Archive for the ‘Homeschool’ Category

Characteristics of Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

I may be reinventing the wheel here, but I wanted to talk a little about the characteristics of classical education. The term is used very broadly to refer to education movements and styles from antiquity, the middle ages, and modern times. In each of these eras there can by any number of classical educators, each with their own unique take (even the ancient world was not uniform; see this post for some background on the varieties of classical ed). If we pick any two at random we may find little that seems to unite them. Many fruitless conversations happen in online forums, discussing whether such-and-such a person is classical because we have no one good definition.

What I’d like to propose today is a list of criteria. If the curriculum you are looking at has all of the following characteristics, it is classical. If it has none, it is not. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. I am inspired in this approach by a book I read recently about some scientists researching near-death experiences. They talk in the book about typical elements, some of which are quite common (seeing a light, being in a tunnel, seeing loved ones) and some of which are less so. The IRS’s list of criteria for what makes one a small business versus a hobby is similar — it is a list to use in evaluating the issue but there is no clear line drawn. Still another way to think of this might be as: “You might be a classical educator if . . . ”

So, without further ado, here is my list of

Characteristics of Classical Education

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

A Test Case: Is Charlotte Mason Classical?

Though it is really not my sole purpose in putting together this list, the oft-disputed online question of whether Charlotte Mason’s (CM) philosophy of education is classical serves as a nice test case to show how we might use these criteria.

Let’s start with what is CM on this list. She does use classical sources (#2). Plutarch stands forth quite notably. Though I would venture to say that she might use fewer than some others. She also believed in the learning of ancient languages (#16). She also believed that there is a body of knowledge outside of man (#8) and that truth can be known (#12). She very definitely had a high view of man (#13).

Next let’s look at those characteristics which are distinctly not present in CM. She does not primarily quote classical sources as the foundation of her philosophy (#1). While it is quite possible she knows these sources and is relying on them, she points to the gospels as the source of her ideas. She does not use the term virtue overly often (#3, 4). There is some element of developing virtue in her philosophy; it is not that she in unconcerned about virtue, but she does not speak of it as classical educators usually do and does not frame it as the goal of her approach. The role of the teacher is distinctly different than in classical education (#5, 6). The teacher provides material, as one spreads a feast, and then largely steps back. While there is some common body of knowledge (#9) and, given her own cultural situation, she relies largely on western civilization (#10), she does not expect every child to glean the same things. So one might say in her philosophy there is a common body of knowledge but not every child will take in the same parts of it. She does not particularly emphasize or make use of questioning (#14), rhetoric (#15), or logic (#17). While she seems open to modern science, because of her time period, it is not an issue she addresses head-on (#18, 19). If I had to guess I would say she might reject the modern reliance on scientific knowledge alone. She rejects a staged approach to education (#20) and does not present a hierarchical or pyramidal view of the fields of knowledge (#21).

Overall then, I would say that Charlotte Mason really does not fall in the classical camp as I define it. I don’t have any illusions that this will end the debate, and it is not that there aren’t points of overlap, but if I were to quantify it, I would say she is not more than 25% classical. In contrast, many of the other authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these criteria.


Principles of Reformed Education: Motivating Students

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.

A friend has challenged me that I need to spend more time on practical details. As a homeschool mom who has to have something to do with her kids every weekday morning, I completely understand this need. The particular question before us today is how we motivate our students to learn. If I were to classify most of what goes on in most education today, I would put motivational strategies in two categories: those which act on the material we teach and those which act upon the learner.

To act upon the material is to try to make what we teach more accessible and/or attractive to students. The underlying assumption behind such methods is that the students either can not or will not want to take in the material as it stands.  Some level of blame, perhaps unconsciously, is put on the material itself.

Charlotte Mason compared education to a feast laid before students. If so, the methods in this category treat education like Brussel sprouts, something inherently unappetizing to most kids [1]. If your child won’t eat their sprouts, there are a few ways you can go about getting him to do so. You might dress it up in some way, maybe make them look like little animals. This perhaps will make them more acceptable without actually changing how they taste.  You might change the flavor, maybe putting them in a creamy dip.  Or you might hide it altogether, chopping them small and baking them in brownies, so the child has no idea hat he ever ate the detested vegetable.

Just like Brussel sprouts, we try to sneak education into our children in various ways. Unit studies (see Unit Studies and additional thoughts), which relate different areas of learning to a common theme or topic, are one way we might both make learning more attractive and put in manageable chunks for children. In a typical unit study, there is a topic which all learning across subjects relates to for the length of the study. So we might decide on a knights and castles theme and in math word problems will feature knights; science will be about the physics of catapults; history will be about the middle ages; and literature will be stories about King Arthur. On one hand, this approach aims to make learning more attractive to children (what kid doesn’t love stories about knights and dragons?). On the other, it also to some degree cuts up the child’s intellectual food for him. That is, it makes particular connections for the child across subject areas. This has the effect, on one hand, of doing work for the child that he might be able to do for himself, but also, on the other, of potentially robbing him of different connections he might have made on his own. Other ways we dress up learning to make it more entertaining (or to hide it altogether) are to use games and craft projects and videos and . . . well, the list could go on quite a while.

The second major approach is to act on not the material but the child (though these two approaches may be, and often are, used in unison). The underlying assumption here is that the child will not want to learn and needs to be given other motivations. In doing so, we substitute temporary or secondary goals for a primary goal. The teacher’s goal is to get the student to learn some fact or body of knowledge. We assume that that will not happen directly and so we provide intermediate goals that we believe the child will desire.  Thus, if we want the child to learn the fifty states and their capitals, we might give him a sticker on a chart for each state he learns. The teacher’s goal is to have those states learned, but the child is given another goal: to fill up his sticker chart. In a class setting, there may be other goals as well — maybe the first child to fill up his chart gets an extra cookie at snack time. Now we have added one or even two new goals: the desire to win and the desire for a cookie are in play.

The problems with both of these approaches – that which acts upon the material and that which acts upon the child — are that they begin with faulty assumptions and that they have unintended, negative consequences. On one hand, we assume that the material — the intellectual food we have for the student — is unappetizing and possibly also indigestible. On the other, we assume that the student has no inherent desire to ingest what we have for him. The first assumption dishonors God and the second dishonors the child.

I have argued that in education we place before the child the things of God, His general revelation. If the things we have to give the child are good and true and beautiful (as they should be), they won’t need us to dress them up or disguise them. We need to trust that God’s things can work as He intends them to and we need to believe that they are inherently attractive and desirable. They don’t need us to make them more entertaining. [2] (I have discussed this previously in this post.)

Babies are intellectual sponges. They are learning more than we can imagine before we ever think to educate them. This innate ability and desire to learn continues into toddlerhood. Most 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds love to learn. Somewhere along the way we come to expect children to resist education and, sadly, they often comply. When treating the issue of motivation, we need to be realistic and acknowledge that some children have truly lost the desire for knowledge. Life is much easier if you start with young children who have not lost it yet. Then the main thing is to continue to give them the good intellectual food they crave.

But what of those children who have already begun to resist education? I believe the key to getting them back — and to never losing them in the first place — is to always keep our biggest and most important goals in mind. In the example above, the teacher’s goal was to have the student learn his states and the child’s goal (dictated by the teacher) was to get stickers. Neither one of them had a right or good goal. The ultimate goal for the teacher should not be to have the child learn this or that bit of knowledge. It is not a matter of what is learned at all but a question of who the child is becoming. Christian writers have defined the goal of education in various ways but wrapped up in them all is that the child, no less than the adult, should be conformed to the image of Christ (see Goals and Purposes). If we keep in mind that who the child is matters infinitely more than what he knows, then we will realize that if in the process of learning his states he loses his love of knowledge, he has lost more than he gained.

And how do children, whom God made learning machines, lose their desire to know? It is precisely our methods which rob him of it. We take a good, God-given love, the love of knowledge, and we place lesser loves in its place — the desire for a sticker, the desire to outdo one’s classmate or to get some other prize or privilege. These are the unintended consequences of our methods. We teach children that the things of God are not attractive, that they need to be dressed up by us. We teach them that the immediate, transitory award right in front of them is more to be desired than the less tangible thing.

Having once lost one’s love for knowledge, the road back is not an easy one. None of us ever give up our idols easily and in some sense that is just what needs to happen here. A God-given love has been replaced with a lesser one. Substituting in another lesser love is not going to solve the problem. Our goal needs to be te rekindle that first love. Though the process may be a long one, I’d like to offer the following suggestions for how we can get there:

  • Start with yourself. If you, the teacher, do not love knowledge, if you do not see God in what you are teaching, your students will follow your example. How do you get there? As with all things, pray. But also read, study, fill your mind. Find books and projects you can delight in and don’t begrudge yourself the time they take.  (See also this post on the Teacher’s Attitude)
  • Expect God to work in your students. Expect the best for them. Pray that God will work in them. If you are a Christian teacher, every child God has put in your class this year has been given to you for a reason. He is your neighbor. Know that it is God who works in him and trust that He will do so. (See also the Teacher’s Expectation)
  • Trust the things of God. Whatever your subject, from math to chemistry to history to music, the things you are putting before children are the things of God. All truth, beauty, and goodness are His. As such, they are powerful things. You find delight in them (see the first point above); let your students do so as well.
  • Don’t get between your students and what they are learning. Don’t talk too much. As much as possible let them get at the thing itself. Don’t put yourself in the way. You don’t need to be the mediator. Let them get face-to-face with the things of God.
  • You will be their teacher for a time only (even if you are the parent). It’s great to have a relationship with your students but make sure that your personality and interests are not the only motivation they have.
  • Don’t deprive young children of the things of God. Young children are great at memorizing, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they can do. Make sure you are presenting them with real ideas that their minds can begin to chew on even at a young age.
  • Don’t feel you need to dress up the things of God. Tone down the extras like videos and games. Let the inherent value of what you have to share with these children shine through. (See Interesting but not Entertaining)
  • Don’t drain the life out of your subject. Yes, these things should be inherently interesting but sometimes, honestly, we grown-ups have a knack for taking an interesting thing and making it dull. Don’t do that. Use materials that bring out the inherent joy in your subject. Use real books by real authors who love their subject. Avoid textbooks if possible, or use them sparingly. Avoid tedious repetition. Don’t provoke children with drills, busywork, mindless tasks. (See Should We Use Textbooks?)
  • Be okay with different outcomes. We are all created by God as unique persons. While the things we have to share with our students should be inherently interesting, they are not all going to respond in the same way to every subject. It is helpful again to think of education as a feast. Not everyone at the table is going to like those Brussel sprouts. The rule in our house was you have to take firsts and eat it but you don’t need to take more if you don’t want to. The same principles work here: you have to try it all; you don’t have to love it.
  • Appreciate the interests of each child. Let’s face it, our society values some subjects over others. If you have a child who seems to be interested in nothing, expand your definitions. They probably have something they like or are good at. Find it, even if it seems to have nothing to do with education. You don’t need to incorporate it in the classroom or make it a unit study. Just know that it is out there and appreciate it.
  • Education is not just a matter of what goes in. Whether we are in a school setting or not, we need the child to reproduce what he has learned on a regular basis. If you are a teacher in a school, the parents will want to see what their child has learned. If you are a homeschool parent, you may have to report to your state. In either case, you should not let these legitimate interests become your main concern. Seek methods of reproducing material which benefit the child above other interested parties.
  • Even given the same material, not every child will learn the same thing. Choose methods which encourage individuality. [3] Narration is a great choice (see Synthesizing Ideas and Three Ideas about Narration) because it asks students to tell what they know.
  • Questions with set answers — true and false, multiple choice — (apart from very objective subjects like math and spelling) are less desirable. Open-ended questions allow children to tell what they know. (We are not to compromise truth, however — there is still a right and a wrong. The point is not that whatever the child says is wonderful but that they may see something in the material which you do not.)
  • Testing should also be done as much as possible for the child’s benefit. There are ways to test which ask the child to synthesize material he has learned and thereby further his learning. Testing which asks a child to memorize and regurgitate material within a short span of time has no long-term benefit for anyone.
  • When it comes to motivators, remember that the goal is for the child to have a love of knowledge because knowledge is of God.
  • Don’t praise children too much. A well-placed word from a teacher who doesn’t normally praise is a lot more effective than constant praise. When we constantly praise, we teach children to work to please us.
  • Don’t manipulate children’s emotions. They should not be working to make us happy and they certainly should not feel that they make us sad or angry when they fail (whether that failure is due to ignorance or lack of effort).
  • External motivators (eg. stickers) are not verboten but should be rare.
  • Some level of competitiveness among classmates is natural, but it shouldn’t be something we encourage or exploit to too great an extent. (I am talking about academics here — I am perfectly okay with games that have winners and losers during recess and gym time.
  • Grades are not the enemy but they should not be the main focus. If you have to give grades and have the flexibility to do so, grade based on improvement and attitude especially in more subjective subjects (the humanities, the arts, the social sciences). [4]
  • Know that kids will fail sometimes and that’s okay. We need to know that we are not perfect. The child who puts in minimal effort should not be allowed to coast through.
  • But don’t let failure become a habit. The child who feels like he always fails will lose his desire to learn very quickly. Education should stretch us but not break us. Find ways for these children to succeed.

You may be thinking that I am taking away all that you normally do in the classroom and that your students will balk at not getting their stickers and games. So here are some ways to keep it fresh:

  • Stick to short lessons. Two short math lessons spread throughout the day may be better than one longer one.
  • Alternate kinds of learning. Don’t do one subject that is heavy on reading right after another.
  • Incorporate the arts, hands-on crafts, and physical activity. These don’t need to be tied to what is being learned (unit study style) but they allow you to break up the day and to alternate which parts of the mind (and body) are being used.

Many of the above ideas can be found in Thomas Edward Shields’ The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard (Leopold Classic Library, 2019; reprint of original 1909 publication). If you don’t have time to read the book, you can read my notes on it here.

Because it is so important, let me end by saying once more the best thing you can do is to cultivate your own love of knowledge and to expect the best of your students. Or, to put it another way — eat your Brussel sprouts and assume that everyone else will love them too.


[1] Brussel sprouts ate actually quite good drizzled with oil, sprinkled with salt and roasted. When asked, one of my kids once told the pediatrician it was her favorite vegetable. The doctor was a little surprised.

[2] It is really quite a lot like what goes on in the worship of the churches these days. We need to trust what God has given us; we don’t need to add a lot of frills from our entertainment-based culture.

[3] To quote one of my favorite authors, Frank Gaebelein: “In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” [Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) p. 152]

[4] “There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” [Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) p. 143]

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

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

As promised, this is part 2 of my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). In part 1, I tried to look at the big issues — what Clark and Jain have to contribute to the discussion and where they stand in relation to previous writers on classical education. My short take on all that is that while I have generally been critical of classical education, Clark and Jain do a lot to win me over to their side. I am not fully convinced and I do have some questions and concerns, but I like how they frame the purpose of education and I like how they relate the various subjects one studies.


Last time was for the biggest issues, today I’d like to look at some of the other points I liked as well as those I had questions about. In the past, when looking at various approaches to education, I have asked a series of questions so I’d like to follow that model today. The questions we will be asking are (this is a somewhat modified version of the list I used in this post):

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?

One of the fundamental beliefs underlying this whole blog is that every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the nature of man and, as a subset of that, the nature of children. Some philosophies do so explicitly and some need to be ferreted out, but all do so. Though Clark and Jain do not lay their assumptions about human nature out in one place, they seem to have some pretty clear beliefs on the subject. I would add that I find them to be quite biblical. Because it is easiest, I’ll give these as bullet points:

  • Humans are “unities of body and soul” (p.5; cf. p. 29). At one point they speak of the heart as a “middle element” between the two (p. 33). I have my own ideas about the relationship of the heart and mind in the biblical conception, but I don’t think the distinction is worth quibbling about. The implication of man’s composite nature (physical and spiritual) for education is, as many other Christian educators have argued, that we need a “holistic” approach to education which addresses and takes into account both aspects (p. 254). As something of a side note, Clark and Jain also make an argument for spiritual disciplines which I am a little less comfortable with as it seems to tend towards a kind of Gnosticism, implying that the soul is benefited when the body is deprived (pp. 222f).
  • Language is essential to human nature. Citing Aristotle, language more than reason here is called the defining human trait. Making a connection to the Word of God (in the manifold meanings of that phrase), language is able “to change reality, to exercise authority, and to lead men’s souls” (p. 46). There are clear implications for education here — we would expect to be very language-based and developing communication skills becomes a major goal.
  • Man is made for relationship, with his Creator and with his fellow man (pp. 161-62). The implication for education: “All learning occurs within the network of relationships” (p. 283).
  • Man is rational, but fallen (p. 161). His reason was never meant to operate in isolation and must be informed by revelation (p. 207).
  • “Man also possesses a will, or volition . . . which allows man to act and create” reflecting “God’s creative ability” (p. 163).  I think we need to be a little careful how we state this lest our will seem to be completely free, unbounded by our own fallenness, but I agree with the basic point and I am intrigued by the connection between will and creativity.

Some philosophies have different conclusions for the child vis-a-vis the adult. For the most part, this does not seem to be the case for Clark and Jain. They have a covenantal view of children (pp. 211, 228) which tends to emphasize their personhood. They also make clear that all human faculties are innate to the child (pp. 29, 47, 67). They need to be developed and trained but not taught or inculcated. As we shall see in the next section, however, there does seem to be a transition point from child-who-needs-educated to educated adult.

Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?

While The Liberal Arts Tradition does not have the strict stages found in some other versions of classical education (particularly “neo-classical versions), there is a progression here. The youngest children are in the gymnastics/piety/music stage. At this age imitation (see below) and the filling of the memory (though not rote memorization) are immediate goals (p. 25). Afterward comes the Trivium/Quadrivium stage which gives one the necessary skills to move on to the philosophies and ultimately metaphysics and theology. I am not entirely sure how all this plays out for Clark and Jain practically speaking. As discussed in part 1, they do speak of the earliest years as a time to fill the imagination (though not through rote memorization as some would have it), and they also speak as if there is an end to education and a time when the child is fully outfitted, so to speak.

What do they believe is the goal of education?

We discussed the goal of education in part 1, so I will not dwell on it again here. Suffice it to say that for Clark and Jain there are some subsidiary goals but the end goal of education is to transmit the culture of the Church, to train the child’s innate human abilities, and to cultivate virtue while acknowledging that this cannot be done apart from union with Christ.

How do they believe education works?

There are a couple of levels on which we can answer this question. On a big picture, theoretical kind of level, Clark and Jain say, quoting Anselm and the book of Proverbs, that faith must proceed understanding (pp. 148, 218), and therefore, one would assume, there is little true understanding for those without faith. (It’s looking like there will be a “part 3” so I will address this more fully next time.)

Charlotte Mason called the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Clark and Jain are not so explicit but they do say that “Christian education cannot be accomplished merely by human effort” (p. 220). I take this as a book of Esther-like allusion [1] to the role of God in education. And, as we have seen, Clark and Jain acknowledge that virtue, which is a goal of education, is impossible without union with Christ.

The place of God in education can also be seen in the assertion that “all human knowledge finds fulfillment in the knowledge of God” (p. 209). This is a bit of a heady concept. As far as I can discern, the idea is that all truth, beauty, and goodness (the transcendentals) reside with God and originate with Him. To know these things is both to possess them and to be mastered by them. Our knowledge, of course, is always finite. “We know reality truly but only analogously to the way God knows it” (p. 118).

Without minimizing the role of God, there is also a transformative power to what one learns. This is particularly true of those “musical” subjects which young children are exposed to  — poetry and stories and music tune the soul and make one “receptive to truth and goodness” (pp. 32, 223).

On a much more mundane level, we can look at the methods of education. Narrative is seen to be central to human understanding, a position which is founded in the Scriptures themselves (pp. 209, 223). It is used even in subjects which may appear non-narrative. For example, science and math include the history of those disciplines (p. 125).

There is a hands-on element as well as students are encouraged to work through experiments for themselves and to keep sketchbooks.

Imitation is a word which Clark and Jain use frequently. Education as imitation happens on a couple of levels. Very literally, children are encouraged at a young age to copy good things, whether art or music or writing (p. 25). Imitation is seen as a precursor to creativity (p. 40).

Even at a later age, imitation still plays a large role. We imitate nature (pp. 110-11) and we imitate other people. There is an element of submission to our imitation of nature. There is a level on which I understand this. As our knowledge follows God’s and as what we learn is His truth, submission seems appropriate. On a very literal level, we can see that much science and technology derives from nature (as when a new technology is based upon a characteristic seen in animals). On another level, I do have some concerns. There can be a false elevation of nature. We are told not to submit to Creation but to master it. Biblically, it is nature that should submit to man. I am particularly concerned about statements like “societal patterns should be fitted rightly to nature” (pp. 151-52). I have no evidence that Clark and Jain take this idea too far but I have read other educators who clearly do. [2]

One can also imitate other people. This is true both of people long gone and of those who stand in front of us every day. Clark and Jain advocate putting students in touch with great thinkers of the past through their writings so that they can “emulate genius” (p. 128). Perhaps even more important, however, is the imitation of our contemporaries which brings us to . . .

What is the role of the teacher?

As with much of classical education, the role of the teacher is key.  Based on the time they spend on it, I would say that for Clark and Jain the imitation of the teacher looms larger than the emulation of those more archaic minds. Education, they would say, is discipleship. Ultimately, the goal is not to make the student the disciple of his teacher but of Christ (pp. 215-16, 243; and here they are on firmer ground at least than many classical educators). Still the teacher is key. They say, for instance, that there is no one curriculum which suits all schools or all classrooms (a point I like) because the individuality is largely determined by the teacher and his interests (p. 245).

Where does this idea of imitation come from? With narrative, we saw that a link is made to God and the nature of His revelation to man. With imitation, the biblical basis is less clear (though certainly discipleship is a biblical idea). Education for Clark and Jain is largely the passing on of a culture, the end of goal of which is the development of virtue. This emphasis on culture seems to lead them to the emphasis on imitation. That is, the culture is a thing which must be passed from (living) person to person so there is an intimate, relational element. [And, they say, “One cannot develop virtue in isolation” (p. 161; why this is, I am not sure).]

When we looked at the work of Bruce Lockerbie, I briefly outlined two views of the teacher. In Lockerbie’s view the teacher is essential and therefore his personal character is as essential as his knowledge if not more so. In contrast, for Charlotte Mason the teacher’s role is largely to step back.  Ideas, for Mason, are communicated from mind to mind, but the minds from which we get our ideas are largely those we find in our books (or art or music). Clark and Jain tend more toward Lockerbie’s side of things. Though there is a place for the teacher to put the student in touch with other minds through the medium of books, the role of the teacher is still fairly large and so his character is also important (p. 216). Charlotte Mason would say that the teacher spreads a feast of ideas for the students and what they take in is up to God. For Clark and Jain, “[t]he teacher’s job is then to mediate that Great Conversation” (p. 128; emphasis added). This seems a much more hands-on, involved role. It is the teacher’s interests that drive the curriculum (pp. 244-45). Though there is an overarching focus on Christ, the teacher is in some sense the immediate master to whom the child is discipled. Mason would agree that “[a]ll learning occurs within a network of relationships” (p. 283)  but would argue that the relationship is with the material and the minds behind it, not necessarily with the teacher.

A consequence of this view of the teacher as mediator and discipler is that his role in his students’ lives is a profoundly influential and important one, a fact which we will discuss further in part 3.

What does this approach say about God and His nature?

In Clark and Jain’s version of classical education, there are transcendentals — being, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity (p. 196) — which give shape to all of Creation and which find their meaning in God Himself. God is good. He is knowable. His attributes, particularly His ability to know and His creativity, are reflected in man. As noted above, man’s knowledge is a poorer and imperfect reflection of God’s. Nonetheless, it shares to some degree the character of God’s knowledge.

These transcendentals are knowable (p. 104), and as they appear in Creation they reflect God’s character: “a perfect God had woven mathematical harmonies into the world that reflected the truth of reality” (p. 96).


There are many ways in which Clark and Jain’s philosophy as presented in The Liberal Arts Tradition is profoundly biblical and Christian. There are also ways in which it shows its classical roots. For myself, there is much I agree with and a few things I would take some issue with. Next time in part 3, we will look at a few remaining issues and make some more conclusive comments.


[1] The biblical book of Esther is the only one not to mention God explicitly. However, in Esther 4:14, Mordecai tells Esther that if she will not help her people, salvation will come to them “from another place” (ESV). This is traditionally taken as a reference to God.

[2] John Dewey comes to mind. His ideas about education were based on his evolutionary views. What was believed to be true of plants and animals was assumed also be true of humans.

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

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

Classical education is not a term which is easy to define. It is used of ancient and medieval and modern movements. It may be pagan or Christian or secular. I have tried to the past to make sense of some of the variety of what is out there. Today I have one more take on classical to add to that list: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

Of all I have read on classical education, this volume is the most likely to make me veer in that direction. (That is actually high praise as I have been fairly critical of other classical sources I have reviewed.) There is a lot in this book so I will likely spread it out over a few posts. Today I’d like to try to introduce Clark ans Jain’s philosophy to you and to focus on what makes it classical, what makes it Christian, and where it stands in the broader field of classical ed. 


Purposes and Intellectual Context

The authors offer two justifications for their book. They argue that “the seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own” and that “the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.” (p. 2). The first of these refers to how the various fields of knowledge relate to one another. The second alludes to the goals of education.

The bulk of The Liberal Arts Tradition addresses the first goal — providing a paradigm for how all fields of knowledge relate to one another. Many of the term used are familiar from other (neo-)classical sources, but Clark and Jain provide a new understanding which often uses the same words in different ways. They give them their own spin to words like grammar and dialectic and rhetoric, trivium and quadrivium. This actually made the book a bit hard to read; it is hard to see a word you think you know the meaning of and to remember that it now has a different lexical range than what you are used to. This is not meant to be a criticism, however. Overall I much prefer what Clark and Jain have to say, but it is a warning that one may need to put in a little more effort here to keep definitions straight. 

It is in the realm of goals that Clark and Jain do the most towards taking classical traditions and putting them in a Christian context. Though the purposes of their approach to education are stated in various ways through the course fo the book, in the introduction they give perhaps the fullest definition:

“This full-orbed education aims at cultivating fully integrated human beings, whose bodies, hearts, and minds are formed respectively by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts; whose relationships with God, neighbor and community are marked by piety; whose knowledge of the world, man, and God fit harmoniously within a distinctly Christian philosophy; and whose lives are informed and governed by a theology forged from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus . . . ” (p. 3)

Each of these could take quite some time to unpack. Before diving into specifics, I’d like to try and place Clark and Jain within the field of classical and Christian classical education. Though they are very polite about it and never openly criticize anyone else’s work, it is clear that Clark and Jain reject some key aspects of what may be called modern classical education, that which began with Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning.” At least in practice, modern classical can become a very stiff, rote thing with lots of memorization and strict stages of learning. There is little of that here. Though the same terms are used, new meaning is given to them. From the authors’ perspective, they would say that the terms so typical of modern classical — grammar and trivium, for instance — have been misunderstood and therefore misapplied.

Clark and Jain look back instead to the ancient Greek classical roots and to medieval Christian ones. They speak of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, though they also acknowledge that we must see their contributions through the lens of Christianity which they did not have. Among Christian sources, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are heavily cited. So, for example, the authors cite Plato when giving reasons for the study of mathematics (p. 66), but the Trivium and Quadrivium are rooted in medieval sources (p. 44).  I will add here that Clark and Jain themselves seem to be fairly solid evangelical and even reformed Christians (the end of book bios tell me both attended Reformed Theological Seminary). 

Knowledge in The Liberal Arts Tradition

One of the major contributions of this volume, relative to other modern works on classical education, is to provide a fresh paradigm for how we understand knowledge. Clark and Jain have a few pictures on their book of trees or concentric circles with words like trivium and musical knowledge and the like arranged in them. As I read the book I also found myself making little charts to illustrate what they were saying. Here is the picture I made (think of it as my narration):


The liberal arts are the subject of education. The top line shows that they are interdependent with common arts and fine arts. (Common arts are those things that have a practical end — blacksmithing or plumbing for example. Fine arts are those which produce beauty.)

The pyramidal shape below “liberal arts” shows its constituent parts. Theology is the top of the pyramid, the highest of the liberal arts. At the bottom are those subjects which the youngest children begin with. Gymnastics refers very broadly to “the entire physical conditioning of a child” (p. 25). Gymnastics, like all education, trains abilities humans already have (p. 29). Musical education is likewise a very broad subject and the term music is perhaps misleading to us. It refers to all those things which the Greek muses covered — poetry and art and music but also history and astronomy (p.26). At this age (though specific ages are not given) the learning is all “musical.” It is what James Taylor termed “Poetic Knowledge” in his book of that name. The focus at this stage is very much on the imagination and on wonder (p. 33). Clark and Jain call it “soulcraft” (p. 32). Piety has to do with knowing one’s place in the order of things. It encompasses a proper attitude towards God, one’s parents and society (pp. 15ff). These three form the foundation of all later learning.

As the child moves into more traditionally academic subjects, the Trivium and Quadrivium are not as much subjects as tools or ways of learning. They are what gives one entrance into the higher subjects. This represents a fundamental difference with other modern classical approaches. Broadly speaking the Trivium is how one learns language-based subjects while the Quadrivium is for math-based subjects though there is much overlap.

The Trivium has three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These are not, as in Sayers’ approach, three chronological stages though there is an escalation to them. The three together give all the tools one needs to understand a text. Grammar gives the basic tools — vocabulary and semantics and also things like the historical context (p 50). Dialectic looks at language itself and teaches one which questions to ask of the text and brings one in the Great Conversation of western civilization (p. 59). Rhetoric is about using persuasive, public language (p. 60). I am reminded of Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor which talks about all the background knowledge one needs to truly understand a piece of literature. If you have ever reread a book from your younger years and been surprised how much more you were able to get out of it with some experience and knowledge under your belt, you have a sense of what this is all about. Appreciating a text is about more than just knowing the meaning of the words and the Trivium provides all the tools needed.

What the Trivium does for language-based learning, the Quadrivium does for numbers-based learning. As its name suggests is contains four stages: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Each of these is a fairly misleading name. Arithmetic has to do with discrete numbers and in addition to the basic functions we think of (adding, multiplying, etc.) includes things like sequences and series (p. 70). The emphasis again is on wonder, not on rote memorization. If arithmetic is discrete, geometry is continuous. Everything one needs to know about geometry was known by Euclid (p. 75). Geometry teaches one to think about numbers in something akin to the way dialectic teaches one to think about text. Astronomy takes mathematical data and observations and places them in a system (p. 85). Music addresses how systems work together. It assumes that all of reality is related in proportional, mathematical relationships (pp. 89-90).

Once these tools are in place, one moves higher in the pyramid. Towards the top are three broad fields of knowledge. Natural philosophy encompasses what we would call natural science but is more than that. Much of the difference is one of attitude. Natural philosophy focuses not on mastering nature but on submitting to it. The emphasis is on imitation and wonder which lead to worship (p. 110). In the younger years especially, there is a hands-on element. The common arts are combined with natural history which seeks to observe and classify the diversity of nature (p. 112). The use of sketchbooks is encouraged (p. 284). Tracing the history of scientific discovery is also emphasized and as much as possible the student should recreate important scientific milestones.  As the student ages, there is an emphasis on the hows and whys (what Aristotle called final and efficient causes; p. 119).

Moral Philosophy encompasses all those subjects which today we term the social sciences. Again there is much more that comes into play under the heading moral philosophy and the main difference is one of outlook or attitude. Moral philosophy looks at not just what humans do but what they are and what they should be (p. 191). It seeks to shape as much as to describe. In order to proceed all these “social” subjects — subjects like psychology and economics — must have a goal in mind (p. 148). To begin with moral philosophy, then, we must have some idea of what man’s end is. The authors discuss various definitions of happiness and various ways this ultimate goal has been formulated (quoting the likes of C.S. Lewis and Augustine). We will return to the questions of man’s nature and purpose later. On a practical level, Clark and Jain argue for a “narrative formulation” (p. 193). History, surely an anchor subject, would be studied not just for what it tells us about the past but as an impetus to moral contemplation (p. 193). Many of these subjects — history, geography, economics, literature, and the like — might also be combined (p. 194).

On a somewhat higher plane is divine philosophy, aka metaphysics. This subject looks at universals, those things which are transcendent. Among them are goodness, truth, beauty, and unity (p. 196). For the Christian, a central question of metaphysics is how God relates to His creation (p. 199). What of His nature is reflected in it and how does God’s causality relate to our own?

For the ancients, divine philosophy was as high as they could go, but for the Christian, there is another layer: theology. Theology is both the apex of the pyramid (p. 206) and what informs all the lower layers (p. 207). It says that there is something behind and above even the transcendentals of divine philosophy. There is meaning behind the goodness, truth, and beauty.  It is from the Scriptures, God’s special revelation, that we learn theology (p. 207). Theology provides a framework for everything else that is studied. It gives shape and justification to everything else. For Clark and Jain, our knowledge is in some sense a reflection of or a derivative of God’s knowledge (p. 209).

Purpose and Goals

With the exception of the top layer of theology, much if not all of what Jain and Clark have laid out can be found to some degree in classical, non-Christian sources. But their philosophy of education is inherently Christian and it is at the level of purpose or goals that this becomes most apparent. Though they give a statement of purpose early on (quoted above), on first reading I found it a little hard to discern what they would say the goal of education is. On further examination, I realized that this is because they speak of purpose at very levels. That is, studying language has one goal, moral philosophy another, and the whole enterprise one overarching goal. These are not radically different or contradictory goals. One might say they are layered, as their view of knowledge is layered. Thus the goal of rhetoric is to cultivate innate human potential so that men may lead souls through language (p. 62) whereas “the goal of moral philosophy is the cultivation of virtue for human flourishing” (p. 133). Elsewhere they speak of “the love of wisdom” (which is the literal meaning of philosophy) as “the common aim of both Christian and ancient education” (p. 202). They quote C.S. Lewis who says that one should pursue wisdom to “‘conform his soul to reality'” and Augustine who says that virtue “ordered loves” (p. 140). Considerable time is spent in the section on moral philosophy discussing how happiness has been identified. The authors seem to agree with Martin Seligman whom they quote at length that the highest and best form of happiness is to find meaning in attachment to something bigger than oneself (p. 160).

I have argued myself that the purpose of education is found in the purpose of man’s life. INSERT LINK There is no one clear statement in Christian thought of that purpose (though the Westminster Catechism — “to know God and enjoy Him forever” — is oft-quoted) so perhaps we should not be too hard on Clark and Jain if they do not offer one clear definition. Having read their book and listened to Jain on a podcast or two [1], I would sum up their goal as follows: Education transmits the culture of the Church which is itself formative in that it trains innate human abilities. Virtues are cultivated but these virtues themselves flow out of the foundation of piety (right relationship to God and man) apart from which they would be impossible (p. 230). There are also practical outcomes as one’s knowledge becomes wisdom which in turn leads one to serve God and neighbor (p. 7).

What I Liked

While I was a bit confused on first reading [2], I have to say I am quite enamored of the purpose of education as Clark and Jain lay it forth. It is actually quite similar to what I have been saying — the education serves a role in sanctification and that knowledge is itself transformative. LINK I particularly like the use of the phrase “fully integrated human beings” in the first quote above. We have seen this idea of integration as the goal of education from a number of other Christian writers on education (for example, Lockerbie and Gaebelein). My favorite definition of what this integration is comes from Henry Schultze who connects it with the biblical idea of being whole-hearted, that is, having an undivided heart which is unified and in line with the will of God. While Clark and Jain may not use the same words, I think we are all trying to get at essentially the same thing.

The bulk of the book, as we have seen, outlines the authors’ view on how all the fields of knowledge relate to one another. I found this discussion quite helpful. One problem any Christian philosophy of education faces is how to get from the theoretical to the practical. What does it mean, for instance, to say that we want to teach math or history or economics in a Christian way? Jain and Clark go a long way towards answering these questions. For the most part, they don’t get quite down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what I am going to teach my kids today, but they provide a framework to help us understand these subjects (and most others one could think of besides) and it is thinking about these subjects in a Christian way that we really need, not Bible verses appended to a page of math problems. (I do hear that there are various curricula coming out from Jain and others that will help with the even-more-practical questions.)

What I Have Questions About

There is a lot in The Liberal Arts Tradition and I think I will do at least one more post on it in which I deal with the minutia. For today I’d like to concentrate on the big issues. The two major goals Clark and Jain laid out in the introduction to their book had to do with the relationships between the fields of knowledge and the purpose of education. On both of these, I have a significant amount of agreement with them. So while what follows may be more critical, it should be taken with the understanding that there is quite a lot here which is good and thought-provoking.

My own view is that education is a life-long enterprise. This is a natural outflow of the place I give it as a subset of sanctification. In this life we are never perfectly sanctified and so we will never reach the end of our education. Youth is a time in which education is particularly concentrated, but it is not confined to one’s youth. Clark and Jain never explicitly say that education has an end but in a number of places they do speak as if there is an endpoint at which the student could be said to be educated and would then enter into a new stage of life. They say, for instance:

“When the students have fully learned and assimilated this curriculum, then  . . . they would be ‘bachelors of arts’ . . .” (p. 255)

And again:

“Once the students have been discipled unto Christ, received the culture of the Church, and been brought into the fellowship of friends who love the truth and can celebrate a feast, then, they are ready to become teachers; they are ready to be imitated.” (p. 256)

Discipleship, like sanctification, is a lifelong process. That statement looks not only forward but backward. That is to say, even while I am being discipled and I can and will disciple others. I am reminded of my 2- to 6-year-old Sunday school class. Those 2-year-olds are watching and copying everything the 6-year-olds do. Whether they are aware of it or not, the 6-year-olds are discipling others, sometimes into bad things, occasionally into good ones. I don’t believe there is a point at which imitation starts or a point at which we can say, “Now I know the culture of the church. Now I know the truth.” Our knowledge is always partial. Hopefully it will increase but there is no clear line I see between “educated” and “uneducated.”

This may seem like a minor point (and I suspect if I could talk with the authors that our positions would not really be terribly far apart), but there is also a deeper principle at stake. It has to do with the nature of the child and his standing before God. As Clark and Jain have phrased things, it sounds as if there is a point when children are grown and can begin discipling others and therefore can enter fully into the life of the Church.I would argue that covenant children are always a full part of the Church. They have a relationship to their Creator and a standing before Him. They are held accountable for sin and are capable of faith (by grace, of course). God is working in their lives as much as He works in the lives of their elders and they are just as able to serve Him. I don’t think Clark and Jain mean to do this, but there are those who almost make children a separate species (though not Christian, the Waldorf method is the most egregious example of this). We need to be careful not to do so. Children are fully human. There is no point at which they become ready to serve God; they should already be doing so.

To somewhat counterbalance what I have just said, I will add that I do like that Clark and Jain speak of education as developing children’s innate abilities. One does not need to produce these certain faculties in children but to direct what is already there (p. 29). This does seem to respect the personhood of the child and his completeness.

Though The Liberal Arts Tradition does not use a Sayers-like staged approach to the Trivium, there is a progression up the pyramid from one kind of learning to another. The youngest children learn piety, music, and gymnastics. At one point Jain and Clark speak of filling up the imagination of younger children (p. 55) as a precursor to later learning. While this may not be the rote learning of those who follow Sayers, it still seems to present a kind of “grammar” stage which is for learning facts before more advanced learning can begin. I tend to follow Charlotte Mason on this subject and to say that ideas are always the food of the mind, even for the youngest children.

In the middle comes a stage in which the Trivium and Quadrivium are the focus and then later the various philosophies — natural, moral, and eventually divine philosophy and finally theology.  The role of theology in particular is a bit confusing to me. While it is at the apex of the pyramid, it also is said to be foundational. I am not grasping what this means practically speaking. I am reserving judgment at this point, but I am wary of such a staged approach. I would not, for instance, say that young children should be spared from theology. There is, of course, some progression in what people can understand, but, in that what we present to children in their education are the things of God, I tend to favor giving them a rich diet which does not shy away from real, meaty issues. I would not say theology is reserved for higher ages.

Having touched upon what are some of the largest issues, I think I will leave things here for now. In part 2, I will look at some more secondary concerns.

Until then,


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

[2] In his interview on the Forma podcast Jain speaks of having been thrown the classical use of the word virtue and it is this word that has also often put me off of classical formulations. It is nice to hear that I am not the only one who has been put off by the term and also to hear Jain speak of the relationship of virtue to faith and sanctification. He clearly states that one can only begin to achieve virtue through union with Christ.

A Reformed Philosophy of Education: the Framework

Dear Reader,

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

I have recently given you, as best I can, my own philosophy of education as it now stands. In doing so I argued that one of the most important facets of a reformed Christian education is to give the right framework. Today I want to try to clarify what I mean by that.

There are a number of words which can be used for the sort of thing I am speaking about — framework, worldview, mindset, attitude, culture, perspective, even the German weltanschauung. [1] Each of these holds some aspect of what I am trying to get at and yet none of them seems to quite sum it up. This thing I am trying to describe is what provides context and proper understanding to everything that is learned. It is a framework in that it underlies everything else and gives it some structure. But framework sounds too bare-bones as if it lacks particulars. It is a worldview in that it shapes how we view the world. But worldview is often an over-used and abused term in Christian circles. It often seems to amount to slapping some Bible verses on a math lesson but to have little substantive value. And I am conscious that some tend to boil down a Christian worldview to one or two easy propositions which do not take into account the fullness of God. [2] It is a mindset because it is a way of thinking; an attitude because it is pervasive. It is a culture that binds Christians together. It is a perspective in that it shapes how we see.

What has convinced me lately that we need this framework (for lack of a better term) and that it is utterly vital is not all my reading and thinking on education but my praying for others in my life. I am realizing as I do so that there are many who seem to simply inhabit a different world than I do. Some are perfectly happy in a completely material world with absolutely no concern for or awareness of a spiritual dimension. My prayers for them are the most frustrating because they seem to have absolutely no felt need for anything more than what they see. They walk by sight and not by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). I am reminded of Elisha’s servant who saw only the Assyrian army surrounding him until his eyes were opened to see the host of God (2 Kgs. 6:14-17).

Others believe in something spiritual but it is still not the same world I inhabit. It is often a world full of good spirits (they never seem to believe that some of these spirits might be bad or deceptive).  For others it is a world in which positive thoughts and good vibes are effective. I have a cousin who seems to genuinely believe she caused a vegan restaurant to open in her neighborhood simply by sending out positive energy (vegan restaurants are clearly a supreme good in her estimation). Her sister thinks the universe sent her a dresser when she needed one. This is a universe in which there are many interconnected strands. I picture them like a spider’s web we walk amongst. Pull on one and anything might happen.

This thing then which teachers and parents should have and which they should communicate to their students is really a particular conception of reality. We need to believe in a God who is all-powerful and compassionate, just and merciful. We need to believe in absolute truth and in goodness and beauty and in our ability to discern them in the world around us. We need to believe that all things work ultimately according to God’s plan and that there is no detail beneath His notice or outside His control.

There are times at which we will communicate these things to our children directly and deliberately. But far more than what we intentionally say, what we believe and do and love and how we respond to the circumstances of our own life will communicate these things. Above all we need to live in the world as if we believe these things.

Charlotte Mason speaks of atmosphere as a core element of education and that perhaps is a good word to describe what I am trying to get at. It has nothing to do with environment; it is not about what pictures are on the walls or what music is playing. It is certainly not Bible verses on a math worksheet. It is something in the air what is so pervasive that we take it in with every breath. It is what we live in. Henry Schultze uses the same word when he speaks of “a spiritual atmosphere so that he cannot reach out without touching God from some angle.” [3]

I realize this is all still very ethereal so let me end with some practical suggestions:

  • More than anything else we who teach (or parent) need to believe these things for ourselves. It can’t be fake like a pose one adopts or a mask one puts on. We are fallen people and we will not always feel what we should but we must first work on our own “worldview.” Whatever we believe will communicate itself, no matter what our words are.
  • Teach what you love. If you do not love your subject matter and you do not see God’s hand in it, then you may need to switch careers. Seriously. One cranky day does not necessitate a switch but a year of just not seeing what God is doing is a big deal. Parents and parent/teachers have less flexibility in that they must teach all subjects so it is even more important that they do the following —
  • As far as we are able we should cultivate our own appreciation for the things of God. This means prayer of course, but also feeding our own minds. Read good books on the subjects your kids are studying. They don’t necessarily have to be written by Christians but they should be by people who love their subject.
  • Pick such books for your children too. These are what we call “living books.” They may be fiction or non-fiction. Ideally they will be well-written and they should be engaging.
  • Talk about the things you think and pray about and do. Praying in your closet is not necessarily applicable to your own children. They should know what concerns you and how you deal with it. Let them see the struggles you have and how you deal with them. How are we going to believe God moves armies and nations if we don’t see Him first in the lives closest to us?
  • If you are not comfortable talking about God even to your own kids, get there. Just talking aloud about what is in your head is a great start. If you start when your kids are little, they will have no idea you are being weird. It’s not about being preachy; it’s about letting them into your inner monologue.
  • Don’t isolate children from the full family of God. They should have exposure to Christians of all ages and should hear how those people discuss their problems and how they read their Bibles and how they pray.
  • Bring your children along into the things you love. In the long run they may not love those things too but for a time at least they can participate in your love and they can experience what it is like to see God in something.
  • Talk about other people’s issues. This should be done with a fair degree of discretion. We don’t want to reveal secrets or to be gossipy, but it is often easier to reflect on the lives of others. They don’t need to be bad things. It can be “Wow, God really answered Mrs. So-and-so’s prayer for health in a dramatic way.”
  • Stories of all sorts can be wonderful for this as well and you don’t need to talk about real people. Books are best but movies can provide some good stories too. Don’t quiz your kids and don’t degenerate into being preachy but if you read and watch things that make you think then you can discuss honestly without pretense.
  • Don’t forget thanksgivings in prayer. Too often we ask for things, even repeatedly, and then neglect to mention when God answers those prayers.
  • In Old Testament times, people said thank you by relating what had been done for them. So tell the stories, personal ones as well as ones that relate to the larger body of God’s people.
  • Teach solid theology. There is almost no age that is too young. The language will get more complicated but even young children can get basic theological concepts about sin and redemption. As they get older, talk about other worldviews too so that they can recognize others’ presuppositions.


[1] Frank Gaebelein. The Christian, The Arts, and The Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985) p. 186.

[2] For more on that, see this post on Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics in which he is quite critical of Van Til and others.

[3] Henry Schultze. “The Man of God Thoroughly Furnished,” in Fundamentals in Christian Education, ed. Cornelius Jaarsma (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953) p. 183.

A Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

I have been working on this series for almost two years now. In that time, I have read a lot of books and done a lot of posts. As promised, I am now ready to offer some conclusions. Of the making of many books there is no end; neither will this be the end of my study of this topic. My hope is that it is enough of a beginning to aid those of you who seek to educate others, in whatever context.

I am going to offer my modest proposal as a series of bullet points which I hope work together to gradually build up a philosophy of education founded on Reformed Christian principles. As I said, I have been working on this series for two years (and there were years of preliminary study behind that). What follows is a summary of what I have read and gleaned. While there is some logical sequence, the numbers are given mainly to aid in discussion. [Unfortunately, WordPress does not seem to allow me to use a continuing sequence of numbers; if you look at the Google Doc version of this proposal (link below), you will see that it is actually a 100-point plan.] Behind all this is the belief I started with, that any philosophy of education, as it makes assumptions about the nature of man and about his ends, is an inherently theological enterprise (see here, here, and here). 

As much as possible I have given links to the posts in which I originally discussed each concept. If you have any questions or disputes, I encourage you first to click through and read the arguments behind each one. After that, I am happy to discuss so feel free to comment below or to contact me

Proposal for a Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education 

[This proposal can also be viewed as a Google Doc here]

Epistemology: The Source of Knowledge:

  1. The Triune God is the source of all wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty. (John 14:6; Gaebelein on Truth; Bavinck on Art; Frank Gaebelein)
  2. Truth, goodness, and beauty stand apart from man, outside him. 
  3. God has graciously chosen to reveal some measure of His truth, goodness, and beauty to humankind.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. He does so through His two “books” which we call special and general revelation; they are His written Word in the Scriptures and His Creation respectively. (Gaebelein on Truth; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  5. In the pre-Fall world, the two books or revelation would have been equally accessible and operated in perfect unity.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: Man’s Ability to Know:

  1. The Fall has not changed God’s general revelation to us. The knowledge which God gives is still out there, uncorrupted and in theory available to all people, believers and non-believers. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  2. The Fall has corrupted man’s reason by which he accesses and evaluates this knowledge.  In this life at least, man’s reason is imperfect and incomplete. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology)
  3. Reason was never meant to be and cannot be our sole means of knowing.  It is a tool and was not meant to function apart from Revelation. (Crisis in Epistemology; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. Only those who are united to God by faith can rightly know, though their knowledge too is limited and often corrupted by the effects of sin. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology; Frank Gaebelein)
  5. Non-believers suppress the right knowledge of God. Nonetheless, non-believers still have reason, now corrupted, through which they access knowledge. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  6. The unregenerate say many true things and their scholarship and creative arts may be useful to and appreciated by us. (Common Grace, Part 1; Christianity, Science and Truth)
  7. Though at times they may deceive us, our senses are basically reliable. We are able to use them to know about the world around us.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: The Nature of Knowledge:

  1. Knowledge, because it is of God, is good in and of itself. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth)
  2. Knowledge should be a source of delight. (John Edwards, History of Education:1500-1800;  John Milton on Education; The Christian Home-School)
  3. True knowledge is not merely rational but is intimate. (Oppewal on Epistemology; History of Education:1500-1800)
  4. Knowledge is also relational. To know is to have a relationship. (Jaarsma on Uniting the Heart and Mind; Oppewal on Epistemology)
  5. Knowledge, as the Bible uses the term, is never just head-knowledge. It is practical in that it affects one’s behavior and life.  
  6. Godly knowledge — and goodness and beauty — are active, effective, and transformative. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth and On Frameworks and How We Know What’sTrue; Lockerbie on Teachers)

Epistemology: What We Know:

  1. The Creation reflects the character of its Creator. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty)
  2. There is no field — from history and anthropology to chemistry and mathematics  — which falls outside of God’s dominion. The laws and forces behind each have been created and are sustained by Him. (Frank Gaebelein)
  3. Each area of study has the potential to tell us something about God.  (Frank Gaebelein; In Defense of Truth and Beauty; A Broad Education; Fine Arts; Bavinck on Art)
  4. This limit will come earlier in some fields than in others. The more subjective a field, the more it deals with God and man directly, the more quickly it will go astray. (Frank Gaebelein)

On God’s Providential Workings:

  1. God is the Giver of all knowledge and wisdom.
  2. God rules over all, but He does not rule over the elect and the nonelect in the same way.
  3. For the elect, the knowledge God gives is part of their sanctification and is ultimately for their good that they may be reunited with Him.
  4. For the unregenerate, God, by the common workings of his Holy Spirit, still gives knowledge, but this knowledge because it does not cause them to glorify God or to respond in humility and obedience, ultimately serves to condemn them all the more. (Common Grace, part 1)

The Nature of Man, and of the Child:

  1. Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults. (Children in the Bible)
  2. All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul, and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others. (Deut. 6:5; Mk. 12:30; Hearts and Minds; The Tech-Wise Family)
  3. All aspects of our nature were corrupted in the Fall (WCF IV:II) and are in need of redemption and transformation (WCF XIII:II). 
  4. Our minds and hearts are thus corrupted and in need of redemption. It is God who is able to restore the heart/mind. (Education and the Covenant Child)
  5.  Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law. (Children in the Bible)
  6. Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course). (Children in the Bible)
  7. Because knowledge is intimate and relational (see #s 15 & 16 above), even the youngest children are capable of knowing. (History of Education:1500-1800; Babies Can Think)
  8. Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities. (Children in the Bible)

On the Nature of Education [1]:

  1. Education acts on the mind and heart. We must always be aware, however, that the mind/heart does not operate in isolation from the other parts of the person.  (Hearts and Minds; Defining Education; Education and the Covenant Child;
  2.  God’s General Revelation is the fodder of education.  In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has revealed. (Common Grace, Part 2) [2]
  3. God Himself is the ultimate Educator of all men. This is true of all areas of knowledge. Whether practical skills, creative arts, intellectual knowledge, or spiritual wisdom, God is the source. (History of Education: Church Fathers; also Teaching in the Old Testament) [3]
  4. Because education is ultimately a work of God, we cannot force children to learn. How knowledge is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit. (Teaching in the New Testament)

On the Purpose of Education: the Big Picture:

  1. Education will work differently in the life of the believer and the non-believer. (cf. #26 above)
  2. In the life of an unregenerate person, the effect is that of a Call. Either the person will, by grace, respond in faith, or, if he does not, the effect will ultimately be for his condemnation. When we educate non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity. (Common Grace, Part 1 and Part 2; Van Til on Education)
  3.  In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. When God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done, they are transformed. This transformation is an element of what we call sanctification.  (Education and Sanctification; Education and the Covenant Child; Lockerbie; also CM and the Puritans on Education)
  4. In so far as it transforms the minds and hearts of God’s people, election builds up the Church and glorifies God.  (Education and the Covenant Child; see also History of Jewish Education)

On the Purpose of Education: Human Perspective: [4]

  1. Education is part of God’s ordinary means. This is particularly true in the lives of covenant children for whom education is a means God uses to fulfill their baptismal promises. (Louis Berkhof)
  2. The purpose of education is to be found in the purpose of man’s life. To the extent that man’s purpose is to “know God and enjoy Him forever,” this also is the purpose of education.  (Henry Zylstra; Nicholas Beversluis)
  3. Education is a part of God’s grand plan, the end of which is His own glory. It brings His general revelation to men.  (JG Vos on Education; The Purpose of Education, Part 1; Common Grace, part 2)
  4. While there are certainly larger and more societal aspects to education, the primary goal on a day-to-day basis should be for the individual. (The Purpose of Education, Part 2)
  5. While education can serve both long- and short-term goals, because they are more likely to be lost in the business of life, we should keep the long-term goals always before us. (The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  6. In the lives of the elect, the primary goal of education is the long-term transformation of the individual more and more into the image of Christ. It is then a part of the process we call sanctification. (cf. #41 above)
  7. To be transformed is to become more and more “whole-hearted.” The effect of sin is to divide us, to make us double-minded beings. Our hearts and minds are transformed when the effect of sin in them grows less and they more and more are united to a single purpose which aligns with the will of God. (Henry Schultze on the Integrated Personality; Lockerbie on Christian Paideia)
  8. Education thus serves to undo the effects of the Fall. (John Milton on Education; JG Vos on Education; Goals and Purposes)
  9. There will be secondary goals which are achieved along the way as well: a man will be prepared for the work God calls him to; the Church will be built; God’s kingdom in this world will be furthered. These are not secondary goals because they are unimportant but because if we, in our fallenness, make them primary goals of education, we tend to go astray. In God’s providence all things work together for His purposes which are many-layered. We are not God and so when we take the focus off of the sanctification of each individual we tend to go astray. 
  10. While there are certainly good, practical outcomes to education, we must guard against a degeneration into utilitarianism. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth; Mathematics)

Practical Aspects: The Student:

  1. Because children are sinners and because of the ignorance of their youth, they are in need of training. There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. Our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We cannot, as the Unschooling movement does [5], trust children to their own devices. (Children in the Bible; Core Knowledge)
  2. Learning continues throughout life . . .  (Teaching in the Old Testament; The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  3.  . . . But children are particularly in need of instruction.  (Children in the Bible)
  4. Children all complete persons with the same spiritual capacity as adults. Therefore we must not hinder them or deprive them of the things of God.  (Children in the Bible; see also Babies Can Think)
  5. Education is for all people, male and female, those whom society deems exceptional or average or backward. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)

Practical Aspects: The Role of the Teacher:

  1. The attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. He should expect that God will work in the lives and hearts and minds of his students, whether they are regenerate or not. (A Teacher’s Expectation)
  2. 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. (A Teacher’s Attitude; Frank Gaebelein)

Practical Aspects: The Framework:

  1. Proper understanding, in any area, is not possible without a godly framework. (History of Education: Church Fathers; Framework) [6]
  2. The most important thing we can convey to our students is a proper framework in which to understand all that they learn. Other words which might be used to describe this are mindset or worldview. ( Framework; Zylstra on Frameworks)
  3. Our conceptual framework must be biblical.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  4. Not all non-biblical frameworks are equally wrong. (Synopses of Short Articles)
  5. Even many “Christian” worldviews are either insufficient or unacceptable. We need a distinctly reformed view. (Van Til on Education)
  6. We must be careful that we are not too narrow in our worldview. What we are seeking is something broad and all-encompassing, not a narrow worldview which boils down all of God’s Truth to a few propositions.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Practical Aspects: What We Learn:

  1. All subjects are the fodder of education and all are under the sovereignty of God. There is no “sacred” and “secular.” (Calvinist Beliefs and Education; CM and the Puritans on Education)
  2. Children should be given a broad education, covering a wide range of subjects. (A Broad EducationCore Knowledge; CM and the Puritans on Education; History of Reformed Education)
  3. It is reasonable and logical to require children to learn certain basic skills. (Core Knowledge)
  4. But we should not deprive young children of real, meaty learning by withholding bigger ideas until later years. Even young children should be put in touch with the things of God. (Core Knowledge)

Practical Aspects: What We Teach & Materials:

  1. There is no culture [7] that has a monopoly on truth or culture. All are fallen. While they may make some contributions, they will also contain error. All should be approached with discernment, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. (Hebraic vs. Hellenistic Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of Western Education; Van Til on Education)
  2. Christians are not called to and should not withdraw from the culture. (Synopses of Short Articles; Frank Gaebelein)
  3. We can and should use non-Christian books and resources . . .  (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Love of Literature)
  4. But we should also expect more truth to come to us through Christian sources. (Christianity, Science and Truth)
  5. We must not rob children of the inherent delight and interest they should have in the things of God by making education boring . . . (The Christian Home-School)
  6.  . . . But neither should we try to dress up the things of God to make entertainment for children. (Interesting but not Entertaining)
  7. Language is inherent to how humans communicate and therefore learn. Narrative is a powerful medium and is a primary means used by God Himself to communicate with His people (Language; Literature; The Power of Narrative)
  8. Words, and particularly books, should be the backbone of our approach to education. (Living Books and the Living Word; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks)
  9. Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. (Two Views of the Teacher; See Pick Your Teachers Well for tips on how to do so)
  10. So too we must pick our books well. Our goal should be to use “living books.” Living books are written by people who love their subject matter and know it well.  (See Living Books and the Living Word for more criteria for discerning living books; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks; Literature)
  11. Because one is unlikely to succeed when he expects to fail, we should use discernment in how we set the bar for children. On one hand, we should not provoke them to despair with things that are too far beyond them or which generate repeated failure. On the other hand, education is work and it is through our trials that character is built. The best image I can think of is one of stretching, providing work which does not break but constantly requires more of the child. (The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard; Frank Gaebelein; The Tech-Wise Family)
  12. Because man is both spirit and body, education should also involve the physical. This “hands-on” side of education should not involve merely physical action but should seek to employ the body in ways which also engage the mind. The ideal is not what we today call “physical education” but a kind of hands-on, technical, educated craftsmanship.   (Whitehead Follow-Up)

Practical Aspects: Learning Outcomes & Testing:

  1. The Fall has corrupted man’s relationship with work. Education, as the work of the child, will at times be frustrating and fruitless. Nonetheless, we are called to persevere and, by God’s grace, we are also able to see fruit and to rejoice in the work we are given. (Whitehead Follow-Up)
  2. 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.  (Core Knowledge)
  3. In evaluating children and measuring what they have learned, we should be wary of provoking them unnecessarily with tedious exercises which are for our benefit, not theirs. (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating Students)
  4. Because each child is a unique individual and because education is ultimately the work of God in his life, even when presented with the same materials, we should not expect every child to glean the same knowledge.  (Synthesizing Ideas; see also The History of Worksheets)
  5. Narration — telling back in one’s own words — is highly recommended as a way for children to synthesize and reproduce what they have learned. This is because it: a) allows each child to express what they have learned rather than being required to reproduce a set body of facts determined by the teacher; b) makes use of a capacity (retelling what they have learned or done) which is inherent to children; and c) reflects the biblical practice of retelling events as a way of both teaching the next generation and of expressing thanks.  (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating StudentsThe Tech-Wise Family)
  6. There are subjects and times when more standardized forms of evaluation and reproduction are warranted. Narration must not become an excuse for complete subjectivity.  (Synthesizing Ideas)
  7. We must be careful in teaching that out methods do not tend to substitute lesser, immediate goals (the obtaining of small prizes, pleasing one’s teacher) for the larger, more primary goal of building the child’s character and furthering his desire for knowledge, which is of God. (Motivating Students)

Practical Aspects: On Schooling:

  1. There are three God-given institutions: the Church, the Government, and the Family. (History of Education: Biblical Times; Church, State . . . and School?)
  2. The school is not a God-given institution. (Church, State . . . and School?; Lockerbie on Schools)
  3. Parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children. (Church, State, and School)
  4. It is not wrong for parents to use other resources in educating their children, but they cannot cede their God-given authority in this area.  (Church, State, and School)
  5. The Church should support and encourage parents in educating their children. (History of Reformed Education)
  6. Parents who do not feel able to educate their children should seek to “qualify themselves to the task” as best they can (Erasmus, History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)
  7. If parents use other teachers or outsource aspects of their child’s education, they should remain intimately involved in their children’s education. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation) [8]
  8. In the ideal society, the State supports the work of the Church. Modern American society is not ideal.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  9. The basis of thought in the public schools is not and cannot be neutral. Neutrality does not exist. (History of Education: the 1800s)
  10. State-supported education will have state-ordained goals. (The Crisis of Western Education)
  11. It is impossible to confine public education to academic spheres. Education is inherently intrusive and naturally draws in other parts of the person and other aspects of life.  (Public Education in America)
  12. Modern American public schools are based on ideas which arise out of an ungodly, evolutionary mindset. (John Dewey, Evolution and Socialization; Evolution is a Mindset; Education and the Source of Evil)
  13. Education in our public schools today has a fragmentary effect — it fragments knowledge into discrete subjects and it fragments people from each other and from other communities. (Public Education in America)
  14. Every school, every curriculum, every approach to education rests on certain underlying philosophical and/or theological principles. Each one makes assumptions about man and his nature. Parents should therefore be discerning, whatever method they choose. (Implementing a Christian Education)
  15. We live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect people. There is not going to be any perfect education choice; each will have pros and cons. Whatever choice they make for their children, parents should stay involved and make the best of the situation they have. (The Christian Home-School; see Implementing a Christian Education for ideas on how to do so)

[1] Many of the points in this section were given previously in this earlier post.

[2]  Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation.

[3] Augustine called Christ the magister interior, the inward teacher.

[4] This post on goal and purposes also explains the points in this section. 

[5] For some background on Unschooling, see this post and this one.

[6] Augustine said credo ut intelligum, “I believe in order that I may understand,” which is to say that true understanding is only possible through faith. 

[7] The only possible exception would be Old Testament Israel, though in practice more often than not they did not follow the rules and customs God gave them. 

[8]  Erasmus says they should visit the schoolroom often.

— Nebby




Reformed Christian Education: What to Read

Dear Reader,

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

I have read and given my thoughts on many articles over the past year+ but I realize a lot of that information is scattered and hard to wade through. Today I’d like to give you an annotated bibliography of the best of what I have read so you can, if you choose, read what other reformed thinkers have had to say on education. (Click the link at the top of this post to find all my book reviews and more.)

Bibliography on Reformed Christian Education

Barclay, William. Train Up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

  • A fairly readable book that gives history of education in Greece, Rome, Israel, Early church. It’s certainly not essential to understanding reformed education but it does give some interesting historical information.

Bavinck, Herman. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

  • Bavinck is a well-known reformed thinker and his work really resonated with me. This book is a series of essays. My favorites were the ones on art and the history of classical education. The latter in particular is well worth reading to understand all the threads that go into what we call classical ed.

Coleburn, Chris.  “A History of Reformed (Presbyterian) Christian Education,” The Evangelical Presbyterian (January,  2011).

  • Not perhaps essential reading, but Coleburn gives a rare historical look at reformed education.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961.

  • Dawson is a Catholic and argues for distinctly Catholic education. He is quoted a lot by other writers and gives a good critique of what is wrong with modern American public education and some history of how we got where we are.

Drazin, Nathan. A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE Nabu Press, 2011 (orig. pub. 1941).

  • As far as I can tell this is a pretty definitive work on what Jewish education was actually like in the period specified. For those who want historical perspective, this is well worth reading.

Fesko, J.V.  Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

  • Fesko discusses natural law and how we have lost it and why it is important. His book is not directly on education but deals with topics like epistemology that have a bearing on it. He is very critical of Van Til. This is a dense, harder-to-read book. 

Gaebelein, Frank E. The Pattern of God’s Truth. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1968 (first pub. 1954). 

____________“Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education,” in Grace Journal, Fall 1962.

  • Gaebelein is one of my favorite thinkers on this topic. He was headmaster of the Stonybrook School in NY. His guiding principle is “all truth is God’s truth.”

Lloyd-Jones, Martyn. The Approach to Truth: Scientific and Religious. London: The Tyndale Press, 1967.

  • A thin, easy-to-read pamphlet from a  reformed stalwart.

Lockerbie, D. Bruce. A Christian Paideia: The Habitual Vision of Greatness. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications, 2005.

  • I don’t agree with everything Lockerbie says but he has some significant ideas to contribute to the discussion. He taught at Gaebelein’s school.

Oppewal, Donald. “Biblical Knowledge and Teaching,” in Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators. Lanham: University of America Press, 1997.

  • Oppewal edited this substantial volume. It is not all worth reading but his essay, near the end, gives some needed perspective on the topic of epistemology (what we know and how we know it) though (from reading another book of his) there is much of his own philosophy which I do not agree with.

Schultze, Henry. “The Man of God Thoroughly Furnished,” in Fundamentals in Christian Education, ed. Cornelius Jaarsma. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953.

  • Schultze’s article is a gem hidden in this thick volume. His statement of the goal of education is the best I have read (and, believe me, I have read a lot).

Van Til, Cornelius.  Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974.

  • I have been lead by Fesko to have some skepticism about Van Til’s approach but it is hard to find anyone more quintessential. There is still a lot here that makes one think and ask the right questions.

Vos, J.G. What is Christian Education? Pittsburgh: RPCNA Board of Education and Publication.

  • A thin, easy-to-read pamphlet. This is a great one to start with. I don’t know if Crown and Covenant currently has it in stock but if not, write to them and ask them to republish it.

Wiker, Benjamin and Jonathan Witt.  A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. IVP Academic, 2006.

  • Though a Catholic, Wiker is one of my favorite authors. This book is not strictly on education but it will give you a sense of awe and a desire to learn more about subjects from Shakespeare to chemistry.

Zylstra, Henry. Testament of Vision. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958.

  • Zylstra is another favorite thinker of mine. I love a lot of what he has to say.

Happy reading!






A Reformed Philosophy of Education: Goals and Purposes

Dear Reader,

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

As I move toward a unified philosophy of education, there are a few points I want to take a little more time on. One of these is the question of the goal or purpose of education. I might better say goals and purposes because in God’s Creation these things are often multi-faceted.

I have argued that in education we put before the child the things of God, primarily those things known under the very broad heading “general revelation.” Though God is the God of all, He works differently in the lives of those who are His and those who are not. The effect of education is also different in the life of the elect and the non-elect. Education is the sowing of seed; the result will depend on where it falls. 

When fallen people are confronted with the things of God as revealed in His Creation, this is the outward Call which goes forth to all men. This is what is happening when we educate non-believers. If they are chosen by God, then they will ultimately respond in faith. But if they are not, the ultimate purpose is to further condemn them. Their knowledge is a curse and not a blessing to them, but God is still glorified. Because all things work together for the glory of God, the non-elect person may, perhaps inadvertently, contribute to the overall knowledge of God and of His truth, beauty, and goodness in the world of men, but the effect for him personally is still to further the curse. 

When we place before the elect, the things of God, the outcome is very different. It is important to note here that education itself is not salvific. So many philosophies of education aim to save man (the goal of Montessori education, for instance, is no less than world peace). God’s truth, beauty, and goodness — are in themselves powerful and serve to transform his fallen heart and mind. We understand that salvation is not possible apart from the choice of God, the work of Christ on the cross, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual’s life. But, insofar as it places God’s general revelation before man, education is an ordinary means God uses to save and sanctify His elect. 

Thus as a subset of sanctification, education serves to undo the effects of the Fall. By it God’s people are transformed by the renewal of their minds (Rom. 12:2). [1] Yet education had a purpose at Creation as well. That is, if there had not been a Fall, education would still have a role to play as men grew in their knowledge of God. The Fall has made education harder, but the need for education is not solely a result of the Fall. 

Biblical wisdom and knowledge are never merely intellectual subjects but are practical. Romans 12 tells us that our minds should be transformed so that they may “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2; ESV). The ability to discern is one practical outcome. Another is simply to produce right behavior. Our actions should reflect our thoughts. 

To be thus transformed is to become more and more conformed to the image of Christ.  It is to become more and more “whole-hearted.” The effect of sin is to divide us, to make us double-minded beings. Our hearts and minds are transformed when the effect of sin in them grows less and they more and more are united to a single purpose which aligns with the will of God.

We have been speaking thus far of the effect of education in the life of the individual. There will be other goals which are achieved along the way as well: a man will be prepared for the work God calls him to; the Church will be built; God’s kingdom in this world will be furthered. Ultimately, God will be glorified which is the purpose of all things.[2]


[1] I would add “and hearts.” See this post on the words heart and mind in the Bible.  

[2] Because the teacher who is thinking of the good of the Church is likely to lose sight of the individual student before her, I have argued that we should keep the focus of education on the individual. In God’s Providence all these things work together, but we are fallen, fallible people who have a tendency to ride rough-shod over the individual.

A Reformed Philosophy of Education: Hearts and Minds

Dear Reader,

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

I am in house-keeping mode for a couple of weeks, doing brief posts that I want to get out of the way as I prepare my big upcoming post that outlines my whole philosophy of education. Today I’d like to talk about the parts of man’s nature.

The Bible speaks of the parts of man in two ways. In the Old Testament, there are three parts: heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5). In the New, there are four: heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27). My contention is that the Hebrew conception is a bit more on point.

The change between the two is, of course, the addition of the word “mind.” It reflects a more Hellenistic understanding of the world. Perhaps with their emphasis on philosophy, those influenced by Greek culture could not imagine leaving out “mind” in this list. But it is not that people in Old Testament times had no idea of the mind or thought it unimportant. The reason “mind” is not in the Deuteronomy list has to do with the seat of thinking in ancient thought and with the relationship between thought and emotion.

We think of the heart and mind as two things because we separate thought and emotion. This is due in part to the Enlightenment with its emphasis on Reason. In a very medical way, we associate them with two distinct body parts, the heart and brain.

In ancient times no one considered the brain very worthwhile. [That is why Egyptian embalmers liquified it, drew it out through the nose, and discarded it. No way the Pharaoh would need that thing in the afterlife.] For the ancients, the heart was the seat of thought (cf. Gen. 6:5). To think in Hebrew is literally “to speak within one’s heart” (cf. Gen. 8:21; 24:45; Deut. 8:17; I Sam. 27:1). The seat of emotion was the liver, bowels,  or guts (think: gut feelings). But the Old Testament also often speaks of man’s thoughts and desires as coming from his heart as well. It is with his heart that man knows the things of God (Deut. 6:6; 8:5; Job 22:22). He understands with his heart just as he sees with his eyes (Deut. 29:4) and his plans and thoughts are located there (I Kgs. 8:18; 2 Kgs. 10:30; I Chr. 29:18; Neh. 7:5). The heart moves one to act (Deut. 29:35). But the emotions can also be said to sit in the heart, hate (Lev. 19:17; 2 Sam. 6:16) and fear (1 Sam. 28:5), sadness (I Sam. 1:8; Neh. 2:2) and gladness (Exod. 4:14; Judg. 18:20) are there. On must be cautious though; the heart can be deceived (Deut. 11:16). [I don’t want to go on too long about this but see the end of this post ** for a little more technical information.]

Ironically, if we put some thought into it, we moderns know that the heart is not the source of emotion. It pumps blood. If there is a physical source of emotion or desire it is the brain, the same source as our rational thought. So we end where we began — there is one seat of both reason and emotion.

In the biblical conception (and in modern medicine), there is one source of both rational thought and of emotion or desire. The two spring from one well. I have argued that in education we week to transform the men’s fallen minds through the innate power of God’s own truth, beauty, and goodness. I would like to emend that a bit — it is the heart, in the Old Testament biblical sense, that we act upon in education. It is not a matter of the intellect versus the affections but of both together.  In educating our children we must not be emotionally manipulative but we should expect education both to be a delight and to cause us to delight in the things of God.  

“’Men have a great deal of pleasure in human knowledge, in studies of natural things . . .’” [Jonathan Edwards, in A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education by Bruce Lockerbie (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007; first published 1994), p. 232]

“The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.” (John Milton, “Of Education”)


** But wait! you say. My Bible uses the word “mind.” It even speaks of heart and mind together in some verses. Surely there are two concepts here. There are a few possibilities here —

In the vast majority of verses in which the English Standard Version (ESV; I am focusing on the ESV but the same would be true of any other translation) uses the word “mind” the Hebrew has “heart” (Exod. 14:5; Deut. 28:28; 30:1; I Sam. 9:19-20; I Kgs. 3:9, 12; 4:29; 10:2, 24; 2 Kgs. 6:11; 1 Chr. 12:38; 22:19; 2 Chr. 9:1, 23; Neh. 6:8; Prov. 19:21; 28:26; Jer. 7:31; Dan. 5:21; 7:4). A few verses are of particular interest. When Moses gathers craftsmen wot build the tabernacle the ESV translates “every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill” (Exod. 36:2) though the Hebrew says that he put skill in their hearts. Thus we see that practical, hands-on skills also reside in the heart. 

In Psalm 7:9b (v. 10 in the Hebrew) the ESV reads: ” . . . you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God!” In Hebrew the first word is “heart” and the second word is “innards” or “kidneys.” Remember what we said above — the guts are also said at times to be the seat of emotion. Note that the word our English translations render as “mind” is actually “heart” and the word they render as “heart” is “liver.” The same thing also occurs in Psalm 26:2 and Jeremiah 11:20; 17:10; & 20:12. Psalm 64:6 does something similar but uses a different word for “innards.” Job 38:36 actually uses two words for innards though your translation, like mine, may have “heart and mind.”

I Samuel 2:35 is another verse which has both “heart” and “mind” in the English. The ESV has ” . . . what is in my heart and in my mind.” A more accurate translation would be ” . . . what is in my heart and in my soul.” Now the word for soul (Hebrew nepesh) is another tough one that we could spend multiple posts on. It may be translated as “soul” or “life” or “breath” or “self” (I Chronicles 28:9 also uses this word). Twice another word which may be translated “breath” or “spirit” is used in parallel with heart (I Chr. 28:12; Ezek. 20:32). The Hebrew word here is ruah which can also mean wind.

In a few verses, the Hebrew has no word for “mind.”. In Genesis 37:11 we are told that “but his father kept the saying in mind” but in the Hebrew it simply says “his father kept the word.” “Mind” is added for the sake of the meaning in English. Something similar is happening in Exodus 10:10 in which the Hebrew also has no word for “mind” (cf. Exod. 13:17; Num. 23:19). Similarly, when we say in English that one changed his mind, the Hebrew only says “he changed”; mind is implied and is added for meaning in English (Ps. 110:4). 


Book Review: The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard

Dear Reader,

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

I really enjoyed having Thomas Edward Shields The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard (Leopold Classic Library, 2019; reprint of original 1909 publication) around my house. I told each of my kids it was about them.

Shields’ book is unique; it is a living book on education. The whole thing is a story told by a former dullard about his educational experience, how he came to be labeled a simpleton (the book uses the word omadhaun, a new one to me) and how he pulled himself out of that rut. It is eminently readable. There are some clear conclusions drawn, but there is perhaps less of a whole, coherent philosophy of education.

As you may have discerned from the use of the word “dullard,” this is an older book, originally published in 1909. The years before the First World War were very fruitful for educational philosophies. It was a time of hope. With the ideas of evolution behind him,  man firmly believed in progress and the world wars had not yet come to disillusion him and show him of his depravity. Charlotte Mason (CM) worked in this period (though beginning a bit earlier) as did Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf movement.

Though the language is dated and the particular situation would probably be viewed and treated much differently today, there is a lot here that sounds very modern. The teacher in the group (one of the former-dullard’s audience) complains that more and more of her pupils — fully half of them — seem to be unable to learn. While in her day they were labeled dullards and the problem was seen to be mainly intellectual, the situation sounds a lot like the problems we have today with attention-deficit issues. Boys are said to suffer because they are in a female environment. “The natural exuberance of the boy is often toned down . . . The boy revolts . . . As a result, without knowing what is the matter, his interest gradually declines, and he drops out  . . . ” (pp. 28-9).  Another root problem the book identifies is a lack of a proper environment outside of the school — families are falling apart and the society as a whole has no defining narrative to teach children, again a modern problem.

Shields holds a few core values which shape his conclusions. Though there is little to no talk of God here, he is a Roman Catholic and he values the personhood of each child. He seeks answers in the nature of the child. That is, he believes one needs to understand how the child works in order to solve the problems in education. Finally, though the application is meant to be individualized, he is still very much seeking a process. There is still the expectation that the intelligent, educated experts can discuss the problems and devise a system.

Because Shields offers his conclusions so clearly, I will present those as a list with a few reflections thrown in and then offer some overall thoughts at the end – –

  • The memory of failure blocks future successes. Therefore, failure should be avoided as much as possible. A modern way to say this might be that children need to have confidence. Success breeds further success. This is a principle with which Charlotte Mason would agree as well. A practical application would be that we should not push children too far beyond what they are capable of. “[W] e rarely succeed in doing anything that we believe we can not do” (p. 34). The dullard of the story became one in large part when he was promoted too highly beyond his academic level.
  • Children remember particularly experiences with a high emotional content. While they may not remember specifics, these are the most formative experiences for them. When children are “whipped or frightened or ridiculed on account of their failure” (p. 33), the effects of that failure are even more profound.
  • “Minds with the greatest strength often develop slowly in early childhood” (pp. 24-5). In other words, the kids that might initially seem slowest academically may end up being the most intelligent adults, so it is particularly important not to let them be discouraged early on.
  • There are alternating periods of physical and mental development. The author argues that the most brilliant young children tend to be physically small (p. 73). If they hit puberty and begin to catch up with their peers, their seeming intelligence may also seem to fade. Conversely, young children who are large for their age often seem stupid but they too may catch up academically when their growth levels off. I am not sure if the specifics here are true but I distinctly remember an older homeschool mom telling me that her son went through a year or two around puberty when he just seemed to have forgotten everything he previously knew. Then he stopped growing so fast and he got back to learning. The application for parents and teachers would be to not make judgement, whether good or bad too hastily and to remember that there may be seasons to learning as well as to physical growth.
  • “The best interests of the very bright pupils are not served by pushing them up through the grades as rapidly as possible.” (p. 77)
  • “[I]ndividual children are very seldom average children” (p. 59) and “all children are atypical” (p. 60).
  • There are physical causes for “dullness” which must be dealt with before one can go further. They include illness, malnutrition, fright, environmental issues, and defective senses (eg. problems seeing or hearing).
  • “[M]ost teachers talk too much.” (p. 101)
  • Rote memorization is despised.
  • Reading should be done slowly and should be for content, not form. This is said at a time when children were expected to read aloud nicely and not necessarily to know or understand what they read.
  • “[E]very little bit of truth that the growing mind discovers for itself has more real value than many times the quantity fed to it.” (p. 136) I love this quote and it is very CM.
  • Children must be put into direct contact with real, tangible things. For science, for instance, he says that every step forward in human knowledge has come from actual hands-on experience and experiments. Practically speaking, this means students should repeat experiments for themselves rather than just reading about them. If they do this under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, they can progress more quickly so human knowledge can still advance. We don’t all have to reinvent the wheel from scratch.
  • Even the youngest minds should be presented with what he calls “germinal truths” which contain a whole body of knowledge in them. This often means hands-on experience again. For instance, a child who uses a pitchfork as a lever can appreciate many concepts of physics before he is able to put them into words.
  • Children often need “fairy stories” and half-truths as a step along the way until their minds are ready for the whole, naked truth (p. 251). (This is one principle I do not agree with, though I have nothing against fairy stories.)
  • Education, especially early education, should be sensory-motor. One should not cram too much book learning into children’s heads. (Again, I would disagree on this one; more on that later.)
  • We have mastered something when we can adapt it to our purposes. The example given is of a farm machine. One man may use it but another who can change and improve it to suit some purpose has truly mastered it. The same may presumably be said of the rules of poetry or some other more academic subject.
  • “Premature” and “injudicious” praise teach children to work for the teacher’s praise (p. 178). It is far better for them to work for internal motivations, the desire to know for its own sake.
  • Children should not be encouraged to specialize at too young an age. It causes them to lack development in other areas. This is particularly a concern with precocious children who seem “gifted” in one area. Again, this was an idea Charlotte Mason had as well.
  • A man “begins to be a man in that hour wherein he learns to transfer his allegiance from individuals to principles” (p. 234). In other words, the goal — or at least one goal — is not for the child to always follow his teacher but for him to get to the point that he has fixed ideas and principles which guide his life.

There is a lot in Shields’ thought that I like. It is interesting to see what similarities he has with Charlotte Mason and what differences. I wish I knew more about how widely spread these ideas were at the time and which were actually unique to their proponents. I also wish I knew a bit more about Maria Montessori’s theory to see how Shields’ thought lined up with hers. They both, unlike Mason, began with deficient children (for lack of a better word) so it would be interesting to see if they ended up in the same places. I do think Montessori emphasized the hand-on elements as Shields does so that may be one point of connection. One wonders if they had not begun there, if they had begun with normally developing children, if they, like Mason, would have prioritized book learning more.

I like that Shields emphasizes the uniqueness of the child as a person and that he values each one, no matter how backwards his society deemed them. I think a lot of his principles about avoiding failure and not overly praising are good. My main disagreement with him would be on the actual day-to-day how of learning. I am not opposed to hands-on learning but I do not think it should be our go-to. I would give books a much higher place. Part of the difference, I think, stems from how books were used in his time. Then it was mostly rote learning from books which I agree is not profitable. While I like (with Charlotte Mason) would agree that a child learns much more when he discovers for himself, I think this discovery can happen in the context of reading. In reading good books, what CM would call living books, we put children in contact with the best minds. When we ask them to narrate this material (see this post for a little on that), then they do do the work of discovery and make it their own.

My short take on The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard is that, while it is not going to be essential to anyone’s philosophy of education today, it is an enjoyable book, well-written, engaging, and quickly read, and if you are looking for something lighter to read on the subject of education it would be a fine choice.



Calvinist day-school

...bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool


my musings, wise or otherwise


A Literary Homestead


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Homeschooling Middle East

A Homeschooling/Unschooling Adventure from Bahrain to Dubai that's a story for anyone, anywhere who's interested in offering their kids an educational alternative. Please have fun visiting and have even more fun commenting! We have now moved to Granada, Spain and I will write again once we've settled down!!

Exclusive Psalmody

For the Encouragement and Preservation of Biblical Worship

Charlotte Mason Institute

Supporting an international conversation toward an authentic Charlotte Mason education - awakening to delightful living