Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Reformed Thinkers on Education: W.H. Jellema

Dear Reader,

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

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

A number of the thinkers we will consider are represented in Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997), a volume edited by Donald Oppewal. The first of these is William Harry Jellema who worked in the 1950s as a philosophy professor at Calvin College among other positions. Two of his essays are included in Oppewal’s volume. The first, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” addresses specific decisions that Calvin College faced at the time with regard to revamping their curriculum. The second, “The Christian School a Prerequisite for and an Outgrowth of the Calvinistic World and Life View,” argues for Christian schools. Because the latter is more general, I will begin with it.

The thrust of “The Christian School . . . ” is contained in its title — Jellema argues the need for distinctly Christian schools. Though this rankles me a little as a homeschooler, I realize that he was writing in the 1950s when the modern homeschooling movement had really not begun so I will give him a pass and assume that this option was just not on his radar.

Jellema spends considerable time arguing for something that I have often said on this blog — ideas have consequences. In his words, our “life views” have practical “outgrowths” (p. 48). There are probably people who would contest this position, but I am not one of them nor do I suspect most of you are so we will not dwell on it overly much. Jellema’s argument is a philosophical one rather than a biblical one though I think this would be an easy point to argue from the Scriptures which ask of us not just faith but obedience. In the course of making his argument, Jellema shows that we are “rational moral” beings (p. 50) and that we embody biological, social, and religious impulses, all of which impact our actions (p. 53).

Jellema goes on to argue that, given that our beliefs have practical consequences, Calvinism will result in the need for Christian schools. This is a multi-stage argument. First he argues for the comprehensiveness of our worldview — that “the God who revealed himself in the Christ of the Scriptures” is “the source of ultimate principles for our world and life view . . . [S]uch a world and life view rooted in the Christian faith will issue in Christian education” (p. 56). But Calvinism “need not create its own social instrument” so he goes on to argue that we need to establish schools to provide this education.

His primary argument on this point is again one that we have seen before and boils down to the idea that there are no uninterpreted facts. Calvinism insists, he says, that “God is not only the object in a narrower sense of religious faith and devotion but is also the ground and end of all existence and truth and value” (p. 57). It is not sufficient to allow secular public schools to teach facts and to allow the church or home to provide religious instruction; the two must be merged and therefore a Christian institution is necessary to do the job.

Though in this essay Jellema does not say too much about the nature of education in the Christian schools he envisions, he does towards the end hint at a purpose for education:

” . . . only in the light of that view can my bits of knowledge become intelligible. And in the sphere of morality and character building this conviction means that my every experience of worth strengthens and deepens my appreciation of and loyalty to God . . . The cutting edge of our view is that intellectual or moral growth and the religious life are in each specific instance and at that moment inseparable . . . ” (pp. 57-8)

In other words, knowledge only makes sense in the light of our beliefs and this intelligible knowldge serves to point us to God so that we give Him glory and grow in Him.

Though I take issue with the idea that we need schools specifically, I am largely in agreement with Jellema thus far. His other article, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” leaves me a little more puzzled. As I said above, he is here arguing for specific changes in the curriculum and course requirements at Calvin College. I am not so much interested in the particulars but along the way he makes some general statements about education.

“Education is for wisdom” (p. 5), Jellema tells us. If this is meant as a definition, I am willing to accept it as such. But Jellema goes on to define wisdom saying it “consists very simply in the ability so to use nature as to achieve position in a society devoted to mastery over nature” (p. 5). Though wisdom is a topic covered at length in the pages of the Bible, this is no biblical argument nor is there  any appeal to the Scriptures. Jellema seems to be saying that our goal is mastery over nature — an argument which could certainly be substantiated by Genesis 1 — but he also says that nature shapes us, that our minds are molded by the patterns in nature. Though we know that God is revealed by His creation, we also know that creation was changed by the fall of man. There is no discernment here, no recognition that not all we find in nature as it now is would be worth emulating. He repeatedly calls this a “new idea of wisdom” (p. 15, 25) which I find quite disturbing given that wisdom is such a deeply-rooted biblical concept. It is not something that it seems we should have a “new” concept of.

Jellema’s overall argument in this essay is for a Christian liberal arts education. The liberal arts, he says, deal with the man as an individual and as a whole (pp. 16, 27). They educate the intellectual for the sake of the moral.  He implies that the ultimate goal of such an education is to fit us to discharge our moral responsibilities (p.16). Though a liberal arts education covers many subjects, he argues against a fragmented approach — a little here, a little there — and for an approach that looks to unifying principles across subjects. He speaks specifically of three or four minds, that is, ways of thinking. The Christian mind, which is associated with the Middle Ages, is primary but one also should learn the ancient and modern minds (pp. 21-22, 31). These minds are learned through the reading of their literature and also the learning of their languages. It is not enough to read the classics in translation but one should also learn Greek and Latin (p. 25).

I like some of the specifics here. I agree that we are much better equipped to understand someone when we learn their langauge (I argued as much in this post). I also like the idea of a broader more unifying perspective rather than a smattering of knowledge from a range of fields. I am a little confused by the minds thing. It may be true but I would like to see more on why these three distinct minds are valuable to know and understand. There is certainly Christian thought and non-Christian, but, as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. I am not so convinced that the ancient and modern are really all that different. There is also the matter of other minds. Jellema mentions a couple of times that we should learn the occidental (i.e. western) minds.  Perhaps the world has changed since his day; I am not sure we can so limit ourselves. Eastern philosophies pervade our culture.

The biggest issue I have with Jellema, however, is this idea of wisdom that he advances. I cannot get over a reformed thinker advancing a “new” idea of wisdom without any reference to the Scriptures. In the first article we discussed, Jellema hints at quite a good goal for education — it causes us to glorify God and it transforms us. I would have liked to see him pursue that train of thought rather than the “new wisdom.”

Nebby

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Peter Ton

Dear Reader,

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

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

I have written a number of times on the modern philosophy of education known as  Christian classical (see here and here). The long and short of it is, I am not a huge fan. I was excited to stumble across this article by Peter L. Ton. “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?” (2005) is Ton’s Master’s thesis from Dordt College. The lovely thing about a thesis is that it starts with an abstract that tells you exactly what the author wants to say. Thus at the beginning we get Ton’s conclusion:

“When compared to the Reformed understanding of covenant children as well as Reformed purposes and methods of education, classical Christian education is found to be too intellectualistic and elitist to be compatible with a Reformed Christian perspective on education.” (p. iv)

Because of his genre, Ton spends a lot of time defining terms. One of the first things that struck me is that he places the heart of Christian classical education in  Moscow, Idaho. This is a red flag for me. If you are unaware, Moscow is the home of Douglas Wilson, a prolific Christian pastor and author, who has, sadly, been associated with some at least borderline heretical movements. I know even within my own denomination there are some who love Wilson and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss him or his work. Suffice it to say, for me mention of Moscow and of Wilson is an indicator that I need to be discerning in what I read. The other major figure behind Christian classical is Dorothy Sayers. I reviewed her article, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which really inaugurated the modern movement here. The short story on that is that I had serious reservations about her own view of and attitude toward children. Ton notes that Sayers “tried her hand at teaching in an elementary school for a brief period, but gave it up quickly and without any misgivings” (p. 74).

Ton begins with a review of what Christian classical education, its origins, goals, and methodology. “Classical” refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Medieval educators went back to the classical model, and modern ones in turn went back to the classicism of the Middle Ages. When looking at the ideas behind the modern Christian classical movement, then, we have a number of layers to consider. What Ton finds in those predecessors is an emphasis on the intellectual and theoretical:

“Faith in human intellect, or intellectualism, clearly looms largest, while idealism
with its exaltation of ideas and denigration of matter is a close second.” (p. 21)

“Clearly evident also is the Greek glorification of theoretical knowledge.” (p. 23)

With such roots, it is not surprising that many “Christian educators uncritically adopted or synthesized many pagan Greek ideas in their curriculum” (p. 26). As I have said many times on this blog, not all ideas that come to us through non-Christian sources are necessarily wrong. Nonetheless, we must be discerning in adopting ideas that come to use with such a pedigree (p. 30).

Ton moves on to an examination of if and how these ideas have come through into the modern Christian movement. There are some more technical or methodological differences — grammar, for instance, is defined differently by Sayers than by her predecessors. There are also some common elements, including an emphasis on the social function of education:

“Quintilian and Wilson both assume education is to lead and govern” (p. 42)

Particularly concerning is a view of the child which comes through:

“The purpose behind Greek education was to make good adults, particularly good men, and they did not believe that infancy had much to do with the process’ (Castle, 1969). In fact, infanticide was practiced regularly, no cultural value forbade parents from selling their children into slavery and no civil law prohibited a father from condemning his child to death! This classical view of the child is necessary to point out because it has implications in today’s classical Christian schools. Classical Christian educators are, of course, innocent of such heinous practices as those just mentioned, yet remnants of this view of the child still linger in today’s classical Christian psychology despite their sincere attempts at articulating a Christian understanding of children.” (p. 45)

Ton then moves on to comparing the classical approach to the reformed view of education. He admits, however, that there is not just one reformed take on education. (I used the three-fold division he artiuclates in my introductory post.)  Ton himself takes the antithetical position which combines an emphasis on content with concern for the practical application. Education, he says, “equips the child for ampler and better oriented cultural activity” (p. 69). Which is to say education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are both important.

In his analysis of Christian classical education, Ton sees a conflict between covenantal and communal views of the child. The difference seems to be that a covenantal view emphasizes the need to educate all (covenant) children, even those whose natural gifts might be lacking (p. 47), and places a paramount importance on the role of the parents. Ton argues that Christian schools should not function in loco parentis and thereby diminish the parents’ God-given, even God-commanded, role in education (p. 51). One of the dangers in doing so it that education comes to be seen as the solution to all problems. With parents and church de-emphasized, education becomes almost salvific. It is seen as the solution to all society’s problems (pp. 75-76).

I agree with Ton when he concludes that Christian schools do not take the place of parents and can not, by themselves, apart from the parents, satisfy the demands of Christian education. But I am puzzled when Ton concludes: “A Reformed Christian community ought to encourage Christian school enrolment” (p. 53). Many of the arguments he has made would be good arguments for homeschooling so I don’t know why in the end he seems to dismiss this option.

With regard to the goals of education, Ton’s main criticism of the classical movement is that it is too intellectualistic. Biblical wisdom is lived out; it is not just head knowledge. Classical education, in contrast, views the content, the fodder of education if you will, as the main thing.

“[T]he program is oriented much more toward the mastery of content than to Christian discipleship. This emphasis on content over and above individual learning styles, pedagogic strategy, heart response, student application and discipleship is yet a legacy of the ancients’ faith in curriculum. ” (p. 55)

I recently reviewed a book on Jewish education which made just this same point. The education of the Jews from 550 BC to 220 AD was distinct from that of the Greeks and Romans in that it sought to make wisdom affect life. (In contrast, our previous thinker was Gordon H. Clark argues that reformed education should be “intellectualistic.“)

Because Ton believes that practical application is important as well as content, he ends up rejecting the methods of classical education which he sees as dividing these two enterprises. Modern classical education sees strict stages. Initially children are in the grammar stage and are memorizing but not analyzing. This is a misunderstanding, or at least a reinterpretation, on Sayers’ part of the classical term “grammar.” For Ton, it renders classcial education unacceptable:

“A Reformed philosophy of education insists that memorization, analyzing
and presenting are taught simultaneously, not consecutively. Upholding the
dignity of subject matter and student, this method underscores that knowledge and
skills are to be used, not stored away without comprehension or application.” (p. 76)

He rejects the classical methodology both because it separates memorization from application and because it does not recognize learning differences which he attributes to the unique image of God in each child.

While the first stage of a classical education, the “grammar” stage, according to Sayers and other modern classical educators focuses on memorization, the second stage, which roughly corresponds to middle school, is the logic stage. In it the focus is on argument because, they would say, children are naturally argumentative at this age. I agree with Ton here that it is wrong and unbiblical to attribute one particular, sinful characteristic to all children of this age and only to children of this age.

The third stage, the rhetoric stage, which corresponds to high school, Ton also criticizes. At this age students are said to focus on appearance and peer interactions. Ton argues that the training of the rhetoric stage will not combat these desires.

Ton spends most of his critique arguing against the broad outlines of classical education as delineated by Sayers. At the end of his analysis he briefly addresses Wilson’s arguments. Wilson uses some Bible verses to support the classical stages, saying that children get knowledge early on but must develop wisdom. I again agree with Ton that there is little true biblical support for this view and that a much more in-depth analysis of the biblical view of wisdom would be necessary.

When it comes to his analysis of classical education, I agree with a lot of what Ton has to say. I think he does a good job of describing this approach to education and showing why it falls short of the biblical view of wisdom, which is always very practical and applicable, and why it undervalues or misvalues children at the various stages of life. It has been my contention for years that any philosophy of education makes statements about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. Without necessarily using that language, Ton shows how the classical approach falls short on both these counts.

I am less convinced by Ton’s own philosophy of education. He states clearly that there are multiple theories about reformed education and he is up-front about his own position, but he does not defend or argue for his position. I understand that this is a master’s thesis and a more detailed presentation of his own view may have been beyond the scope of the work. I would like to see — from Ton and all the other authors I am reading — a truly biblical argument for why their particular philosophy of education is best.

Nebby

 

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Gordon H. Clark

Dear Reader,

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

I am endeavoring to look at more of what’s out there by other reformed thinkers on the topic if education. You can find my introduction to this series within a series here. Today’s thinker is Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) who was primarily a philosopher.  His “A Christian Philosophy of Education” was published in 1988 (apparently posthumously) in Trinity Review (this seems to be a shorter article summarizing a longer book originally published in the 1940s). The period from roughly 1965 to 1990 generated a lot of  Christian writing on education, most of which took the form of a call for a more distinctly Christian approach. Most of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern homeschooling movement has its roots in this era.

Clark, like these others, is clearly responding to a crisis he saw in his own day. He cites particularly modern advances — the telephone! and end to typhoid! — which though seemingly good can also be used for evil and do not make people inherently better (and, yes, he does see a downside to the end to typhoid as well; read the article to find out what it is 😉 ). One can only imagine what he would have made of the internet. If there is any specific event which seems to have generated this article it is the prohibition by the courts of prayer in schools, though he is not entirely opposed to such a prohibition, acknowledging that not all prayer is righteous prayer.

Like all those others whose books I have reviewed, Clark sees no compatibility between Christianity and public education. He spends some time on the origins of the public schools and notes that they have never been Christina institutions. Be their very nature, they must be opposed to true Christian doctrine. Though he laments the lack of good Protestant schools, he does not mention homeschooling (perhaps it was not at all on his radar). His call is a fairly general one — for an education based on Christian doctrine (he cites the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically as a proper ground for such education).

In the first half or so of this article, Clark seems to be focused on stemming the evils in society. Discipline in the schools seems to be an especial concern. Interestingly, the view of evil is cited as a key element behind one’s philosophy of education:

“The two philosophies [Christianity and secular humanism] and their educational implications differ on what to do, on what evil is, and on how it originates.” (Kindle loc. 100)

In the latter half of the article, Clark advances a particular theory related to the image of God in man. He argues that the image of God is reason. He sees reason as the thing which separates us from the animals. “Christianity,” he says “is intellectualistic” (Kindle loc. 180). Fellowship with God requires thinking and understanding. Morality as well is impossible without reason. The animals are incapable of sin, or of doing good, because they cannot reason. We could glorify God, he says, without reason, but we could not enjoy Him forever (Kindle loc. 189). The fall did not erase the image of God in man but it did corrupt it. Errors in thinking, even something as basic and concrete as arithmetic mistakes, are a result of the fall. “[S]alvation will improve a man’s thinking in all matters” (Kindle loc. 218). Education, then, is an intellectual endeavor. He rejects hands-on enterprises, carpentry, plumbing, even the making of music and art, as skills, God-given skills perhaps, but skills nonetheless. Education, for Clark, is about the mind because this is the focal point of his view of man. The art critic, for Clark, is higher than the artist because he thinks about art rather than making it.

“The object of education is truth; the transmission of truth to the younger pupils and the discovery of new truth by more advanced students. The aim of education, at least the aim of the purest and best education, is intellectual understanding.” (Kindle loc. 244).

This series exists because, to a large extent, I stand with these (slightly) older authors. Like them, I am issuing a call for a more distinctly Christian approach to education (and in my case, a reformed Christian approach). As a homeschooling mom, I find that their calls often stopped short of where I want to be. They don’t tend to get down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what are my kids going to be doing on Monday morning? I hope that I am advancing more towards this goal.

Clark stands in this body of work. His criticism of the public schools of his day and his call for a Christian education are not new or unique. He does get into some new territory when he discusses his own view of the image of God and its implications for education. There are many ways the image of God has been delineated in Christian thought and I am very hesitant to tie it down to one quality as Clark does. I would agree with him that the fall affected our reason and I like his point that this affects even our most concrete reasoning. Our kids would not make mistakes in math if they weren’t fallen  creatures. His emphasis on the mind, to the detriment of any physically based aptitudes, also makes me uncomfortable. It smacks a bit of a dualistic understanding which separates man’s mind and spirit from his body. I do not believe this is the Christian view of man.

My short take on “A Christian Philosophy of Education” would be that it stands firmly within the Christian writings of the time on education. There is a germ of a new idea here, but it is not one I can wholly subscribe to.

Nebby

Book Review: History of Jewish Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE by Nathan Drazin. This is an older book, originally published in 1941. My overarching concern in my  current series to is develop a reformed Christian approach to education. As I believe a reformed theology is a biblical theology, this means I am seeking a biblical philosophy of education. In reading Drazin’s book, my interest has been to see how a culture other than the classical (Greek and Roman) approached education and also how another ostensibly biblically-based culture did so. Of course even before the time of Christ, there would be some differences in the Jewish understanding versus our own so it is not necessarily that we are going to follow all that they did, but still my hope was to find something instructive here that will aid us as we develop that biblical approach to education. I will first summarize Drazin’s book and then give my own reactions to it.

The period Drazin examines is a wide-ranging one, covering some 700 years from the Jews return from the Babylonian exile until the Jewish Mishnah was completed. Not surprisingly, given such a long span , there were some changes within this time. Most notably an expansion of education. Whereas before the Babylonian exile there would have been little formal education outside the home, after it the Jews first developed higher education, then secondary, and finally added elementary education for boys (girls would not receive any formal education at this time). This expansion, from higher levels down to lower, Drazin believes to be a common pattern in societies, and, indeed, I think we can even see it today when there is still a tendency to repair the deficits of the educational system by starting earlier and earlier.

Drazin makes quite clear that Jewish education is not just education using Jewish content. It was fundamentally different in its system and goals from Greek and Roman education (Kindle loc. 209). “The outstanding difference,” he says “between Jewish and Greek and Roman education was, of course, in the matter of aims . . .’The whole purpose of Athenian education was the development of virtue, but the virtues were always civic virtues'” (Kindle loc. 2161). Their purpose was often theoretical — the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the discovery of universal moral principles — whereas for the Jews the theory should always influence action (Kindle loc. 2171, 2245). Interestingly, Drazin here sees much more of a connection with the 20th century theories of John Dewey who also sought to shape behavior through education (Kindle loc. 2257).

The goal of education, then, was one of the primary distinctive features of Jewish education. This goal was always focused on Torah, the learning of the law of God, not just for its own sake but so that it may be lived out (Kindle loc. 222, 316). Education was part of life as a whole and was to continue throughout one’s life. Adults too actively sought out education (Kindle loc. 250). Though girls were not educated outside the home and were not required to learn Torah, they too were educated and an educated wife or daughter was still valued (Kindle loc. 1921, 2075, 2096).

The primary content of Jewish education was the Law. For modern Christians it may seem odd but this included not just the text of the Old Testament but its interpretations by scholars and teachers. Though at a certain level there would be discussion of points of the Law, at young ages particularly these interpretations would be memorized as well (Kindle loc. 1713). Other subjects, sciences and grammar and the like, would be learned as they were touched upon by the Torah (Kindle loc. 268, 1382). Though there is some indication that such things could be valued in their own right as they pointed to God. Drazin quotes the Talmud as saying: “‘The man who understands astronomy and does not pursue the study of it, of that man Scripture says, “they regard not the work of the Lord, neither have they considered the operation of His hands”‘” (Kindle loc. 1616).

Though Jewish education did not, like classical education, aim for civic virtues yet there was a broader, more societal goal. Education would assure the survival of the people and would draw other nations to them. This vision was based on an understanding of Deuteronomy (Kindle loc. 296). Israel was a light to the nations and their wisdom was a large part of what would attract those nations.

Practically speaking, Jewish education, particularly elementary education, included a lot of memorization (Kindle loc. 2224) and there was certainly a set body of knowledge that was to be learned. All boys ages 6 or 7 and older were educated. There was a recognition that some would not learn as easily as others and attempts were made to ensure that all learned the needed material. Though physical discipline might be used, the teachers were generally kind and had a real desire to teach and pass on their knowledge.  Intelligence and imagination, Drazin tells us, were not valued in the lower schools (Kindle loc. 1713). Education was not entirely a top-down affair, however. There was room for students to pursue individual interests (Kindle loc. 1752), and, though the Jews did not educate through play, there was an effort to stimulate the child’s interest in the subject matter (Kindle loc. 2226).

In seeking to develop our own biblical philosophy of education, it is helpful to look at those who have come before us. Though the Jewish model of education as a matter of course only looks to the Old Testament and not the New, there are still aspects of it which can be instructive to us.

The Jews of this period took the biblical injunction to educate one’s children seriously. This more than anything else was the impetus for their model of education. Though the move was away from parental education for boys (girls were still educated by their parents), this came from a concern that all should be educated well. The alternative to home education was not just any education but an education based on the community’s core values. And this would be a very tight-knit community with common ideals. It is very different from the modern choice one has between home education according to one’s own ideals and public education in which one has no say (which is not to say that I am always opposed to public education; see this recent post).

The main goal of education was a personal one, to build personal virtue and knowledge of the Law of God (as opposed to the classical model which aimed mainly at civic virtues). A secondary aim was to shine as a light to the nations so that the biblical prophecies might be fulfilled and the peoples would be drawn to the true God. This is a reason I think we are sorely missing in the church today. Note that it is the wisdom of God’s people which attracts the nations. In our day and age Christianity and scholarship are more often than not seen to be opposites, particularly in the popular conception. No one is coming to the church because of our scholarship. This has not always been the case, of course, and I think we can yet recover good, Christian scholarship.

Based on what Drazin says, it seems that more often than not education revolved largely around the Torah and that other subjects were included only as they arose in that context. But knowledge, particularly at the higher levels, might be pursued in its own right, and it was even seen as good and necessary to do so. There was certainly a belief that all knowledge was God’s and that God’s truth would hold up to investigation and experimentation.

There are ways in which the world has changed since 220 AD. Books are everywhere (not to mention computers!) and the bodies of knowledge to which we have access are enormous. Ancient education, whether Greek, Roman or Jewish, was primarily memorization. There is often an emphasis on this in modern homeschooling based on classical models. While this may not be an entirely bad impulse and I am somewhat saddened by our seeming inability to remember things in this day and age, I do think we need to have a discussion at some point about how education can and should change with changes in access to materials and very real changes in the content of human knowledge as well. All of which is to say, it is worth noting the practical aspects of how ancient education worked, but we need to also evaluate them from the perspective of the modern world. A fuller discussion of this would take another post, however, so I will leave it for the moment.

The biggest difference between our biblical model of education and that of the Jews arises from our very real theological differences. For most of the period under discussion (which you will recall was roughly 550 BC to 220 AD), the Jews were God’s people and we would say we share that common heritage. But God’s revelation was not complete at the time; His biggest revelation, His own Son, had not yet come. I hate to beat up on the Pharisees because I think they often receive a bum rap, but the New Testament does make clear to us that the teachers of the time, those who were most educated, got a lot of stuff wrong.  The primary goal of Jewish education was the development of virtue. The underlying assumption of this approach to education was that one could, by studying the Law well, be able to keep that Law. Drazin quotes the Rabbis as saying that the whole world hangs in the balance, “‘the merits of the people nicely balancing their transgressions'” (Kindle loc. 471). This is not our understanding nor do we believe it is a good understanding of the Old Testament. The good deeds do not weigh against the bad and people are not able by study to keep the Law of God on their own. In my own philosophy of education I have talked about education as sanctification. This is much larger than the development of virtues. It is a transformation because a complete transformation is what is needed (Rom. 12:2). And, most importantly, it is not something we can accomplish on our own. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit who writes His Law on our hearts (Jer. 31:33) and changes us and enables us on a very fundamental level. Education itself, even education in the Law of God, apart from the work of the Spirit has no power to make us good.

I think there are things we can learn from the Jewish model of education. It is particularly helpful to have an ancient model that it not the classical so that we may compare the two (you can see some of my thoughts on classical education here and here). There are things we can learn from the model Drazin describes and there are details which perhaps we need to incorporate in our own, but, at the end of the day, this is not  a Christian model and our very fundamental theological differences will cause us to reject this model as it is and to look elsewhere. Though, I would add, we do see once again how a people’s core beliefs are manifested in their approach to education. The Jewish model may not be ours but it was quite well-suited to their own worldview.

Nebby

Books Read: February 2019

Dear Reader,

I am trying to be more diligent in recording what I have read and my impressions of it (as I have such a bad memory for such things). My goal is to post monthly on the books I have finished in that month. You can find January’s list here.

Books Read: February 2019

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather — I have enjoyed a couple of Willa Cather’s books and enjoyed this one as well. The title is a bit of a misnomer as it is mainly a story about the life of a priest sent to the wilds on New Mexico in its early days. Apparently, it is based on a real person. Cather’s books set a mood and give the impression of a place rather than being plot-heavy. It works though and you feel you have gotten to know the time and era when you are done. This particular book is about faith and fortitude and friendship and it is lovely. I had a few reservations. This is a very Catholic (big “C”) book. There are some nice stories within about showing the hand of God in people’s lives but there is also quite a lot about Mary that goes too far for my ex-Catholic-turned-reformed sensibilities.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne — A classic I hadn’t read since high school. I liked the book this time but with some reservations.The story itself is engaging.  If you are looking for an accurate portrayal of Puritan New England, I would not recommend it. If you are viewing it as a kind of allegory or morality tale on the effects of sin, it is quite good. On a side note, if you would like a good book on the Puritans I recommend Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2015) — An at times laugh out loud book on grammar. Really. Norris has worked as an editor for The New Yorker and interweaves her life with grammar lessons. I learned things. I laughed. I read parts aloud to my kids. There is a chapter on expletives so I wouldn’t just hand it to my child to read though.

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz (Penguin Books, 2005) — This is one of a number of books my son gave me to read from his freshman seminar on love and marriage and was by far the best. Coontz has done extensive research and covers marriage throughout human history and in many different cultures (though there is certainly the most material on the west). The crux of it all is that the 1950s were a peak for people marrying for love, without economic and family considerations, and that though this time is now idealized, it was a historical aberration and one that did not necessarily make a lot of the people who went through it happy. Coontz herself if pro-marriage but not necessarily pro-traditional marriage (as we use the term today; a large part of her book is showing that “traditional marriage” is not traditional). She is approaches things from a scientific perspective and argues that marriage customs should fit the society. She clearly has some presuppositions as well — marriages should be happy seems to be one. But she does not appeal to a higher standard. The question Christians should be asking after reading this book is how many of our ideas about marriage stem from our own societal background (that 1950s ideal) and how many are truly biblical? And what would the biblical view of marriage be? If we answer these questions, I think we also need to ask how much we should legislate our view of marriage. Coontz actually paints a picture of modern western society in which good marriages are valued but in which they are not necessarily for everyone. I think there is a lot of room here for Christians to be witnesses, not by legislating our ideal of marriage, but by exemplifying biblical marriage in the midst of a much more pluralistic society.

The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham — Boreham is a favorite author of mine and I often reread his books. He was a pastor in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1900s. His books are collections of brief essays and are best read one chapter at a time. His tone is very kind and pastoral. I don’t love all his writings equally but I usually find something that strikes me, even when rereading. Some favorite quotes from this volume:

  • “I move through life guided by a force I cannot explain.” from The First Swallow
  • “Education, too, properly considered, is merely another form of spring-cleaning. It is a cleaning-up of the mind . . .I fling out my mental rubbish and store my mind with what is really useful and beautiful.” from Spring Cleaning
  • “If there are two crowds, and they are both shouting, it is perfectly safe to assume that they are both wrong.” from A Philosophy of Pickles
  • “No two men ever yet passed each other on the street by chance.” from Our Trysting Places

What have you been reading?

Nebby

Living Books on the Middle Ages

Dear Reader,

The first two terms of this year we have been studying the Middle Ages. I have gone back to Heritage History for a lot of our resources. If you are willing to use older books (which are often better anyway) and don’t mind have them in a digital format, this is a wonderful site.  As we did when the kids were younger, we went through the Middle Ages once in broader perspective in the first 12-week term and then once focusing in on specific countries in our second term.  The third term of this year we will spend on other, non-western cultures before moving on to modern history next year. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on the Middle Ages

History of the Middle Ages in Europe —

My high school senior read The Story of Europe by H.E. Marshall. I really like Marshall’s books for history. I skimmed a number of others and though this one is easier than some (it could even be used for elementary though Heritage History puts it in the middle school category) it is one of the most engaging and covers a lot of ground. [She also had a lot of other things going on this year so I was trying not to overburden her.]

My middle schooler read S.B. Harding’s Story of the Middle Ages and Eva Marie Tappan’s When Knights were Bold. Tappan is another favorite author (I much prefer her books on Greece and Rome to those of Geurber). When Knights were Bold  is more about the culture and society of the time.

My ninth grader read The Middle Ages by Dorothy Mills. I haven’t been equally pleased with all her books but Mills is a solid author popular in homeschooling circles.

Church History and Art —

The first term I read aloud a book that we happened to hae picked up somewhere which focuses on the interplay of church and government in the Middle Ages called The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History of the Church from 900 to 1300.

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This is probably a middle school level book or even upper elementary. The chapters are short, about a double-sided page each, and there are lots of pictures. It is actually quite good for having a group narrate as you can read one chapter/page, have a child narrate, and then another and the next child narrates and so on. Though perhaps not the most living book, it definitely gives you a feel for the issues relating to the church in the Middle Ages.

We also read through the relevant portions of V.M. Hillyer’s A Child’s History of Art. Though this is an elementary level book, it does a good job of introducing the art of a certain time. Note that there are various versions of this book. You may see slim volumes that cover one subject, architecture or painting or sculpture. We have a thicker volume which includes all three.

My two younger children also read Monks and Mystics by Mindy and Brandon Withrow. This is volume two of a four-volume series on church history which is very good. My one criticism of it would be that it is a bit undiscriminating in whom it considers a hero of the faith, including people from a wide range of theological positions.

Literature from the Middle Ages

We read a version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales together. I happened to find the version edited by Peter Ackroyd used so that is what we used. The original tales are bawdy and this version includes those bits so I was discriminating. We did not read every tale and I occasionally edited on the spot while reading aloud.

My ninth grader read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. There are a lot of versions of the tales  of King Arthur but White’s is a classic.

My senior read James Baldwin’s The Story of Roland. This seems to be a good retelling of the classic story.

In the second term, we read  Ian Seraillier’s Beowulf, the Warrior. Again, there are many versions of this story. This one is fairly short. I was very pleased that my children seemed to remember the story from our previous bout through the Middle ages.

We also began The Story of Abelard’s Adversities, a fairly short version of the story edited by J.T. Muckle. I was not very familiar with this story and we ended up giving up on the book. It was not the castration bit which turned me off. That part of the story was actually exciting. Most of the book Abelard spends talking about how much smarter he is than everyone else and it is rather tiresome.

We did not read any Robin Hood this time but in the past we have read Howard Pyle’s version.

Historical Fiction about the Middle Ages

My middle schooler read Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray. This is a solid book that you will find on many lists I am sure. She also read The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books.

My ninth grader read Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle. Pyle is an older author well-known for his historical books.

There a quite a number of books on this period; it seems to have captured the imagination of authors. Some that we have read in the past in various contexts are: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli; the Crispin books by Avi; The Midwife’s Apprentice and other books by Kate Cushman; The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (an absolute must read); and  The Road to Damietta (about Francis of Assisi) and Hawk that Dare Not Hunt (about Tyndale) both by Scott O’Dell (I haven’t read these two but we’ce enjoyed O’Dell’s historical novels in the past).

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The Middle Ages in Specific Countries

Because he is studying German this year, I had my ninth grader focus on the Middle Ages in Germany during the second term. He read H.E. Marshall’s A History of Germany.. For historical fiction he read The White Stag by Kate Seredy, a relatively brief book which tells the story of Attila the hun. He also read some Norse myths (because it was hard to find anything else close to literature or historical fiction on Germany specifically) from Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin. I highly recommend Colum’s books anytime you need mythology.

My middle schooler focused in Ireland and Scotland. She read Peeps at History: Ireland by Beatrice Homes. There are a number of books in the Peeps series and I have not always been crazy about them but looking at Heritage History’s options, I found this to be the best on Ireland. Also on Ireland she read Brendan the Navigator by Jean Fritz. Fritz is a favorite author. This is one of her relatively short books. Then I let her pick from some volumes I had gotten from our local library with Irish tales —

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On Scotland she read H.E. Marshall’s Scotland’s Story and for historical fiction Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman.

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I had my senior focus on Spain (because she has studied Spanish) and on Islam as well. Since the Moors were in Spain during this period, there is a natural link between the two. She read A Child’s History of Spain by John Bonner and The Moors in Spain by M.Florian (both Heritage History books) and Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong. I haven’t liked all the short history books I’ve looked at equally but some are quite good. She also read a book I have read and loved: The Crusades, Christianity and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. This book is nice because it relates the events of the Middle Ages to what is going on in the world today (in a very reasoned, scholarly way).  For historical fiction she read Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy.

In our time together we focused on England. As the mother country of our own, this seemed like a good choice for everyone to do together. We read H.E. Marshall’s well-known Our Island Story. Though again this is a lower level book, it is hard to beat for an engaging overview of English history.

Happy Reading!

Nebby

 

Books Read: January 2019

Dear Reader,

I am trying to be more diligent in recording what I have read and my impressions of it (as I have such a bad memory for such things). My goal is to post monthly on the books I have finished in that month. This is the first installment.

Books Read: January 2019

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy — This is my third time through Anna Karenina though it’s been a while since I read it (I have yet to tackle War and Peace). And, no, I did not read it all in  January; I just finished it in that month. I actually read it over 6 months or so and though it is a famously long book, it lends itself well to this, The individual chapters are quite short and the plot sticks with you so you don’t forget where you are if you put it down for weeks at a time. I have also been reading some non-fiction books on marriage (see below) and this classic discusses the pros and cons of adultery (not that I’m considering it) better than any of those. The book on some level affirms Christianity though it is a weird version of it, to my mind. I think this is in large part do to the history of the church in Russia, however, so perhaps we shouldn’t fault Tolstoy too much for it. Spoiler alert: faith and faithfulness come out on top here.

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis (New York: Vintage Books, 2003) – This is one of many books my college-age son gave me to read. They all come from a seminar class he took on love and marriage. You have to take this book as it is meant, and the subtitle tells you — it is a polemic. It is largely an extended description of what is wrong with marriage today. The author seems to be a journalist who has heard it all, and mostly the worst possible stories out there. Parts are almost laugh out loud funny but mostly this book just doesn’t go anywhere or contribute much to the discussion because it doesn’t have answers. I think it could even be dangerous because, though its descriptions of adultery are not flattering necessarily, they could normalize the experience and make one feel that all the temptations and struggles are not so uncommon. The most intriguing bits of this book are near the end when Kipnis brings in political issues. If 1990s America deserved Bill Clinton — what are we of the Trump era supposed to think and feel about ourselves?

The Awakening by Kate Chopin — An older book/short story which again deals with adultery (honestly it is just coincidental that I read so many books on this subject in such a short time). Again this fiction has more truth to communicate than the non-fiction books on the subject. There’s less resolution for the reader than in Anna Karenina but it’s a good and engaging story nonetheless.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton — Because my 13-year-old wants to read a lot of classics this year, I am pre-reading some that I either hadn’t read or had forgotten. I remembered liking The Outsiders when I read it in high school but couldn’t remember specifics. This is not an awful book but with groum-up eyes I am less impressed. It definitely comes off as a young adult novel, both on not being overly well-written and in having its message a bit too obvious. And there are odd details that don’t contribute to the story — like why do and how do these hoods (in the 1960’s sense of that term) from poor neighborhoods have access to horses?? As with most young adult fiction, adults are gotten out of the way by various plot devices because it anyone sensible stopped in most of the plot would never happen.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles — This is also one I was pre-reading for my daughter and which I remembered liking in high school. As with The Outsiders the writing and plot are worse than I remembered (or my tastes have matured) but it is not a bad book. Of the two, I preferred A Separate Peace. Again, adults are conveniently out of the picture or they would ruin the plot. The backdrop of WWII adds some complexity though one feels the book is trying just a wee bit too hard.

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson — Ferguson explains and discusses the Marrow Controversy, an 18th century debate in the Scottish church, and tells why and how it is relevant today. Ferguson does a good job of distilling and explaining the issues and relates them to modern pastoral issues (particularly relating to one’s assurance of faith, or not). Well worth reading.  My favorite quote: “What God united . . ., namely, his glory and our joy, have been divorced.”

What have you been reading?

Nebby

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