Reformed Thinkers on Education: Louis Berkhof

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Cornelius Jaarsma

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Last time we began to look at Cornelius Jaarsma, focusing in the four approaches to education which he lays out in “The Christian View of the School Curriculum” [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc, 1997)]. Today I would like to look more specifically at Jaarsma’s thought as it is presented in the Oppewal volume.

In his first essay in this volume, “A Christian Theory of the Person,” Jaarsma, as the title suggests, lays out his view of what it means to be human. I like that he begins with the Bible. His basic idea, most simply put, is that man combines the physical and spiritual into one inseparable whole. He speaks of man as soul (psyche), spirit (pneuma), and body (soma). The image of God in man he associates with the spirit. He rejects the Roman Catholic view which sees the image as something added to and not essential to man. “The Reformed view,” he says “holds that the image of God is essential to man’s humanity” (p. 161). In a position which is new to me (which says nothing; I am by no means a theologian), he says that “[i]n the primary sense, man is the image of God collectively” (p. 161). Nonetheless individuals participate in the image because they have the qualities of their race. Among these qualities are tendencies to unity and freedom. Man’s purpose is to fulfill, express, and realize the image of God in him.

All of this Jaarsma seems to get from the first chapters of Genesis. He then goes on to look at the word “heart” in the Bible. His synopsis in this essay is fairly brief and it may be that a deeper study lies behind it. If so, I would like to see it, because I am not wholly convinced that he is identifying the heart correctly. It is no doubt true, however, that “heart” is used many ways and conveys a variety of things within the Scriptures. Jaarsma’s conclusion is that there is “a kernel or essence that is new in each person” which he identifies with “the life principle in man, the directive center of his total being” (p. 163). He rejects the Greek view that man’s intellect is his highest faculty. Because man is a unity, no one aspect of his being is either above the others nor is any one the seat of evil within him.

At this point Jaarsma advances a theory of personality which at first glance does not sit well with me. He begins by saying that ” infants . . . can hardly be said to have personality” (p. 165), a statement which to my observation seems blatantly untrue. If we allow him to define what he means by personality, we find that it is for him mainly an affect. Personality is how we affect others. Man is in constant tension with his environment. It is in his interactions with it and his adjustments to it, that we find his personality. “When a person communicates in the dimensions of life according to consciously accepted ends, he is a personality . . .  An infant, comparatively speaking, is without personality” (p. 167).

I will admit that I don’t fully understand this. It maybe that I am missing his point entirely,. As a mother, I have to say that we can see distinct personalities (in the very ordinary use of that term) in even the youngest children, and I think most mothers will say that they could perceive unique differences in their children soon after birth and sometimes even before birth. The child that kicks a lot in the womb tends to come out kicking. Which is to say that from earliest days, the child is a person and has an environment and is able to react to it in ways that another individual does not. Think of John the Baptist leaping within his mother’s womb. And even if we were not there to perceive the personality of a small child, would that mean it didn’t exist as a unique thing? Would he not still have a personality in the eyes of his Creator?

Summing up this first article, I would say that I like that Jaarsma turns to the Bible, but he seems to combine it with modern educational and psychological ideas and I feel these need more justification.

In the second article, “How to View Learning,” Jaarsma gives the example of a teacher trying to educate poor, urban children about where milk comes from. His argument basically boils down to: the children need to make a real connection to the material they are learning. They need not facts but a story that they can participate in, if not in real life then vicariously through narrative. The process he describes for true learning is much like Charlotte Mason’s approach. He essentially describes what it is to engage with a living book and he stresses the need for the child to appropriate the truth for himself. Again like Mason, he stresses the role of relationship in learning. His synopsis of his view is: “Learning . . .is the activity of a person as he focuses his attention upon an object for understanding and acceptance of it in its true nature” (p. 178). The article ends with a brief discussion of goals. As he indicated previously, Jaarsma sees the end goal as the expression of the image of God within the individual. Because this is a very large goal, one must establish “directional process goals” along the way as intermediate stages (p. 181).

Jaarsma’s third and final essay within this volume is “The Christian View of the School Curriculum.” In it he lays out the four approaches to education which we discussed previously. As I said in that earlier post, Jaarsma favors a combined methodology which takes from each of the four. This fits well with his emphasis on the whole child. Indeed, one could argue that we can’t use one approach without incorporating at least something of the others. As Jaarsma says: “Never can we seek his mental development without affecting him spiritually” (p. 186).

Again Jaarsma lays forth his goal for education and for life: the fulfillment of the image of God within us. He acknowledges in this essay that that image has been corrupted by sin, but man “can again be formed, patterned after the excellencies of his Creator . . .Education to be true must now be redemptive” (pp. 187-88). He goes on to lay out a few expectations for such an education: It must meet the child’s primary need for “the truth about himself and about his world” (p. 188). It must prepare him to be in the world but not of it, and it must prepare him for his calling in life.

There is a lot I like about Jaarsma’s thought. I found his delineation of the four approaches to education quite helpful. I was struck in the second essay,  “How to View Learning,” by how much his thought coincides with that of Charlotte Mason, who while not perfect herself is quite influential in my own thought. His goal for education and for life, the development of the image of God within the person, reminds me of Van Til’s and is not, I think, terribly far from my own though I would not express it the same way. There are portions of his thought, however, which I found either hard to understand or difficult to swallow. Though he makes an effort to be biblical and to think of education in a Scriptural way, I did find that Jaarsma combines biblical ideas with psychological and educational ones more than I would like.




High School Biology Labs

Dear Reader,

Our modus operandi for high school science is to continue with living books but to add in labs (see my booklist for biology here and all my lists of living books here). With my oldest two, I had use a certain company which did all the labs for biology or chemistry in a two-day “lab intensive.” This company has since gone out of business and though the owner is offering labs again, none are near me (I know some of his teachers, who were wonderful, had gone out on their own as well, but if they are in business today I can’t find information on them). Lacking someone to do the work for me, I got a few local families together and we did labs on our own.

The idea behind these is that the child does not have to have done biology get to do them. My 9th grader did them at the end of his year of biology but my 8th grader will be doing biology next year. The other kids in our group were also in the 13-15 year old range and most have not had biology yet.

There are some notes in the document on what we did and how it worked, including links to supplies and instructions when I got them from other sources. We did one 3 hour session and then one 5 hour session the next week. This was due to particular time constraints and was not ideal. The osmosis and bacteria labs do need to be started the first day so they can react for a few days to a week. The blood sugar lab needs to be done on an empty stomach so is best done first thing in the morning. The fetal pig was a bit of a disaapointment to me. I know my son dissected a cat when he did labs with that company I alluded to. I did not have access to cats (at least not ones intended for dissection), but it might be worth substituting something else if you can find another animal.

Last note: we did these labs for $75 per student with one dissection animal for every 2-3 kids (we had an odd number so one group was of 3).

Here then is the lab packet we used (opens a google doc):

Happy dissecting!


Cornelius Jaarsma and the Four Ways to Approach Education

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.

Recently I have been reading various reformed thinkers on education and “narrating” to you their views along with some of my responses (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). The next thinker I will be posting on is Cornelius Jaarsma. Because he has so much meaty stuff to say, I wanted to take the time to meditate a little more deeply on his ideas.

In “The Christian View of the School Curriculum” [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) pp. 183-95], Jaarsma lays out four approaches to education: Knowledge-getting, Disciplinary, Social, and Psychological. The first two Jaarsma identifies as ancient or classical, being represented in the Greco-Roman traditions. The latter two are more modern. 

The first approach, knowledge-getting, focuses on content. There is a certain body of material and the goal is to get the student to learn it. This approach tends toward memorization and quantitative testing. It also tends to minimize the individuality of the student as it is the material to be learned that is paramount. This approach is most closely associated with the modern classical education movement

The disciplinary approach is about training and developing the mental faculties. It assumes that education is not so much about getting a certain body of information into the student but about teaching him how to use his mind. If you have heard it said “education is about learning how to learn,” that is the disciplinary approach. If you read any Charlotte Mason, she tends to rail against Herbart and others of her day who sought to train the faculties. Her objection to them was that they assumed that children are not complete but that there is something in them that needs built up and developed in order for them to be able to learn. The process is more important than the content in this approach. And, as Jaarsma says, “there is an external mold or pattern according to which the learner is to be formed” (p. 185). There is some of the disciplinary in the modern classical movement, particularly in the view that there are three stages through which a child progresses. Montessori schooling would also fit here as above all it seems to be about molding the child and developing his faculties. The Waldorf school may as well. It certainly views the child as something almost other than human who has to evolve into an adult.

The social approach focuses on the student as part of a society and strives to fit him for that society. This was the approach of John Dewey on whose ideas much of the modern public school system are based. This is the view John Taylor Gatto, the patron saint of unschooling, criticizes in his provocative books Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction. It is a very industrial approach to education which sees the individual as part of a machine. The mindset behind it is factory-like and very utilitarian in that the individual is fitted for a certain role. One can find elements of this approach on other circles as well. One of my criticisms of Rousas Rushdoony was that he seems to tend toward a kind of Christian utilitarianism that could fit this category as well. 

The fourth and final approach is known by a few descriptives. It may be called psychological, creative, or experiential. It emphasizes the individual and his responses. “Self-expression, self-appraisal, motivation, self-activity, and the like are the key words” in this approach (p. 186). Unschooling which more than any other philosophy emphasizes the individual would fit here. 

In truth, many educational philosophies combine two or more of these approaches. The last thinker we studied, Nicholas Beversluis, delineated three goals of education: intellectual, moral, and creative. The first and last of these correspond to the knowledge-getting and psychological approaches. The moral, which is about choosing based on knowledge, is a little harder to pin down. It does seem to bear some relation to the disciplinary approach in that the child it trained to choose what is right. There is a kind of molding going on here though it is not really a training of the faculties.

Beversluis, in the little I have read from him, does not allude to the social, but I think we need to keep in mind that the social approach can aim at different goals. We may think first and foremost of Gatto’s bugaboo — the evil state turning our children into cogs in its godless machine (though Gatto would not have minded the godless bit), but there is a way in which Christians also shape children for the good of the collective. The society in this case is the church. Though I found Rushdoony far too utilitarian, the focus need not be so overtly practical. Nicholas Wolterstorff spent a while arguing that as Christians we have an alternative society. His point was that we therefore need our own schools. But the basic idea is that it is this alternative society, the heavenly kingdom which is our true citizenship, for which we are preparing children.

The philosophy I have spent most time on is  Charlotte Mason’s. She too seems to combine approaches. She believes in truth so there is an element of the knowledge-getting. She would not, as unschoolers do, allow children to select their own curricula (though she certainly also makes clear that knowledge itself is not the goal). Against those in her day who said that the purpose of education is to develop latent faculties, she argued that children are born whole persons, already mentally complete. Yet at the same time, there is an aspect of her approach which is disciplinary. Habit-training is a major part of her program for children, the idea being that what is established by habit comes to shape character. Similarly, she provides children with good, wholesome materials so that they will develop a taste for them and not what she calls “twaddle.” This too is a kind of training of the tastes, though not a development of the abilities. Miss Mason expresses her goal in a few different ways in different places, but she does say at times that chidlren are being raised to be good citizens or to be of service to their society. Lastly, there is the creative or expressive approach. Because she had a strong view of the child as an individual person, Mason fits here above all. In her philosophy the child must take in what is presented to him and process it for himself. Not all children will get the same ideas even if they read the same books. So there is not the wide-open individualism of unschooling, but there is also not the cookie-cutter approach towards which classical schooling tends.

The reformed thinkers I have been reading of late for the most part seem to be trying to balancing the knowledge-getting and psychological approaches. From the Scriptures we learn both that there is absolute truth and that each child is an individual and unique person. Mason, I think, does this quite well, and that is why to a large extent I have followed her philosophy (though, as I have argued many times, she is not reformed, hence this series).

To return to Jaarsma, he, like Charlotte Mason and others, comes down in favor of a mixed approach to education:

“All the curriculum concepts we have discussed have elements or aspects of truth, according to the criteria we secure from the Scriptures. There is preexistent truth to be understood and mastered. Our mental resources gain power through their exercise in knowledge-getting. Our social resources are responsive and must be cultivated. And finally, we are creative beings, and our capacity for originality must be given opportunity for expression.” (Oppenwal, p. 190)

I find the categories Jaarsma presents very helpful in evaluating the various approaches to education and in determining best practices. Though we may not agree on all the particulars, I do agree with him that the end result must be something that combines two or more of these approaches.

Next time we will step back and look at Jaarsma’s views from a bit of a wider perspective.

Until then.


April Reading

Dear Reader,

Here once again are the books I finished last month:

Miss MacKenzie by Anthony Trollope — I liked last month’s Trollope so much I reda another one right away. This one is less humorous but also less predictable so overall I think it is the better book. These would be great for Jane Austen fans.

Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) by Donald Oppewal — This book is a collection of essays by various reformed thinkers on education. I have posted about 99% of it in my current series so I will not recap it all here.

Green Tea by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu — I have actually been reading a lot of short stories this school year becase my dughter is doing them for her literature class. Most I have not bothered to list because they are short. This one approaches book length at about 50 pages. It was an interesting little story and easy to read (unlike another Le Fanu book I started but didn’t get far with). It doesn’t really provide answers but it makes you think about the relationship between physical illness and spiritual oppression.

Clara Hopgood by Mark Rutherford — Rutherford was mentioned favorably by another author I like so I tried both this book of his and his autobiography. It turns out he was basically a godless humanist, having started out studying for the ministry. The best I can say for this book is that it was short and I didn’t see the ending coming. On the other hand, neither was the ending that plausible and it espoused values I don’t agree with. There’s not a lot to redeem this one or make it worthwhile.

Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, edited by Reuben Shapcott — See above; Rutherford’s story is more sad than inspiring and because if the materials available to the author, edns rather abruptly and unsatisfyingly. I cannot say he lost his faith as it seems clear he never had it and only saw glimpses of it in others that he did not truly understand. The saddest part is that the church seems to have failed completely to communicate to him what true faith means.

What are you reading?


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Nicholas Beversluis

Dear Reader,

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

I have been slowly working my way through the essays in Donald Oppewal’s  Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) looking at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education. Today’s thinker is another Calvin College professor (perhaps they all are in this volume; I haven’t skipped to the end to find out yet). Nicholas Beversluis was a professor of education in the 1970s. In the introduction to him, Oppewal tells us that he bridged the gap between Jellema and Jaarsma. The former, whom we have already looked at here, represents the intellectualistic side of the spectrum, and the latter (coming soon) the more active side.

Beversluis has two essays in this volume, both excerpts from a longer book. The first, “Major Learning Goals in Christian Education,” outlines three areas which the author believes should form the basis of any Christian educational program. He begins with some questions: “Who is man? What is he like? What are his needs?  . . . What ought man to be like? Why is man here? What is he called to do in the world?  . . . What is it that God wants for him and of him?” (p.123). As I have said many times,  behind any philosophy of education are presuppositions about who man is and what his ultimate purpose is so I was pleased Beversluis begins his discussion with these questions.

Beversluis then goes on to give his answers. Looking first at who man is, he begins with man as the image of God. For him this means that (1) man is both physical and spiritual; (2) man has “unique endowments for thinking, for choosing, for creating”; (3) man is called to live socially and to do the world’s work; (4) man is called to stewardship of his person and endowments (p. 124). He then goes on to mention that sin has corrupted man but that “forgiveness and renewal through Jesus Christ restored man” so that man is again as the image of God in all its fullness (p. 125). While I probably would not have chosen a list just like Beversluis’s, I am willing to reserve judgment for a while. I am more disconcerted by his statement about sin. He seems to be saying that the effects of sin are negated in Christ though we know that we still suffer them in this life. I would like to see a more on how education is affected by sin since we are not yet fully sanctified people.

Based on his definition of what it means to be made in the image of God, Beversluis delineates three educational goals in three areas. The areas are the intellectual, moral, and creative. As we educate to these areas we enable the student to know, to choose, and to participate respectively. Beversluis makes clear that these three areas and their associated goals are interrelated. Unlike the classical tradition (see here and here),  these do not represent different stages in learning. Even the youngest child engages in all three. The aim of the three working together is religious growth.

Here Beversluis returns to one of his initial questions, man’s purpose. He speaks of “the creation mandate and the gospel mandate.” The former, given in Genesis 1, calls us to care for the world and the latter to evangelize it by “declaring and exhibiting the reconciling love of God” (p. 127).

Here we run into another issue. To the outside world “reformed Christian” may seem pretty specific, but we know there can be a lot of variety within the reformed tradition. I am writing this series because I do not think it is at all obvious what “reformed education” means. We need to discuss it and we need to begin to draw some conclusions. But if we are to begin be saying something along the lines of “well, it’s an education based on a reformed worldview,” we also need to define that reformed worldview. All of which is to say that I do not disagree with Beversluis that we are given mandates in Genesis and in the gospel but I am not at all sure that these two sum up our purpose. I appeal for my position to the catechism which when asking “What is the chief end of man?” do not answer by saying “to take care of the world and evangelize it” but instead: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1). Beversluis’ answer is not untrue, but it focuses on the jobs man has been given which is not necessarily the same as his purpose. Henry Zylstra, as we saw, defines the purpose of man in knowing God. He takes this from Calvin who, he says, answered the question of man’s chief end with “to know God and enjoy him forever” (Zylstra, “The Contemplative Life,” in Oppewal, p. 87).  I rather like Zylstra’s, and Calvin’s, formulation, but the point remains that if our philosophy of education is to be based on assumptions about man’s end then we must know what that end is and there is clearly still disagreement even within the relatively narrow circles of reformed thought.

To return to Beversluis —  he had laid out three goals for education, intellectual, moral, and creative. As Oppewal said, he bridges a gap here between to ends of the spectrum. He emphasizes the intellectual but he does not see it apart from action. Nor do facts and memorization satisfy his requirements for intellectual growth. Thought and understanding are his goals.

This knowledge then allows us to make choices and this is where the moral component comes in. The morality schools foster must go beyond simple lists of rules. Students must be taught to wrestle with complex moral problems. His emphasis is on moral growth, on gradually delving more and more into the complexity of the world around us and the choices it presents. His goals here actually seem rather large for a curriculum, and I wonder too if they are perhaps too willing to acknowledge moral complexity. I concede his point that morality is not a list of do’s and don’ts but at the same time, there is black and white even if we can’t always discern it. Things either conform to God’s will or they don’t. It may perhaps be that I am just living is a much more subjective time than he was, but I fear that he opens the door too much to a fluid view of morality.

Lastly, creativity is the action that we take based on the knowledge we gain and the choices we make, though again it should be emphasized that Beversluis always makes clear that these are not distinct stages but that all three areas work simultaneously. One’s individuality comes out in this area. We may all take in the same knowledge (though not necessarily so) but our response to it is more individual. Here Beversluis says, “A school would not be a good Christian school if it did not promote the growth of self-accepting and self-expressing free persons” (p. 137). I am again uncomfortable with his langauge and again it may be partly that our times have conditioned us to respond in different ways. I see that years of parenting towards self-acceptance has led to generations of pretty messed up kids. I don’t see that the Bible ever calls us to self-acceptance. If anything, it calls us to view ourselves rightly before God, and, when we do look at Him and at ourselves, the proper response is not self-acceptance but abject humility.

Though we have already seen that Beversluis tried to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the active, in his second essay in this volume, “The Two Sides of Christian Education,” he does so much more explicitly. He presents the debate as one between learning goals and curriculum patterns. Any Christian model, he suggests needs to account for both the subject matter as a fixed thing and for the individuality of the student in his responses to it. [I believe, actually, that Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,which has largely influenced my own, does this quite well (see here but also some of my objections to it here.]

Beversluis goes on to delineate subject areas which should be included within the curriculum, listing “general developmental studies” which include the three R’s plus music and physical education and the like; natural sciences and mathematics; social sciences; history; and literature and the arts. In addition to these there is religious studies which in some sense overarches them all.

So while I am pleased that Beversluis begins by asking deep questions, I am not entirely convinced of the answers he gives. One other area of concern which I alluded to briefly above is the extent of his curriculum. He presents a very thorough program in terms of the training he gives in thinking about moral issues particularly. My concern is not unique to Beversluis’s writing but has arisen from a number of the thinkers we have looked at. Briefly put, I am not sure how the role they envision for the school relates to that of the church and the parents. Some, like Zylstra, are careful to say that the church and school should be distinct institutions. Peter Ton expressed concern that the school not take over the role of the parents. But as yet I have read few specifics on just how the school is to function in relation to the family in particular. The fact if (as I have discussed in this previous post) that church and family are biblical institutions and school is not. This is not to say that schools are inherently bad. They may serve a very real need. But to my mind the God-ordained institutions should take precedence and the man-made one should bow to them. So I get very concerned again when I see such a broad role outlined for the schools.


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Henry Zylstra

Dear Reader,

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

The next thinker on this series within a series is Henry Zylstra (d. 1956). Like Jellema and Wolterstorff, he worked at Calvin College and is represented in Donald Oppewal’s  Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997). Four essays by Zylstra are included in the Oppewal volume. Each is fairly brief so we will take them in turn.

In “Modern Philosophy of Education,” Zylstra takes on “New Education,” that philosophy of education associated with John Dewey and William James which arose in the 1950s. Their view makes the mind a tool and denigrates knowledge. Zylstra argues for “traditional education” which emphasizes the freedom of the mind.  He sees knowledge as integral to man, calling is his “destiny” (p. 65).

On a practical level, Zylstra argues that the content of education is important. “Knowledge is more important than ability” (p. 66). This content is not an amorphous collection of facts but requires unity or “the curriculum breaks” (p. 67). We have seen various dichotomies which help delineate the views on education: intellectualistic versus active; long-term versus short-term goals. Lystra brings forward another one: content-driven versus personality-driven. Zylstra comes down firmly on the side of a content-driven education. In this first essay, he rejects a program dominated by the teacher’s personality. As we will see below, he also rejects a program driven by the child’s personality. Though Zylstra does not argue specifically for an intellectualistic view of education, the two tend to be connected. Those on the intellectualistic end of the spectrum tend to favor a set content, a “common core” of knowledge, if you will. Those on the other end of the spectrum argue that what we believe must have an outworking; it must affect what we do. Their emphasis then becomes less content-driven and more dominated by practical concerns — moral outcomes, service, etc. But Zylstra raises a key point: “it is truth that forms and fulfills” (p. 67). Out of his four essays, it is this line which contributes most to our overall discussion. We do not need to view the intellectual as the antithesis of the practical. Those who argue for a more active education are correct that our beliefs must be actualized. But they miss this key fact: truth has power to transform. This too is a biblical concept. God’s Word is living and active. To the extent that what we teach is His Truth, we should expect it to have power in the lives of our students.

It is Truth that teachers present to their students. Zylstra argues that culture more than nature conveys this truth. This is much like Van Til who argued for history as the cornerstone of the curriculum. God reveals Himself through both science and the humanities. It is in the latter that Zylstra finds “the human, the moral, the free, the rational element” (p. 68). He further argues for a continued study of the classics as they are “large and comprehensive readings of life. They chart the course of the human spirit, and exhibit alternative answers to man’s religious and philosophical quest” (p. 69). Lastly, he argues for the study of language as “one of the spiritual arts” which “reveals reality, truth; it speaks to mind and mind responds to it” (p. 70).

The second article in Oppewal’s book, “Christian Education,” is an argument for something that is both education and Christian. Here Zylstra argues for the school as an institution distinct from the church. The school, he argues, should not be focused on converting students; that is the role of the church. Its goal is to teach “the student how to express and gives him means to express a responsible human citizenship in the kingdom of Christ” (p. 75). While some schools aim to make students into fit citizens of this world, Zylstra’s goal is to make them fit citizens for the kingdom of Heaven. That they  will than also be good citizens on earth is a side effect.

In “‘Interests’ and Education,” Zylstra returns to the content-driven versus personality-driven debate. Here he argues that the student’s interests should not drive what they learn, at least not entirely. Interests are not static but can develop, and be developed. This is the heresy of unschooling; it assumes that what the child gravitates towards what is best for him. It does not acknowledge our sinful nature, that we may not be attracted to what is good for us. But even within the realm for what is good, there is room for cultivation. Zylstra gives the example of a student who might only read comic books until he is pushed into Reader’s Digest and then from there may be pushed more until he reads real literature.

In his final essay in this volume, “The Contemplative Life,” Zylstra makes the case for contemplation. He once again criticizes Dewey’s emphasis on action and argues instead for thought. To know, particularly to know God, he says, is a human passion. It is indeed the purpose of our life — to know God and enjoy Him forever. As such, knowledge needs no purpose beyond itself. Here he makes an argument for art which is “like religion; it does not want to be vindicated by its usefulness” (p. 91). As we saw when we looked at the study of the fine arts, the very impractically of art serves to push us towards God. It shows us the value of something that is not utilitarian in this very utilitarian world.

There is a lot I like in these few short essays from Zylstra. His most valuable contribution to our discussion is the observation that Truth itself is powerful and transforms. We do not necessarily need to construct a curriculum full of applications. What we do need is to place Truth before our students (see this post). Though I am not sure I agree with his reasons, I do agree with Zylstra (and Van Til) that the humanities, and history in particular, should be the cornerstone of a curriculum. I also like his arguments for language and art and the arguments he makes when discussing interest-driven education. I don’t know if I would go so far as he does. I do think there is balance here. As Wolterstorff argued, there is a place for acknowledging the unique personhood of each student as well.


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