

Since Jaarsma gives us the example is the toddler learning the beginnings of speech and communication, let us see how this example plays out. The ordinary child learns this skill, one of the hardest skills a person can learn, under his parents’ guidance. A child raised in isolation will not learn to speak but neither is any special expertise needed to teach him to do so. Underlying Jaarsma’s thought there seems to be an assumption about how education works — that it originates largely in the activity of the teacher. He sees the need for a professional teacher because he sees education as something rather complicated that needs to be guided by an outside mind. Our example argues otherwise. The toddler learns largely without conscious instruction. In other words, the child does the learning more than his parents do the teaching. Whether one learns later skills in the same way is an open question. Jaarsma clearly assumes that more deliberate teaching is required and therefore requires professional, trained teachers.

There is one more element we need to unpack–  Jaarsma says that “parents cannot effectuate this cultural task in the complexity of modern life” (p. 14; emphasis added). Previously Jaarsma had put the goal of education as the spiritual maturity of the individual, but there is also a level on which he sees education as a cultural task rather than one relating primarily or solely to the individual. The school, he says is “a cultural institution” and “a cultural medium” which we use “to effect a cultural task” (p. 16). The cultural mandate argument is one we have seen before. Frank Gaebelein made a rather good argument for a certain model of Christian schooling which, because it is open to all children, not just those from covenant families, has the power to affect culture. It is harder to see how the schools Jaarsma proposes which are for Christians and by Christians would have the same societal effect. My main problem with this argument, however, is that it is just not consistent. Jaarsma began buy telling me that education is towards the maturity of the individual and now he makes it a cultural phenomenon. The two may not be unrelated, but neither are they the same. I think we must be careful if we believe education is for the benefit of the individual not to lose him in the institution. Institutions have a nasty tendency to run rough-shod over individuals. No man can serve two masters and if we have two goals – the individual and the cultural – one must eventually take precedence.

I have seen nothing thus far that has convinced me that there is a reason to take what the Scriptures clearly give to parents – the right and responsibility to educate their own children – and to give it to another. There is no doubt that parents can and even should get help in this task but the role that Jaarsma and others paint for the schools seems quite pervasive and I have yet to read anyone who favors schools as an institution who then outlines what the parents’ role is and where the one ends and the other begins or how a school may serve the parents without usurping their God-given responsibility. Jaarsma’s primary argument seems to be that parents are ill-equipped to fulfill their task God has assigned them and that this is a modern problem. That means that something, about 150 years ago, changed and that what parents were once able to do, they now no longer can. But, as the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). If, as Jaarsma himself said, the goal of education is spiritual maturity (and I would not quite put it that way myself though I do think he is in the right ballpark), then it is hard to imagine what has changed so very recently that has rendered parents unqualified to educate their own children. Jaarsma seems to be biased towards a professional class of teachers, in part because he makes assumptions about how learning works. He also confuses a bit the cultural argument with the educational goals for the individual. Because the Scriptures establish various institutions and because they clearly and directly assign the task of educating children to their parents, I think the burden is on those who would take this responsibility from the parents and give it to another, non-biblical institution to justify this decision. I have yet to see an argument that convinces me of the necessity of the school as an institution. There are certainly people in various situations for whom a school serves a good purpose but I think the relationship between the school and the parents must always be clearly defined and I think we may also consider other ways of helping parents to educate their children. Above all, I think, as De Beer said, that we must use discernment when adopting an institution which Jaarsma himself acknowledges is both modern and cultural. Though he is not a Christian, if you would like an alternative view on how and why the modern schools developed and what their effect is, I recommend John Taylor Gatto’s books (see reviews here and here).


One response to this post.

  1. […] There are a couple of things I like here: I like that he acknowledges that school, family, and church work together and that the school serves the family. It is important that the school not go beyond its bounds and take on a larger role than it needs to. There is still a place for the church and there is still a place for the family. Lockerbie says as much when he argues that the school be primarily concerend with academics (p. 208). This is in contast to some other thinkers we have seen who depict so large and expansive a role for the school and its teachers that one wonders what is left for the parents to do (see this post on Cornelius Jaarsma). […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s