Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Movie Review: The Test and the Art of Thinking

Dear Reader,

Thanks ot a local homeschool group, I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” a movie on the SATs. I wrote this review for my local group and thought I would share it here as well.

Not surprisingly, this movie was critical of the SATs (and ACTs though less time was spent specifically on them) as criteria for college admissions. It began with a brief discussion of the original purpose of the test. This was not actually entirely bad. Though it was the era of eugenics and most scientists expected the test to show differences between those of us who are more evolved and those who are less so, it also had an egalitarian purpose. Prestigious schools of the day each had their own admission tests and only offered them to students who were already at high level prep schools. A common test allowed students from different backgrounds to compete.

The main criticism of the test was that it does not really measure intelligence. This is true for a number of reasons including: There is not just one kind of intelligence. It is very hard to measure or even define true intelligence. Beating the test has itself become a game of tricks in which those who can pay for expensive prep classes have an advantage.

There was also some talk of the power of the test in society. Though started by those not looking to make money, it is now big business. While some colleges have dropped testing requirements for admissions, the big names still use it and it is hard for others not to follow suit. It was implied that these elite colleges somehow must benefit from using the test though it was not specified how. The national rankings of colleges also play a role and people watch them closely and the average SAT score of admitted students is considered in them (though it was not abundantly clear to me how large this one measure plays in overall rankings).

This movie was best when it was specific and showed ways the test can be “gamed.” They demonstrated for instance that in the essay portion (which is no longer required or even wanted by most schools in my experience) that a long essay gets high marks even if its content is complete drivel. They also showed some tricks prep agencies teach for getting probable right answers without even reading the problem.

I had a number of issues with or questions about the movie:

  • It relied heavily on test prep people and admissions staff (or former admissions staff). Every time a College Board (the people who run the SATs) person was talking it was recorded from some other forum. It may be the College Board refused to talk directly to them, but then this should have been said.
  • It was very low on statistics. In fact, there were almost none that related to the success or bias of the test. There was an allusion made to gender differences but no facts on what these are. Again, it was said in passing that test scores do not correlate to college success and that all they correlate to is parents’ educational level (all things I have heard before in other contexts), but hard numbers to back these things up would have been more persuasive. Nor was there any real discussion of how poorer and otherwise marginalized groups do on the test.
  • There is no doubt schools rely on test scores. What I have heard is that even top schools do not rely solely on test scores. Harvard gets a lot of 1600s applying and they look beyond scores for something more. The movie presented things as black-and-white, we use scores or we don’t. I think an honest assessment would need to look at how schools really evaluate students and how much of a role those test scores actually play. (I know a lot of this information is proprietary and that schools do not want to share how they make decisions but we need to at least acknowledge that it is not a simple process.)
  • The movie is dated. Though it was made in 2018, the SAT has changed recently and the essay is no longer required and (from looking at schools for my son last year) most schools don’t even want it. The best criticism the movie had was of how essays don’t even have to be true (see above) but it is no longer relevant. I laughed in appreciation when they said the reading selections are like articles from Time Magazine and there are still a number like this, but my experience with my children is that they are also now including passages from real literature (like Jane Austen novels). In my observation there has been some real improvement in the latest changes which was not addressed.
  • Most of the tricks shown which cheat the system had to do with the math section. There may be similar tricks for the reading and writing potions but this was not made clear. So I am left wondering if those portions are also as game-able.
  • At one point one of the talking heads talks about a hypothetical question about who was president during WWII and how some answers, though wrong, are still better than others. I get his point, but it wasn’t well related to the test which does not have these sorts of factual history questions. I assume he was meaning to say something about the reading portion which often asks for the best answer out of a selection of possible ones but this connection was not made clear.
  • Obviously some people pay oodles of money to learn the tricks of the test. I would like to know how much they actually improve their scores by doing so. My kids who have taken the test improved some by doing practice tests at home. How does this method of preparation compare to those expensive classes? How much can a 1400 kid (on a first try) imporve versus a 1000 kid? Again hard numbers are needed.
  • There is an underlying value system here which I don’t buy into anyway which says that one needs to get into the elite colleges and therefore needs the best scores. When my own son was looking for colleges, we saw that the elite ones require a certain number of SAT subject tests or AP tests. Knowing he would hate to do all that extra prep and testing and feeling that it would be a waste of his time, we eliminated such schools from our list under the assumption that if they attract people that are so focused on such things they are probably not good schools for him anyway. It is hard to avoid the SAT (or ACT) in our society, but one can keep it in perspective and get by without buying into the whole system.
  • Not really a criticism of the movie: The test was not originally game-able (even in the 1980s when many of us parents were taking it, this was not a big thing). Since it has become so, because people have discovered ways to get right answers without actually doing the problems, the whole thing has become a game and of less value overall. The film used a lot of test prep people who make lots of money teaching rich kids how to trick the system. (I don’t honestly know how these people live with themselves, but that’s a side issue.) I think we should not be surprised that human beings cannot create an un-game-able test but how this comes through in test questions thereby making them game-able seems like it would be a fascinating psychological study to me.

“The Test and the Art of Thinking” did not really provide new information. I went in expecting it to tell me just the things it told me: that the test is game-able, that those who can afford expensive test prep have an advantage, that it does not measure true intelligence. I didn’t find that there was much new added to the discussion here and I would really have liked to see the hard numbers to back all this up.

Nebby

The Power of Narrative, for Better or Worse

Dear Reader,

Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has recently published a book entitled How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories which describes why we are so attracted to narrative and how it can lead us astray. I have not (yet) read the book but only some articles on it. The two I have run across are: Rosenberg, Alex, “Humans are Hardwired to Tell History in Stories. Neuroscience Tells Us Why We Get Them Wrong,” Time (Oct. 10, 2018), and Chen, Angela, “A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history,” The Verge (Oct 5, 2018). Though my introduction to his work has been brief, I would like to examine Rosenberg’s ideas a bit.

Rosenberg’s contention is that we humnas “like to have all our knowledge packaged in stories — narratives with plots that involve people (and animals) with reasons and motives, carrying out their aims and designs, in cooperation or conflict, succeeding or being thwarted” (Time). This instinct, he says, leads us astray because we attribute emotions and motives to people when we cannot possibly know if they are accurate. His theory has a distinctly evolutionary basis — we have this propensity to ascribe motives to others because it helped us in a primitive environment (he mentions the African savannah). But to do so is false because: “neuroscience shows that in fact what’s “going on” in anyone’s mind is not decision about what to do in the light of beliefs and desire, but rather a series of neural circuitry firings” (Ibid.). “So,” he continues, “the brain can’t “contain” beliefs at all.”

Now obviously there is a lot here that from our Christian context we must reject wholesale. But there is also a kernel of truth that I think we need to acoount for.

On one level, I respect Rosenberg’s science. Most godless [1] evolutionists end up inconsistent. They want to believe in something beyond the physical though their presuppositions do not allow for a spiritual element. Rosenberg admits that his worldview is a purely physical one and that physical causes must account for all things — even what we term beliefs and emotions. Because of this, he does not just say we wrongly guess others’ motives; he actually says we cannot guess motives because there are no motives, only the products of neural firings.

As Christians,it is pretty fundamental to our belief system that there is a spiritual element to creation, and to humans in  particular, for which the physical alone cannot account. We also believe that we humans are capable of true belief [2] and that we do have motives, i.e. reasons we do things, even if our reasons are not always reasonable.

We may agree with Rosenberg, however, that narrative is instinctual to our race and that it is powerful. Charlotte Mason (whose educational philosophy I have blogged on extensively though I do not agree with her in all things) relies heavily on narrative as the basis for learning for just the reason Rosenberg cites — because we are programmed to learn informaiton through stories. The biblical text supports this view; narrative more than any other mode is how God Himself has chosen to communicate with His people. Our faith is largely belief in a story and this story is a powerful one (Heb. 4:12). So, while we do not come at the issue from the same direction, we can agree with Rosenberg that narrative is both fundamental and powerful for people.

Rosenberg goes one step further and argues that narrative is deceptive and even manipulative. As mentioned above, we do not need to reject all narrative as false as Rosenberg does because we do believe in motive. But he is correct is saying that narrative can be deceptive, whether deliberately or unintentionally. To that extent that such deception is deliberate it is also manipulative. In all honestly, even true narratives can be to some extent manipulative in that they are used to create a change in the audience.

Though there is a spectrum, narrative is apt to add to its subject matter. A historical novel often invents entire characters and situations. A biography may stick to real people and events but may makes unfounded surmises about how people felt and why they did things. A textbook may not take such liberties but often ends up as a dry compendium of facts which, as I think Rosenberg would agree, is hard to learn from.

Those of us who seek to use “living books” in our schools and homeschools (as I argued we should here)  need to take this crisitcism seriously. Too often we choose books based on the recommendations of others or from various lists which circulate and do not consider whether what they have to say is true. I remmeber reading two books about the pilgrims when my children were little and finding that they gave some very different versions of basic facts, even names and dates. These things were relatively easy to fact-check, though if I hadn’t been reading both books I would never have known there was anything to fact-check. And the more a book gets into motives, the more we are at the author’s mercy.

We have spoken some on the past of the need to vet our authors – and to use caution with those whose worldview differs from our own. Now we must add to that list: check their academic credentials and propensity for honesty. Sad to say, I find it is often the “Christian” historical fiction which seems to go the farthest in terms of inventing people, events, and feelings or motivations. A certain level of sentimentality anda tendency to explain the feelings and thoughts of others shoudl raise red flags for us to proceed with caution and a grain of salt. This does not mean we need to reject narrative-style living books altogether; there are books which use narrative but do a better job of sticking to the facts without assuming motivations and thoughts. Rosenberg admits as much citing Guns, Germs, and Steel as one such book (The Verge).

On a day -to-day in the trenches basis, this is a pretty thorny issue. If I were a university professor developing a class which I would be teaching again and again, I would spend a fair amount of time researching my sources and making sure that they balance narrative with truth. As a homeschooling mom who needs to find new books for multiple kids to read in about eight subject areas every twelve weeks and who is limited by what’s available at the local library and used off Amazon, I don’t have the time or resoucres to find the best of what’s out there every time.

I do think we can use a little discernment, however. With practice and with an awareness of the problem, we can make some fairly educated guesses about which books seem to give accurate acocunts and which clearly are supplying lots of suppositional information.

In sum, then, Rosenberg has raised some concerns which we need to take seriously. Though there are apsects of his theory which Christians cannot accept, he is correct that narrative is fundamental to how we learn and that it is powerful. Like most power, it can be used for good or ill. While I do not agree with him that all attempts at finding motive are in vain, it is true that we often make wrong suppositions about others’ motives and that narrative can thus be deceptive and even manipulative.

Nebby

[1] I do not mean this term derogatively. I am simpy refering to those who accept an evolution without any divine mind behind it. Those who believe in a divinely-guided evolution would not fit in this category.

[2] This is not a statemnt about total depravity and our capacity for good, but simply about our ability to believe in anything.

The Holy Spirit in Education (A Podcast Review)

Dear Reader,

I am writing this having just listened to a recent podcast from A Delectable Education. Given the non-written nature of the material, I want to reflect on it while it is fresh in my mind. A Delectable Education, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast devoted to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. The episode in question (#140) is entitled “Live from Charlotte Mason Soiree Retreat Q&A” and was released on September 28, 2018.  As its title suggests, this podcast is actually the audio from the Q&A session of a recent retreat. The portion I am interested in comes about 35 minutes into the podcast episode.

The panel of speakers is asked how if, as Charlotte Mason says, the Holy Spirit is the prime mover in education, we can educate our children if they are not yet saved and have not yet been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There are two answers given: that God is the source of all truth and that He does work in our children’s lives.

I am sorry I am not good at identifying which of the female panelists is speaking when, but one of them provides the first answer (not first in the order they say them; they go back and forth a bit), that all truth comes from God. This does not actually get to the heart of the question but it is a statement I heartily agree with. Art Middlekauff (the only male member of the panel) adds that just because we get a certain truth through say, Euclid, that does not mean all he has said is worth listening to. In other words, God may speak through an unbeliever on one topic or one set of topics but that does not mean all they say is inspired. This is a good reminder to us to use discernment.  In our own culture, we tend to put too much faith in anyone who does anything at all impressive from movie stars to sports heroes. I have read for instance that  Isaac Newton had some really wacky ideas on theology. This does not detract from his scientific theories but neither do his scientific theories lend credence to his theological ideas.

The second point, which is made primarily by Middlekauff, is that the question is flawed because our children are saved. My own church, like his, baptizes infants and considers them part of the body of believers. Middlekauff’s explanation is a good one as far as it goes. It addresses the case of Christian homeschooling parents educating their own kids.

We are left still with the question of other children. Whether at home or in a school context, we may find ourselves teaching children who do not have believing parents. Middlekauff partly addresses this issue. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing, not an exact quote): even if you do not believe your children are saved, it is still the Holy Spirit that works in them and since your primary concern is presumably that they be saved you should very much desire and rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Again, I agree largely with what Middlekauff has to say, but I do have two concerns. I believe that it is the Holy Spirit that is working even if our students are unregenerate. If there is any good to be done in and for them, it is He that does it. Charlotte Mason’s philsophy of education relies upon the student being able to choose the good and I would not say that the unregenerate (children or adults) have any power to do so. I think then that more needs to be said about how this philosophy can work for such children. (I do have my own theories about the purpose of education in the lives of both regenerate and unregenerate children; you can read them here.)

My second concern is that I am just not convinced that this is how Miss Mason herself thought of the issue. I *think* that Middlekauff is saying something very similar to what I have been saying in my current blog series, that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of regenerate covenant children and that if any are outside of the covenant we still educate them while praying and hoping for His work in them too. (I hope I am not misrepresenting his ideas; this is how I took what he had to say. Though we seem to get to the same place, I am not sure our reasoning is the same.)

In contrast, when I read Charlotte Mason’s writings, what I understand her to say is that her education is for all children (she is particularly concerned to include those her society would have deemed uneducable). I do not think she makes a distinction between regenerate and unregeneate children because I do not think that she sees such a difference. She had a very different view (from mine) of what it means to live in a “redeemed world” (her term) and of the general moral and spiritual ability of people apart from the saving work of Christ. (I just did a long post on that here.) The long and the short of it is that her philosophy relies upon the ability of all children to choose the good because she believed that all children were capabale of doing so. She does not address what we do with unregenerate children because she did not believe in them as such. She believed all children had, through Christ’s redemptive work, been given some ability to choose and do good.

So I guess my conclsuion on this episode is that I like a lot of what the panelists had to say. I was surprised, in fact, to find myself agreeing so much with them. I am less convinced that how they explain the situation is how Miss Mason herself saw things. I still think we need a philsophy of education which considers all children — whether from believing parents or not — and which finds its origins in a reformed understanding of human nature and the purpose of life.

Nebby

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

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.

Charlotte Mason Poetry had recently released in audio-form a series of articles by Benjamin Bernier entitled “Education for the Kingdom” (these articles were originally published on their website in 2017). The five articles in this series form one argument. Bernier, an Anglican minister and homeschooling parent, has done extensive research into the religious basis of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. This series presents his argument that Charlotte’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Christian religion and that it is a distinctly Christian philosophy of education.

Bernier has clearly done his research. He shows specific authors and their writings that he believes influenced Miss Mason and makes a compelling case for each. I have no quibble with his scholarship and am very grateful to him for the work he has put in and his willingness to share it. Nor do I disagree with his conclusions. All in all this is an article well worth reading for anyone who uses Charlotte’s methods or who is interested in Christian education (and I do think reading is probably a better option than the audio versions as there is a lot here to take in). What I would like to talk about today is not Bernier’s scholarship but what we do with the information he has given us.

Miss Mason sought to develop a disticntly Christian approach to education. What Bernier shows is that that approach is heavily influenced, as it should be, by Miss Mason’s own church, the Church of England.

“In order to properly understand Mason’s philosophy, it is important to grasp the essential socio-religious context of her life and work, whch in this case happens to be the Anglicanism characteristic of the late-Victorian era England.” (Benjamin Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom, Part 1,” from charlottemasonpoetry.org, Feb. 18 2017)

Bernier goes on to argue that as the Anglican Church of the time encompassed a wide range of opinions that the form of Christianity embodied in Miss Mason’s philosophy is one that focuses on essentials, what he calls, following C.S. Lewis, a “mere Christianity.”

Bernier argues that Miss Mason’s goals in education were intrinsically religious. He shows from lesser known early writings that her concern in education was mainly apologetic. Specifically her motivation was to guard to youth of her day against the then very new theories of Darwinism and the Documentary Hypothesis [1] which threatened traditional faith assumptions (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings,” Feb. 25, 2017). He maintains that she never abandoned the faith-basis of her method though she was forced, as the method became more popular and widely used in different contexts, to downplay the overt religious elements:

” . . . the Christ-centered foundation of Mason’s thought was not diminshed one bit; it simply became less overy and less conspicuous to a general audience when her message was repackaged in the hope of influencing the evolving national system of education as such a crucial stage.” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 5, Enthroning the King,” March 18, 2017)

Note that Bernier here calls Mason’s philosophy “Christ-centered.” Elsewhere he speaks of the gospel foundation of her work. Mason herself spoke of the gospel principles of education which she derived from a few passages from the Book of Matthew. “As far as I have been able to trace,” Bernier says, “Mason was the first Christian educator to define a connection between these words of Christ [in Matthew’s gospel] and a philosophy of education” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings”).

Bernier thus makes three points that we need to consider:

  1. Mason’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Anglicanism which is itself a kind of “mere Christianity.”
  2.  As Mason’s philosophy reached a wider audience, its Christian foundation became more covert to the point that many in the modern CM movement are unaware of it altogether (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 1”).
  3. The biblical foundation for Mason’s philosophy is found primarily in certain words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.

Given these points, those of us who use or are considering Mason’s philosophy need to ask ourselves a few questions starting with: Is Mason’s Christianity my Christianity? If you are not Christian, Bernier shows clearly that Mason’s philosophy is not for you as it cannot be separated from its Christian underpinnings. If you are Anglican (as Bernier is) you can probably use Mason’s methods in good conscience. If you are from another Christian tradition, you need to consider what her faith is and if this “mere Christianity” is enough for you. Bernier points out, for instance, that Mason renounced the authority of the pope (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 3, Christ Himself for Himself,” March 4, 2017). If you are a Roman Catholic using this philosophy, it may be that you can ignore her personal views and still use her methods. Or maybe not. But it is an issue that needs thought.

Personally, I am a reformed (read: Calvinistic) Christian. I have certain views of human nature (total depravity) which do not gel with Mason’s approach. I have blogged on this many times now (see this post and this one, for example) so I will not rehash all the arguments but I believe that when Charlotte states her infamous second principle — “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil” (“CM’s 20 Principles,” from Ambleside Online) — that she means this as a spiritual statement, that this statement is foundational to her philosophy, and that this view is incompatible with reformed Christianity [2].  Mason’s “mere Christianity” is not simply the core essentials that all Christians would agree to but is a kind of Arminianism (though no doubt it is not far from the faith of many evangeicals today). [3]

I also have concerns about the biblical basis of Mason’s philosophy. I do not deny that she derives her approach from the gospels, but I do question her use of these texts exclusively. There are many other passages in the Bible which speak of children and topics related to education, both in the Old and New Testaments (see this post, this one, or this one).  Though I doubt they had red-letter editions of the Bible in Mason’s day, her selection of these passages from Matthew, and only these passages, exalts the words of Jesus there recorded over other parts of God’s holy and inspired Word. And, as I discussed here, I do not even particularly like how she interprets and uses these passages.

“Education for the Kingdom” is well worth reading. Bernier’s scholarship is excellent. It is an article (or series of articles) that demands a response, however. Bernier shows us clearly what the religious basis of Mason’s philosophy of education is. But, if you are using or considering using this philosophy, it is not enough to know what it is, you must also ask if it is compatible with your own beliefs. Are Mason’s foundational ideas your own? And if they are not, is there enough commonality that you can use her methods as written in good conscience?

Nebby

[1] The Documantary Hypothesis is a theory about the origins of the biblical text, specifically the Pentateuch, which posits different authors for different sections and tends to chop the biblical text up into parts.

[2] Bernier quotes Charlotte Mason’s “A Catechism of Education Theory” which says: “‘What is the part of man? To choose good and refuse the evil'” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017). Though the immediate topic is education, the discussion is of spiritual food and it is hard to take this as anything but theological statement about man’s ability to choose.

[3] Charlotte Mason’s view of man’s state and abilites seems to be tied to the phrase “redeemed world.” Bernier, quoting Mason, also uses the phrase: “Christ is shown to extend His light and life over every sphere of knowledge and practice in this ‘redeemed world'”  (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017).  I have discussed Mason’s use of the phrase and its possible meaning in this post.  I do not at this time feel completely confident in my grasp of what Mason means when she speaks of a “redeemed world” but I suspect that there is some odd soteriology underlying it.

Movie Review: Calvinist

Dear Reader,

This is not inherently education related but I am going to try to tie it in 😉  (You can see all the posts in my current series on reformed Christian education here.)

The Calvinist Movie was made fairly recently by a guy names Les Lanphere. It is available on DVD, Blue-Ray or as a digital download from his website here. My short take on this is that it is well worth watching and even buying (price to rent is $5 and $15 to buy). There are really two parts to the movie– the bulk of it is about trends in evangelicalism and how and why Calvinism has become hip and new again. Sandwiched in the middle is about half an hour (of 1.5 hrs total) which explains Calvinism with lots of biblical quotes and (intentionally?) cheesy graphics.

The best part of this movie is the middle bit exlaining what Calvinism is. I could definitely see showing this section to anyone who asks “Reformed? What does that mean?” (which actually happens a fair amount when I say the name of my church). Admittedly they are preaching to the choir with me, but I went away from this section thinking “Why on earth wouldn’t anyone believe this?” They do a very good job of highlighting (literally) biblical verses to support all they say. The one lack, if there is one, is that while they show reformed theology to be biblical, little is said about what comes between the New Testament and the Reformation. I’m sure time was limited and one had to pick and choose but you wouldn’t know from this video that there was any good theology in the early church which the reformers were returning to.

Two-thirds of the movie is about the trend that has been called “Young, restless and reformed.” I think I am old enough that I am not part of this trend though my own journey (from Catholicism to 4 or 5 years as a generic evengelical to reformed faith) is not so different from many in the video. It was interesting to me as the study of a social movement. I don’t think this bit would be for non-Christians. I do plan to show it to my soon-to-be college student because, though he has been raised in the reformed faith, I think it would be good as he goes out in the world to have some sense of where his Christian peers may be coming from.

The Calvinist Movie does a good job of showing where the evengelical movement is lacking and how the continual altar calls with no emphasis on what comes after have left church kids empty and anxious. Though this is not my own experience, the feelings I got from growing up Catholic, with the continual need to repent, were similar. The movie makes the point that we have been depriving our kids by exiling them to children’s church where they are basically entertained. We need to treat them like people and to include them in the worship of the church, a position I fully support (see this post on children in the Bible).

A major theme in the movie is that what we believe matters; we can’t just boil down the gospel to the simplest terms. People (children too) need the meat of theology. This is a point I have been making on this blog for years — ideas  matter. To bring it back to the topic of this series — it is why we need a reformed theology of education. There is one particularly good quote near the end where one of the interviewees (Joel Beeke, I believe) says that theology changes us and flows out and affects our feelings and actions as well.  I completely agree with this. I would extend it and say that, perhaps to a lesser extent, the other, not inherently theological, ideas that we take in do this also. Our ideas shape us.

If there is one flaw in this movie, it is that it doesn’t go far enough. The core beliefs of reformed theology (I have just learned we call now these  “the doctrines of grace”) are clearly presented but beyond that there is no effort to present a biblical ecclesiology or a biblical doctrine of worship. And while I would agree that there is some diminishing importance and that we can’t get hung up debating every point small point of doctrine, some of these other issues are still quite important. I am not going to dwell on worship because though the film shows mostly what I would consider unbiblical worship, I hear that the filmmaker has since come to a more biblical understanding of worhip and that his next project will be on the Regulative Principle of Worship.

In the latter half of the film, Lanphere addresses Mark Driscoll, a popular reformed pastor who suffered a dramatic downfall from his ministry.  He then moves to talking about the various reformed Confessions, the implication being that adhering to Confessions will keep us from getting into situations where we are too dependent on the personality of one charismatic leader. Confessions are good, but I would argue that what we need is a biblical ecclesiology. In the movie’s defense, it uses the word ecclesiology a lot but it fails to take that added step and argue that there is a biblical ecclesiology and that we need to adhere to it (I would argue that what the Bible depicts is essentially a Presbyterian structure — one with a lot of accountability).

I definitely recommend the Calvinist Movie. The bulk of it is best for those who are already Christian and even reformed but the half an hour in the middle (actually about 15 minutes in, I think) is a very good, concise and clear way to present reformed theology to anyojne who shows an interest.

Nebby

Book Review: Train up a Child

Dear Reader,

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

In my quest to define what reformed Christian education should be, William Barclay’s Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) has been an absolutely invaluable resource. It provides something I was sorely lacking: historical background. Barclay goes through the educational systems of five different societies in great detail. He is not an unbiased author (who is?) but he clearly has put much effort into his research and quotes primary sources extensively making his book a must-read if this is a topic you, like I, want to tackle seriously (but if you are content to settle for my digested form, read on).

The societies Barclay addresses are: Israelite/Jewish, Sparta, Greek, Roman, and early Christian. For each he begins with broad brushstrokes and theories and then narrows in and discusses specifics of when and how they educated. I am not going to, and could not possibly, recap everything he has to say but I will give you the big bullet points on each so that we can then return to our main topic and discuss how we as reformed Christians should educate and what we can take from each of these traditions.

Israelite and Jewish Education

Barclay lumps Israelite and Jewish education in one chapter and though he makes clear where he is historically as he writes, I think it could be easy for a reader, especially one with less historical knowledge, to miss that this is not all about what God’s people did in Old Testament times. In fact, most of what he has to say is about Jewish education after the time of Christ.

The truth is there is not much in the way of formal education in Old Testament times, i.e. before the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. Barclay’s main flaw is that when he has little to go on, he speculates. With regard to Israelite education, he says:

“Long before there was any formal education lads and young men must have been trained in the simple processes on which food and life depend; and in that training they could not help, perhaps half-unconsciously, perhaps by the process of soaking them in rather than of learning them, acquiring these beliefs in their hearts. For the Jew to work on the land must have been to be educated continuously in the ways of God.” (p. 19)

Note the use of the words “must have been” and “perhaps.” Barclay is assuming here and while his assumptions may be logical, they are nonetheless assumptions. The truth is, we know little about education in the pre-exilic period. (You can read my own post on teaching and education in the Old Testament here.) I agree with him that what happened most likely happened not in formal schools and through ordinary life in the family but the fact is we really don’t have much to go on.

In later Judaism, the synagogue became the center of learning. It was not so much a place of worship as of instruction (p. 24). Schools as such do not seem to have existed until 70 AD or later (p. 32). Because of the importance of the Scripures, literacy was highly valued. Though education was highly valued, it was also limited: it was for boys only (p. 37) and the only textbook was the Scriptures (p. 38). In fact, children were forbidden from studying Greek (which would have been the lingua franca of the day) (p. 38). Teaching was oral and education amounted largely to memorization through repetition (pp. 39-40). Knowledge was intended to be practical in that the Law should not just be known but lived (p. 39, 47). A common definition we have run across is that education enculturates and this was very deliberately true for the Jewish people; they educated to preserve their unique culture and to distinguish themselves from their neighbors (p. 47).

Spartan Education

I am going to breeze over Spartan education fairly quickly. Nobody seems to use Sparta as an example, for good reason. Suffice it to say the Spartan system would make a good basis for a modern dystopian novel for teens. I will make this one point: Ancient Greece was not one unified culture. Those who trumpet “classical” and “Greek” education as the high point of learning would do better to specify “Athenian.”

Athenian Education

Which brings is to our next society: Athens. Here we find what has become the root of “classical” education (I use the quotes because classical can and has been defined in many ways). The Athenian Greeks, through their influence on the Romans (see below), have been perceived as the high point of philosophical thought and of education.

So what was education in ancient Athens really like? Though education was highly valued, it was very much an intellectual enterprise. Education was a head thing and practical skill learning was despised (though exceptions were made in some fields such as medicine and architecture) (pp. 78-83).

The goal of education was to form an ideal person. Valor and wisdom above all were valued (p. 84). This was character education designed to suit the boy to an ideal life which was a life of leisure.

Homer served as a kind of Bible for Greek education. His writings above all were the textbook of education (p. 109). Though this involved a lot of memory work, it was done through games and play and as such was no doubt not unpleasant (pp. 106, 114, 122-23). Poetry was highly valued and was taught before prose (pp. 117-18).

As in Jewish culture, education was a male affair. Though the home was  important in education, most mothers were not equipped to participate in any way. Nor were girls educated (pp. 91, 95, 141).

Because of the emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the despising of practical skills, Athenian education produced an educated but largely useless elite. Barclay goes so far as to call it a system based on slavery (p. 141). “[T]he fault of Greek education,” he says “was that it remembered culture but forgot duty” (p. 142).

Roman Education

Roman education can really be divided into two stages, before and after Greek influence.

In its early days, Roman education was not systematized but centered around the home. It was a kind of populist ground-up affair which embodied peasant values and placed the child and family before all (pp. 144-47). Notably in the ancient world, the mother was involved (p. 150). Education was largely through imitation and perpetuated a way of life built on family values and family gods. This lasted until about 240 BC.

When Rome became an empire, and thereby encountered other cultures, education changed. Schools were introduced. Because the Romans had little culture of their own, they taught Greek culture and like the Athenians, emphasized poetry (pp. 180-81).

But the methods and goals of education were different. Play and games were not the backbone of Roman education. Elementary education, Barclay tells us, was characterized by boredom and fear (p. 166). Severe punishments were used (p. 164). There was a practical turn to Roman education. Mathematics was learned only insofar as it was useful (p. 168). Music too was utilitarian, not aesthetic (p. 188). The goal of Roman education, the ideal product, was to produce a skilled orator (pp. 190-91).

Despite the harsh methods of Imperial Roman education, it is from this period that we get the three-stage approach so characteristic of modern classical education. In Rome, they were defined by the litterator, the grammaticus, and the rhetor (p. 160). The first stage, that of the litterator, was defined by the elements of knowledge, the three R’s taught through “senseless repletion” (p. 160). Most would have only had this first stage of education. Those who did go on would be taught right speaking and poetry by the Grammaticus (pp. 178, 183). [Barclay does not describe the third and final stage, that of the rhetor.]

Early Christian Education

The issue for the early Church was how to respond to all of this, what to accept and what to reject. And, possibly, what to replace it with. As Barclay paints the picture, there were two competing trends in Christianity. On one hand, there was an anti-intellectualism which tended to reject learning because it was so often built on pagan writings (pp. 198-99). On the other hand, many Christian apologists were themselves quite educated and were not opposed to using the pagan philosophers as it suited their purpose (pp. 205, 209-10). They were willing to acknowledge some level of truth in the philosophers and to use what was good while rejecting the bad.

Though Christian parents were held responsible for training their children, the early Church was never in a position to establish schools and did not attempt to do so (p. 238). The result was that children were sent to pagan schools as a necessity (p. 240). The schools themselves, which still based education on Homer and other pagan writings, were often pawns in the various persecutions against Christians. Their attitude essentially boiled down to: use the schools for what they can teach but it is the parent who shapes the child (pp. 258, 261). In other words, the pagan schools were a tool but the real influence was still the Christian parent.

Lastly, I will note that there is some evidence that Christian girls were taught as well (p. 254).

Pulling It All Together

There is a wealth of material in Barclay’s book. My goal in reading it and in presenting it here is to circle back around to the purpose of this whole blog series and to ask what knowledge we can glean that will aid us in constructing a reformed Christina approach to education.

It is hard having read this book not to revisit the topic of Christian classical education (and, frankly, I am not resisting very hard). The picture I have always been given is this: education was at its height in ancient Greece (read: Athens); the Romans took over the Greek approach and then the early Church did as well. This is still the best approach to education and is the ideal for us which we should adopt, albeit perhaps with some Christina tweakings. Barclay shows is that there was not just one model for education in the ancient world and that each approach had its flaws as well as its merits. This is true of the Athenian model as much as, if not more than, many of the others.

The other big point I think we should take from this book is that all our struggles regarding education are not new. The early Church faced many of the same dilemmas. They too were faced with schools that were taught (often) by pagan teachers and used pagan materials. They were not above using these schools but they never ceded all control to them.

I have tried in this series not to wade to far into the public school vs. Christian school vs. homeschool battles.  The one thing I will say clearly is that however we choose to educate our children, we as Christian parents must always view ourselves as ultimately in control of their education and training. Perhaps we, like the early Church, can use the pagan schools (I say perhaps because I do not know if we can and maybe the answer will vary by location) but we must never turn them over to the schools to the point that we abandon our children to them and cede our God-given parental authority to a pagan institution.

I would like to have read in this book that there was some other good model on which we can base education, something we can return to as we seek to rebuild. Sadly, I haven’t found one model that stands out above the others. Little is known of Israelite education and, in truth, there probably was little education. Jewish education was scriptural but did not extend beyond this and gives us no model for how to incorporate other learning, nor, with its emphasis on rote memorization, is it particularly appealing. Sparta is, if anything, a model of how not to do anything. The Athenians valued knowledge in its own right, but too much so — there is no practicality here and the end result is not a functional member of society. They also give the lowest role and place the least importance on the mother. Roman education before the empire actually has quite a bit to recommend it. It is family-based, religious, and practical (albeit based on pagan religion). It does not, however, value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some Christians seem content with such an approach (see this book review); I could not be. Finally, when we look at the early Church we find people who faced much the same problems as we do. Their solution is compromise and perhaps we will end up in much the same place. I do think we have resources they did not, however, and I think we can at least aspire to something more ideal.

Nebby

 

Living Books for Environmental Science

Dear Reader,

I let my 11th grader pick her science this year and she chose environmental science. She is big into art of any kind and photography so she has been working on a project for a local Audubon sanctuary to make a bird watching handout for them. She also watched some Khan Academy videos (here; she only did the ecology section half-way down the page) and read a lot of books. The wonderful thing about this age if that you can find good adult books that are written to be interesting (as opposed to a lot of the books written for kids, sad to say). You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Environmental Science

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson — THE classic of the environmental movement. We hadn’t read it yet so I made sure she got this one in.

The Curious Naturalist by Sy Montgomery — Short essays on subjects from lichen to beavers. Divided up by season.

Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale — I love Teale’s books. This one is part of a seasonal foursome. Also look for Circle of the Seasons and A Walk through the Year.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir — Nature lore. I’ve heard Muir was a Christian.

Anthill: A Novel by E.O. Wilson — I’m not crazy about Wilson’s view of evolution/creation (he is not a Christian) but when he talks about his subject, entomology, his love of creation comes through.

Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson — Another classic from Carson.

Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus — Why are the bees dying and why does it matter?

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Amusing anecdotes from the author’s walks on the Appalachian trail.

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — I am going to make all my kids read this one. I love Wiker’s books. This one is a pretty easy read. Wiker tells the story of the man and how his life and personal views affected his famous theory. It is kindly but fairly done. He is not anti-evolution but is anti-Darwinian evolution. Wiker inspires hope for a godly view of creation ad evolution which will bring us closer to, not farther from, our Creator.

Our Only World by Wendell Berry — Ten essays from one of my favorite American fiction writers.

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro — A professor tells how we could, maybe, clone animals to reintroduce them and asks why and if we should. A little tough and technical in parts but good and engaging.

Happy reading!

Nebby

 

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