Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Book Review: History of Jewish Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE by Nathan Drazin. This is an older book, originally published in 1941. My overarching concern in my  current series to is develop a reformed Christian approach to education. As I believe a reformed theology is a biblical theology, this means I am seeking a biblical philosophy of education. In reading Drazin’s book, my interest has been to see how a culture other than the classical (Greek and Roman) approached education and also how another ostensibly biblically-based culture did so. Of course even before the time of Christ, there would be some differences in the Jewish understanding versus our own so it is not necessarily that we are going to follow all that they did, but still my hope was to find something instructive here that will aid us as we develop that biblical approach to education. I will first summarize Drazin’s book and then give my own reactions to it.

The period Drazin examines is a wide-ranging one, covering some 700 years from the Jews return from the Babylonian exile until the Jewish Mishnah was completed. Not surprisingly, given such a long span , there were some changes within this time. Most notably an expansion of education. Whereas before the Babylonian exile there would have been little formal education outside the home, after it the Jews first developed higher education, then secondary, and finally added elementary education for boys (girls would not receive any formal education at this time). This expansion, from higher levels down to lower, Drazin believes to be a common pattern in societies, and, indeed, I think we can even see it today when there is still a tendency to repair the deficits of the educational system by starting earlier and earlier.

Drazin makes quite clear that Jewish education is not just education using Jewish content. It was fundamentally different in its system and goals from Greek and Roman education (Kindle loc. 209). “The outstanding difference,” he says “between Jewish and Greek and Roman education was, of course, in the matter of aims . . .’The whole purpose of Athenian education was the development of virtue, but the virtues were always civic virtues'” (Kindle loc. 2161). Their purpose was often theoretical — the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the discovery of universal moral principles — whereas for the Jews the theory should always influence action (Kindle loc. 2171, 2245). Interestingly, Drazin here sees much more of a connection with the 20th century theories of John Dewey who also sought to shape behavior through education (Kindle loc. 2257).

The goal of education, then, was one of the primary distinctive features of Jewish education. This goal was always focused on Torah, the learning of the law of God, not just for its own sake but so that it may be lived out (Kindle loc. 222, 316). Education was part of life as a whole and was to continue throughout one’s life. Adults too actively sought out education (Kindle loc. 250). Though girls were not educated outside the home and were not required to learn Torah, they too were educated and an educated wife or daughter was still valued (Kindle loc. 1921, 2075, 2096).

The primary content of Jewish education was the Law. For modern Christians it may seem odd but this included not just the text of the Old Testament but its interpretations by scholars and teachers. Though at a certain level there would be discussion of points of the Law, at young ages particularly these interpretations would be memorized as well (Kindle loc. 1713). Other subjects, sciences and grammar and the like, would be learned as they were touched upon by the Torah (Kindle loc. 268, 1382). Though there is some indication that such things could be valued in their own right as they pointed to God. Drazin quotes the Talmud as saying: “‘The man who understands astronomy and does not pursue the study of it, of that man Scripture says, “they regard not the work of the Lord, neither have they considered the operation of His hands”‘” (Kindle loc. 1616).

Though Jewish education did not, like classical education, aim for civic virtues yet there was a broader, more societal goal. Education would assure the survival of the people and would draw other nations to them. This vision was based on an understanding of Deuteronomy (Kindle loc. 296). Israel was a light to the nations and their wisdom was a large part of what would attract those nations.

Practically speaking, Jewish education, particularly elementary education, included a lot of memorization (Kindle loc. 2224) and there was certainly a set body of knowledge that was to be learned. All boys ages 6 or 7 and older were educated. There was a recognition that some would not learn as easily as others and attempts were made to ensure that all learned the needed material. Though physical discipline might be used, the teachers were generally kind and had a real desire to teach and pass on their knowledge.  Intelligence and imagination, Drazin tells us, were not valued in the lower schools (Kindle loc. 1713). Education was not entirely a top-down affair, however. There was room for students to pursue individual interests (Kindle loc. 1752), and, though the Jews did not educate through play, there was an effort to stimulate the child’s interest in the subject matter (Kindle loc. 2226).

In seeking to develop our own biblical philosophy of education, it is helpful to look at those who have come before us. Though the Jewish model of education as a matter of course only looks to the Old Testament and not the New, there are still aspects of it which can be instructive to us.

The Jews of this period took the biblical injunction to educate one’s children seriously. This more than anything else was the impetus for their model of education. Though the move was away from parental education for boys (girls were still educated by their parents), this came from a concern that all should be educated well. The alternative to home education was not just any education but an education based on the community’s core values. And this would be a very tight-knit community with common ideals. It is very different from the modern choice one has between home education according to one’s own ideals and public education in which one has no say (which is not to say that I am always opposed to public education; see this recent post).

The main goal of education was a personal one, to build personal virtue and knowledge of the Law of God (as opposed to the classical model which aimed mainly at civic virtues). A secondary aim was to shine as a light to the nations so that the biblical prophecies might be fulfilled and the peoples would be drawn to the true God. This is a reason I think we are sorely missing in the church today. Note that it is the wisdom of God’s people which attracts the nations. In our day and age Christianity and scholarship are more often than not seen to be opposites, particularly in the popular conception. No one is coming to the church because of our scholarship. This has not always been the case, of course, and I think we can yet recover good, Christian scholarship.

Based on what Drazin says, it seems that more often than not education revolved largely around the Torah and that other subjects were included only as they arose in that context. But knowledge, particularly at the higher levels, might be pursued in its own right, and it was even seen as good and necessary to do so. There was certainly a belief that all knowledge was God’s and that God’s truth would hold up to investigation and experimentation.

There are ways in which the world has changed since 220 AD. Books are everywhere (not to mention computers!) and the bodies of knowledge to which we have access are enormous. Ancient education, whether Greek, Roman or Jewish, was primarily memorization. There is often an emphasis on this in modern homeschooling based on classical models. While this may not be an entirely bad impulse and I am somewhat saddened by our seeming inability to remember things in this day and age, I do think we need to have a discussion at some point about how education can and should change with changes in access to materials and very real changes in the content of human knowledge as well. All of which is to say, it is worth noting the practical aspects of how ancient education worked, but we need to also evaluate them from the perspective of the modern world. A fuller discussion of this would take another post, however, so I will leave it for the moment.

The biggest difference between our biblical model of education and that of the Jews arises from our very real theological differences. For most of the period under discussion (which you will recall was roughly 550 BC to 220 AD), the Jews were God’s people and we would say we share that common heritage. But God’s revelation was not complete at the time; His biggest revelation, His own Son, had not yet come. I hate to beat up on the Pharisees because I think they often receive a bum rap, but the New Testament does make clear to us that the teachers of the time, those who were most educated, got a lot of stuff wrong.  The primary goal of Jewish education was the development of virtue. The underlying assumption of this approach to education was that one could, by studying the Law well, be able to keep that Law. Drazin quotes the Rabbis as saying that the whole world hangs in the balance, “‘the merits of the people nicely balancing their transgressions'” (Kindle loc. 471). This is not our understanding nor do we believe it is a good understanding of the Old Testament. The good deeds do not weigh against the bad and people are not able by study to keep the Law of God on their own. In my own philosophy of education I have talked about education as sanctification. This is much larger than the development of virtues. It is a transformation because a complete transformation is what is needed (Rom. 12:2). And, most importantly, it is not something we can accomplish on our own. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit who writes His Law on our hearts (Jer. 31:33) and changes us and enables us on a very fundamental level. Education itself, even education in the Law of God, apart from the work of the Spirit has no power to make us good.

I think there are things we can learn from the Jewish model of education. It is particularly helpful to have an ancient model that it not the classical so that we may compare the two (you can see some of my thoughts on classical education here and here). There are things we can learn from the model Drazin describes and there are details which perhaps we need to incorporate in our own, but, at the end of the day, this is not  a Christian model and our very fundamental theological differences will cause us to reject this model as it is and to look elsewhere. Though, I would add, we do see once again how a people’s core beliefs are manifested in their approach to education. The Jewish model may not be ours but it was quite well-suited to their own worldview.

Nebby

Books Read: February 2019

Dear Reader,

I am trying to be more diligent in recording what I have read and my impressions of it (as I have such a bad memory for such things). My goal is to post monthly on the books I have finished in that month. You can find January’s list here.

Books Read: February 2019

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather — I have enjoyed a couple of Willa Cather’s books and enjoyed this one as well. The title is a bit of a misnomer as it is mainly a story about the life of a priest sent to the wilds on New Mexico in its early days. Apparently, it is based on a real person. Cather’s books set a mood and give the impression of a place rather than being plot-heavy. It works though and you feel you have gotten to know the time and era when you are done. This particular book is about faith and fortitude and friendship and it is lovely. I had a few reservations. This is a very Catholic (big “C”) book. There are some nice stories within about showing the hand of God in people’s lives but there is also quite a lot about Mary that goes too far for my ex-Catholic-turned-reformed sensibilities.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne — A classic I hadn’t read since high school. I liked the book this time but with some reservations.The story itself is engaging.  If you are looking for an accurate portrayal of Puritan New England, I would not recommend it. If you are viewing it as a kind of allegory or morality tale on the effects of sin, it is quite good. On a side note, if you would like a good book on the Puritans I recommend Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2015) — An at times laugh out loud book on grammar. Really. Norris has worked as an editor for The New Yorker and interweaves her life with grammar lessons. I learned things. I laughed. I read parts aloud to my kids. There is a chapter on expletives so I wouldn’t just hand it to my child to read though.

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz (Penguin Books, 2005) — This is one of a number of books my son gave me to read from his freshman seminar on love and marriage and was by far the best. Coontz has done extensive research and covers marriage throughout human history and in many different cultures (though there is certainly the most material on the west). The crux of it all is that the 1950s were a peak for people marrying for love, without economic and family considerations, and that though this time is now idealized, it was a historical aberration and one that did not necessarily make a lot of the people who went through it happy. Coontz herself if pro-marriage but not necessarily pro-traditional marriage (as we use the term today; a large part of her book is showing that “traditional marriage” is not traditional). She is approaches things from a scientific perspective and argues that marriage customs should fit the society. She clearly has some presuppositions as well — marriages should be happy seems to be one. But she does not appeal to a higher standard. The question Christians should be asking after reading this book is how many of our ideas about marriage stem from our own societal background (that 1950s ideal) and how many are truly biblical? And what would the biblical view of marriage be? If we answer these questions, I think we also need to ask how much we should legislate our view of marriage. Coontz actually paints a picture of modern western society in which good marriages are valued but in which they are not necessarily for everyone. I think there is a lot of room here for Christians to be witnesses, not by legislating our ideal of marriage, but by exemplifying biblical marriage in the midst of a much more pluralistic society.

The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham — Boreham is a favorite author of mine and I often reread his books. He was a pastor in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1900s. His books are collections of brief essays and are best read one chapter at a time. His tone is very kind and pastoral. I don’t love all his writings equally but I usually find something that strikes me, even when rereading. Some favorite quotes from this volume:

  • “I move through life guided by a force I cannot explain.” from The First Swallow
  • “Education, too, properly considered, is merely another form of spring-cleaning. It is a cleaning-up of the mind . . .I fling out my mental rubbish and store my mind with what is really useful and beautiful.” from Spring Cleaning
  • “If there are two crowds, and they are both shouting, it is perfectly safe to assume that they are both wrong.” from A Philosophy of Pickles
  • “No two men ever yet passed each other on the street by chance.” from Our Trysting Places

What have you been reading?

Nebby

Living Books on the Middle Ages

Dear Reader,

The first two terms of this year we have been studying the Middle Ages. I have gone back to Heritage History for a lot of our resources. If you are willing to use older books (which are often better anyway) and don’t mind have them in a digital format, this is a wonderful site.  As we did when the kids were younger, we went through the Middle Ages once in broader perspective in the first 12-week term and then once focusing in on specific countries in our second term.  The third term of this year we will spend on other, non-western cultures before moving on to modern history next year. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on the Middle Ages

History of the Middle Ages in Europe —

My high school senior read The Story of Europe by H.E. Marshall. I really like Marshall’s books for history. I skimmed a number of others and though this one is easier than some (it could even be used for elementary though Heritage History puts it in the middle school category) it is one of the most engaging and covers a lot of ground. [She also had a lot of other things going on this year so I was trying not to overburden her.]

My middle schooler read S.B. Harding’s Story of the Middle Ages and Eva Marie Tappan’s When Knights were Bold. Tappan is another favorite author (I much prefer her books on Greece and Rome to those of Geurber). When Knights were Bold  is more about the culture and society of the time.

My ninth grader read The Middle Ages by Dorothy Mills. I haven’t been equally pleased with all her books but Mills is a solid author popular in homeschooling circles.

Church History and Art —

The first term I read aloud a book that we happened to hae picked up somewhere which focuses on the interplay of church and government in the Middle Ages called The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History of the Church from 900 to 1300.

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This is probably a middle school level book or even upper elementary. The chapters are short, about a double-sided page each, and there are lots of pictures. It is actually quite good for having a group narrate as you can read one chapter/page, have a child narrate, and then another and the next child narrates and so on. Though perhaps not the most living book, it definitely gives you a feel for the issues relating to the church in the Middle Ages.

We also read through the relevant portions of V.M. Hillyer’s A Child’s History of Art. Though this is an elementary level book, it does a good job of introducing the art of a certain time. Note that there are various versions of this book. You may see slim volumes that cover one subject, architecture or painting or sculpture. We have a thicker volume which includes all three.

My two younger children also read Monks and Mystics by Mindy and Brandon Withrow. This is volume two of a four-volume series on church history which is very good. My one criticism of it would be that it is a bit undiscriminating in whom it considers a hero of the faith, including people from a wide range of theological positions.

Literature from the Middle Ages

We read a version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales together. I happened to find the version edited by Peter Ackroyd used so that is what we used. The original tales are bawdy and this version includes those bits so I was discriminating. We did not read every tale and I occasionally edited on the spot while reading aloud.

My ninth grader read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. There are a lot of versions of the tales  of King Arthur but White’s is a classic.

My senior read James Baldwin’s The Story of Roland. This seems to be a good retelling of the classic story.

In the second term, we read  Ian Seraillier’s Beowulf, the Warrior. Again, there are many versions of this story. This one is fairly short. I was very pleased that my children seemed to remember the story from our previous bout through the Middle ages.

We also began The Story of Abelard’s Adversities, a fairly short version of the story edited by J.T. Muckle. I was not very familiar with this story and we ended up giving up on the book. It was not the castration bit which turned me off. That part of the story was actually exciting. Most of the book Abelard spends talking about how much smarter he is than everyone else and it is rather tiresome.

We did not read any Robin Hood this time but in the past we have read Howard Pyle’s version.

Historical Fiction about the Middle Ages

My middle schooler read Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray. This is a solid book that you will find on many lists I am sure. She also read The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books.

My ninth grader read Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle. Pyle is an older author well-known for his historical books.

There a quite a number of books on this period; it seems to have captured the imagination of authors. Some that we have read in the past in various contexts are: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli; the Crispin books by Avi; The Midwife’s Apprentice and other books by Kate Cushman; The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (an absolute must read); and  The Road to Damietta (about Francis of Assisi) and Hawk that Dare Not Hunt (about Tyndale) both by Scott O’Dell (I haven’t read these two but we’ce enjoyed O’Dell’s historical novels in the past).

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The Middle Ages in Specific Countries

Because he is studying German this year, I had my ninth grader focus on the Middle Ages in Germany during the second term. He read H.E. Marshall’s A History of Germany.. For historical fiction he read The White Stag by Kate Seredy, a relatively brief book which tells the story of Attila the hun. He also read some Norse myths (because it was hard to find anything else close to literature or historical fiction on Germany specifically) from Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin. I highly recommend Colum’s books anytime you need mythology.

My middle schooler focused in Ireland and Scotland. She read Peeps at History: Ireland by Beatrice Homes. There are a number of books in the Peeps series and I have not always been crazy about them but looking at Heritage History’s options, I found this to be the best on Ireland. Also on Ireland she read Brendan the Navigator by Jean Fritz. Fritz is a favorite author. This is one of her relatively short books. Then I let her pick from some volumes I had gotten from our local library with Irish tales —

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On Scotland she read H.E. Marshall’s Scotland’s Story and for historical fiction Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman.

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I had my senior focus on Spain (because she has studied Spanish) and on Islam as well. Since the Moors were in Spain during this period, there is a natural link between the two. She read A Child’s History of Spain by John Bonner and The Moors in Spain by M.Florian (both Heritage History books) and Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong. I haven’t liked all the short history books I’ve looked at equally but some are quite good. She also read a book I have read and loved: The Crusades, Christianity and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. This book is nice because it relates the events of the Middle Ages to what is going on in the world today (in a very reasoned, scholarly way).  For historical fiction she read Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy.

In our time together we focused on England. As the mother country of our own, this seemed like a good choice for everyone to do together. We read H.E. Marshall’s well-known Our Island Story. Though again this is a lower level book, it is hard to beat for an engaging overview of English history.

Happy Reading!

Nebby

 

Books Read: January 2019

Dear Reader,

I am trying to be more diligent in recording what I have read and my impressions of it (as I have such a bad memory for such things). My goal is to post monthly on the books I have finished in that month. This is the first installment.

Books Read: January 2019

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy — This is my third time through Anna Karenina though it’s been a while since I read it (I have yet to tackle War and Peace). And, no, I did not read it all in  January; I just finished it in that month. I actually read it over 6 months or so and though it is a famously long book, it lends itself well to this, The individual chapters are quite short and the plot sticks with you so you don’t forget where you are if you put it down for weeks at a time. I have also been reading some non-fiction books on marriage (see below) and this classic discusses the pros and cons of adultery (not that I’m considering it) better than any of those. The book on some level affirms Christianity though it is a weird version of it, to my mind. I think this is in large part do to the history of the church in Russia, however, so perhaps we shouldn’t fault Tolstoy too much for it. Spoiler alert: faith and faithfulness come out on top here.

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis (New York: Vintage Books, 2003) – This is one of many books my college-age son gave me to read. They all come from a seminar class he took on love and marriage. You have to take this book as it is meant, and the subtitle tells you — it is a polemic. It is largely an extended description of what is wrong with marriage today. The author seems to be a journalist who has heard it all, and mostly the worst possible stories out there. Parts are almost laugh out loud funny but mostly this book just doesn’t go anywhere or contribute much to the discussion because it doesn’t have answers. I think it could even be dangerous because, though its descriptions of adultery are not flattering necessarily, they could normalize the experience and make one feel that all the temptations and struggles are not so uncommon. The most intriguing bits of this book are near the end when Kipnis brings in political issues. If 1990s America deserved Bill Clinton — what are we of the Trump era supposed to think and feel about ourselves?

The Awakening by Kate Chopin — An older book/short story which again deals with adultery (honestly it is just coincidental that I read so many books on this subject in such a short time). Again this fiction has more truth to communicate than the non-fiction books on the subject. There’s less resolution for the reader than in Anna Karenina but it’s a good and engaging story nonetheless.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton — Because my 13-year-old wants to read a lot of classics this year, I am pre-reading some that I either hadn’t read or had forgotten. I remembered liking The Outsiders when I read it in high school but couldn’t remember specifics. This is not an awful book but with groum-up eyes I am less impressed. It definitely comes off as a young adult novel, both on not being overly well-written and in having its message a bit too obvious. And there are odd details that don’t contribute to the story — like why do and how do these hoods (in the 1960’s sense of that term) from poor neighborhoods have access to horses?? As with most young adult fiction, adults are gotten out of the way by various plot devices because it anyone sensible stopped in most of the plot would never happen.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles — This is also one I was pre-reading for my daughter and which I remembered liking in high school. As with The Outsiders the writing and plot are worse than I remembered (or my tastes have matured) but it is not a bad book. Of the two, I preferred A Separate Peace. Again, adults are conveniently out of the picture or they would ruin the plot. The backdrop of WWII adds some complexity though one feels the book is trying just a wee bit too hard.

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson — Ferguson explains and discusses the Marrow Controversy, an 18th century debate in the Scottish church, and tells why and how it is relevant today. Ferguson does a good job of distilling and explaining the issues and relates them to modern pastoral issues (particularly relating to one’s assurance of faith, or not). Well worth reading.  My favorite quote: “What God united . . ., namely, his glory and our joy, have been divorced.”

What have you been reading?

Nebby

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

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