Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review: Train up a Child

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.

In my quest to define what reformed Christian education should be, William Barclay’s Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) has been an absolutely invaluable resource. It provides something I was sorely lacking: historical background. Barclay goes through the educational systems of five different societies in great detail. He is not an unbiased author (who is?) but he clearly has put much effort into his research and quotes primary sources extensively making his book a must-read if this is a topic you, like I, want to tackle seriously (but if you are content to settle for my digested form, read on).

The societies Barclay addresses are: Israelite/Jewish, Sparta, Greek, Roman, and early Christian. For each he begins with broad brushstrokes and theories and then narrows in and discusses specifics of when and how they educated. I am not going to, and could not possibly, recap everything he has to say but I will give you the big bullet points on each so that we can then return to our main topic and discuss how we as reformed Christians should educate and what we can take from each of these traditions.

Israelite and Jewish Education

Barclay lumps Israelite and Jewish education in one chapter and though he makes clear where he is historically as he writes, I think it could be easy for a reader, especially one with less historical knowledge, to miss that this is not all about what God’s people did in Old Testament times. In fact, most of what he has to say is about Jewish education after the time of Christ.

The truth is there is not much in the way of formal education in Old Testament times, i.e. before the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. Barclay’s main flaw is that when he has little to go on, he speculates. With regard to Israelite education, he says:

“Long before there was any formal education lads and young men must have been trained in the simple processes on which food and life depend; and in that training they could not help, perhaps half-unconsciously, perhaps by the process of soaking them in rather than of learning them, acquiring these beliefs in their hearts. For the Jew to work on the land must have been to be educated continuously in the ways of God.” (p. 19)

Note the use of the words “must have been” and “perhaps.” Barclay is assuming here and while his assumptions may be logical, they are nonetheless assumptions. The truth is, we know little about education in the pre-exilic period. (You can read my own post on teaching and education in the Old Testament here.) I agree with him that what happened most likely happened not in formal schools and through ordinary life in the family but the fact is we really don’t have much to go on.

In later Judaism, the synagogue became the center of learning. It was not so much a place of worship as of instruction (p. 24). Schools as such do not seem to have existed until 70 AD or later (p. 32). Because of the importance of the Scripures, literacy was highly valued. Though education was highly valued, it was also limited: it was for boys only (p. 37) and the only textbook was the Scriptures (p. 38). In fact, children were forbidden from studying Greek (which would have been the lingua franca of the day) (p. 38). Teaching was oral and education amounted largely to memorization through repetition (pp. 39-40). Knowledge was intended to be practical in that the Law should not just be known but lived (p. 39, 47). A common definition we have run across is that education enculturates and this was very deliberately true for the Jewish people; they educated to preserve their unique culture and to distinguish themselves from their neighbors (p. 47).

Spartan Education

I am going to breeze over Spartan education fairly quickly. Nobody seems to use Sparta as an example, for good reason. Suffice it to say the Spartan system would make a good basis for a modern dystopian novel for teens. I will make this one point: Ancient Greece was not one unified culture. Those who trumpet “classical” and “Greek” education as the high point of learning would do better to specify “Athenian.”

Athenian Education

Which brings is to our next society: Athens. Here we find what has become the root of “classical” education (I use the quotes because classical can and has been defined in many ways). The Athenian Greeks, through their influence on the Romans (see below), have been perceived as the high point of philosophical thought and of education.

So what was education in ancient Athens really like? Though education was highly valued, it was very much an intellectual enterprise. Education was a head thing and practical skill learning was despised (though exceptions were made in some fields such as medicine and architecture) (pp. 78-83).

The goal of education was to form an ideal person. Valor and wisdom above all were valued (p. 84). This was character education designed to suit the boy to an ideal life which was a life of leisure.

Homer served as a kind of Bible for Greek education. His writings above all were the textbook of education (p. 109). Though this involved a lot of memory work, it was done through games and play and as such was no doubt not unpleasant (pp. 106, 114, 122-23). Poetry was highly valued and was taught before prose (pp. 117-18).

As in Jewish culture, education was a male affair. Though the home was  important in education, most mothers were not equipped to participate in any way. Nor were girls educated (pp. 91, 95, 141).

Because of the emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the despising of practical skills, Athenian education produced an educated but largely useless elite. Barclay goes so far as to call it a system based on slavery (p. 141). “[T]he fault of Greek education,” he says “was that it remembered culture but forgot duty” (p. 142).

Roman Education

Roman education can really be divided into two stages, before and after Greek influence.

In its early days, Roman education was not systematized but centered around the home. It was a kind of populist ground-up affair which embodied peasant values and placed the child and family before all (pp. 144-47). Notably in the ancient world, the mother was involved (p. 150). Education was largely through imitation and perpetuated a way of life built on family values and family gods. This lasted until about 240 BC.

When Rome became an empire, and thereby encountered other cultures, education changed. Schools were introduced. Because the Romans had little culture of their own, they taught Greek culture and like the Athenians, emphasized poetry (pp. 180-81).

But the methods and goals of education were different. Play and games were not the backbone of Roman education. Elementary education, Barclay tells us, was characterized by boredom and fear (p. 166). Severe punishments were used (p. 164). There was a practical turn to Roman education. Mathematics was learned only insofar as it was useful (p. 168). Music too was utilitarian, not aesthetic (p. 188). The goal of Roman education, the ideal product, was to produce a skilled orator (pp. 190-91).

Despite the harsh methods of Imperial Roman education, it is from this period that we get the three-stage approach so characteristic of modern classical education. In Rome, they were defined by the litterator, the grammaticus, and the rhetor (p. 160). The first stage, that of the litterator, was defined by the elements of knowledge, the three R’s taught through “senseless repletion” (p. 160). Most would have only had this first stage of education. Those who did go on would be taught right speaking and poetry by the Grammaticus (pp. 178, 183). [Barclay does not describe the third and final stage, that of the rhetor.]

Early Christian Education

The issue for the early Church was how to respond to all of this, what to accept and what to reject. And, possibly, what to replace it with. As Barclay paints the picture, there were two competing trends in Christianity. On one hand, there was an anti-intellectualism which tended to reject learning because it was so often built on pagan writings (pp. 198-99). On the other hand, many Christian apologists were themselves quite educated and were not opposed to using the pagan philosophers as it suited their purpose (pp. 205, 209-10). They were willing to acknowledge some level of truth in the philosophers and to use what was good while rejecting the bad.

Though Christian parents were held responsible for training their children, the early Church was never in a position to establish schools and did not attempt to do so (p. 238). The result was that children were sent to pagan schools as a necessity (p. 240). The schools themselves, which still based education on Homer and other pagan writings, were often pawns in the various persecutions against Christians. Their attitude essentially boiled down to: use the schools for what they can teach but it is the parent who shapes the child (pp. 258, 261). In other words, the pagan schools were a tool but the real influence was still the Christian parent.

Lastly, I will note that there is some evidence that Christian girls were taught as well (p. 254).

Pulling It All Together

There is a wealth of material in Barclay’s book. My goal in reading it and in presenting it here is to circle back around to the purpose of this whole blog series and to ask what knowledge we can glean that will aid us in constructing a reformed Christina approach to education.

It is hard having read this book not to revisit the topic of Christian classical education (and, frankly, I am not resisting very hard). The picture I have always been given is this: education was at its height in ancient Greece (read: Athens); the Romans took over the Greek approach and then the early Church did as well. This is still the best approach to education and is the ideal for us which we should adopt, albeit perhaps with some Christina tweakings. Barclay shows is that there was not just one model for education in the ancient world and that each approach had its flaws as well as its merits. This is true of the Athenian model as much as, if not more than, many of the others.

The other big point I think we should take from this book is that all our struggles regarding education are not new. The early Church faced many of the same dilemmas. They too were faced with schools that were taught (often) by pagan teachers and used pagan materials. They were not above using these schools but they never ceded all control to them.

I have tried in this series not to wade to far into the public school vs. Christian school vs. homeschool battles.  The one thing I will say clearly is that however we choose to educate our children, we as Christian parents must always view ourselves as ultimately in control of their education and training. Perhaps we, like the early Church, can use the pagan schools (I say perhaps because I do not know if we can and maybe the answer will vary by location) but we must never turn them over to the schools to the point that we abandon our children to them and cede our God-given parental authority to a pagan institution.

I would like to have read in this book that there was some other good model on which we can base education, something we can return to as we seek to rebuild. Sadly, I haven’t found one model that stands out above the others. Little is known of Israelite education and, in truth, there probably was little education. Jewish education was scriptural but did not extend beyond this and gives us no model for how to incorporate other learning, nor, with its emphasis on rote memorization, is it particularly appealing. Sparta is, if anything, a model of how not to do anything. The Athenians valued knowledge in its own right, but too much so — there is no practicality here and the end result is not a functional member of society. They also give the lowest role and place the least importance on the mother. Roman education before the empire actually has quite a bit to recommend it. It is family-based, religious, and practical (albeit based on pagan religion). It does not, however, value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some Christians seem content with such an approach (see this book review); I could not be. Finally, when we look at the early Church we find people who faced much the same problems as we do. Their solution is compromise and perhaps we will end up in much the same place. I do think we have resources they did not, however, and I think we can at least aspire to something more ideal.

Nebby

 

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Book Review: The Christian Home School

Dear Reader,

Thank you all for continuing to give book suggestions. My latest read has been Gregg Harris’ The Christian Home School (Gresham, OR: Noble Publishing Associates, 1995; originally published 1988).

Harris’ book is a bit dated (can one still realistically homeschool for $100-200 per child per year??) and I found its scope too narrow, particularly in talking about how to homeschool, but there enough good material here to make it worth perusing.  As my source indicated, there is one stellar chapter here, chapter 5: “The Biblical Basis of Education.” If you are new to homeschooling and need encouragement and the very basics of how to begin, you might appreciate the rest of the book; otherwise you can probably just skim large chunks (as I confess I did).

The Christian Home School begins with a lot of the usual scary stories about public schools. I don’t doubt the truth of these stories; there no doubt is something indeed to be afraid of. But I’m not a big fan of this approach. Harris also includes a brief history of public schooling in the United States and shows why reforming the current system is not an option.

Harris then turns his attention to Christian schools. For me as a homeschooler, this was refreshing; all the other books I have read thus far have been pro-Christina school and not even mentioned homeschooling as an option so it was nice to hear arguments for homeschooling in particular. Nevertheless, while I agree with a lot of what Harris says, both anti-Christian school and pro-homeschooling, I don’t think he is as fair and well-rounded as he could be. Let’s just say there are pros and cons in any option.

Having established the case for homeschooling, Harris then gets to the meat: the role of the Bible. Though he appears to be a fairly conservative writer, Harris’ stance is not overly fundamentalist. The Bible, he says, “isn’t intended to be a textbook for teachers and school administrators . . .But it does tell us everything we need to know to evaluate education – to tell the basic difference between good education and bad” (p. 66).

Parents are the primary educators (p. 66). This point is easily established. Harris makes the case that as our parenting is compared to God’s that we will be better parents the more we emulate God and adopt His style. While the Bible may not give us many specific instructions in how to parent, there is much we can learn from examining how God parents and educates us (p. 67). [1]

Harris finds the purpose of education in the purpose of man (p. 70). He goes on to say: “It only stands to reason, then, that one of the primary purposes of education is to prepare people to be born again and then to worship and fellowship with God” (p. 70) and again: “Thus, education is to benefit our society and the Church by equipping us to fulfill our part and take our place in the community of faith” (pp. 70-1). I agree with him in much of this — the purpose of education is found in God’s overall plan for man; and the primary purpose is for the individual but the larger society also benefits. I have a slight quibble with his phraseology, however. Harris speaks of “preparing” and “equipping” as if children are not yet a full part of the Church. I have argued here that there is no real divide between children and adults in the covenant community. Children are fully part of that community, are able to contribute to it, and are already interwoven into God’s plan (see this post, this one, and this one).

When it comes to the how of education, Harris tries to keep an open mind, allowing for various methods of education [though not unschooling (p. 88), a conclusion I agree with], but he clearly has a favorite. His own preference is for what he calls “Delight-Directed Study” which he equates with Unit Studies. Very briefly when we began homeschooling, we tried unit studies. I have some problems with the idea of unit studies (see this post or this one) though Harris’ arguments make me more amenable to his approach that I would have thought I would be. Part of the issue is that Harris shows no awareness of a living books approach to homeschooling such as Charlotte Mason advocates. I suspect this is because his book is older and the Charlotte Mason resurgence in homeschooling circles had not occurred, or at least not developed so much steam.  [More than any other approach we have followed the Charlotte Mason method in our homeschool. While I have become less enamored of her philosophy in recent years (and this series is the result of that disillusionment), hers is still the best single approach I have found.]

In reality there is much that Harris says that would fit well with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. He argues that children have an innate, God-ordained appetite for knowledge (p. 69) and advocates a broad liberal arts education (p. 71). In fact, his language is very much like Miss Mason’s when he argues for a balanced intellectual meal that will bring pleasure to the child (pp. 101-02). They also both say that education cannot and should not be accomplished through force or discipline and that the role of the parent/teacher is largely to prepare the feast (Charlotte’s image) and to wait for the child to respond, as flower bud opens (Harris’ image, p. 111). 

Harris is a bit more in the classical mode in that he sees stages on education, those his are not strictly defined (pp. 112-17). This should not surprise us given the emphasis he places on education as preparation (as I argued in this post).

Delight-directed studies, as Harris defines them, teach multiple subjects through whatever topic the child is interested in. That is, if a child has a particular interest in cats, he might do language arts by reading and writing about cats and learn math by starting a cat sitting business. This were he is most like Unit Studies and least like Charlotte Mason. Though I think in the end, there is more similarity here than I thought; Charlotte’s approach also teaches some subjects, like grammar and writing, indirectly through readings and narrations done on history or other topics.

Harris advocates delight-directed study not just because it works but because, he says, it is biblical. This is perhaps his best and most unique argument — that God intended us to have pleasure even in the things we need, from food to procreation, and that we should also find delight as we satisfy our intellectual appetites (pp. 96ff). For evidence of this he points to the Psalmist’s pleasure in his study of the law of God (Ps. 1:2 among others).

One final quibble — I am once again (as I was with Rushdoony) uncomfortable when Harris talks about education for boys versus that of girls (pp. 119-20). He argues that high school age boys should be educated for a specific career but that girls should be given a broad education so that they will be prepared to help their husbands in whatever their calling might be.  My problem with this kind of thinking is two-fold: It ignores the very real possibility that not every Christian will get married. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that it is better not to be married (1 Cor. 7:32ff) and  perhaps we would take this injunction more seriously if we didn’t start our kids off with marriage as the be-all and end-all of Christian life. Secondly, it tends to undervalue knowledge for its own sake. Harris does not go as far as Rushdoony in this but perhaps just teeters in the edge of the idea.

The bottom line is that Gregg Harris’ The Christian Home School is not a book you necessarily need to run out and get right away but there is one solid good idea in here which I think we need to add to our discussion of a reformed Christian approach to education.

Nebby

[1] As a side note, I don’t agree with Harris’ definition of “to train up” in Proverbs 22:6 as “to touch the palate” (p. 68).  I have no idea where he got this. You can see my own interpretation of that verse here.

 

Book Review: Teaching and Christian Imagination

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education, I recently read Teaching and Christian Imagination by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). The book is a series of essays, grouped by image, on Christian education. The intended audience is the burnt-out Christian school teacher. The idea behind it is that by exploring various images related to education, that one will rediscover one’s purpose in teaching and be reinvigorated.

“This is not a ‘how-to’ manual or a collection of tips. This book offers lenses, not recipes, opening possibilities rather than laying out instructions. It is an opportunity to refresh your imagination, to step back and see differently. It invites you to explore how your faith and your imagination can dance together in ways that bring grace and truth into your daily service to your students and your school.” (p. 2)

Images are really the guiding principle here, and I agree with the authors that images are important. They help shape our thoughts. But — and this is where my problem with this book lies — because they are important and because they do shape our thoughts, we need to be discriminating in which images we chose and in how we apply them. It matters, for instance, whether we view children as blank slates, lumps of clay, or hot-house flowers.

Teaching groups its essays around three fairly standard sets of Christian images: journeys and pilgrimages; gardens and wildernesses; buildings and walls. But it shows little discrimination in what images it uses or how it uses them. There is no clear standard here for how we know what it true or what to accept. There are certainly many biblical references, but the writers also quote Rousseau (pp. 90-91) whose influence on modern education was disastrous and analyze paintings of the Christ child with saints and angels (pp. 101-02). Nor is there any sort of clear philosophy of education. The classical approach is described in one section (pp. 169ff), but there is little that provides a theological or philosophical framework for the book as a whole.

The authors have shied away from providing strong and definite ideas but in doing so they have not provided enough of a basis for their work. Teaching and Christian Imagination sees a need: Christian schools with burnt-out teachers. Its solution is to throw a handful of poorly vetted images at that need which may inspire in the short term, but I think they would have been better served by a back-to-basics questioning of the underlying framework, something which asks what are we doing and is it the right thing and how do we even know, what is our standard?

One of my biggest underlying principles in this blog is that ideas matter. Images convey ideas and so I agree with the book’s authors that images too matter. My problem with Teaching and Christian Imagination is actually that they don’t take their own images seriously enough; they don’t curate them well. A book which really looks at the images the Bible gives us regarding education and which draws from Scripture to apply those images would be most welcome. I am afraid a book which applies images indiscriminately as this one does may give some a temporary emotional boost but will do more long-term damage.

Nebby

Book Review: Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum

Dear Reader,

[I apologize if there are weird font things going on in this post. WordPress and I are not on the best of terms this week.]

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian theology of education, I recently read Rousas John Rushdoony’s The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2001; originally pub. 1981). 

This is now the third or fourth book on Christian education which I have reviewed. They were all written some 30-40 years ago, are all quite critical of modern American public schools, and all advocate Christian education as the only way to go, some quite vociferously. Rushdoony’s book falls in line with the others and makes a lot of the same arguments (he quotes Van Til extensively). I do think it is worth adding to your reading list, however. Philosophy covers a lot of ground, and while there are some foundational ideas I disagree with, there are also a number of good points made along the way.

 

Two advantages of Rushdoony’s work are that it deals with the education of children – not just college-level education – and that it begins to delve into specifics. By comparison, Vos and Van Til were much closer to where I am theologically, but they are both concerned with education at the university level. Wiker, though Catholic, makes some great arguments but again seems to focus mostly on the renewal of the Christian university. Dawson, another Catholic writer, is focused on the education of children but (besides being virulently pro-Catholic and anti-protestant) offers little in the way of specifics. Ultimately, what I want is something that provides not just the theory but gives guidance on how we actually teach day to day. (None of these books, including this one, mentions or even considers homeschooling as an option though I am told that Rushdoony was big in the early days of the modern homeschooling movement.)

 

I am not going to be able to cover everything Rushdoony has to say in this one post, though I am sure I will come back to his ideas in the future one. For today, I’d like to focus on his foundational ideas. Before diving in, a few words about the man himself and his thought — Rousas Rushdoony was a pastor and philosopher who seems to have been most active from 1960-1980. On first glance he has a lot to recommend him in my eyes — Calvinist, Presbyterian, pro-homeschooling. He was apparently a big fan of Van Til whose work I find myself quoting a lot. In fact, as I read his book, I wondered what he thought he had to add to Van Til’s work as he quoted him so often. While he wrote on and advocated for Christian education, Rushdoony is known more for his association with the Christian Reconstructionism, a political movement advocating theonomy, i.e.  applying Old Testament law to modern society. Van Til distanced himself from Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in 1972. [1]

I bring this all up to show where Rushdoony stands in the scope of things. If I could sum up his thought and my own reaction to it in one sentence it would be this: “Yes, he makes a lot of points which sound good on the surface but he just seems to go too far.”  The Wikipedia article on him says:

“Rushdoony developed his philosophy as an extension of the work of Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til. Van Til critiqued human knowledge in light of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. He argued that sin affected a person’s ability to reason . . . Rushdoony attended to the implications – where Van Til held true knowledge came from God, Rushdoony asserted that ‘all non-Christian knowledge is sinful, invalid nonsense. The only valid knowledge that non-Christians possess is ‘stolen’ from ‘Christian-theistic’ sources.’ ” (“Rousas Rushdoony,” from Wikipedia.org; April 20, 2018).

In other words, Rushdoony took Van Til’s ideas to an extreme. In the end, this led him to say that there is no true knowledge can come through non-Christians. While Van Til makes similar statements, he also acknowledges that non-Christians make real contributions to both science and the arts. [2]

Rushdoony’s approach reminds me very much of the Biblical Principle Approach (I have no idea what if any his connection to that approach actually is). It seeks to find the justification for every subject in the Bible and the end of every effort in the service of God, which sounds good, but it defines both these things too narrowly. Certainly the Scriptures are God’s special revelation and tell us the things we need to know for salvation. But they are not God’s only source of revelation. The Bible also tells us quite clearly that God can be known through what He has made. And while the Scriptures are more special, general revelation is more abundant. We do ourselves a disservice when we neglect that knowledge that comes to us through it [3]. I think Van Til would agree with this assessment as he places education within the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14) which Scripture in turn places in Creation (Rom. 1:20) [4]. My first disagreement with Rushdoony, then, is this: He defines education too narrowly by tying it so closely to special revelation at the expense of general revelation. [5]

My second major disagreement is perhaps tied to the first — Rushdoony undervalues knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Though undeniably Christian, his goals for education are overly practical. His concern is with results — How will we use this or that subject to further the spread of the gospel? How can we use it to witness to others? A couple of examples will show his attitude:

“Mathematics should be geared more to management, accounting, and a variety of practical needs of the modern world.” (Kindle loc. 243)

“Latin was once the language of scholarship and an international language; its only value now is to historians and classical scholarship. Green and Hebrew are important to a Christian society, but basically only to the biblical scholarship of that society.” (Kindle loc. 243)

I would argue that if all these things — science and history and language — are part of God’s creation and, as Scripture tells us, reveal His character, then they are worth studying in and of themselves. Our God is a God of truth and to the extent that we learn more of that truth, we become more like Him and bring glory to Him. This is apart from any value that this knowledge may have in our witness to non-believers. I would add that it is not just truth in terms of true facts but the beauty and poetry of creation which merit our attention and study (Phil. 4:8). Rushdoony, in contrast, calls knowledge for knowledge’s sake and art for art’s sake humanistic ideas (Kindle loc. 484).

These, then, are my two major disagreements with Rushdoony: he undervalues general revelation and he undervalues knowledge and beauty for their own sake. I feel less equipped to critique what Rushdoony has to say o n Christian schools since we have never used them, but, as his stance is so forceful, a review of his book would seem incomplete without at least alluding to it.

All of the authors I have looked at this far have advocated for exclusively Christian education and denigrated public education. Rushdoony is among the most extreme in his rejection of public education:

“Hence, for Christians to tolerate statist education, or to allow their children to be trained thereby, means to renounce power in society, to renounce their children, and to deny Christ’s lordship over all life.” (Kindle loc. 2343)

He even argues against Christian schools seeking accreditation (Kindle loc. 1609) and has very particular ideas about how a Christian school should operate.  I find some of what he says disturbing, for example:

“‘Scientific’ tests have indicated that there are racial and sexual differences.” (Kindle loc. 2023)

A brief statement but one that raises my hackles. Rushdoony does not expand upon the racial differences. He does argue for separate education for boys and girls. Some of this may come from considerations of how children learn best, but he also claims that girls are not as capable of abstract thought (Kindle loc. 2032). He stops short of saying that girls need not have higher education but given his overall practical stance, it would not surprise me if he ultimately came to this conclusion. This line of reasoning — a girl’s place is in the home therefore girls don’t need higher education — stems from the same sort of thought Rushdoony does evidence, that knowledge is only valuable for what we can do with it outside of ourselves and not in its own right. 

One of my goals in formulating a philosophy of education is to have something that can be applied to both Christian and non-Christian pupils. A number of the other writers I have read seem to assume Christian children in their schools. Rushdoony does not, but what he has to say about the discipline of children in his (proposed) schools also leaves me with concerns.  I am all for discipline of children and agree with Rushdoony that it should fall under the heading of discipleship. When it comes to practical matters, however, he seems to go too far–

“St. Paul is here describing the necessity under God to purge out delinquents, the sinners. His words apply to every Christian institution, the school as well as the church.” (Kindle loc. 1844)

I will probably write another whole post on the idea of a Christian school. Rushdoony is not the only writer that speaks of the school as a separate, almost divinely-inspired, Christian institution. Whether it is or not (and I expect to argue it is not), I don’t see any reason to apply the passage in question (which is 1 Cor. 5:6-7) to anything but the Church. Then there is the practical question of how such discipline would be applied which Rushdoony does not fully answer. I am left after reading the book with the idea that his school would be rather strict and that its teachers would be a bit distant and not necessarily caring (Kindle loc. 1865).

Despite my differences with Rushdoony, there is still a lot in his book to make it worth reading. He begins with a history of education which provides a nice background. He provides some good criticisms of both classical and modern education, both of which he deems statist, humanistic and secular.  As he gets into specific subjects, he provides us with a starting place for evaluating how to teach them, and he has a number of intriguing statements that I’d like to return to in future posts. So while I have some very fundamental differences, I do think Rushdoony’s Philosophy of Christian Curriculum is one to add to your reading list.

Nebby

[1] Since it is not my main subject, I hope you will forgive me for admitting that most of this background information is from the Wikipedia articles on “Rushdoony,” “Theonomy,” and “Christian Reconstructionism” (all as of 4/20/2018).

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) pp. 89-91.

[3]  I would include under general revelation not just what we can observe casually but also what we can know of God through more in-depth investigations into science and history and culture.

[4] Van Til, p. 91.

[5] Re history, Rushdoony says: ” . . .for the Christian historian and teacher, the basic textbook is the Bible” (Kindle loc. 685). And even grammar is tied to the Bible: “Our ideas of grammar, of tense, syntax, and structure, of thought and meaning, bear a Christian imprint. Very clearly, our language and grammar are relative, but relative to a heritage of biblical faith” (Kindle loc. 809). And a general statement: “If the Bible is what it declares itself to be, then it is the most basic book in education” (Kindle loc. 1223) and again: “The sovereignty of God means that our educational standards must be derived from Scripture, not man” (Kindle loc. 2402) and “. . . the Bible must establish, govern, and condition the curriculum, or else we do not have Christian education” (Kindle loc. 2451).

Book Review: The Crisis of Western Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961). This was a decent book and I am glad I read it as it gave me some new things to think about and new avenues to pursue on my current venture. I am not calling it a must read but if you have some spare time, it is not a bad book.

As the title suggests, Dawson is responding to what he sees as the flaws in the current educational system in America (at least current in 1961 when he wrote it, though I don’t think much has changed).  While he raises some interesting points, I am not willing to climb aboard his particular bandwagon for two reasons. First and foremost, Dawson is a Catholic and ultimately the purpose of his book is to call for a definitively Catholic education. Christian culture, to Dawson, means a unified Catholic (big “C”) culture under one Catholic church (p. 124). He is not unkind and his criticisms of Protestantism are sometimes merited, but he is clearly not a big fan [especially of Luther (p. 28), though he is a little kinder to Calvin (p. 29)].

The other issue I have is in some ways even more fundamental to Dawson’s argument. He starts the book by defining education, and while I love that he does so (I am a big believer in defining terms), his definition is purely anthropological —

” . . . education . . . is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation,’ i.e. the process by which culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual.” (p. 3)

The problem I have with this is that it states what education does in a society but it does not ask what education should be. I am willing to acknowledge that education does produce a common culture but as Christians I think we need to be asking what God’s purpose for education is. This touches on what will be one of our big topics — whether the primary purpose of education is to benefit the individual or the society — and so we will have to come back to it more in depth in another post. For today, I’d like to spend time on some of the other points that Dawson raises–

The first part of Dawson’s book is a history of Christian education. This is the most valuable section of the book (though it is not unbiased). Dawson raises concerns about the classical tradition, some of which he knows are concerns, some of which would concern me though he glosses over them. He mentions, for instance, the strong and long-lasting educational traditions of China but fails to address what seems the obvious question — why did we adopt and adapt the Greek system and not the Chinese? Obviously, there is a historical reason for this as Christianity arose in the west, but we must still ask if there is some inherent value in the Greek way over and above other approaches to education. Dawson suggests that the Greeks and Romans prepared the West for Christianity (p. 9) but if that is the case I would like to see more of an elaboration of this idea. Van Til, whose book I will be reviewing in the coming weeks, argues that Greek culture, not being Christian, is fallen, as all non-Christian culture is, and that we should not look to it for more wisdom than modern secular culture (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974, p.14). If we were to look to any culture for an educational and intellectual foundation, the obvious choice should be the Hebrew tradition. So, we continue to ask: Why the Greeks? There may be a legitimate answer to this question. Dawson raises the point, but I have yet to read a sufficiently convincing answer.

As he moves into describing the current state of education, Dawson raises (again, some purposefully and some not) some interesting questions and makes some good points which I will only list here briefly:

  • Each educational system seems to have a core subject, or collection of subjects. We might choose history and natural theology or grammar and rhetoric or mathematics (pp. 12, 40). Is there a natural or right choice?
  • Education fits the society which it serves (p. 23). But to what extent should we fit education to out society and to what extent should we use it to transform our society into what it should be?
  • State control of education leads to state-ordained goals and a lack of religion in education (pp. 52, 61ff, 82). What are the roles of church and state in education? Can there be any role for the state without de-Christianizing education?
  • “If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary” (p. 132). I love this quote. An excellent argument for viewing Sunday as the Lord’s Day — a day belonging to the Lord and not to us. If it is once ours, we are free to do with it what we will and begin to resent any intrusions into it, even the intrusion of worship.
  • ” . . .the more science a culture has, the more religion it needs” (p. 153). I am not sure I understand what he means by this but I want to know more.

The latter part of Dawson’s book is a call for a Christian education which teaches Christian culture:

“It is vital to the survival of the West that we should recover some sense of our moral values and some knowledge of the spiritual tradition of Western Christian culture. The way to do this is by education, and specifically by making the study of Christian culture an integral part of our educational system, which is theoretically directed to this very end.” (p. 117)

For Dawson, as I said earlier, this Christian education and Christian culture are inherently Catholic and he is dismissive of Protestant efforts  and contributions (pp. 75, 124, 134).

While The Crisis in Western Education comes from a different tradition, and quite passionately so, Dawson writes an interesting and thought-provoking book. This is not a must-read but, if read critically, I think it is a worthwhile book.

Nebby

Book Review: A Meaningful World

Dear Reader,

I bought A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt looking for something for my artsy child to read. My son had read some of Wiker’s books when he studied political philosophy and we had found them very accessible and enjoyable, especially given the complexity of the subject. While Meaningful World is not quite what I was looking for when I purchased it, it still gets a definite “must read” recommendation from me.

This book is an amazing amalgamation of literature, philosophy, science, theology and art. Beginning with Shakespeare and moving through chemistry and biology, touching on astrophysics and subatomic physics, this book shows how materialistic reductionism has invaded scholarship across the board and, more importantly, why it ultimately fails. The book ends with what is essentially a plea for the scholarly community to abandon  this approach which the authors see as a once working theory which, though it has yielded some greater insights, has now been disproven.

What is materialistic reductionism? Simply put, it is the assumption that the material world is all there is. Beginning with this presupposition, the authors show, leads to a reductionism in that everything, from Shakespeare to  the cow, is seen as no more than its most basic elements. As Shakespeare is a combination of words which might equally as well have been typed by monkeys given enough time (the real world rebuttal of this oft-quoted theory alone makes this book worth reading), so the cow is nothing more than its DNA, a random sequence of proteins arising without meaning from a chemical soup.

The counterview which Wiker and Witt espouse is stated simply: “the universe is meaning-full” (p. 15). If it were not, there would be no point to science, and the more one delves into it, the more meaning one finds.

There is a lot here and this is a dense book. I am quite in awe of its authors’ breadth of knowledge. It was not what I was looking for simply because it is too dense and packed with scientific info for my artsy high-schooler. I am, however, going to have her and her more mathematically inclined brother read selections from it. A Meaningful World is an enjoyable and challenging read for advanced high shcoolers and up and I would definitely give a copy to any student heading off to college to study sciences (and possibly also literature and mathematics).

Nebby

 

Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

An article on CNN’s website led my to 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God: How Superheroes, Art, Environmentalism, and Science Point Toward Faith by Rick Stedman. Though I often regret clicking on any article that claims to be about religion or faith, I was pleasantly surprised by Stedman’s contribution, enough so that I immediately purchased his book. At the time I was reading The Benedict Option (see my review here) and I thought that Stedman’s work might be a nice counterpoint to it.

The Benedict Option is written for disillusioned Christians who find themselves in a  world that is foreign to them. As such, it presents a pretty negative, pessimistic view of modern American society. From the little I had read, I thought that Stedman might take another view and I was eager to see what he had to say.

I had been thinking for a few months that, though so many of my acquaintances are not Christians and many are even what might be called pagan (proudly so at times), though they do not share many of my political positions or subscribe to biblical standards or morality, that they are not so very far from truth as one might think. So much of what they have to say still betrays some core values. Above all, they care — they care about people, they care about equality and creation (though they may not think it is created), they care about justice. My hope was that Stedman would share this outlook, would help me fill it out, and would give me ways to begin to talk to such people and to draw them out through these sorts of common values.

To the extent that I went into this book with these expectations, I was a little disappointed. Nonetheless I did find a book well worth reading and sharing.

Stedman is up front with what he believes and with what he is trying to do. “God,” he says, “has double coded . . . evidence of his own reality and presence within our world, albeit in very subtle forms” (p. 13). “God intended that normal people should actually discern his existence” (p. 12). However, “our spiritual impulses, when repressed, sublimate and reappear in other arenas” (p. 19). This thesis is actually almost identical to that of another book I quite enjoyed and would highly recommend — Meaning at the Movies (my review here). And Stedman also begins with movies, superhero movies and horror in particular, but he also covers many other topics, 31 of them to be exact.

Before looking at a few specifics, I should note, as Stedman makes clear, that this is not a book that claims to make an air-tight case for the existence of God. As the title and subtitle say, these are reasons that point to a God; they are clues in creation and in our own psyches (see p. 12) but they are not going to convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. If it were so easy to construct a logical argument to prove God’s existence, it would have been done long before this. I actually really respect that Stedman was upfront with what he hopes to accomplish and what the limitations of his arguments are.

31 Surprising Reasons is divided into sections, each one containing from 3 to 7 short chapters. The first, for instance, is on aesthetics — beauty and art and movies. Part two covers issues of justice and morality; three divine elements in our universe; four humanity itself; and five our desire for something beyond this life. Taken as a whole, each of these sections is good. Stedman mentions that because there are 31 short chapters that this book is perfect for a month-long study. I wondered if perhaps he stretched some of his sections to get to that 31 and it might not have been a bit better if some chapters were eliminated or combined. Overall, the ideas are good, however, and the book is well worth reading (two of my favorite bits are the chapters on language and the scientific method).

Having said which, these are not new ideas. I am sure, as Stedman quotes many other sources, that he would admit this. The bit on movies, as I said, was dealt with more thoroughly in Meaning at the Movies. C.S. Lewis has made the arguments about justice and morality in Mere Christianity, and my own favorite Frank Boreham has a wonderful essay on how our desire to explore points us to something beyond this world. Still, I like how Stedman has put all this together. It is not high-falutin’ theology but it is an enjoyable and quite readable book (I am currently reading another which says many of the same things but in much harder words!). This is another one I plan to have my high schoolers read.

Final word: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God is a good, solid book that is well worth reading. The short chapters mean you can spend just a few minutes a day on it and the readability means it is good for those who are younger or newer to Christian thought.

Nebby

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