Archive for the ‘Homeschool’ Category

Principles of Reformed Education: Summary Post

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.

My goal in this part of the series has been to lay out some principles to help you evaluate books, materials, and curricula. For a summary of the big ideas behind it all, see this summary post.

This series within a series — the practical details — began with an explanation of methods. As we move away from theory and into the nitty gritty, we are not going to be able to find Bible verses that bear directly on the questions we have (Are spelling tests inherently evil?). To the extent that we can, I have tried to elucidate biblical principles while acknowledging that we are on less certain ground here.  We must rely more on personal observation, scientific studies, and logical reasoning. And as good reformed people we also acknowledge that our reasoning has been affected by the Fall and that we think is unassailable fact is often tainted by our own experiences, emotions (also tainted by the Fall), and presuppositions.

With that firm foundation, we dove right in.

Before we even get to curricula, we must begin by looking at ourselves, the teachers. I began with a presupposition: that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. Therefore we must begin with right expectations and right attitudes. Simply put, the teacher should expect that God will work in the minds of his students. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them.

Once you’ve mastered that easy first step, you can begin to consider materials. So we talked about what to teach. I argued for a broad education that encompasses many subject areas [not just the trendy STE(A)M ones] based on the principle that all knowledge comes from God and as He is One so it is ultimately unified. More recently, we tackled another trendy question: Is there a core body of knowledge all people need to learn? With some qualification, my answer to that one is no, there is not (note that we are not talking here about religious knowledge as such but about all those subjects it is still legal to teach in public schools).

After we have considered the what, we must ask how? There are various aspects of this. We began by considering what the materials we use should be like. I argued that they should be interesting but need not be designed to be entertaining. Since the things we place before children in education are the things of God, they should be inherently interesting, We must be wary, on the one hand, of curricula which suck all the inherent joy out of knowledge and, on the other, of curricula which try to dress it up in clown costumes complete with red honky noses thereby sending the message that it needs our dressing up.

I also made the argument that the written word, that is, books, should be the primary tool by which we place such knowledge before our students. There is a place for other media as well, including but not limited to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is God’s truth and He may choose to reveal it to us through non-Christians. On the other, many who claim to be Christian are either not or are but have bad theology underlying what they are saying which affects their presentation of their subject. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and better scholarship to come to through Christian sources. Because this is a tricky area, it is important for us to vet our sources and to consider such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or evil.

Lastly and most recently, we discussed what we do with this material— Do we ask kids to reproduce what they are learning and if so how and why? This includes testing but also more mundane things like worksheets, essays, and narration. Specifics will depend on the setting one is in (home vs. school, small vs. large class) but there are some principles we can seek to adhere to. First and foremost is not to provoke children with unnecessary and/or tedious work. Second is that we need to consider the benefit to the child. I argued for narration as a wonderful tool and discussed some pros and cons of other methods.

For the moment, I think these posts will wrap up the “practical details” portion of this series. I have been promising you that I will go through individual subjects one by one and my intention is to begin that next time.

Until then,

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Synthesizing Ideas

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.

I have been out of communication for a while and I apologize if anyone was actually seeking me out looking for posts. In the future I think I need to plan ahead for December to be a wash.

When last I blogged, we were talking about some practical principles for reformed Christian education, specifically what our students should learn and what kinds of  materials they should use (here and here). Today I’d like to talk about what we do with that information.

When discussing whether there is a set body of knowledge all children should learn, I made the case that what we believe about curriculum is reflected in what we require children to produce. For example, unschoolers, who do not believe that there is a set body of knowledge that all should know, would be less apt to require testing. On the other hand, if, with classical education, we believe there is a fixed body of knowledge, then we are more likely to require students to reproduce that material in some form.

Purposes

There are, broadly speaking, two purposes when we ask students to reproduce material: we can do so for their sake or for our own.

It is not necessarily wrong or bad to ask students to reproduce material for our (the teacher’s sake). There are settings in which this will be much more necessary — when there is a large class, when the teacher is not the parent and must report to either the parent or to the administration. A homeschooling parent may have to report to others as well (depending on things like state laws) or may want to generate hard numbers for transcripts and the like. And while they are more likely to know what the child knows, they may also find that there are certain subjects in which they could use a little more objective evaluation. Testing (of various sorts; I use the term quite loosely for now) can reveal holes and gaps. We may at times get a sense that something is not quite clicking but need to explore to find out where work needs to be done.

Which brings us to the second purpose — reproducing what is learned can benefit the student.  This is often missed in our society, but is, as I have argued, education is for the child, for his sanctification, then we must be careful that what we do is truly beneficial to him. I don’t generally like proof-texting things with single verses but Ephesians 6:4 comes to mind in this context:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4; ESV)

We must be very careful that the things we are requiring are not wearying to our students. I was actually one of those public school kids who really didn’t mind standardized testing and even enjoyed it a little (there is something about filling in forms that still appeals to me), but rumor has it that what kids are required to do these days has been quite stressful and time-consuming and benefits the child little if at all.

Methods: Narration

I am hard-pressed to think of ways a standardized fill-in-the-bubble test benefits a child or furthers his learning. On the other hand, I do firmly believe that we do not truly know until we can convey that knowledge to others. Narration, oral and written (a la Charlotte Mason), has been a mainstay of our homeschool. Simply put, almost every time my kids read something (or I read it aloud to them) they have to retell what they have read. There are variations on this; words are primary but one can also retell  at times through  drawing or other means. This is not about me grading what they have told or even requiring certain facts to be included but about them synthesizing and cementing their own knowledge. Because narration requires both these things — one must put together the ideas floating in one’s own mind and by so doing lays further claim on that knowledge.

As we get into these practical details, there is not necessarily going to be biblical evidence that one way is the correct way and another is not. In defense of narration, I would like to offer two arguments, one from observation and one from the Scriptures —

Narration is what children do naturally. Little kids tell you what happened in their day and they retell stories they have heard and liked over and over. They also act out stories they have heard which is a wonderful way for small children to “narrate.” When we require narration, we are not asking children to do something foreign to them but encouraging them to do what comes naturally to them anyway.  I am enough of a Calvinist not to argue that natural=good but I do think there is some evidence from our natures here to clue us in to what works best for children (and bigger people).

The Scriptures also give us some hint that retelling is beneficial, and even good. Retelling is pretty much what the Scriptures do, and it is also what the people in the Bible do. When at Passover, the child asks why we do this or that, the father is to tell him all that God has done for His people. In fact, this is how people in Old Testament times expressed their appreciation — they didn’t say thank you; they told others what had been done for them. That’s almost entirely what the Psalms are — God’s people telling what He has done for them. And remember that what we are learning is God’s truth, His general revelation (again see this post). We should want to tell others about it.

Other Methods

Standardized tests (especially the ones with those bubbles) require certain bodies of knowledge; narration allows the student to tell what he learned. In between there are a number of other approaches. I don’t think there are necessarily black-and-white standards here but I do think we can set forth some principles. To expedite things a little (as this post is getting long), I am going to go to a bullet-point format:

  • If, as I have argued, there is not one body of knowledge all people need to know, then we should encourage methods (such as narration) that allow the student to tell what he knows. We can both read the same passage and get different things from it. Your child may not get what you got but that doesn’t mean what he gets is wrong.
  • But there is absolute truth. I have one child who tends to narrate things that are just plain wrong. We should always insist on truth.
  • While I do not believe we all need to learn the same things, there are some basics which are the foundations of further learning (think the three Rs). Math in particular lends itself well to more standardized forms of evaluation.
  • But remember the rule not to provoke. One long division problem done correctly is better than a full page if it brings your child to tears.
  • I am wary of true/false, multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. These sorts of questions ask for specific pieces of information that the adult prioritizes. In the long run, you may want your child to remember Christopher Columbus’ name but just because he forgets it on a worksheet does not mean he doesn’t know lots of other cool facts about Columbus’ journey. These sorts of questions prioritoze facts over concepts. They also often make the child who remembers them overly proud and  the child who doesn’t feel bad about himself though there may be much he has learned. Again, they test knowledge of facts but don’t directly benefit the child.
  • Essay and short answer type questions encourage children to integrate knowledge. Used rightly, they can take retelling to the next step by requiring deeper thought and analysis. I would be wary of using them at too young an age. If your child doesn’t seem able to compare two characters or analyze the author’s motives, they might just not be ready for that yet.
  • I am also wary of projects and unit studies and the like. There is a fine line here. There are certain kinds of material which are best told through pictures and diagrams (the sciences often lend themselves to this). And perhaps if your child builds that Viking ship model he will better remember what their boat looked like. But a lot of this sort of thing becomes either busywork or entertainment. Busywork wastes everyone’s time. Entertainment (as I have argued here) actually undermines how truly interesting God’s creation should be for us.

Above all, we need to keep our ends in mind as we consider our means. Ask yourself, Is this (test, assignment, worksheet) benefiting the child? Is it allowing him to integrate the knowledge he has been ingesting? Is aiding in the transformation of his mind?

Until next time

Nebby

 

 

Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge?

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.

One of the big questions we have to answer as we seek to build a philosophy of education is what are we to teach? Is there a necessary core of knowledge that every student needs to learn? This is an issue which divides philosophies of education and has practical applications for how we teach and test as well.

On one end of the spectrum is the unschooling movement which says that no, there is no one body of knowledge that every child needs. The child, left alone, will learn what is necessary to him. Even if he shows no interest in some basic subject, it is not to be pushed. On a practical day-to-day basis, an unschooler, though not setting out perhaps to teach basic math skills, will often find himself doing so through every day activities like cooking. Many of the unschoolers I have known have been very diligent, busy parents. They may not set an agenda for what their child should learn but when he asks about dinosaurs, they are all over the library finding every resource they can on the topic.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of knowledge. It is often defined very much by western culture, relying heavily on Greek and Latin classics as well as more modern works from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. A classical educator is likely to make use of old-school techniques like memorization and traditional testing.

In between these two extremes there are of course other positions. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, on which I have blogged extensively, tries to bridge the gap. Miss Mason did believe that there is appropriate fodder for education but also acknowledged that one can never force another to learn and that each pupil is an individual person. This is an approach which takes the horse to water but does not force him to drink. The material is presented but the student must ingest it for himself. Again, this can be seen in the techniques used. Memorization is not prioritized nor are other methods which require the child to reproduce precise bodies of information (worksheets, true or false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank). Narration replaces these and allows the child to be more selective in what he or she gets from a given lesson.

It is perhaps easier to understand the differences if one considers how studying a classic book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would look in each of these philosophies. The unschooler does not require her child to read the book. She might get it from the library and leave it lying around the house (this is called strewing). And certainly if the child were to ask for it, she would obtain it. After the child has read the book, the unschooler might have a casual discussion — “Did you like the book?”– but would not require any sort of report or testing. The Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooler and the Classical educator would both require the student to read the book. In CM’s approach, the child narrates what he reads, that is, he tells what he has read, deciding for himself what is interesting or worth noting. This may be done orally or in writing. For the classical homeschooler, there would be more concrete ways of integrating the knowledge. These could include such things as reading comprehension questions and worksheets. There would be certain facts that the child would be expected to know — who the author is, for example, or the names of the main characters and some details of setting and plot.

We are going to return next time to how the student reproduces the material and how his learning evaluated. Today I would like to focus on what we are teaching — is there a set body of knowledge? And if so, to what extent should we enforce its learning? I hope the above examples show that this is in some sense a foundational question to answer before we can begin to talk about the hows of education.

Though we are ranging more and more into the realm of general revelation –i.e. topics about which the Scriptures may not have anything specific to say — we should always begin by asking what they do have to say, either overtly or more subtly through the principles we can derive from them.

When it comes to the knowledge of God, His Word makes clear that there is a specific body of knowledge we are to communicate to our children. Not only so we present this knowledge to our children, we fairly drill it into them, keeping it always before them (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and valuable for our children. (I have argued previously for a broad education that is not confined merely to the trendy STEM subjects.)

As reformed Christians, we believe that there are absolute standards of truth and beauty. We also believe that all people are sinful and that all their faculties have been tainted by sin. Combining these two facts, we can draw two conclusions: There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. And, secondly, our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We must, therefore, reject the unschooling end of the spectrum which allows the child to choose entirely what he will learn. We do not believe that the child left on his own will gravitate towards what is good or what he needs.

The flip side of the Bible being the only infallible rule for faith and life (“only” modifies “infallible” in this phrase) is that nothing else is infallible, not Calvin, not your homeschool curriculum. All human culture bears the stamp of our race’s sin. The pagan cultures which form the basis of so much of our western civilization carry with them pagan presuppositions and ideas. We must be especially wary and discerning because the underlying assumptions are often just that – underlying and not overt. We will not realize we are accepting ideas built upon ungodly bases. Which is not to say that we must reject them altogether; I do believe (as I have argued here) that all truth is God’s truth and that it may come to us through non-Christian sources. My argument is not that it is wrong to study the likes of Plutarch but that we must do so with great discernment.

We must be equally wary of “Christian” culture. There is no doubt Christianity has had some profound and real effects on western culture, but much of what passes for Christian culture (including Christian homeschool curricula, of which there is an abundance these days) does not reflect a reformed (which is to say, biblical) understanding of God, creation, and man. [1]

All work can, rightly done, being glory to God. While there is greater responsibility and therefore potentially greater glory (or greater rebuke) for the preacher and pastor (1 Pet. 5:1-4; James 3:1), the Bible teaches us that man is made to work and that all work can bring glory to God. (Gen. 2:15; Prov. 16:3; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:22-24; 2 Thess. 3:10). If the work of a farmer or a physicist or a poet or an accountant is good and, rightly done, able to bring glory to God, then it follows that the study which gets him there is also good and that God can be glorified in our learning about plants and atoms, literary devices and spreadsheets.

The child is a person and no less capable of bringing glory to God through what he does. In our society, the work of the child is to be educated (and, I would argue, the Bible also depicts childhood as the ideal time for education). Just as his elders can work to the glory of God no matter their profession, so he can learn to the glory of God no matter the area of study (for a little background see this post on the child in the Bible).

Practically speaking, there are skills and ideas which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is needed to understand certain scientific concepts. There will be rare exceptions of children who are truly not capable of learning even the basics. We must be careful not to view them as less than persons and we must not deprive them of whatever learning they are capable of. For most, however, it is reasonable to require some basic common knowledge which will be needed for further learning.

One caution — just because some learning is foundational does not mean that  the early years must be spent on the basic and only the basics. He is capable of a relationship with his Creator from birth or before so we must nto deprive him of the tools of redemption and sanctification no matter his age.

As we get beyond the basics, I believe it is reasonable to require our children to learn certain things. The subjects we teach are general revelation, that is, they reveal God to us, and, as Creation has One Creator, they work together as a unified system (see this post). We would be neglectful to teach only history and omit any sciences (or, as our society increasingly does, to teach the sciences and neglect the humanities), because we would not be allowing our children to see the big picture of how God works throughout His Creation.

Our goals can affect what we teach. The Bible sets a good precedent for us to teach history as the story of what God has done for us so we often begin children on local history. The history of one’s own state or country teaches that God works in my life. If we then expand to world history, we see that He works throughout the world in the lives of all people. Similarly, in studying the sciences, we learn first that God makes the plants grow and created all the animals unique. But then as we delve deeper, we see also that He is involved in His Creation as levels we can’t even see – in the minutest atoms and in the farthest reaches of space. When we get to higher levels of math, we learn that even the intangible principles behind Creation are orderly and beautiful. Not every child will learn every subject and certainly cannot do so in depth. God and His Creation are so vast that none of us can ever be comprehensive, or even close to it. Nor do we all need to learn exactly the same things. We may start in the same places – with the foundational building blocks of further knowledge, with subjects that are close to home– but, because we are all unique persons, we will expand in different directions. I believe that we bring greater glory to God by doing so. We express our unique personalities, which He has given us, more fully, and we, as a race, are able to learn more of God’s work and therefore give Him greater glory.

Summary

Because this has been a very long post and has covered a lot of ground, I would like to end with a summary of the main points we have seen:

  • What we study, and whether we believe there is a set body of knowledge to study, will affect how we study and measure learning.
  • As reformed Christians, we must reject the view that children will, on their own, gravitate towards what is good and what they need to know.
  • When it comes to “religious” knowledge, the Bible makes clear that there is a fixed body of knowledge that we are to teach our children.
  • In other fields, we must use discernment. Because there are absolute standards of truth and beauty and goodness, there are also things that are bad and false and ugly.
  • All human culture has been affected by the fall and, while truth can come to us through non-Christians, no one culture has a monopoly on such truth.
  • Much of what passes for Christian culture is also not based on biblical ideas and it should also be approached with discernment.
  • As it is possible to glorify God through one’s work, so we may glorify Him through study.
  • There are some basic concepts which are foundational to later learning and should be required of all children (barring severe mental incapacity).
  • As even the youngest children are fully human, it is not a matter of memorization of basic facts for the young while withholding bigger ideas for later years. Even the youngest children deserve to learn ideas which will point them to their Creator.
  • Because we have One Creator, all areas of knowledge have an inherent unity. They all point us to God yet each teaches us something slightly different and new about Him. For these reasons, we should require a fairly broad curriculum.
  • Nonetheless, each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.

Nebby

[1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here).

 

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

Free Reformation Day Book

Dear Reader,

My 13 year old made a book on Reformation Day, complete with pictures. Feel free to download and share. All I ask is that if you share online that you link back to this page.

martin luther the book gloria van vlack

Enjoy!

Nebby

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