Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 3)

Dear Reader,

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

This is the third and final part in 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). 

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In part 1, we looked at what Clark and Jain 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 including:

  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?

Today I’d like to look at a few issues that I have yet to address in detail and to give my overall thoughts and conclusions on The Liberal Arts Tradition.

Schooling

The subject of formal schooling, public or private, versus homeschooling is one I have addressed in many previous posts [1]. Clark and Jain’s book is an argument for a certain approach to education. Though they do not address homeschooling directly [2], their ideal seems to be Christian schooling. I will deal with the “Christian” part of that phrase below when looking at Christian culture.

For now I’d like to look at the argument for schooling as opposed to home education. As I said, Clark and Jain do not make this argument directly, but their approach does seem to push one towards a traditional school setting. This is due largely to the prominent role of the teacher. As we saw inpart 2, their method relies upon imitation and discipleship. The course of study is largely set by the interests and abilities of the teacher.

One problem with giving the teacher such a large role is that it inevitably diminishes the role of the child’s God-given instructors, his parents. Clark and Jain, like most other Christian educators I have read, acknowledge that God gives parents the responsibility to educate their children. The teachers operate in loco parentis (pp. 217, 247). The problem I have with this is that the parent cannot give away their responsibility to educate and train their children. They can, of course, delegate that responsibility to others for certain times. We all do this and I don’t want to be unrealistic about that. But in my mind there is a big difference between hiring a babysitter for a night, sending your child to Sunday school, or using online classes and sending your child to a school for 6+ hours a day and allowing that school and its employees to make vital decisions about how education will occur and what resources will be used. Because humans are complex individuals, composed of body and soul; heart, mind, spirit, and strength, education, however well-intended, tends to suck in more and more areas of life. It is impossible for it not to. [3]

I realize there are some issues that my pro-family stance raises. There are pros and cons to each approach to education. One is that not all families are well equipped to educate their own children. Clark and Jain allude to this. It is not abundantly clear if they believe all families are incapable of the task or only some. They seem to imply that while piety (a bottom-level subject) can be taught at home that moral philosophy is beyond families (p. 161). This I would not agree with, though our disagreement would largely stem from my rejection of their hierarchal view of the subjects one learns (discussed in part 1 of this mini-series). I am not sure that the best solution to the problem of incapable parents is formal schooling all around. I do think parents need to be equipped and helped and I do think the Christian community needs to think more creatively about how this can be done.

Which brings me to another possible objection — I do think that the larger Christian community, which is to say the Church, has some interest in making sure its children are educated (p. 178). The parents are not meant to stand or fall on their own. In my denomination the congregation also makes vows at a child’s baptism to support and encourage the parents. These are vows we need to think more about in terms of practical application. If we do so, I believe we can devise novel solutions which will help without undercutting the parents’ God-given responsibility.

Christian Culture

Clark and Jain advocate not just schooling but Christian schooling. Which is to say, education with specifically with Christian curricula taught by Christian teachers and aimed at Christian students.

While I do not share their view of the role of the teacher, yet I can see there are good reasons to desire Christian teachers for our children. I am not as convinced that our schools (if we have them) should cater exclusively to Christian students. Like many others, Clark and Jain gear their educational approach to covenant children, those being raised in Christian homes (pp. 211, 228). Such a philosophy has little to say to or about those outside 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 education we put before children the things of God, then we must also ask if this has any meaning or effect for those who are not yet redeemed and may never be redeemed. This is a theoretical concern, but also a practical one. Most of us who spend time with children will at one time or another have children who are not from good Christian families under our care. (I hope that we will even seek out such opportunities!) How are we to address these children? Must we preach to them first and see them saved before we can begin to educate them?  These are questions our philosophy of education needs to answer and so it also needs to think about education more broadly, as something that does not just influence the Church but as something that goes beyond it to the world.

The question of the curriculum is actually quite a similar one. Just as we must ask what education can do for non-believers so we must also ask what they can contribute to education. Clark and Jain don’t go deep into specifics in this book, but they argue that the main thing to be taught is “Christian culture” (pp. 231ff). Here I will admit a fair degree of ignorance: I am just not sure what they mean by this phrase. I am not sure if they are referring to a particular body of knowledge or if they are referring to something more akin to a worldview or mindset (as I discussed here). Though there is certainly some aspect of the latter in their philosophy, they seem to be thinking of the former as well. That is, that one should study Christian thinkers and writers and historians and scientists. The question one must always answer, then, is: What of the works coming out of non-Christians? Is there a place for their study? Not surprisingly, as they rely heavily on ancient pagan sources themselves, Clark and Jain acknowledge that we can “respect and appropriate the learning of the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures” (p. 239). Though I am nor sure they use the phrase “common grace,” they do subscribe to the belief that, as God is the author of Truth and as He has given gifts to all men, that there are good and true things which we can learn from non-Christians (p. 240). How we do so remains a bit of an open question and brings us to the final topic of the day . . .

Western Civilization and Culture

Closely tied up with questions of Christian culture are those of Western civilization and culture. Here I am indebted as well to a podcast interview with Ravi Jain on Forma [4]. In this interview he goes a bit further than the book in explaining how their approach may apply to other, non-western cultures. The key phrase here seems to be “appropriating” or “redeeming” culture. That is, one must use discernment in evaluating non-Christian cultures — whether ancient Greek or Chinese — and deciding what can be used and what must be rejected. While I was slightly uncomfortable with the degree of acceptance given to western culture in the book, the podcast did assuage some of my concerns. And Jain has said, I think this is still a topic which needs further thought. I am not a fan of the view advanced by Wilson and others that Greek and Roman culture was somehow uniquely suited to the Christian message. I do think that God had prepared a time and place for the incarnation and work of Christ, but I think many go too far in assuming that that means that Greek and Roman culture are somehow exalted above others. The pax romana certainly aided the spread of the gospel, but so too did persecution. One could make an argument that it was the vast sinfulness of Roman culture which made the work of the Church stand out.

The flip-side of this is the lack of consideration of Hebraic culture. If there was any people and culture God was preparing for the advent of His Son, it was the nation of Israel (and they rejected Him). Clark and Jain (like so many others) spend very little time on what that culture has to contribute to the field of education. [5] They do tie piety (again, an early age part of education) to Hebrew culture (p. 17). They note the use of stories in the Old Testment (p. 223), and they argue for the learning of Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek (p. 275). Overall, however, in a book of some 300 pages, one or two paragraphs worth are spent on Hebraic culture.

Conclusions

This observation brings me to the conclusion to this series and my main overarching problem with The Liberal Arts Tradition. Let me emphasize again that there is a lot to like here. If you read one book on classical education, it should be this one. Clark and Jain have given me a lot to think about and expanded my thought on education in a number of ways. But my lingering issue has to do with where they start. They assume a classical foundation. They start with what the Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Church, have said and work from there. The points where I end up disagreeing most with them are just those points which still line up with classical education. These include a hierarchy of subjects, a developmental view of the child that reserves some subjects for later years, and the prominent role of the teacher. One wonders if Clark and Jain had started elsewhere rather from a classical foundation if they would have ended up in just the same spot.

Nebby

[1] See: Implementing a Christian Education; Church, State . . . and School?;  Lockerbie on Schools; also: History of Education: Biblical Times; History of Reformed Education; History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation; Public Education in America

[2] As far as I can tell, the only direct reference to homeschooling is in a footnote on p. 244.

[3] I discussed the expansive nature of education briefly in this post.

[4] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[5] For some posts on what Hebraic education was and what it had to contribute see: Book Review: History of Jewish Education; Book Review: Train Up a Child; Hebraic vs Hellenistic Education and Revisiting Hebraic vs Greek Education.

One response to this post.

  1. […] foolish to try to recreate his system today. My critique of much of modern classical education (see this recent post in Clark and Jain’s work) is that it assumes a classical foundation and builds up from there without asking if this is the […]

    Reply

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