Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review: Landscape with Dragons (updated)

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

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

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

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

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

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

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again:

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

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

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

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

Nebby

 

April Reading

Dear Reader,

Here once again are the books I finished last month:

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading?

Nebby

March Reading

Dear Reader,

I only finished three books in March partly because I have been reading a lot of shorter articles on education (see this series).  Here they are:

All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson — I heard about this book through a podcast that interviewed the author. I was impressed by what she said so decided to read her book. Basically she explicates Philippians 4:8 and discusses how we cultivate discernment. I think that we would largely be on the same page on a lot of things. There were a couple of small points I could quibble about — I am uncomfortable with her talk of discernment as a gift some people have and other don’t, for example. And stylistically, I was not crazy about the book. I think it is like much contemporary Christian lit though. It uses a lot of long examples and stories that aren’t always well tied to the content. But the basics of her ideas are solid and biblical. I particularly liked her point about the power of art to draw us to God (and I quoted it in this post).

Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope — I had never read any Trollope before but if all his books are like this one, I am hooked. This is a very predictable story but it is done with humor. Characters have names like Dr. Fillgrave. The author is often self-referential and talks about his story and how he writes it. It was an easy read and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway — I did a lot of driving this month so I did this one as an audiobook. A group of ladies from my church are getting together to discuss it. It turns out there is some controversy about this book; the house churches in China are split over it. It is quite a moving book. Pretty much everything that could happen to Brother Yun did. It is a powerful story and he seems to give all the glory to God. He seems quite biblical if not overly theological if that makes sense. I found the issues the book raises (perhaps tangentially)m about how the church grows and what it’s needs are as it grows interesting. In light of recent persecutions in China, it is a good book to read.

What are you reading?

Nebby

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

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