A Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

I have been working on this series for almost two years now. In that time, I have read a lot of books and done a lot of posts. As promised, I am now ready to offer some conclusions. Of the making of many books there is no end; neither will this be the end of my study of this topic. My hope is that it is enough of a beginning to aid those of you who seek to educate others, in whatever context.

I am going to offer my modest proposal as a series of bullet points which I hope work together to gradually build up a philosophy of education founded on Reformed Christian principles. As I said, I have been working on this series for two years (and there were years of preliminary study behind that). What follows is a summary of what I have read and gleaned. While there is some logical sequence, the numbers are given mainly to aid in discussion. [Unfortunately, WordPress does not seem to allow me to use a continuing sequence of numbers; if you look at the Google Doc version of this proposal (link below), you will see that it is actually a 100-point plan.] Behind all this is the belief I started with, that any philosophy of education, as it makes assumptions about the nature of man and about his ends, is an inherently theological enterprise (see here, here, and here). 

As much as possible I have given links to the posts in which I originally discussed each concept. If you have any questions or disputes, I encourage you first to click through and read the arguments behind each one. After that, I am happy to discuss so feel free to comment below or to contact me

Proposal for a Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education 

[This proposal can also be viewed as a Google Doc here]

Epistemology: The Source of Knowledge:

  1. The Triune God is the source of all wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty. (John 14:6; Gaebelein on Truth; Bavinck on Art; Frank Gaebelein)
  2. Truth, goodness, and beauty stand apart from man, outside him. 
  3. God has graciously chosen to reveal some measure of His truth, goodness, and beauty to humankind.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. He does so through His two “books” which we call special and general revelation; they are His written Word in the Scriptures and His Creation respectively. (Gaebelein on Truth; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  5. In the pre-Fall world, the two books or revelation would have been equally accessible and operated in perfect unity.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: Man’s Ability to Know:

  1. The Fall has not changed God’s general revelation to us. The knowledge which God gives is still out there, uncorrupted and in theory available to all people, believers and non-believers. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  2. The Fall has corrupted man’s reason by which he accesses and evaluates this knowledge.  In this life at least, man’s reason is imperfect and incomplete. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology)
  3. Reason was never meant to be and cannot be our sole means of knowing.  It is a tool and was not meant to function apart from Revelation. (Crisis in Epistemology; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. Only those who are united to God by faith can rightly know, though their knowledge too is limited and often corrupted by the effects of sin. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology; Frank Gaebelein)
  5. Non-believers suppress the right knowledge of God. Nonetheless, non-believers still have reason, now corrupted, through which they access knowledge. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  6. The unregenerate say many true things and their scholarship and creative arts may be useful to and appreciated by us. (Common Grace, Part 1; Christianity, Science and Truth)
  7. Though at times they may deceive us, our senses are basically reliable. We are able to use them to know about the world around us.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: The Nature of Knowledge:

  1. Knowledge, because it is of God, is good in and of itself. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth)
  2. Knowledge should be a source of delight. (John Edwards, History of Education:1500-1800;  John Milton on Education; The Christian Home-School)
  3. True knowledge is not merely rational but is intimate. (Oppewal on Epistemology; History of Education:1500-1800)
  4. Knowledge is also relational. To know is to have a relationship. (Jaarsma on Uniting the Heart and Mind; Oppewal on Epistemology)
  5. Knowledge, as the Bible uses the term, is never just head-knowledge. It is practical in that it affects one’s behavior and life.  
  6. Godly knowledge — and goodness and beauty — are active, effective, and transformative. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth and On Frameworks and How We Know What’sTrue; Lockerbie on Teachers)

Epistemology: What We Know:

  1. The Creation reflects the character of its Creator. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty)
  2. There is no field — from history and anthropology to chemistry and mathematics  — which falls outside of God’s dominion. The laws and forces behind each have been created and are sustained by Him. (Frank Gaebelein)
  3. Each area of study has the potential to tell us something about God.  (Frank Gaebelein; In Defense of Truth and Beauty; A Broad Education; Fine Arts; Bavinck on Art)
  4. This limit will come earlier in some fields than in others. The more subjective a field, the more it deals with God and man directly, the more quickly it will go astray. (Frank Gaebelein)

On God’s Providential Workings:

  1. God is the Giver of all knowledge and wisdom.
  2. God rules over all, but He does not rule over the elect and the nonelect in the same way.
  3. For the elect, the knowledge God gives is part of their sanctification and is ultimately for their good that they may be reunited with Him.
  4. For the unregenerate, God, by the common workings of his Holy Spirit, still gives knowledge, but this knowledge because it does not cause them to glorify God or to respond in humility and obedience, ultimately serves to condemn them all the more. (Common Grace, part 1)

The Nature of Man, and of the Child:

  1. Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults. (Children in the Bible)
  2. All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul, and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others. (Deut. 6:5; Mk. 12:30; Hearts and Minds; The Tech-Wise Family)
  3. All aspects of our nature were corrupted in the Fall (WCF IV:II) and are in need of redemption and transformation (WCF XIII:II). 
  4. Our minds and hearts are thus corrupted and in need of redemption. It is God who is able to restore the heart/mind. (Education and the Covenant Child)
  5.  Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law. (Children in the Bible)
  6. Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course). (Children in the Bible)
  7. Because knowledge is intimate and relational (see #s 15 & 16 above), even the youngest children are capable of knowing. (History of Education:1500-1800; Babies Can Think)
  8. Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities. (Children in the Bible)

On the Nature of Education [1]:

  1. Education acts on the mind and heart. We must always be aware, however, that the mind/heart does not operate in isolation from the other parts of the person.  (Hearts and Minds; Defining Education; Education and the Covenant Child;
  2.  God’s General Revelation is the fodder of education.  In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has revealed. (Common Grace, Part 2) [2]
  3. God Himself is the ultimate Educator of all men. This is true of all areas of knowledge. Whether practical skills, creative arts, intellectual knowledge, or spiritual wisdom, God is the source. (History of Education: Church Fathers; also Teaching in the Old Testament) [3]
  4. Because education is ultimately a work of God, we cannot force children to learn. How knowledge is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit. (Teaching in the New Testament)

On the Purpose of Education: the Big Picture:

  1. Education will work differently in the life of the believer and the non-believer. (cf. #26 above)
  2. In the life of an unregenerate person, the effect is that of a Call. Either the person will, by grace, respond in faith, or, if he does not, the effect will ultimately be for his condemnation. When we educate non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity. (Common Grace, Part 1 and Part 2; Van Til on Education)
  3.  In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. When God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done, they are transformed. This transformation is an element of what we call sanctification.  (Education and Sanctification; Education and the Covenant Child; Lockerbie; also CM and the Puritans on Education)
  4. In so far as it transforms the minds and hearts of God’s people, election builds up the Church and glorifies God.  (Education and the Covenant Child; see also History of Jewish Education)

On the Purpose of Education: Human Perspective: [4]

  1. Education is part of God’s ordinary means. This is particularly true in the lives of covenant children for whom education is a means God uses to fulfill their baptismal promises. (Louis Berkhof)
  2. The purpose of education is to be found in the purpose of man’s life. To the extent that man’s purpose is to “know God and enjoy Him forever,” this also is the purpose of education.  (Henry Zylstra; Nicholas Beversluis)
  3. Education is a part of God’s grand plan, the end of which is His own glory. It brings His general revelation to men.  (JG Vos on Education; The Purpose of Education, Part 1; Common Grace, part 2)
  4. While there are certainly larger and more societal aspects to education, the primary goal on a day-to-day basis should be for the individual. (The Purpose of Education, Part 2)
  5. While education can serve both long- and short-term goals, because they are more likely to be lost in the business of life, we should keep the long-term goals always before us. (The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  6. In the lives of the elect, the primary goal of education is the long-term transformation of the individual more and more into the image of Christ. It is then a part of the process we call sanctification. (cf. #41 above)
  7. To be transformed is to become more and more “whole-hearted.” The effect of sin is to divide us, to make us double-minded beings. Our hearts and minds are transformed when the effect of sin in them grows less and they more and more are united to a single purpose which aligns with the will of God. (Henry Schultze on the Integrated Personality; Lockerbie on Christian Paideia)
  8. Education thus serves to undo the effects of the Fall. (John Milton on Education; JG Vos on Education; Goals and Purposes)
  9. There will be secondary goals which are achieved along the way as well: a man will be prepared for the work God calls him to; the Church will be built; God’s kingdom in this world will be furthered. These are not secondary goals because they are unimportant but because if we, in our fallenness, make them primary goals of education, we tend to go astray. In God’s providence all things work together for His purposes which are many-layered. We are not God and so when we take the focus off of the sanctification of each individual we tend to go astray. 
  10. While there are certainly good, practical outcomes to education, we must guard against a degeneration into utilitarianism. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth; Mathematics)

Practical Aspects: The Student:

  1. Because children are sinners and because of the ignorance of their youth, they are in need of training. There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. Our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We cannot, as the Unschooling movement does [5], trust children to their own devices. (Children in the Bible; Core Knowledge)
  2. Learning continues throughout life . . .  (Teaching in the Old Testament; The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  3.  . . . But children are particularly in need of instruction.  (Children in the Bible)
  4. Children all complete persons with the same spiritual capacity as adults. Therefore we must not hinder them or deprive them of the things of God.  (Children in the Bible; see also Babies Can Think)
  5. Education is for all people, male and female, those whom society deems exceptional or average or backward. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)

Practical Aspects: The Role of the Teacher:

  1. The attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. He should expect that God will work in the lives and hearts and minds of his students, whether they are regenerate or not. (A Teacher’s Expectation)
  2. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them. (A Teacher’s Attitude; Frank Gaebelein)

Practical Aspects: The Framework:

  1. Proper understanding, in any area, is not possible without a godly framework. (History of Education: Church Fathers; Framework) [6]
  2. The most important thing we can convey to our students is a proper framework in which to understand all that they learn. Other words which might be used to describe this are mindset or worldview. ( Framework; Zylstra on Frameworks)
  3. Our conceptual framework must be biblical.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  4. Not all non-biblical frameworks are equally wrong. (Synopses of Short Articles)
  5. Even many “Christian” worldviews are either insufficient or unacceptable. We need a distinctly reformed view. (Van Til on Education)
  6. We must be careful that we are not too narrow in our worldview. What we are seeking is something broad and all-encompassing, not a narrow worldview which boils down all of God’s Truth to a few propositions.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Practical Aspects: What We Learn:

  1. All subjects are the fodder of education and all are under the sovereignty of God. There is no “sacred” and “secular.” (Calvinist Beliefs and Education; CM and the Puritans on Education)
  2. Children should be given a broad education, covering a wide range of subjects. (A Broad EducationCore Knowledge; CM and the Puritans on Education; History of Reformed Education)
  3. It is reasonable and logical to require children to learn certain basic skills. (Core Knowledge)
  4. But we should not deprive young children of real, meaty learning by withholding bigger ideas until later years. Even young children should be put in touch with the things of God. (Core Knowledge)

Practical Aspects: What We Teach & Materials:

  1. There is no culture [7] that has a monopoly on truth or culture. All are fallen. While they may make some contributions, they will also contain error. All should be approached with discernment, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. (Hebraic vs. Hellenistic Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of Western Education; Van Til on Education)
  2. Christians are not called to and should not withdraw from the culture. (Synopses of Short Articles; Frank Gaebelein)
  3. We can and should use non-Christian books and resources . . .  (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Love of Literature)
  4. But we should also expect more truth to come to us through Christian sources. (Christianity, Science and Truth)
  5. We must not rob children of the inherent delight and interest they should have in the things of God by making education boring . . . (The Christian Home-School)
  6.  . . . But neither should we try to dress up the things of God to make entertainment for children. (Interesting but not Entertaining)
  7. Language is inherent to how humans communicate and therefore learn. Narrative is a powerful medium and is a primary means used by God Himself to communicate with His people (Language; Literature; The Power of Narrative)
  8. Words, and particularly books, should be the backbone of our approach to education. (Living Books and the Living Word; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks)
  9. Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. (Two Views of the Teacher; See Pick Your Teachers Well for tips on how to do so)
  10. So too we must pick our books well. Our goal should be to use “living books.” Living books are written by people who love their subject matter and know it well.  (See Living Books and the Living Word for more criteria for discerning living books; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks; Literature)
  11. Because one is unlikely to succeed when he expects to fail, we should use discernment in how we set the bar for children. On one hand, we should not provoke them to despair with things that are too far beyond them or which generate repeated failure. On the other hand, education is work and it is through our trials that character is built. The best image I can think of is one of stretching, providing work which does not break but constantly requires more of the child. (The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard; Frank Gaebelein; The Tech-Wise Family)
  12. Because man is both spirit and body, education should also involve the physical. This “hands-on” side of education should not involve merely physical action but should seek to employ the body in ways which also engage the mind. The ideal is not what we today call “physical education” but a kind of hands-on, technical, educated craftsmanship.   (Whitehead Follow-Up)

Practical Aspects: Learning Outcomes & Testing:

  1. The Fall has corrupted man’s relationship with work. Education, as the work of the child, will at times be frustrating and fruitless. Nonetheless, we are called to persevere and, by God’s grace, we are also able to see fruit and to rejoice in the work we are given. (Whitehead Follow-Up)
  2. Each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.  (Core Knowledge)
  3. In evaluating children and measuring what they have learned, we should be wary of provoking them unnecessarily with tedious exercises which are for our benefit, not theirs. (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating Students)
  4. Because each child is a unique individual and because education is ultimately the work of God in his life, even when presented with the same materials, we should not expect every child to glean the same knowledge.  (Synthesizing Ideas; see also The History of Worksheets)
  5. Narration — telling back in one’s own words — is highly recommended as a way for children to synthesize and reproduce what they have learned. This is because it: a) allows each child to express what they have learned rather than being required to reproduce a set body of facts determined by the teacher; b) makes use of a capacity (retelling what they have learned or done) which is inherent to children; and c) reflects the biblical practice of retelling events as a way of both teaching the next generation and of expressing thanks.  (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating StudentsThe Tech-Wise Family)
  6. There are subjects and times when more standardized forms of evaluation and reproduction are warranted. Narration must not become an excuse for complete subjectivity.  (Synthesizing Ideas)
  7. We must be careful in teaching that out methods do not tend to substitute lesser, immediate goals (the obtaining of small prizes, pleasing one’s teacher) for the larger, more primary goal of building the child’s character and furthering his desire for knowledge, which is of God. (Motivating Students)

Practical Aspects: On Schooling:

  1. There are three God-given institutions: the Church, the Government, and the Family. (History of Education: Biblical Times; Church, State . . . and School?)
  2. The school is not a God-given institution. (Church, State . . . and School?; Lockerbie on Schools)
  3. Parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children. (Church, State, and School)
  4. It is not wrong for parents to use other resources in educating their children, but they cannot cede their God-given authority in this area.  (Church, State, and School)
  5. The Church should support and encourage parents in educating their children. (History of Reformed Education)
  6. Parents who do not feel able to educate their children should seek to “qualify themselves to the task” as best they can (Erasmus, History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)
  7. If parents use other teachers or outsource aspects of their child’s education, they should remain intimately involved in their children’s education. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation) [8]
  8. In the ideal society, the State supports the work of the Church. Modern American society is not ideal.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  9. The basis of thought in the public schools is not and cannot be neutral. Neutrality does not exist. (History of Education: the 1800s)
  10. State-supported education will have state-ordained goals. (The Crisis of Western Education)
  11. It is impossible to confine public education to academic spheres. Education is inherently intrusive and naturally draws in other parts of the person and other aspects of life.  (Public Education in America)
  12. Modern American public schools are based on ideas which arise out of an ungodly, evolutionary mindset. (John Dewey, Evolution and Socialization; Evolution is a Mindset; Education and the Source of Evil)
  13. Education in our public schools today has a fragmentary effect — it fragments knowledge into discrete subjects and it fragments people from each other and from other communities. (Public Education in America)
  14. Every school, every curriculum, every approach to education rests on certain underlying philosophical and/or theological principles. Each one makes assumptions about man and his nature. Parents should therefore be discerning, whatever method they choose. (Implementing a Christian Education)
  15. We live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect people. There is not going to be any perfect education choice; each will have pros and cons. Whatever choice they make for their children, parents should stay involved and make the best of the situation they have. (The Christian Home-School; see Implementing a Christian Education for ideas on how to do so)

[1] Many of the points in this section were given previously in this earlier post.

[2]  Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation.

[3] Augustine called Christ the magister interior, the inward teacher.

[4] This post on goal and purposes also explains the points in this section. 

[5] For some background on Unschooling, see this post and this one.

[6] Augustine said credo ut intelligum, “I believe in order that I may understand,” which is to say that true understanding is only possible through faith. 

[7] The only possible exception would be Old Testament Israel, though in practice more often than not they did not follow the rules and customs God gave them. 

[8]  Erasmus says they should visit the schoolroom often.

— Nebby

 

 

 

7 responses to this post.

  1. […] « A Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education […]

    Reply

  2. […] the covenant community. It is not an approach to education for all people, but only for some.  In my own search for a philosophy of education, my goal has been to find an approach which applies to all children. If (as I have argued) in […]

    Reply

  3. […] I have argued for a fairly non-standardized form of education and I was happy to see theological arguments for this. In addition to arguing for high standards by which to measure knowledge, Gaebelien, following Pascal, also argues that we must allow independent, unique thought: […]

    Reply

  4. […] in her philosophy of education that we can make use of. I have spent quite a long time working out my own philosophy of education and I have found myself back quite close to Mason in many, many ways. But I do think we need to be […]

    Reply

  5. […] I come from. My approach to education has been largely influenced by Charlotte Mason though I have my own philosophy of education. Most importantly, I am a Reformed Christian (aka Calvinist). If you come from a different […]

    Reply

  6. […] my quest for a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I have read a lot of books. One I had seen cited by others a number of times was Alfred North […]

    Reply

  7. […] big criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy which has led me to try to devise my own approach to education is her underestimating the effects of the Fall. Here in a non-Christian author, I find some hint of […]

    Reply

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