Posts Tagged ‘christian education’

The Purpose of Man in the Purpose of Education

Dear Reader,

I have made the argument repeatedly here that our approach to education inherently says things about our view of man’s nature and purpose. Today I would like to nuance that a little.

I am inspired by a remark made on the Mortification of Spin podcast. In their episode on the Davenant Institute (December 30, 2020), the hosts were interviewing two of the men behind that school, Brad Littlejohn and Colin Redemer. I am not sure which of the two made the remark [1], but the gist of it is that when we make education utilitarian, we make people utilitarian. The speaker emphasized that, while most colleges and universities lure students in with promises that their degrees will lead to jobs and money, they proudly make no such claim but educate for education’s sake with no practical end in view.

There is a circular-ness here. On one hand, our views of man’s purpose will inform our approach to education. On the other, our approach to education will influence how we view ourselves and others. When we say “this school will enable you to get a good job that earns a good salary” we are sending the message that a graduate’s value is in his ability to earn. Even with a slightly different emphasis — if, for instance, a school stresses service or contributing to the greater good — there is still some implied utilitarian purpose. We are telling students that their value is in what they give back. And giving back is good. Serving others is good. But the flip side is that those who cannot contribute — the old, the young, the sick, the disabled — are devalued.

In younger years, the emphasis is not so much on money or productivity, but it still tends toward utilitarianism. More often than not, each age is just seen as preparation for the next. High schoolers are prepared for college, middle schoolers are prepared for high school, and so on down the line till even three and four-year-olds must be prepared for kindergarten. The message that we send to children is that their life and their value are somewhere in the future. It is a good instinct in them to rebel against this.

To avoid this, we must turn the thing on its head and ask first what message we wish to send. Is it that the one who earns most is the most valuable? Is it that your value hinges on what you can contribute? Or is it that each person is inherently valuable? That knowledge for its own sake is good?

In my own philosophy of education, I have argued that what we do in education is to put before children the things of God. Our goal, what we hope for, is the transformation of the mind which, theologically speaking, falls under what we call sanctification, the renewing of man’s fallen nature. I recognize as I say this that there is something utilitarian here. There is still an end goal we are working towards, albeit an intensely personal, internal one. Yet because it is ultimately God who works and not us, we cannot be results-oriented. Our motivation — as teachers and students — must be about love — love of knowledge, truth, goodness, and beauty; and love of God from whom all these flow. If in how we educate students we are communicating to them something about their worth let it be this: your worth is found in Christ in whom you live and move and have your being (Acts 17:28).

Nebby

[1] I find it hard at times when listening to discern who is speaking.

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

Trends in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology. I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Not long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,

Nebby

Major Theories in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Last time we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide is with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment.

Much has been written of the various theories of child development and I am not the best person to rehash them all (but see the reading list at the end of this post). What I would like to do is to give a brief introduction to each of the major contributors with a particular focus on the underlying beliefs which affect their overall philosophy. This will be the fodder for future posts in which we delve a little more deeply into the trends in child psychology and how we as Christians should view them. (I also have an earlier, less detailed post, similar to this one which you can find here.)

Major Thinkers in Developmental Psychology

(roughly in chronological order)

John Amos Comenius (see also this earlier post on the history of Christian education)

Who, Where and When:  a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670)

Major Contributions: Tried to create a universal education system which was “pansophic,” i.e. in which all extant knowledge was included (a goal which probably seemed more possible in his day and age). Education should follow the stages of mental development, happen through the medium of the senses, and take into account children’s interests (common ideas, as we will see). He saw language enrichment as a pre-requisite for learning and interest and attention as indicators of readiness to learn. The goal of education is to give the individual a happy, productive life and to ensure the continued morality of society.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Comenius believed education should be begun before the mind is corrupted (which tells us that he did not believe in total depravity) and that the child has a predisposition to learn. He speaks of the “seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety” being within children (Elkind, p. 35).

John Locke (Locke is also mentioned in this post)

Who, Where and When: Enlightenment philosopher (1632-1704). Though his family was Puritan and Lockerbie argues that he was Christian, it is not at all clear he was.

Major Contributions: The mind is blank at birth (the so-called tabula rasa idea). What we know comes to us through our senses. Character is formed early on. Children should learn early to deny themselves their own desires. Children learn best when their minds are in tune. Formal education should be delayed so as to not kill the love of learning. Learning is done through scientific experimentation. The goal of education is primarily to preserve the status quo.

Beliefs and Assumptions: There are no universally accepted truths. Our reason leads us to the knowledge of self-evident truths (think the Declaration of Independence here) including the belief that there is a being we call God, but a God who would have the same attributes no matter what we call him.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (discussed in this post on the origin of evil)

Who, Where and When: A French philosopher (1712-1778) and a really bad parent who abandoned his own (illegitimate) children.

Major Contributions: Education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society. Learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn. Books are downplayed (except Robinson Crusoe). The goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences. Proper education is for the individual, not the society.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil. Our first, natural impulses are good. Formal education is corrupting and bad. Nature is best.  Organized religion is unnecessary, most governments are bad and adults should not exert authority over children. (And, by the way, he said females’ only role is to please men.)

Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi

Who, Where and When: Swiss educational reformer (1746-1827). The famous Prussian schools which in turn influenced American ones were based upon his model.

Major Contributions: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. He emphasized the child’s experiences rather than verbal instruction.  The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship. He emphasized a home-like environment and teachers who truly loved each child. Movement from the simple to the complex, eg. from hands-on manipulatives to theoretical ideas. The goal of education is primarily social in that it deals with the child’s relationships and interactions.

Beliefs and Assumptions: The sacredness of personality and the potential of the child.  Education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity. The child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines without negative outside influences.

Friedrich Froebel (see this post specifically on Froebel)

Who, Where and When: (1782-1852); studied under Pestalozzi; known as the founder of modern kindergarten

Major Contributions:  He stressed the importance of the early years and thought young children could learn much more than had been thought possible. Though he invented kindergarten which implies children are hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten), he actually had studied crystal formation and thought of their development as like that of crystals — just as each element will develop a certain form and structure as it crystallizes, so the child’s natural development is contained within himself.  He believed there were some perfect forms that children could learn from through life so he gave them spheres, cylinders, and cubes. The goal of education is metaphysical unity of man, nature, universe and spirit (see below). The role of the teacher is very important and he also emphasized the role of the mother in infancy.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. Each one has an inner self which is good and an outer self which is the source of the bad in him. Children need to realize their good inner selves (which they do by playing with his perfect forms). All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity.

Johann Friedrich Herbart

Who, Where and When: (1776-1841)

Major Contributions: Herbart devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century. He was the first to connect psychology and education. He developed a five-step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge).

Beliefs and Assumptions: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught.

Horace Mann (see this post and this one)

Who, Where and When: Father of the common school movement in the US (1796-1859)

Major Contributions: The goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens. Education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers. Common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions. Moral education was also the domain of the school. Though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Unitarian. He believed children should decide for themselves what to believe. Humanitarian optimism: the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness.

John Dewey (I have discussed Dewey a lot — see especially this post and this one)

Who, Where and When: The father of the modern American school system (1859-1952);

Major Contributions: The purpose of education is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas. Education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community. Children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led. Material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge. He advocated progressive education in which children are given educative experiences which they then react to and thus adapt and progress (but not all experiences are good; some are miseducative). The teacher guides this process and selects the curriculum and experiences based on the child’s interests.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Secular idealism. Morals are social and pragmatic. Democracy is almost a religion with him. His ideas are based on an evolutionary mindset (see links above) and he believed there is no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural.

Rudolf Steiner (see also this post on Waldorf education)

Who, Where and When: Steiner (1861-1925) is the founder of the Waldorf school movement and also the creator of a philosophy known as anthroposophism.

Major Contributions: In contrast to others, Steiner did not believe we know only through our senses but that the mind can grasp truth directly. Children advance through stages. In the first they are dominated by willing, in the second by feeling, and finally they are able to think. The goal is to integrate these three. Steiner included a lot of the arts and music in education.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Steiner essentially created his own philosophy/religion. Anthroposophism comes out of the spiritualism of the late 1800s (which was itself a rejection of materialism). In contrast to theosophism Steiner did not believe in hidden spiritual knowledge only for a select group but believed that the spirit world could be known through observation and meditation. People have a three-fold nature consisting of thinking, feeling, and willing. Because children do not have all three yet (at least not in equal measure) they are more potential than actual human beings.

Maria Montessori (see this post)

Who, Where and When: First female, Italian doctor (1870-1952). Worked initially with “backwards” children.

Major Contributions: Children can do much more for themselves if their environment is scaled to their size (it is thanks to Montessori that we now have kid-sized chairs). Believed the main part of education was to create an environment in which children can learn through self-directed activities. Children thrive in an uncluttered environment (I wish someone would tell my kids this . . .). Education through muscular and sensory education, not direct instruction. Not a big fan of play for its own sake.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Especially at the end of her life, Montessori was into Theosophy, the spiritualism of the age. The child is born with potential for positive qualities but needs education to develop them. The goal of education is to promote civilized society, even to achieve world peace.

Sigmund Freud

Who, Where and When: The major psychoanalyst (1856-1939) who proposed a psychosexual theory of development.

Major Contributions: Sexuality, even in infants, is a major contributor to psychology. This term is understood very broadly and one goes through developmental stages. Infants are controlled by their oral and anal desires. The goal is mastery of instincts and emotions in healthy ways.

Beliefs and Assumptions: The human is another animal who can be studied using scientific methods and theories. Psychological determinism: our psychology is a product of the influences on us; it is not subject to chance or to our free-will. Human behavior is the product of unconscious fears, emotions, etc. It is our physical, bodily desires which drive our development.

Jean Piaget

Who, Where and When: A teacher and educational thinker (1896-1980) known for his work on the development of human intelligence.

Major Contributions: Piaget’s work is mainly about epistemology — how we know what we know and particularly how children get knowledge and intelligence. He said that we learn through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — that is, we have an idea (thesis) which is then challenged (antithesis) and thus we come to a new understanding (synthesis).  Children do reason but their reasoning is different than ours. Children start out egocentric and must learn to see others’ viewpoints. Children have unique worldviews; they do not view the world as adults do. Ideas that seem wrong to us are often age-appropriate thinking for children (eg. thinking whoever is taller must be older). Children construct their own reality based on what they know (constructivism). In the first stage (ages 0-2) children’s learning is sensory-motor and the main thing they need to learn is object permanence. In ages 2-7 they engage in transductive thinking. They must learn that things can be more than one thing (dog and animal) and have multiple relationships (mother and sister).  Between ages 7 and 11 they engage in concrete operations and only get to formal operations — being able to think about thinking and this learn grammar and algebra — at ages 12-15. After this there are no new mental systems. The goal of education is to make people who can create new things and think new thoughts.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I have found very little on Piaget’s personal beliefs. He was a student of Freud and a follower of Darwin. One can see the evolutionary influence in his theory — the sequence of thesis, antithesis, synthesis is a kind of adaptation to a new environment.  There is also a natural development. Teachers do no really teach as such but children react to their environment and thus develop along natural lines (though abnormalities can occur to derail that natural progress). Though Piaget rejected the idea that the individual’s evolution mimics that of the human race, yet his ideas are clearly evolutionary in terms of the natural progression and the ways in which it is said to occur.

David Elkind (see this post)

Who, Where and When: A modern scholar (1931-) of child development and a student of Piaget.

Major Contributions: Elkind largely follows Piaget but also blends in aspects from others. He sees a triad of elements which work together in education: play, love, and work. Each major stage is dominated by one of these — play first for young children, then work, then love in the teenage years. The goal is to integrate them to form a well-rounded individual.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I don’t know a lot about Elkind’s belief system. It is clear from reading him that he is materialistic in his world view.

Erk Erikson

Who, Where and When: (1902-1994). A German who ended up working largely in the US. A student of Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and a trained Montessori teacher.

Major Contributions: Erikson delineated no less than 8 stages of human development. He saw identity crises as the key to development. He was particularly interested in how one person’s identity crisis might have larger societal implications and wrote on Martin Luther and Gandhi. His 8 stages each represent a choice in which the child can end up going one way or another. Infants will either trust or mistrust, depending on whether their needs are met. Toddlers will either become autonomous (=self-mastery) or face shame and doubt. In the third stage the child will either begin to have initiative or face guilt. Education creates individual identity.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Humans have a long childhood in which there is, if all goes right, a lot of development. Erikson is essentially hopeful about such development whole acknowledging that the negative can happen. He does see it as possible to catch up later in life, however, if one stage has gone wrong. Though he may be using the words differently than we would, he paints shame and guilt as negatives to be avoided.  Positive mental health is equated with self-esteem.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Who, Where and When: A Russian (1896-1934) with no formal training in psychology.

Major Contributions: The major forces in education are not biological but societal and cultural. People internalize the societal tools they are exposed to, things like language and mathematics. These tools then shape their higher mental processes. Thus one can imagine him saying that a peasant who may seem stupid to others is so because of his cultural circumstances not do to any genetic or biological fault in himself. He also believed in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which says that we are able to do things with help before we can do them independently. There is always a new skill which is not yet fully achieved but which one is progressing toward (this is in contrast to others who saw the stage of development more as sudden leaps). Children should thus be put in situations which stretch them and push them on to the next level.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Heavily influenced by Marxism. Unlike others he did not see the maturing process as a natural trajectory but as entirely societal.

B.F. Skinner

Who, Where and When: A behaviorist (1904-1990).

Major Contributions: Behaviorism looks at environmental influences and sees all behavior as driven by outer stimuli and by rewards and punishments. His goal for education, as depicted in a fictional book he wrote, seems to have been to create a utopian society through operant conditioning which reinforces behavior.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Skinner took into account only the material; no consideration was given to man’s spiritual or even emotional nature. Children were experimented on in the same manner as lab rats.

John Bowlby

Who, Where and When: A researcher and child psychiatrist known for his attachment theory (1907-1990).

Major Contributions: Children are born with a need for attachments. These attachments serve an evolutionary advantage as they would get the child cared for and protected. These attachments play a role in later development, particularly if they do not form normally. Infants need to know that their mother is available and reliable. Again there is a staged development as attachments form and progress.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Again there is a distinct evolutionary basis. Though relationships are at the core of Bowlby’s attachment theory, even here they are given evolutionary justification.

Albert Bandura

Who, Where and When: A cognitive psychologist who advanced a social learning theory (1925-).

Major Contributions: Learning can happen not just through doing but through observation and modeling. Not all learning is related to rewards and punishments (vs. Skinner). Internal reinforcements such as pride and a sense of accomplishment are also important. Social influences are important. Internal mental states are part of the learning process (again vs. Skinner). One’s mental state and motivation will affect whether one learns.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I didn’t find much on his personal beliefs.

——————————–

Those are the major contributors to the field of developmental psychology as I understand them. Next time we will make some more general statements about the trends among them and how we as Christians should view their work.

Nebby

Reading List

“25 Things Research Says about Child Development,” Washington, D.C.: Child Trends, 2004.

Cherry, Kendra. “Child Development Theories and Examples,” Very Well Mind (accessed 7/8/2020). ~~ This site contains many other good articles by Cherry as well.

“Child Development, History of the Concept of,” Encylopedia.com (Updated 7/4/2020).

Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2015.

____________ The Power of Play. Da Capo Press, 2007.

Lockerbie, Bruce. A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007 (first published 1994).

Mooney, Carol Garhart. Theories of Childhood. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2013 (2nd ed.).

Murk, Donald. “Piaget, Erikson, Kolhberg, & Jesus: Growing the Soul,” Messiah College, 2017.

Oswalt, Angela. “CHILD & ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT: OVERVIEW,” Gulf Bend Center (accessed 7/8/2020).

Christianity and Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want  to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are. There are really very few Christian sources I can find on this topic for reasons which seem to be inherent to the study itself. Frankly, humanity went a few millennia without this (and many other social sciences) being a field of study.  Developmental psychology arises in the 1800s as a by-product of certain other scientific theories, evolution being a key one.

On the one hand, I do think that all truth is God’s truth and that secular scholars can find truth and that we should not discount their work. On the other, this field in particular has its basis in some very non-Christian presuppositions so we need to be very careful how we approach it.

A friend pointed me to an article from Christian Education Journal which discusses just this issue. In “Reading the Social Sciences Theologically (Part 1): Approaching and Qualifying Models of Human Development” [1], John Trentham discusses the problems in the social sciences, how Christians might approach them, and how they should. I will say from the start that though I found Trentham’s language harder than it needs to be, he appears to be not just Christian but reformed and I like his overall take on things.

Trentham starts by outlining the problem: as Christians we approach the social sciences with a very different framework than secular scholars. “The social sciences are, essentially, a modern secularist enterprise” (p. 462). They are materialistic in their assumptions. What can be known in the social sciences is only what can be observed. There is nothing of the transcendent, either in man’s nature or outside it. While it is not inherently wrong to study child development, the very discipline seems to rest on the idea that children are yet another species to be studied and that the same methods and assumptions that are applied to studying other animals will work here.

As Christians, science is not the enemy.  Indeed, true scientific thought is not possible without the assumptions that Christianity brings to the table — that the universe is knowable and makes sense. Science is part of God’s general revelation. If and when general revelation comes into conflict with special revelation (i.e. the Scriptures) we must give preference to the latter. Because developmental psychology looks at the child, including his nature and our goals for him, it is going to touch on “religious” topics. Scripture has something to say about these issues. Yet there are still things that can be known through general revelation. Our task then is to discern between the two: when is secular science giving us helpful insight and when are its presuppositions skewing its outlook? In the words of Trentham:

“Nonbelievers (i.e. those not ‘rightly related to [their] Creator’) will not lack insight into the existence and condition of humanity, but they will lack the redemptively postured interpretive capacity of corresponding their observations and analysis to the ultimate patterns and aim of God’s purpose for humanity.” (p. 469)

In other words, they may have valuable insights but they fail to see the big picture.

As we approach developmental psychology in the coming weeks, then, we must be on the alert for two stumbling blocks in particular. False presuppositions often lead one to ask the wrong questions and to draw bad conclusions. And whatever good scholarship one might do, a wrong framework which fails to see the big picture, and in particular fails to account for the transcendental, spiritual side of both man and the universe, will misinterpret even good observations. Trentham speaks of temporal conclusions (p. 470) and I think this is key — secular scholars may have good insights into temporal things but at the point where they begin to touch on the eternal, they go astray. Their understanding may at once be accurate but inverted (p. 472). “Social science models of human development are typically oriented into counter-biblical ideals, even while they may describe modes and means of growth that reflect authentic patterns of personal maturity” (p. 474). Which is to say, they may be right on the small scale but tend to be wrong on the large scale. I think of it a bit like theories of evolution (to raise another controversial topic). Microevolution can be demonstrated — we see the changes within a given species when their environment changes. But when we try to scale that to the big picture, macroevolution, we end up with something undemonstrable which depends more on our presuppositions, on what we expect to find, than on the science.

In the coming weeks we will begin to look at some of the main thinkers in the field of child development, keeping in mind these cautions — that they all come to the subject from a secular perspective and that while they may have some good insights, especially as regards temporal concerns, they often start from a wrong place and do not see the larger context as we would.

Nebby

[1] Unfortunately, I only have access to part one of this article.

Education: Creation or Fall?

Dear Reader,

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

One of the first reformed thinkers I read on education was Cornelius Van Til. In his “Essays on Christian Education”  (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), Van Til argues that the purpose of education is found in Creation (pp. 79-80, 125, 167).  As he puts it, the Fall delayed the ultimate goal of Creation but did not fundamentally change it. Thus education is not merely a reversal of damage done by the Fall but it is a fulfillment of man’s creation mandate.

At the time I was intrigued by Van Til’s assertion and meant to come back to this idea. As I have developed my own philosophy of education, I have argued that for believers education is a subset of sanctification. In education we bring before students the things of God which He reveals in His general revelation. As these things are of God they are powerful in their own right. They are transformative and this transformation, specifically the remaking of our minds, is the goal of education (Romans 12:2).

Does that mean that if there had been no Fall and therefore no corruption of our nature that we would not have needed education? I am inclined to side with Van Til on this and to say that education would still have had a purpose. There was a Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve had not eaten of. They were sinless and their natures were not corrupted, but they did not know everything that there is for mankind to know. Education in such a state would perhaps not have been transformative in the sense of changing but there could still have been growth. Though Adam and Eve were in a state of grace, they could still have grown up in that state. Just as the world itself needed their cultivation so their persons could have matured.

For us, living in this fallen world, the task of education is tougher. The ultimate goal is the same, to grow up to maturity in the image of Christ. But the job is harder because we do not start from a place of mere immaturity but from one of corruption. The Fall is not the reason for education but it does make education harder.  Though I have largely followed Charlotte Mason in her philosophy of education I do think this is one aspect that she does not take fully into account. Oddly enough, I have found this idea most clearly in a non-Christian writer I encountered recently, Alfred North Whitehead. The Fall, he says, makes education not as easy as it should be because we do not have the joy in knowledge that we should and we resist those who would teach us. Not to mention that our mental abilities are hampered. I can not recall entirely where I read this (though I think it may be from Frank Gaebelein) but one writer said that every math error is a result of the Fall. It is easy to see that various specific struggles — things like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder — would not exist if it were not for the Fall, but it is incredible to think that if our natures were not corrupted that we would not make even minor mistakes.

I am straying far from my original intention in this post but it does make me wonder what life will be like in the new heavens and the new earth. We know that we will still have good work to do but will we also have learning to do? Will we know everything that there is for man to know at once? I tend to think that there will still be knowledge to be gained. To gain knowledge should be a joy for us and it is hard to imagine that we will no longer have that joy.

But this is speculation. My main point today is simply this: Education has its origins in Creation. The Fall did not create the need for education but it does make it harder.

Nebby

The Prime Mover in Education

Dear Reader,

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

When the world looks at education, it tends to talk in terms of the child versus the adult. On one end of the educational spectrum we find more traditional approaches in which the educator sets the curriculum and is the primary moving force. Classical education, in both its Christian and secular forms, fits this definition. There is believed to be a set body of knowledge that all people should know (or all people in western culture).  The curriculum is thus determined from above. The teacher plays a large role in other ways as well and is often spoken of as a mentor, one to be imitated, and the main source of knowledge.

On the other end of the spectrum we find “child-directed” or “interest-led” learning. The most extreme example of this is Unschooling which is a philosophical position which states that the child will gravitate toward what they need to know. In its most extreme forms, unschooling is a philosophy of parenting as much as of education and says that the adult should never impose his will on the child. The adult in this approach is mainly a facilitator. They help obtain resources but they do not drive either the curriculum or the learning itself. In between these two extremes there are of course many other options as well as many ways of combining their various facets.

What I would like to propose today is that viewing the spectrum in this linear way, with two poles, child-directed on one end and teacher- or curriculum-directed in the other, is too narrow. As Christians, we need to recognize that the child and the adult are not the only two parties involved in education. Charlotte Mason says as much in the last of her 20 principles [1]:

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

Elsewhere she calls the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Ultimately, it is God who works in the hearts and minds of children and adults to enable them to know anything. [2]

There are then three parties in education — the student, the teacher, and God. How do these three relate and what is the role of each? While I am not proposing that we do away with traditional educational structures, the teacher is most extraneous to this process. The Scriptures make clear that we are to learn from those who are farther along in their faith and that parents are to instruct children. Other people are a major channel by which God works, but we must be clear that they are a means. [3] God could also act without these intermediaries and we need to be careful not to distort the relationship.

On the other hand, the child-led end of the spectrum distorts education in another way. It makes the individual learner the arbiter of what is true and good and necessary. My contention has been that in education we place before children the things of God which He gives us in His general revelation. While it would be impossible for any of us to learn everything man has been given to know, there is a level on which the curriculum of education is set by God Himself. He is the Truth and He is the One who enables us to know.

The world speaks of education along a two-dimensional axis with only two possible actors, the student and the teacher. In doing so, they eliminate the One who is actually the Prime Mover in education, the One who gives us the curriculum and who enables learning to take place, that is God Himself. In a Christian philosophy of education [4], we should not take what the world does and tack on God and the Bible as an afterthought; we must instead begin with this truth: that God is the Prime Mover in education.

Nebby

[1] I have discussed the 20th principle previously in this post.

[2] I would add that all three persons of the Trinity, not just the Holy Spirit, are said to give knowledge (see links below).

[3] See also these earlier posts on teaching and education in the Bible:

Words for Teach in the Old Testament

Teaching in the New Testament

[4] Find my philosophy of education (a work in progress) here.

Alfred North Whitehead Follow-Up

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 recently gave my take on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education as presented in his Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Though Whitehead is not Christian and has as his basis a rather modern and godless philosophy, along the way he manages to say some insightful things and so I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the ideas I gleaned from his book.

As we saw last time, Whitehead, though often cited by classical educators, made classical education (or some derivative thereof) just a part of his approach to education. He added to this “literary education” both scientific and technical education (p. 48). It is the latter I particularly want to look at.

In the many books on education which I have read, there have been various ways of incorporating hands-on elements. Christian writers are quick to point out that man consists of both body and spirit and that our approach to education should somehow recognize and accommodate this fact. For my own part, I have tended to define education as the intellectual and to leave aside the physical, hands-on aspects. I am convicted by Whitehead that this is perhaps not quite the right tack.

Part of what had led me to this intellectually-based approach to education was a discomfort with the various ways in which the physical seemed to be artificially tacked on to education.  Whitehead also recognizes that a lot of what passes for the physical in education may be physical but is not really education:

” . . . in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies. This is exactly the mistake of the post-renaissance Platonic curriculum. But nature can be kept at bay by no pitchfork . . . being expelled from the classroom, she returned with a cap and bellsin the form of all-conquering athleticism.” (p. 50)

In other words, medieval classical education did not include or acknowledge the physical side of man which nonetheless refused to be excluded. People need to be kept active and so sports — what we now call physical education — came to take the place of something equally physical but more educative.

What should real “physical education” look like? Whitehead calls it technical education which perhaps gets a little closer to the idea though it also conjures up some false ideas based on the modern use of the term. For Whitehead, technical education, while hands-on is by no means un-intellectual. Though the hands may be engaged, the mind is still very involved. A technical education such as Whitehead proposes is more akin to what we would call craftsmanship. It is the sort of education which can produce master carpenters and plumbers, those who not only know how to cut a board and fix a leak but who can trouble shoot, who understand, almost on an intuitive level, the materials of their trade and can use and apply them, who can plan and execute complex projects.

If this technical education is excluded, Whitehead tells us, the intellectual will suffer as well:

“The disuse of hand-craft is a contributory cause to the brain-lethargy of aristocracies . . .  Great readers, who exclude other activities, are not distinguished by subtlety of brain.”(p. 51)

Though the two are spoken of as separate categories, “[t]here can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical” (p. 48).

Whitehead has a high view of work which, though he abandoned his Christian upbringing, seems quite biblical. It is at least in part from this view that his advocacy of technical education arises. He also, again quite biblically, recognizes that since the Fall man’s work is not always as easy or delightful as it should be (p. 44). One of my big criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy which has led me to try to devise my own approach to education is her underestimating the effects of the Fall. Here in a non-Christian author, I find some hint of what needs to be added to our approach to account for those effects. It is simply this: Kids aren’t always going to enjoy learning and they aren’t always going to be good at it. By God’s grace, there will be times when their little eyes light up with joy and understanding, but we must not be surprised when they struggle and when they resist us.

This is one of the biggest questions I hear in my local Charlotte Mason discussion group when moms actually get together and talk about the nitty-gritty of how we do this: Why doesn’t my child love the good books I am putting before him? Why isn’t this all clicking like Miss Mason said it should? There is a reason we are not unschoolers. Unschooling says that children will gravitate towards that they need to know, that they by nature will recognize and acquire what is best for them. It assumes a very positive view of human nature. Charlotte Mason does not go quite so far but she also does not do enough to account for the fallenness of man. Education is a lot like sharing one’s faith. We do so in the hope that God will act but we must also not be surprised when what we offer is rejected. That rejection also does not mean that we don’t try again the next day with the same enthusiasm.

These are the two big ideas I got from Whitehead’s work. There are a number of smaller ideas to be gleaned as well. In the interest of time, I will present them as bullet points:

  • “The curves of history are more vivid and more informing than the dry catalogues of names and dates . . .  ” (p. 8)
  • “But mankind is naturally specialist . . . I am certain that in education whenever you exclude specialism you destroy life” (p. 10).  Whitehead, like Mason, argues for a fairly broad education and for not allowing children to specialize (i.e. to concentrate almost exclusively on one subject area) until a fairly late age, and yet he makes this statement. We have all known those kids who are obsessed with one area or idea. It may end up being a life long obsession or they may move in and out of various obsessions. This quote makes me think that we may need to do more to accommodate these passions which still requiring that broad education.
  • We must not postpone harder subjects. The hardest things kids have to learn they learn first in life — understanding language and talking (p. 16).
  • Like Charlotte Mason, Whitehead argues that the thing most analogous to education is eating. To educate is nto to shove things in like packing a suitcase.  Education is like food which must be assimilated by the organism. “When you put your boots in a trunk, they will stay there until you take them out again; but this is not at all the case if you feed a child with the wrong food” (p. 33).
  • “The great English Universities, under whose direct authority school-children are examined in plays of Shakespeare, to the destruction of their enjoyment, should be prosecuted for soul murder.” (p. 57)

And finally this: “education is a difficult problem, to be solved by no one simple formula” (p. 36).

Nebby

 

Alfred North Whitehead and Classical Education

Dear Reader,

In my quest for a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I have read a lot of books. One I had seen cited by others a number of times was Alfred North Whitehead’s Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Since he seemed so influential, I figured I had to read his book eventually and the time finally came during this lovely quarantine.

As its name implies, Aims of Education is a compilation of essays, most but not all of which are on education (a few later in the book are on science which I suppose is not a wholly unrelated subject).  There are a number of stimulating ideas I got from this slim volume which we will get to in a follow-up post. Today I’d like to look at Whitehead’s take on classical education and his influence on later classical educators. Specifically, I would like to ask these later educators, particularly the Christian ones: Why on earth are you quoting this guy?!

It’s not that Whitehead doesn’t have some good ideas. And it’s not that his own philosophy does not appeal to classical education. But Whitehead himself is not Christian. He is in fact fairly anti-religious and is an adherent of process philosophy (we’ll get to what that is in a minute). His use of classical sources and methods is as part of a larger philosophy of education and my impression is that he uses them in a very utilitarian way (which will appeal to some modern classical people but not others). Finally, the one most famous line from Whitehead, which I have seen cited multiple times, is, I think, taken out of context and used to mean something very different from what he meant.

I’ve made a lot of accusations so let’s begin to unpack this a bit. With Whitehead’s work, more even than others we have looked at, the ideas behind the philosophy of education are pivotal. These ideas come from the mind of a man and so it is with the man that we will begin.

The Man and His Ideas

Alfred North Whitehead was first and foremost a mathematician. He was British but worked in the US for some time at Harvard University. He lived in the early 1900s and the volume I am reviewing seems to have been written during his time at Harvard after WWI. We have seen in the past that so many philosophies of education arose in the wake of the Great War. [1] It really affected people on a profound level and the answer for many was to say, “How can education help us ensure that this never happens again?” Whitehead’s father was an Anglican minister [2], and he seems to be knowledgeable about the Bible. He is, as Frank Gaebelein said in another book I read recently, immersed in the world of the Bible though he does not subscribe to it. [3]

In terms of his intellectual context, Whitehead was a follower of John Dewey and the teacher of Bertrand Russell, with whom he wrote his most famous work, Principia Mathematica. Russell is perhaps best-known for his 1957 volume Why I am Not a Christian. Dewey is known as the father of the modern American school system. I have reviewed his ideas previously in this post and this one. One of the things we noted when we looked at Dewey was that his ideas come very much from an evolutionary mindset. They are materialistic in that they consider the material world and discount a spiritual element, and they are evolution-based in that they see life and education as a process of adapting to one’s environment. Dewey himself was influenced by William James, a psychologist known for his radical empiricism which says that “the world and experience can never be halted for an entirely objective analysis; the mind of the observer and the act of observation affect any empirical approach to truth.” [4]

In the final chapters of Aims of Education, those which deal with science, we can see the influence of the materialism and evolutionary mindset of Dewey and the pragmatism of James most clearly. Here Whitehead lays out his views of what science does. I will admit upfront that a fair degree of this went over my head. My quick synopsis would be as follows: What we know we know through our senses. We perceive the world not in instants but in small chunks of time. The fodder of science, what it has to act upon, is these “sense-objects,” which is to say objects as we perceive them. Whitehead recognizes that mankind cannot agree about science if it does not agree about “what really is” (p. 122). He recognizes as well that science should be related to metaphysics or ontology. It is the “determination of the nature of what truly exists” (p. 121). In practice, however, he sees that there are many factors which affect our “sense-presentation.” Memory affects us. Our presuppositions affect us. The time and space in which we encounter a given object affect how we perceive it. [5] The miracle is actually that we have any common ground with one another. Thus while there may be a reality behind it all, we can know it only through our senses which are affected by many external and internal factors.

Whitehead gives many examples. My favorite is that of a cat (pp. 125-26). We say that we see a particular cat but in reality in a few years it may contain a completely new set of molecules. Yet we still somehow know that this is Fluffy and not Patches. We may determine that Fluffy is glad to see us, but all we can perceive is mewing and leg-rubbing. Our minds fill in and give meaning to these sensations. In the dark we may just hear the mewing but again we say that we perceive a cat.

When I say that I perceive something like a chair and speak of it, I assume that you have roughly the same experience of this “chair.” “[T] he vision of a chair” occurs “for some definite person at some definite time . . . It is his vision, though each of us guesses that it must be uncommonly like our vision under analogous circumstances” (p. 135). What we perceive are certain molecules and waves of light as they play upon our sense organs, but we say “chair” and we assume that the other person perceives things in roughly the same way.

Both the chair and the cat, for Whitehead, are intellectual constructions (p. 136), “hypothetical thought-objects of perception” (p. 133). That is, we have certain perceptions and we make conclusions about cats and chairs. “The material universe,” says Whitehead, “is largely a concept of the imagination which rests on a slender basis of direct sense-presentation. But none the less it is a fact; for it is a fact that actually we imagine it. Thus it is actual in our consciousness just as sense-presentation is actual there” (p. 133).

And what of human beings? For Whitehead, what we are is a product of our self-determination. We cannot control our circumstances but we can control how we take them. Though sensation and perception are important, we are not entirely controlled by them. We can determine how we feel. [6]

Whitehead does not deny that there is something absolute out there, but in practice, we cannot know anything absolute. What exists exists in our minds because that is all we can know. Everything, for us, is ultimately experiential. [7] He acknowledges that there is an “infinitude” we are trying to grasp but at the same time says that “All truths are half-truths.” [8] Elsewhere he does speak of God. Whitehead’s God is the source of novelty and change and gives value and beauty to the world [9], but He is not a personal God — either in the sense of having a relationship with man or of being Himself a Person.

Speaking of religion, Whitehead says that it is “‘the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within'” yet he seems to believe that though men strive they are never able to know this thing that gives it all meaning. [10] Religion may be used for good or evil or be morally neutral. It has been “‘the main instrument for progress'” but also has done quite a lot of ill. [11]

This is my very primitive understanding of Whitehead’s personal philosophy. The question before us next is what his philosophy of education is and how it reflects his views.

Whitehead on Education

Education for Whitehead is the acquiring of ideas which are then to be utilized. He warns against “‘inert ideas'” which “are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (p. 1). This need to apply ideas is not entirely utilitarian. Whitehead does value understanding for its own sake (p. 2). “By utilising an idea,” he says, “I mean relating it to that stream compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires, and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life” (p. 3).

Because he seeks to imbue children with active and not inert ideas, Whitehead eschews those methods which tend to make education more of a dead thing. He is against standardizing the curriculum or standardized examinations (pp. 5, 9, 13). His ideal is a small class whose curriculum is determined by the teacher as being best able to tailor it to his particular students (p. 9). It is always possible to “pump into the minds of a class a certain quantity of inert knowledge” (p. 5), but this is not the goal. His goal for education is not facts but an understanding of broad trends such as “the curves of history” (p. 8).

We have seen in many (if not all) the approaches to education that we have looked at, certain underlying assumptions about the nature of children. Though Whitehead sees ages 16 through 30 as the major time of self-development and speaks of birth through age 12 as a time of training (p. 1), yet he also seems to see children as having minds as capable as those of adults. The mind, he says, is always active. It does not need to be honed before it is used, though there does seem to be honing which goes on (p. 6).

Whitehead also stresses the interconnectedness of all subjects. “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations” (pp. 6-7). Though man naturally tends to specialize, this should be discouraged until later years (pp. 10-11).

Getting more to specifics, Whitehead says that “Life is essentially periodic” (p. 17). His approach to education is also periodic on a few different levels. Each subject has a trajectory from romance to precision to generalisation (p. 17). Not all subjects will be in these stages at the same time, however. One begins with subjects like history and science comes later so that one may be in the precision stage in one subject and the romance stage in another. There is a rhythm as well of freedom and discipline that the student again moves in and out of in the various subjects (pp. 29-31). Education, for Whitehead, is very cyclical, with these patterns repeating themselves (p. 19).

What we often think of as education — the learning of facts, the grammar stage of classical education — is the second stage, that of precision (p. 18). But it must always be preceded by the romance stage, that which captures the imagination (this is akin to the poetic knowledge of which James K. Taylor speaks). The final stage, generalisation, is that of fruition or synthesis (p. 19). In the end one aims not to know facts but to grasp principles so that the facts may even be forgotten when the whole is grasped (pp. 26, 37). As the student moves through the various stages and phases of education, there is a strong emphasis on imagination. The initial romance stage of any subject is to capture the imagination and in the final generalisation stage one returns to it. [Whitehead spends a chapter discussing the importance of imagination at the university level (pp. 91ff).]

Though the role of the teacher is at times important, especially in the stages of precision and discipline (p. 35), the goal is for the student to be self-disciplined and to develop as an individual (p. 39). The role of the teacher is to “elicit enthusiasm by resonance” and to create an environment which makes knowledge and purpose desirable (pp. 39-40).

The curriculum itself has three sides: literary, scientific, and technical (p. 48). Whitehead spends some time arguing for the necessity of the technical which tends to be either neglected or misunderstood. He is thinking here os something hands-on but not intellectual. Technical education produces workmen who know and love their field. The image is of the expert woodworker or plumber who is able not just to build according to specifications but to innovate and to troubleshoot. Literary education has to do with all those subjects which involve language and is most akin to classical education. Thus we see that classical (which we will return to below) is one part of education for Whitehead, but not the whole. Scientific education has to do with natural phenomena. It should largely involve first-hand knowledge. No education could possibly hope to be complete and a given individual will tend to emphasize one of these three over the others, but all should have some of each in their education.

For a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, many of the words Whitehead uses sound good — imagination and ideas particularly. Yet we need to be careful to understand these words in the way Whitehead himself does and to view them in the light of his broader philosophy (while at the same time acknowledging that his philosophy of education may not always match his overall philosophy — we humans can be inconsistent). When Whitehead talks of ideas and imagination, it is because these for him are reality. At least, they are all of reality we can know. What we know is not what is but our perception of what is. We have some control over this perception and so our reaction to our environment is very important as well. Facts are less important and can even be forgotten at higher levels because they are not ultimately what is true for us. Thus the goal of education is to develop the individual’s imagination because it is in his imagination that his reality exists.

Whitehead and Classical Education

Whitehead is often cited by later proponents of the neo-classical movement and he does indeed spend some time discussing classical education, but I think it is a bit of a jump to say that he himself is classical. As we have seen, what might be thought of as traditional classical education forms one part of education for Whitehead. It roughly corresponds to his literary curriculum.

Because classical is a very broad term, I recently did a post on the characteristics of classical education. I think it would be helpful to look at Whitehead’s approach in terms of this list to see where he does and does not line up with classical. Note that one does not need to meet each of these criteria to be considered classical. There is no solid line between classical and not-classical but having all or most of these characteristics certainly makes one classical and having a few  only probably means one is not classical.

The characteristics are:

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

Starting at the top, we find that while Whitehead discusses some of the ancients (#s 1 & 2 above), he does not trace his overall philosophy of education to them.  He uses some ancient sources but also advocates the use of more modern sources for certain subjects. He does not, as many more modern writers do, place Greek and Roman authors on a pedestal, saying instead that “the ancients can boast over us no superiority” (p. 29). He finds the traditional western, classical cannon too narrow and recommends more modern authors as well, naming Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin. Looking beyond western civilization, he also says, “I have my doubts of a selection which includes Xenophon and omits Confucius” (p. 47). Though he advocates the learning of Latin and the reading of Roman authors for their disciplinary and historical value, he is quite critical of them: “One of the merits of Roman literature is its comparative lack of outstanding genius . . . Very little Roman literature will find its way into the kingdom of heaven . . .” (pp. 67-68).

Whitehead is critical of classical methods as well:

” . . . [the ancients] erred sadly. To put the matter simply, their popular practice assumed that wisdom could be imparted to the young by procuring philosophers to spout at them.” (p. 30)

Yet Whitehead is not entirely negative on classical education. He says that the “Platonic Ideal has rendered imperishable services to European civilisation” (p. 46). Yet it is not the be-all and end-all of education for him. A classic liberal arts education, he says, is a very good education for certain people (p. 46).

Regarding virtue (#3&4), Whitehead again has some reference to virtue and his philosophy allows for the idea of a higher ideal out there somewhere but I would not say that he makes virtue the main goal in the way classical educators do. The development of the imagination, more than virtue, is the goal for Whitehead and, as we have seen, imagination has more to do with one’s concept of reality than with virtue. (This is a topic we will return to below as well when we discuss Whitehead’s most oft-quoted sentence.) To the extent that he has higher values, it is not virtues like godliness or honesty of patience or bravery that Whitehead extols. His highest good seems to be the aesthetic sense, the appreciation of beauty (pp. 12, 40).

Whitehead does have a fairly prominent role for the teacher (#5&6), especially at certain stages, though this role is meant to diminish over time (an idea not unfamiliar to other adherents of classical). His approach is at times disciplinary (#7) in that certain subjects are learned for their shaping or molding value. This is especially true of those elements of classical which he includes. That is to say, he incorporates classical bits like the learning of Greek and Latin for their disciplinary value. They are not valued so much for their own sake, as pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but as “subsidiary means for the furtherance of this ulterior object” (p. 63). Thus Latin stimulates mental expansion (p. 65) but it does not even matter in the long run if one forgets one’s Latin so long as one retains the skills learned.

Numbers 8 through 12 all have to do with what stands outside of man, with absolutes. Again, Whitehead has some belief in absolutes, especially with regard to beauty, but he also does not believe that man can ultimately know these truths (#12). This is a significant departure from classical thought. To some extent the truths which may be out there are irrelevant to Whitehead’s philosophy because we cannot truly know them.

The end of the list, numbers 14 through 21, have to do mostly with more practical specifics. We will run through these fairly quickly — Whitehead makes no reference to dialectic (#14) or to a hierarchy of knowledge (#21). Nor can I find that he particularly uses or addresses rhetoric (#15) and argumentation (#17). He does include the learning of classical languages (#16), albeit for purposes of training the mind more than for their own sake. While I would not say that Whitehead rejects purely scientific knowledge (#18), his approach to education and philosophy is quite modern and scientific in that he begins with man’s senses and what he can know and works from there. Modern science is a part and not the whole of his education, but scientific presuppositions underlie it all. Yet there is some understanding of what might be called poetic or non-scientific knowledge (#19) that shows up particularly in the first and third stages of his educational cycle, romance and generalisation. In each of these it is the love of knowledge which is the focus. There is, as we have seen, a kind of staging of education here (#20) but it is not at all like Sayers’ three-stage view of education. For one thing, it is cyclical so that one may be in all three stages at once, albeit in different subjects.

In discussing the place of classical education in the modern world (which for him was the early 1900s), Whitehead extols the past virtues of the approach but at the same time says that “Humpty Dumpty was a good egg so long as he was on top of the wall, but you can never set him up again” (p. 61). Thus, to sum up Whitehead’s take on classical and his use of it we must say that while he acknowledges its benefits, especially its past benefits to society, and takes from it some elements, he does not identify himself as classical and does not see a classical education as a complete education or one appropriate to the modern world.

“The Habitual Vision of Greatness”

There remains one topic for us to delve into and that is to parse out that most-oft quoted line of Whitehead’s:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” (p. 69)

This quote is taken to mean that we must give students an ideal — a vision of greatness– which is placed before them regularly (habitually) in order for them to develop virtue (moral education). Thus the classics are used as these “visions of greatness.” The present an ideal. Some Christian authors will note that this is an ideal we can never reach on this life and even perhaps that there are models beyond the classical to which we should look, but the idea is the same: that we use classical sources with their emphasis on virtue in order to present an inspiring ideal. [12]

In this understanding the greatness spoken of is something external to the individual which inspires him to do and be more. But this does not seem to be quite what Whitehead is saying. First of all, we must notice that he looks primarily to Roman and not Greek sources, though he sees the former as the arbiter of the latter. Secondly, he is honest about the failings of these sources. We have seen that he does not view them as great literature. Though not himself a Christian, he notes that it is Rome which is condemned by the Book of Revelation as the harlot and the Great Babylon (p. 68). Her vices, he says, are as great as her virtues (p. 69). It is in this context that Whitehead then makes his famous statement. Here is the full context:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue. Now the sense of greatness is an immediate intuition and not the conclusion of an argument. It is permissible for youth in the agonies of religious conversion to entertain the feeling of being a worm and no man, so long as there remains the conviction of greatness sufficient to justify the eternal wrath of God. The sense of greatness is the groundwork of morals.” (p. 69)

Greatness here is not a goal to which one aspires. It is the foundation. It must come first. The Christian conviction of sin and of humility before God is at best a brief stage and even in the midst of it one must feel some sense of self-importance, enough at least to merit the wrath of God. Whitehead says here, as I understand him, not that we should be good because we look to an Ideal but that we should be good because we are great. Now it is possible that this is how some secular or non-Christian proponents of classical would understand the thing, but this is a distinctly un-Christian idea and it is usually taken, as often as I have seen it quoted, out of context.

Wrapping Up

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education has its feet in two worlds. He stands at the end of a tradition of classical education which to some extent he still acknowledges and incorporates to a degree that more modern educators do not. Yet in his personal philosophy is so very, very modern in the sense of being scientific and relying on the presuppositions of modern science and not on faith, religion, or even morality. There are some good ideas in his book (which again I will return to in another post) and there is certainly a lot to make one think. But in the end, everything he says must be taken with quite a large grain of salt recognizing that his beliefs and presuppositions are very different from our own. At times the words he uses may sound familiar and right but we must be careful to read them in light of the ideas behind them. Though he is often referred to and quoted by advocates of modern classical education, he is not a classical educator and does not identify himself as one but distinctly rejects classical education.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] Other educational thinkers from this period include Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf Method). Charlotte Mason worked in this period as well though her work began in the late 1800s.

[2] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[3] Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomal Press 1985) p. 190.

[4] “William James,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

[5] Whitehead also met Abert Einstein and was very much interested in his theory of relativity (“Alfred . . . ” in Stanford). We can perhaps see traces of this idea here — our perception, and therefore our reality, is affected by the time and space in which we perceive it.

[6] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smitha, p. 2.

[9] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Frank Gaelebein, one of my favorite writers, is among those who quote this line. He is also one who looks not primarily to classical but to biblical ideals:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead lets us down as he points to the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome as ‘the habitual vision of greatness.’ Certainly for the Christian writer, ‘the habitual vision of greatness’  is not classical history and literature but the Bible, the Word of the living God.” (Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth ,p. 189)

I had it in my head that Clark and Jain in The Liberal Arts Tradition also quote this particulat line though I cannot find the passage now. For more on the classical ideal see this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility

Bibliography

Alfred North Whitehead,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (revised 9/4/2018).

“Alfred North Whitehead,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

Smitha, Frank E. “Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead,” Macrohistory: World History (accessed 5/7/2020).