Archive for the ‘Homeschool’ Category

Cornelius Jaarsma and the Argument for Schools

Dear Reader,

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

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education. The introductory post to this mini-series is here. One of my criticisms has been that most, if not all, of the thinkers we have looked at assume traditional schooling — i.e. kids leaving home daily and going to some sort of building where professional teachers take charge of their education. I have been trying to restrain myself because I know that most of them lived and wrote before the modern homeschooling movement and that educating one’s own kids at home was just not an option that was on their radar. But now I have run across a brief article by Cornelius Jaarsma (whom I covered once before in this post) in which he at least begins to present arguments for schools and so I have a pretext to vent a little 😉

I should be clear that though I am a homeschooler and though I think it is a very good option that could work well for a large number of families, I do not think schools as an institution are inherently evil (for some brief discussion of the public/private/Christian school issue, see this post and this one).

What I do think is that we need to approach schooling critically. Jaarsma and his contemporaries seem to accept that institutional schooling is the way to go without much consideration or argument. The article I am looking at today is paired with another, “An Overview of Christian Education” by John De Beer (in “Towards a Philosophy of Chrostian Education,” Calvin College Department of Education, June 2000; orig, pub. 1953). De Beer cautions that while “the Christian school is constantly to improve ways of teaching” and “may borrow-freely from whatever source is available,” that discernment should be used in adopting the practices developed by non-Christians as their goals, methods and results may not coincide with our own (p. 4). My argument is that it is not just the practices which we need to question but the very institution itself.

In the second part of this publication, “A Brief Overview of Christian Education” by Cornelius Jaarsma, we are rightly told that “[a]ccording to the Scriptures . . . [p]arents are assigned the task to ‘train up’ their children, ‘bring them up,’ and teach them commandments of God” (pp. 10-11).  Jaarsma goes on to argue that, as we are inherently religious creatures, education, even in seemingly non-religious subjects cannot be separated from this religious “bringing up.” Thus all of the child’s education, not just the religious part, is mandated by the Scriptures to the parent and the responsibility for it is theirs and theirs only (p. 13).

Thus far I agree completely with Jaarsma. And I agree with him as well when he says that parents may “seek assistance in their God-assigned task” (p. 13). In my own denomination when the parents at their child’s baptism vow to provide him with a God-centered education, the members of the church also vow to assist the parents. Those who choose to educate at home often find that homeschooling involves selective outsourcing. Hopefully one’s church family does help, but one can also get help from a variety of other sources from grandparents to co-ops to online classes. Which is to say that we must not think of schooling versus home-education as a dichotomy. There is a spectrum of options from the parents doing everything themselves with no outside help on one end to the parents doing nothing themselves at the other end. Neither end is acceptable (or biblical) but that still leaves a lot of room and a lot of possible choices in the middle.

The question before us today is, within this range of options, why institutional schools? As I have said before, the Bible establishes certain institutions including the family, the church, and the civil government. It does not establish schools. This does not mean schools are inherently wrong or unjustify-able. There are other non-biblical (but not un-biblical) institutions which most of us make use of and am quite grateful for — hospitals come to mind. But as we are adding something that is both cultural and is not mentioned in the Bible, it is worth asking if this new institution is at least in line with biblical principles. This is particularly important because what that institution does– educate children — is a task the Scriptures have particularly assigned to a God-ordained institution — the family.

Jaarsma and others we have looked at do not deny that the Bible charges parents with educating their children. They account for the schools doing so by arguing that they do so in loco parentis, that is, with authority specifically given them by the parents. All authority in heaven and earth belongs to God. He delegates some of it to others for specific tasks including giving  parents authority over their children and their education. There are ways in which I as a parent and a homeschooler may delegate my own authority to others on a temporary basis. Every time I leave my child with a sitter or drop him off at Sunday school or enroll him in a class I am delegating  a bit of my authority. One may argue that if I drop my child off at school for six hours every weekday that I am doing the same thing — temporarily delegating my authority to another – and to some extent this is true. The problem is in the practical application; it is very hard to delegate such a large chunk of authority and still to pick it up again at the end of the day.  There are no doubt parents who send their kids to a school and still stay very involved, but (as Peter Ton also pointed out) it is very hard to send your child away to someone else to educate for something like thirty hours a week and to still stay in control. At the very least, I would say that using a school, even a Christian school presents certain dangers and that one must be very careful how one uses the school and relates to it.

While the responsibility may be primarily on the side of the parents to ensure that they are maintaining their authority, Christian schools also bear some responsibility to make sure they are not usurping the authority that has been given to parents. In the article we are looking at, Jaarsma paints a picture of the role of the teacher which seems quite pervasive:

“The personal loyalty of the child to the teacher is strong. The child must still feel the security afforded by the solidarity of family life as represented in the parents, and he comes to feel this in the teacher. In school this security transfers to the teacher.” (p. 23)

What he describes here, and even advocates for, is not a temporary delegation but a new relationship which is being created and which is on par with that between the child and his parents. It is easy to see how such a bind could begin to rival the parent-child bond. I do think a wise, active parent can send their child to a school and still maintain his own God-given role to educate his own child, but I think it is difficult because even with the best Christian teachers and the best of intentions, the very nature of the school environment tends to undermine parental responsibility. The school is not in loco parentis  in the same way the babysitter who watches my child for a few hours at a time is but comes, by its very nature, to usurp and thereby undermine the parents’ God-ordained responsibility. In some sense the danger is even greater with Christian schools. Those who send their children to public or secular private schools are more likely to be aware that the schools will be more cognizant of the school’s shortcomings and more aware of their own need to stay involved. Any Christian school needs to define clearly where its own authority begins and ends. It needs to work closely with parents and deliberately keep them in the process. It needs to recognize that any authority it has is delegated by the parents. It needs to not allow the parents to get lazy and to not stay involved. It needs to always see itself as the agent of the parents.

While Jaarsma acknowledges the God-given authority of the parents over their children’s educations, he favors institutional schooling because, he says:

“Parents have neither the time nor generally the qualifications to lead children to maturity in the complexity of modern life.” (p. 13)

There is a lot in this statement and though Jaarsma does not pull it apart for us, he does throughout the article give us clues that we can use to unpack what he means —

Maturity is the goal of education. This Jaarsma defines for us:

“In the covenant of grace the parent assumes the responsibility of giving immature child-life the direction of the ‘new obedience.’ . . . Maturity is the stage when the child assumes this responsibility for himself. The way of the ‘new obedience’ must become his own commitment, his freely chosen way . . . When the youth has come to accept life in the ‘new obedience,’ he is said to be mature.” (pp. 12-13)

Note that Jaarsma acknowledges again that we are within the framework of the covenant here and that it is the parents’ covenant responsibility to help the child to mature into what he calls “the new obedience.”

If this is the task of the parents — as Jaarsma himself says repeatedly — why do they not accomplish it themselves? Jaarsma says that they “have neither the time nor generally the qualifications.” There are two elements here. I am not going to dwell too much on the time except to ask: what other God-given obligations do you not make time for? As for the issue of qualifications– In some sense none of us are qualified to do anything of the things Gods calls us to do, but He gives us grace to do them nonetheless. If God in the Scriptures assigns this task to the parents, I think we can also assume that He will give us the grace to fulfill it.

The key for Jaarsma seems to lie in the end of the quote: “in the complexity of modern life.” Apparently, something has changed and in the modern world, one needs additional qualifications to lead children to spiritual maturity. Specifically, one must have professional qualifications (p. 13).  Jaarsma notes that the schools as we know them are both modern and cultural. They did not exist as such 150 years ago (Jaarsma writing in the 1950s says 100 years ago).  They are a mere flash in the pan historically speaking. Again I appeal to what De Beer said in the companion essay to this one — we may accept cultural developments which come to us through secular or non- Christian sources, but we must not do so uncritically. So we must, as De beer said, analyze their methods, goals, and results. This Jaarsma does not do (he may elsewhere, but he does not in this essay). Instead, he accepts the structure of schooling as it is because “parents cannot effectuate this cultural task in the complexity of modern life” (p. 14). The problem for Jaarsma seems to be one of modernity – something has changed and parents are no longer equipped to be the primary educators of their children.

One might expect Jaarsma to point to the vast bodies of knowledge that have been discovered and the many subjects which students are now expected to learn. Though Jaarsma clearly favors a class of teachers with “academic and professional learning” (p. 14), when he lists qualifications for Christian teachers, he mentions first love and faith as the key elements and obedience as the goal. One wonders for which of these the parents are unqualified — is to love their children? To have faith or demand obedience?

Jaarsma goes on to say that education is largely about differentiation. He gives the example of a small child who initially makes a seemingly random collection of noises which then become refined into distinct words. The basic process he sees is one of “great differentiation and corresponding integration” which “[t]he school is especially equipped and organized to deal with” (p. 19).

Since Jaarsma gives us the example is the toddler learning the beginnings of speech and communication, let us see how this example plays out. The ordinary child learns this skill, one of the hardest skills a person can learn, under his parents’ guidance. A child raised in isolation will not learn to speak but neither is any special expertise needed to teach him to do so. Underlying Jaarsma’s thought there seems to be an assumption about how education works — that it originates largely in the activity of the teacher. He sees the need for a professional teacher because he sees education as something rather complicated that needs to be guided by an outside mind. Our example argues otherwise. The toddler learns largely without conscious instruction. In other words, the child does the learning more than his parents do the teaching. Whether one learns later skills in the same way is an open question. Jaarsma clearly assumes that more deliberate teaching is required and therefore requires professional, trained teachers.

There is one more element we need to unpack–  Jaarsma says that “parents cannot effectuate this cultural task in the complexity of modern life” (p. 14; emphasis added). Previously Jaarsma had put the goal of education as the spiritual maturity of the individual, but there is also a level on which he sees education as a cultural task rather than one relating primarily or solely to the individual. The school, he says is “a cultural institution” and “a cultural medium” which we use “to effect a cultural task” (p. 16). The cultural mandate argument is one we have seen before. Frank Gaebelein made a rather good argument for a certain model of Christian schooling which, because it is open to all children, not just those from covenant families, has the power to affect culture. It is harder to see how the schools Jaarsma proposes which are for Christians and by Christians would have the same societal effect. My main problem with this argument, however, is that it is just not consistent. Jaarsma began buy telling me that education is towards the maturity of the individual and now he makes it a cultural phenomenon. The two may not be unrelated, but neither are they the same. I think we must be careful if we believe education is for the benefit of the individual not to lose him in the institution. Institutions have a nasty tendency to run rough-shod over individuals. No man can serve two masters and if we have two goals – the individual and the cultural – one must eventually take precedence.

I have seen nothing thus far that has convinced me that there is a reason to take what the Scriptures clearly give to parents – the right and responsibility to educate their own children – and to give it to another. There is no doubt that parents can and even should get help in this task but the role that Jaarsma and others paint for the schools seems quite pervasive and I have yet to read anyone who favors schools as an institution who then outlines what the parents’ role is and where the one ends and the other begins or how a school may serve the parents without usurping their God-given responsibility. Jaarsma’s primary argument seems to be that parents are ill-equipped to fulfill their task God has assigned them and that this is a modern problem. That means that something, about 150 years ago, changed and that what parents were once able to do, they now no longer can. But, as the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). If, as Jaarsma himself said, the goal of education is spiritual maturity (and I would not quite put it that way myself though I do think he is in the right ballpark), then it is hard to imagine what has changed so very recently that has rendered parents unqualified to educate their own children. Jaarsma seems to be biased towards a professional class of teachers, in part because he makes assumptions about how learning works. He also confuses a bit the cultural argument with the educational goals for the individual. Because the Scriptures establish various institutions and because they clearly and directly assign the task of educating children to their parents, I think the burden is on those who would take this responsibility from the parents and give it to another, non-biblical institution to justify this decision. I have yet to see an argument that convinces me of the necessity of the school as an institution. There are certainly people in various situations for whom a school serves a good purpose but I think the relationship between the school and the parents must always be clearly defined and I think we may also consider other ways of helping parents to educate their children. Above all, I think, as De Beer said, that we must use discernment when adopting an institution which Jaarsma himself acknowledges is both modern and cultural. Though he is not a Christian, if you would like an alternative view on how and why the modern schools developed and what their effect is, I recommend John Taylor Gatto’s books (see reviews here and here).


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Frank Gaebelein

Dear Reader,

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

I am currently in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at some modern reformed thinkers on education, The introductory post to this mini-series is here.

Today’s thinker is Frank Gaebelein who was head-master of a Christian school in New York in the 1960s. His “Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education” (Grace Journal, Fall 1962) was originally a series of four talks later published as one work. You can find them online here: chapter 1 and chapter 2 and chapter 3 and chapter 4  (sadly, there seems to be one page missing from chapter 1).

Gaebelein begins in the first chapter with a call for a Christian philosophy of education. He calls in particular for something thoroughly biblical while acknowledging that the Bible provides us with principles rather than laying out a philosophy of education as such. As we have seen with most of the other thinkers in this mini-series, school is his default; he does not consider homeschooling. He does say a number of times, however, that the home is the center of godly training. He also ties education closely to the Great Commission which he says is a command primarily to educate and which is given to all believers.

Though Gaebelein nods to the sciences of education and psychology, his approach is quite biblical and he strives to stick close to Scriptural principles. He gives some brief history of Christian approaches to education but concludes that we do not really have a good, workable approach with “full reliance upon Scripture” (p. 6).

In the second chapter, Gaebelein begins to give his own philosophy of education which is governed by the principle: “All truth is God’s truth” (p. 12). Because “all truth, wherever it is found, is of God” (p. 13), there is no separation between sacred and secular. All areas of study are open to us and should be studied by us. He acknowledges the effects of sin, and, quoting Emil Brunner, argues that some disciplines have been more corrupted by the effects of sin than others. Theology is the most corrupted followed by philosophy and those fields which have most to do with humanity — psychology and history and such. The hard sciences and mathematics are the least corrupted so that math is “the most objective subject” and is almost uncorrupted (pp. 14-15).

Having made some attempt to say what truth is, we must also ask how we learn truth. This, as we saw when we looked at Oppewal, is the science of epistemology. Truth, Gaebelein says, does not come to us through unaided reason but through “the believing heart and mind” (p. 14). The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means, literally, “without a veil” implying that we do not discover truth but that it is revealed to us.

Most of the thinkers we have seen, being reformed and not Anabaptist (as one of the articles reviewed here explains), argue for some level of interaction with secular culture. Gaebelein does as well. He is perhaps not quite so strong as some others in his langauge. He says not that we should lead culture or transform it but that we must “maintain a conversation with culture” (p. 16). He acknowledges that, through common grace, that God uses “non-Christians to bring forth enduring works of truth, beauty, and excellence” (p. 16).

In the third chapter, Gaebelein expands on an idea he presented in the second: that there is a connection between truth and beauty. Specifically he looks at music which he considers the greatest of the arts. I am not very musical myself so I feel ill-equipped to evaluate the specifics he presents for what makes music good and truthful or vulgar. I do like what he has to say about exposing children to greatness in music. And this: “With the advent of TV and the wide-spread use of record players and hi-fi sets, the great God-ordained center of education, the home, has been infiltrated by the musical devices of Hollywood and the night cub” (p. 23). He wrote this, you will remember, in 1962 (as if the word “hi-fi” didn’t tell you that). Imagine what he would say about today’s society with its utter saturation with media. There is a hint of a warning  here as well to those who send their children to schools that the home is still important. We cannot outsource education and neglect the home atmosphere.

In the fourth and final chapter, Gaebelein returns to a topic he addressed briefly in the second and discusses te role of the teacher. The most important thing for him is that the teacher be Christian. He gives a number of qualifications for Christian teachers from their personal faith and Bible knowledge to a genuine liking for children. I am not entirely on board with him here as I tend to place less emphasis on the person of the teacher. He does not provide a lot of specifics for how he envisions education working, but it seems from this chapter that it is very teacher-driven for him. I do agree with a couple of his points, however. I agree that teachers should genuinely like children (and I am very wary of those who write on education and do not seem to). I also agree that the attitude of the teacher is important. He quotes, “‘Every headmaster should think of every boy as having been sent to him by God'” (p. 31). And if God has sent them to us, we should expect Him to work in them.

Gaebelein makes two other good points in this last chapter. The first is that education must not be too easy. We must strive for excellence and we must feed our minds. The second is that God Himself, the source of all wisdom, is the “one greatest Teacher” (p. 32).

There is a lot I like in Gaebelein’s work. I agree with him that we must be utterly biblical in our approach and that “All truth is God’s truth” is a guiding principle for us. I like his emphasis on the home, though I wish he had considered homeschooling as well. I like his emphasis on atmosphere and attitude in education. And I like what he has to say about the disciplines and the lack of distinction between sacred and secular. One idea he just begins to advance and which is most important to add to our discussion is the role God Himself plays in education. Gaebelein just touches on this idea. Charlotte Mason, as we have seen, saw the Holy Spirit as the supreme Educator and all education as ultimately His work. I agree with her on this and I have been disappointed up to this point to find that more modern Christian writers do not seem to think of what God might be doing. Gaebelein is the first to even hint at such a thing.


Living Books on Asia for Middle and High School

Dear Reader,

The first two terms of this year we were studying the Middle Ages (see this list). That was really all the time we needed on that so I thought I’d use the third and final term to look at various Asian cultures. I had each of my three currently-homeschooled children pick a culture and in our time together we looked at Asia more broadly. If you are looking for books for younger kids, I had an earlier booklist on China here and some books on the Boxer rebellion in this list. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Books on China


My 9th grader studied China. For the historical side of things I had him read The Pageant of Chinese History by Elizabeth Seeger. This is a lovely older book. For historical fiction he read Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis. It is the story of a young boy who becomes an apprentice coppersmith and has various adventures. Based on his narratuons, it didn’t seem like the best book, though I am finding he is a poor narrator for fiction especially so that could be just him. I also threw in The Long Rampart by Robert Silverberg because I love this author. There are various smaller books on Chinese inventions and the like. I had him read Made in China by  Suzanne Williams. It is probably not the most living book — it is short readings on a variety of subjects — but it fit our purpose. Other, slightly lower level books, which are similar are The Technology of Ancient China, Arts and Crafts in Ancient China, and Science in Ancient China.

Other books to consider:

The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong — a wonderful histocial fiction book but we had already done it as a read-aloud. Probably middle school level or even upper elementary, though imo living books are ageless.

Revolution is not a Dinner Party by Yin Chang Compestine — We had also already read this one and it is about communist China, not ancient China, but it was quite good.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck — a classic I usually have my high schoolers read for literature. I didn’t think my 9th grader was up to it. Does have some adult content.

Li Lun, Lad of Courage — I don’t know much about this historical fiction book.

Other authors with historical fiction books on China: Katherine Paterson, Laurence Yep, Gloria Whelan (my girls have loved this author but her books do tend to be girl-y)

Missionary biographies of Eric Liddell, Gladys Alward and others. We just didn’t have time for more. I also recently read The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun. See my blurb on that here.

Books on Japan

My 8th grader studied Japan. I couldn’t find one book on the history that covered the whole period so she read Japan Under the Shoguns: 1185-1868 by Mavis Pilbeam and Japan from Shogun to Sony: 1543-1984 by John R. Roberson. She also read Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg. This book is often on lists for younger kids but is a good one and we hadn’t had a chance to use it yet. I found fewer books on the culture and science of Japan but had her read Technology of Ancient Japan by Meg Greene. Again, this is not truly a living book.

For historical fiction, she read The Master Puppeteer by Katherine Paterson and The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard. They are set in the 18th and 16th centuries respectively.

Other books to consider:

Japanese Castles by Turnbull – Ichecked this one out from our library but it seemed too detailed and dry. If you have a kid that loves castles though it could be a good choice.

Other historical fiction I considered but didn’t use: Bamboo Sword by Preus (set in 1853; 335pp); Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes (younger ages; 80pp), Born in the Year of Courage by Crofford (set in 1841), The Big Wave by Pearl Buck (about a tsunami; 80pp), Shipwrecked by Blumberg (set it 1841; middle school level); Heart if a Samurai (set it 1841; 300pp). Also other books by: Paterson, Crofford, Haugaard, Preus, and Hoobler (who has a mystery series set in Japan apparently).

Books on Mongolia


My high school senior wanted to study Mongolia which was easier in the sense that there aren’t many books out there so they weren’t many decisions to make. For history she read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. This author also hs other books on Genghis.  For historical fiction she read I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson which she said was not very good or well-written. I also had her read the story of a missionary in Mongolia, There’s  a Sheep in My Bathtub by Brian Hogan which she seemed to likke much better.

Books on Asia more generally

In our time together we read selections from The Travels of Marco Polo. I have an edition illustrated by Corbino that I had picked up somewhere. There are lots of versions of this, some simplified for younger readers as well.  For “spines” I used two books from  a series: The Asian World: 800-1500 by Roger Des Forges and Marjorie Wall Bingham’s Age of Empires: 1200-1750. These books are written in a fairly engaging way without a lot of sidebars (and those there were I tended to skip). I foudn them a bit heavy on dates which tends to bog a book down and deplete its living-ness (if you know what I mean) but since I was reading them aloud I could skip some of the details which I think made it actually easier to take in the information. Lastly, we read the chapter form Van Loon’s The Arts on Asia. I am in love with this book now. It is like Hillyer’s art history but for a higher level and includes a lot of history and culture/religion too.

Happy Reading!


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Donald Oppewal and Epistemology

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Most of the people I have looked at thus far are represented in a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997). The final article in this volume is by the editor, Oppewal himself, and it is well worth reading.

In “Biblical Knowing and Teaching,” Oppewal discusses how we know and what the practical implications are for how we teach. The theory of knowing is called epistemology and it is our topic for the day.

Though Oppewal has assembled quite a collection of essays in this volume, he begins his own by in some sense minimizing them. Other authors have discussed the covenant and how it relates to education and a lot has been said on human nature. These issue are not irrelevant to education but Oppewal’s argument here is that more than any other subject epistemology is going to point us to how education actually needs to happen.

Oppewal begins by accepting the view propounded by Jaarsma and Wolterstorff that we must view humans holistically and educate the whole child. His view of knowing will be similarly holistic.

Two models of knowing are presented as alternatives. In the first, the spectator model, knowledge-getting is primarily mental. Truths are believed when they are seen to be logically consistent with self-evident truths. The second, the respondent model, is more hands-on. In it knowing is tied with doing. It is the latter for which Oppewal argues.

When it comes to the theory, Oppewal’s foundation is the Scriptures. Though he says that we can only derive principles about knowing from the Bible rather than finding a full epistemological theory there, his arguments actually show that the Bible presents quite a coherent theory of knowing.  Briefly — James tells us that “believing in” is not the same as “believing that” (James 2:14-20; p. 318). Verses like Genesis 4:1 (“Adam knew Eve”) tell is that knowing has quite an intimate connotation. And the book of Proverbs shows us throughout that knowledge needs to have practical applications; it is not just head knowledge but is about how you live your life. Having established what knowing means in the Bible and that knowing God is more than head knowledge, Oppewal makes an assumption — and I think it is a very good one — that we know other things in the same way:

” While . . . the paradigm of knowing is knowing God as a person, it is here offered as a model for all knowing. Thus knowing an idea or an object has the same components.” (p. 319)

Because knowledge is so intimate, Oppewal favors the respondent model described above with requires interaction.

Oppewal then turns to the practical applications for education. He begins by describing two extremes: In Plato’s philosophy one learns through dialogue and knowledge is very much head-knowledge. In John Dewey’s, one learns through problem solving and knowledge is hands-on. Oppewal’s methodology is holistic in that it combines these two — it acknowledges the value of truth while requiring interaction. He distinguishes three phases which he calls considering, choosing, and committing. (You may recall Nicholas Beversluis also had a three-stage process which seems roughly similar.) In the consider stage, the learner is confronted with new material. He must be confronted in  a way that produces some dissonance or tension so that there is something to be resolved. In the choose stage options and tensions are explored. And in the commit stage there is movement towards action. Because of the nature of this process, he favors an approach which organizes material around topics which cut across traditional disciplines. Topics he suggests include: environmentalism, which includes political and historical issues as well as scientific ones; sexuality; and hunger.

When he is laying our his view of epistemology, I really like what Oppewal has to say. I am less convinced by the practical application in his methodology. I think he is right that more than other questions — though those questions need answered too — our theory of knowing will affect how we educate. I also think that the Bible has quite a lot to tell us about knowing and that he does a good job of explicating the biblical view. I agree with his general conclusion that we ned to account for the existence of absolute truth but also allow for the learner to interact with the materials. I do not see how he of necessity gets from there to his consider/choose/commit paradigm.

This series largely began because I was moving away from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education because she is not reformed and I think she has some things about human nature quite wrong. But as I read some of these reformed thinkers, I am struck by what she did have right, and on this topic of epistemology I think she was on target. She would agree with Oppewal that knowing is more than information gathering and that it requires the learner to respond and to integrate that knowledge. The height of Oppewal’s argument, to my mind, is in the quote above — we know other things as we know God. And how do we know God? We have a relationship with Him. Oppewal gets to this point and then I feel he drops the ball a bit and returns to education-ese. The things studied become things again, For Mason, the things studied are things we can have relationships with and that realtionship is the goal.

Practically speaking, this is what relationship looks like: If I know a person, I know not just what he likes or how he looks or even what he has done, but I have some sense of what he will do. I know his character and I can predict how he will act or think. If I study an artist, say Van Gogh, I may learn facts about him: that he painted a lot of self-portraits, that he had a disturbed personal history, and that he used bright colors. If I can walk into a museum and see a Van Gogh I have never seen before and know it is his, then I know Van Gogh because I have developed a relationship with his work. We can thus “know” even the most mundane, un-life-like objects — a potter knows his clay and a five-year-old boy similarly may know mud in a way that his mother cannot begin to fathom.

The biblical epistemology — and I do think there is a biblical epistemology– leads us to this point: to know is to have a relationship. We can envision what this looks like, how we can thus “know” an author or an artist or a period of history or a branch of science or even a lump of dirt. The next question then is how we educate to this end. Since Charlotte Mason, despite some other flaws in her theory, sets forth this goal well, I think it is reasonable to look again at her methodology and to see if it will serve our purposes. A thorough examination would be the subject for another post. For now, briefly, Oppewal points us to the need for an approach which includes both an acknowledgement that there is absolute truth and that the learner must interact on some level with the material. When he turns to the interacting, he makes it ultimately about external things — what are you going to do or what would you have done? Mason keeps it more internal; she asks how much the student cares. Her approach is analogous to digestion; the child takes in the material and must process it for himself. This I think is where we want to end up. It is not that there will not be practical outcomes; there very much should be. But that is not our primary goal. Our goal is to transform the individual.



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Synopses of Shorter Articles

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Most of the people I have looked at thus far are represented in a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997). There are a few articles within the volume that are from a committee or journal and stand alone. In this post I will try to briefly sum up two of them.

Thoughts from the Calvin College Curriculum Committee

In 1970 the Calvin College Curriculum Committee released “Christian Liberal Arts Education.” The purpose of this article was to lay out a plan and justification for a liberal arts education at the college level. Though this is not my area of interest, there are some points in the article worth considering. 

The Committee begins by detailing two approaches to liberal arts education, the pragmatist and the classicist. The former is utilitarian and focuses on problem solving. It relies upon the psychological claim that learning only happens when it is centered around the interests of the student and/or tied to the problems he faces. The latter focuses on knowledge-getting and tends toward a general education. As described it sounds much like the philosophy of Jellema whom we looked at previously. The Committee rejects both of these models. The former it finds too utilitarian. It does no good, they say, to focus on the problems of the moment as these may change and the student does not necessarily acquire skills that transfer to new situations. While it is good for students to be interested in what they learn, they do not need to have a stake in every subject. Education they define as the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. As for the classicist view,  the main objection is that it is too general and too disinterested. It focuses on critiquing culture but not engaging it in. Again, this sounds like Jellema who valued art criticism over creating art.

The view which the Committee favors it calls the disciplinary view (not to be confused with the disciplinary approach as outlined by Jaarsma). The focus is on disinterested knowledge and the goal is to produce Christian citizens in contemporary society. The article spends lot of time discussing academic disciplines and how they relate to one another. The basic idea seems to be that one should have a broad knowledge of all disciplines but should be able to delve into and apply the proper methods in one particular discipline. What unites them all is our conceptual framework which must be biblical. We do not get all we need to know about science or literature from the Bible, but it does provide us with the foundations in the form of a framework or way of thinking and viewing the various disciplines. Only a biblical framework can lead us to true knowledge. Other frameworks may provide some measure of truth. Not all non-biblical ways of thinking  are equally bad and some disciplines are going to be less affected by a wrong framework than others. 

Lastly, the Committee notes that our study is part of the cultural mandate. That is, is it part of the Christian commission to transform human culture. This is a commission given to the Church as a whole. It is not  necessary for every individual Christian to be so educated, but those who are able to engage in higher education should proceed in this way.

I balk instinctively at language which excludes some people and deems them uneducable (though the Committee does not by any means go so far as using that word). There are, of course, differences between people and some of these are in their mental capacity. But I also believe that education is a lifelong enterprise and that we should all be gradually getting more educated. We may not all get to the same place or go in the same directions, but I am wary of an approach which says that some people should pursue higher education and some shouldn’t. Which is again not to say everyone need to get a Ph.D., but education itself is not for some and not others. What I like about this article is the emphasis on the biblical framework which informs all the disciplines we might study.  The discussion of the various disciplines and how they relate to each other does not directly relate to what I am seeking in this series but it was interesting.

Anabaptists versus Reformists

In “Christian Schools: Anabaptist or Reformist?” [originally published in Christian Scholars Review, vol. 15., no.4 (1986)] Paul F. Scotchmer discusses how Anabaptist and reformed schools have differed and argues for the reformed approach. The underlying issue is not about the schools themselves but about the proper Christian attitude towards culture. Anabaptists have, historically, been separatists when it comes to culture whereas the reformed have sought to be in but not of the culture and ultimately to transform it.

Scotchmer provides some historical background and it is interesting to read how Luther, Calvin and others viewed the issue. The interesting point for me is what Scotchmer’s arguments have to say to more contemporary debates — whether Christians can and should use the public schools, what Christian schools should look like, and how homeschooling fits into the picture.

Scotchmer’s argument, and I think he is correct in  this, is that though schools were operated under the auspices of the state in Luther’s day and that of the other reformers, that the situation is not the same today. There was a time when the state and church worked together more or less as they should — that is, the state supported the church without interfering in its mission. This is not the case today. Scotchmer acknowledges a state interest in an educated populace, but what the public schools provide in America today is not a Christian or even a religiously neutral education. The argument is often made that Christians should use the public schools in order to engage the culture and ultimately to provide a witness to non-Christians. Scotchmer argues in opposition to this that sending one’s child into the public schools does nothing to transform the culture. The transformation we seek is more communal and not so individual.

Instead, Scotchmer argues for an approach to Christian schooling which can be transformative. Many of the thinkers we have studied have spoken of Christian education as if it is only for covenant children and this has been one of my major criticisms of them. Scotchmer says that Christian schools should be open to all. We transform by educating young minds. The Christian school, he says, should not be “so much a shelter from the winds of secularism as a nursery for the cultivation of Christian citizens” (p.302).

Scotchmer makes a good argument against modern public schools, while acknowledging that there may have been times and places in which government-supported, if not government-run, schools were quite acceptable. Though I am pro-homeschooling, I am not inherently opposed to the idea of schools. Scotchmer comes as close as I’ve seen to presenting a good model for how such schools could operate and serve not just covenant children but all children.



Book Review: Landscape with Dragons (updated)

Dear Reader,

It was pointed out to me that I made a pretty grievous error in the earlier version of this post (got the author’s name wrong — whoops!). Fpr some reason wordpress won’t let me edit that particular post, so here it is revised. The original post is from 2014. 

I have heard  a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by  Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.

The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he has to say. These include:

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)

  • Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
  • Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:

“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)

In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when O’Brien gets down to the specifics of what he means.

O’Brien gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:

“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)

These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things which can happen in the real world and what can happen in  stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.

O’Brien also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:

“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)

But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. O’Brien is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:

“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)

I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that O’Brien clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.

Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think O’Brien also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.

Now I would like to address another major point O’Brien makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, O’Brien says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. O’Brien himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:

“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous  because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)

In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).

The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). O’Brien laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:

“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)

O’Brien also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:

“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)

I think part of the difference I have with O’Brien may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a  number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but O’Brien also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:

” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)

And again:

“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)

Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like O’Brien sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man’s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, O’Brien makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.

On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. O’Brien thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. O’Brien doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.

To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things O’Brien says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind O’Brien’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations of these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting point for forming one’s own opinions on these works.



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Louis Berkhof

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here).

I was excited to read Louis Berkhof’s thoughts on education. I have made use of his systematic theology and respect his work. Though the essays I read by him are, as most of the ones I have reviewed so far, included in Donald Oppewal’s volume Voices from the Past (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997), he is an older writer (1930s) and was not, as the others were, employed by Calvin College (though he did live in Michigan, having emigrated from the Netherlands).

The two essays by Berkhof are primarily calls for reformed people to use and support Christian schools. He begins by assuming that schools are the modern method of education. Of course, in his time this was perhaps understandable. Homeschooling as such seems to have been unknown. In our current environment, I think we need to go beyond this. I have said before and will say again — family and church are institutions established in the Bible and given specific authority; schools are not. Which is not to say schools are wrong. We can point to other institutions which are non-biblical but serve us well — hospitals, for instance. But given that Scripture does give explicit authority and responsibility for various activities to the parents and church, we need to be sure to lay out a role for the school that does not contradict or undermine them.

In “Being Reformed in Our Attitude Toward the Christian School,” Berkhof presents and rejects two common justifications for schooling: one based on national self-interest and one based on evolutionary presuppositions. He actually makes quite a strong case for parents as the proper and biblical educators of their children and further argues that this education should be a religious one. Like Jaarsma and others, he argues for a unified view of the child. We cannot separate the mind from the heart or the soul so we cannot educate just to the mind. Because this is so, there is no secular or neutral education apart from one’s religious view: “We should never forget that the education which the child receives in the school, though divorced from religion, is nevertheless an education of the entire child and is bound to make a deep impression on the heart.”  His conclusion then is that “[i]n view of the fact that the influence of the Christian home is waning” (!) we must have reformed schools to educate our children (p. 240).

Berkhof second article,”The Covenant of Grace and Its Significance for Education,” seeks to demonstrate that Christian schools are a necessary outgrowth of covenant theology. Again, his stance is very pro-school and his aim is to argue for Christian, and specifically reformed, schools as opposed to public schools; homeschooling is not within his purview. The connection between the covenant and schooling he says has often been maintained but never explained. He begins with a brief introduction to the concept of covenants and the content of the covenant of grace in particular. I have some interests in the idea of covenant and how it plays out but those are beyond the scope of this series so I will not indulge myself in analyzing Berkhof’s thought on this topic. As regards education, his main argument is that at their children’s baptisms Christian parents promise that by the strength of God they will “utilize the means which God has ordained for the realization of the covenant life in their children” (p. 256). Covenant children are heirs to God’s promises and His blessings. “These bounties naturally call for gratitude” (p. 259) and so it is incumbent upon their parents to teach them the fullness of God’s work so that they can be appropriately grateful. Note that as they are covenant children, Berkhof does not say that we are educating them unto salvation in any way. The promises are assumed as is their membership in the covenant community. We are educating them to be able to fulfill their covenant responsibilities (if they were not to do so, they would be covenant-breakers; p. 256). Though he does not use this language exactly, Berkhof essentially says that Christian education is the ordinary means by which God brings faith and sanctification in the lives of covenant children (p. 262).

I am a little disappointed to find that, as Berkhof assumes the school as the means of education, that his work here is of limited usefulness. I do like what he has to say about covenant children. This is a concept I find often inadequately explained. My overall goal, however, is not to provide a philosophy of education for covenant children only but one that covers all chidlren. As most other Christian writers I have read, Berkhof does not consider how we could educate those from non-Christian homes who might come under our care. My own thoughts, as I have said before, are that there is one way to educate though there mat be different effects depending on whether the child is in or out of the covenant.



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