Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

As promised, this is part 2 of my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). In part 1, I tried to look at the big issues — what Clark and Jain have to contribute to the discussion and where they stand in relation to previous writers on classical education. My short take on all that is that while I have generally been critical of classical education, Clark and Jain do a lot to win me over to their side. I am not fully convinced and I do have some questions and concerns, but I like how they frame the purpose of education and I like how they relate the various subjects one studies.

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Last time was for the biggest issues, today I’d like to look at some of the other points I liked as well as those I had questions about. In the past, when looking at various approaches to education, I have asked a series of questions so I’d like to follow that model today. The questions we will be asking are (this is a somewhat modified version of the list I used in this post):

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?

One of the fundamental beliefs underlying this whole blog is that every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the nature of man and, as a subset of that, the nature of children. Some philosophies do so explicitly and some need to be ferreted out, but all do so. Though Clark and Jain do not lay their assumptions about human nature out in one place, they seem to have some pretty clear beliefs on the subject. I would add that I find them to be quite biblical. Because it is easiest, I’ll give these as bullet points:

  • Humans are “unities of body and soul” (p.5; cf. p. 29). At one point they speak of the heart as a “middle element” between the two (p. 33). I have my own ideas about the relationship of the heart and mind in the biblical conception, but I don’t think the distinction is worth quibbling about. The implication of man’s composite nature (physical and spiritual) for education is, as many other Christian educators have argued, that we need a “holistic” approach to education which addresses and takes into account both aspects (p. 254). As something of a side note, Clark and Jain also make an argument for spiritual disciplines which I am a little less comfortable with as it seems to tend towards a kind of Gnosticism, implying that the soul is benefited when the body is deprived (pp. 222f).
  • Language is essential to human nature. Citing Aristotle, language more than reason here is called the defining human trait. Making a connection to the Word of God (in the manifold meanings of that phrase), language is able “to change reality, to exercise authority, and to lead men’s souls” (p. 46). There are clear implications for education here — we would expect to be very language-based and developing communication skills becomes a major goal.
  • Man is made for relationship, with his Creator and with his fellow man (pp. 161-62). The implication for education: “All learning occurs within the network of relationships” (p. 283).
  • Man is rational, but fallen (p. 161). His reason was never meant to operate in isolation and must be informed by revelation (p. 207).
  • “Man also possesses a will, or volition . . . which allows man to act and create” reflecting “God’s creative ability” (p. 163).  I think we need to be a little careful how we state this lest our will seem to be completely free, unbounded by our own fallenness, but I agree with the basic point and I am intrigued by the connection between will and creativity.

Some philosophies have different conclusions for the child vis-a-vis the adult. For the most part, this does not seem to be the case for Clark and Jain. They have a covenantal view of children (pp. 211, 228) which tends to emphasize their personhood. They also make clear that all human faculties are innate to the child (pp. 29, 47, 67). They need to be developed and trained but not taught or inculcated. As we shall see in the next section, however, there does seem to be a transition point from child-who-needs-educated to educated adult.

Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?

While The Liberal Arts Tradition does not have the strict stages found in some other versions of classical education (particularly “neo-classical versions), there is a progression here. The youngest children are in the gymnastics/piety/music stage. At this age imitation (see below) and the filling of the memory (though not rote memorization) are immediate goals (p. 25). Afterward comes the Trivium/Quadrivium stage which gives one the necessary skills to move on to the philosophies and ultimately metaphysics and theology. I am not entirely sure how all this plays out for Clark and Jain practically speaking. As discussed in part 1, they do speak of the earliest years as a time to fill the imagination (though not through rote memorization as some would have it), and they also speak as if there is an end to education and a time when the child is fully outfitted, so to speak.

What do they believe is the goal of education?

We discussed the goal of education in part 1, so I will not dwell on it again here. Suffice it to say that for Clark and Jain there are some subsidiary goals but the end goal of education is to transmit the culture of the Church, to train the child’s innate human abilities, and to cultivate virtue while acknowledging that this cannot be done apart from union with Christ.

How do they believe education works?

There are a couple of levels on which we can answer this question. On a big picture, theoretical kind of level, Clark and Jain say, quoting Anselm and the book of Proverbs, that faith must proceed understanding (pp. 148, 218), and therefore, one would assume, there is little true understanding for those without faith. (It’s looking like there will be a “part 3” so I will address this more fully next time.)

Charlotte Mason called the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Clark and Jain are not so explicit but they do say that “Christian education cannot be accomplished merely by human effort” (p. 220). I take this as a book of Esther-like allusion [1] to the role of God in education. And, as we have seen, Clark and Jain acknowledge that virtue, which is a goal of education, is impossible without union with Christ.

The place of God in education can also be seen in the assertion that “all human knowledge finds fulfillment in the knowledge of God” (p. 209). This is a bit of a heady concept. As far as I can discern, the idea is that all truth, beauty, and goodness (the transcendentals) reside with God and originate with Him. To know these things is both to possess them and to be mastered by them. Our knowledge, of course, is always finite. “We know reality truly but only analogously to the way God knows it” (p. 118).

Without minimizing the role of God, there is also a transformative power to what one learns. This is particularly true of those “musical” subjects which young children are exposed to  — poetry and stories and music tune the soul and make one “receptive to truth and goodness” (pp. 32, 223).

On a much more mundane level, we can look at the methods of education. Narrative is seen to be central to human understanding, a position which is founded in the Scriptures themselves (pp. 209, 223). It is used even in subjects which may appear non-narrative. For example, science and math include the history of those disciplines (p. 125).

There is a hands-on element as well as students are encouraged to work through experiments for themselves and to keep sketchbooks.

Imitation is a word which Clark and Jain use frequently. Education as imitation happens on a couple of levels. Very literally, children are encouraged at a young age to copy good things, whether art or music or writing (p. 25). Imitation is seen as a precursor to creativity (p. 40).

Even at a later age, imitation still plays a large role. We imitate nature (pp. 110-11) and we imitate other people. There is an element of submission to our imitation of nature. There is a level on which I understand this. As our knowledge follows God’s and as what we learn is His truth, submission seems appropriate. On a very literal level, we can see that much science and technology derives from nature (as when a new technology is based upon a characteristic seen in animals). On another level, I do have some concerns. There can be a false elevation of nature. We are told not to submit to Creation but to master it. Biblically, it is nature that should submit to man. I am particularly concerned about statements like “societal patterns should be fitted rightly to nature” (pp. 151-52). I have no evidence that Clark and Jain take this idea too far but I have read other educators who clearly do. [2]

One can also imitate other people. This is true both of people long gone and of those who stand in front of us every day. Clark and Jain advocate putting students in touch with great thinkers of the past through their writings so that they can “emulate genius” (p. 128). Perhaps even more important, however, is the imitation of our contemporaries which brings us to . . .

What is the role of the teacher?

As with much of classical education, the role of the teacher is key.  Based on the time they spend on it, I would say that for Clark and Jain the imitation of the teacher looms larger than the emulation of those more archaic minds. Education, they would say, is discipleship. Ultimately, the goal is not to make the student the disciple of his teacher but of Christ (pp. 215-16, 243; and here they are on firmer ground at least than many classical educators). Still the teacher is key. They say, for instance, that there is no one curriculum which suits all schools or all classrooms (a point I like) because the individuality is largely determined by the teacher and his interests (p. 245).

Where does this idea of imitation come from? With narrative, we saw that a link is made to God and the nature of His revelation to man. With imitation, the biblical basis is less clear (though certainly discipleship is a biblical idea). Education for Clark and Jain is largely the passing on of a culture, the end of goal of which is the development of virtue. This emphasis on culture seems to lead them to the emphasis on imitation. That is, the culture is a thing which must be passed from (living) person to person so there is an intimate, relational element. [And, they say, “One cannot develop virtue in isolation” (p. 161; why this is, I am not sure).]

When we looked at the work of Bruce Lockerbie, I briefly outlined two views of the teacher. In Lockerbie’s view the teacher is essential and therefore his personal character is as essential as his knowledge if not more so. In contrast, for Charlotte Mason the teacher’s role is largely to step back.  Ideas, for Mason, are communicated from mind to mind, but the minds from which we get our ideas are largely those we find in our books (or art or music). Clark and Jain tend more toward Lockerbie’s side of things. Though there is a place for the teacher to put the student in touch with other minds through the medium of books, the role of the teacher is still fairly large and so his character is also important (p. 216). Charlotte Mason would say that the teacher spreads a feast of ideas for the students and what they take in is up to God. For Clark and Jain, “[t]he teacher’s job is then to mediate that Great Conversation” (p. 128; emphasis added). This seems a much more hands-on, involved role. It is the teacher’s interests that drive the curriculum (pp. 244-45). Though there is an overarching focus on Christ, the teacher is in some sense the immediate master to whom the child is discipled. Mason would agree that “[a]ll learning occurs within a network of relationships” (p. 283)  but would argue that the relationship is with the material and the minds behind it, not necessarily with the teacher.

A consequence of this view of the teacher as mediator and discipler is that his role in his students’ lives is a profoundly influential and important one, a fact which we will discuss further in part 3.

What does this approach say about God and His nature?

In Clark and Jain’s version of classical education, there are transcendentals — being, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity (p. 196) — which give shape to all of Creation and which find their meaning in God Himself. God is good. He is knowable. His attributes, particularly His ability to know and His creativity, are reflected in man. As noted above, man’s knowledge is a poorer and imperfect reflection of God’s. Nonetheless, it shares to some degree the character of God’s knowledge.

These transcendentals are knowable (p. 104), and as they appear in Creation they reflect God’s character: “a perfect God had woven mathematical harmonies into the world that reflected the truth of reality” (p. 96).

Conclusions

There are many ways in which Clark and Jain’s philosophy as presented in The Liberal Arts Tradition is profoundly biblical and Christian. There are also ways in which it shows its classical roots. For myself, there is much I agree with and a few things I would take some issue with. Next time in part 3, we will look at a few remaining issues and make some more conclusive comments.

Nebby

[1] The biblical book of Esther is the only one not to mention God explicitly. However, in Esther 4:14, Mordecai tells Esther that if she will not help her people, salvation will come to them “from another place” (ESV). This is traditionally taken as a reference to God.

[2] John Dewey comes to mind. His ideas about education were based on his evolutionary views. What was believed to be true of plants and animals was assumed also be true of humans.

One response to this post.

  1. […] have to contribute to classical education and where they stand in relation to previous writers. Last time we looked at how their philosophy would answer a series of questions […]

    Reply

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