Posts Tagged ‘Christian theology’

Creating a Philosophy of Education: Questions to Ask

Dear Reader,

Long ago when I first looked at various approaches to homeschooling, I noticed that they all have something to say (whether knowingly or unknowingly) about two questions: What is the nature of the child? and What is his purpose? Having read much more on education, I feel now that I need to add one more vitally important question: What is knowledge and how do we know?

Within these questions there are others we can ask to help us develop our thinking and to fill out our arguments. Some of these are very big questions which may seem overwhelming initially. I am adding sub-questions to help us understand the big questions and to beign to think about what their answers might be. This list is something of a work in progress but here is what I would put on it thus far:

What is the nature of the child?

There are two questions within this one. We must first ask —

What is the nature of man? We can think here of various areas. We may ask: What is his moral nature? Is he inherently good? Inherently evil? Something in between or some mixture of the two?

We may also ask: What are his abilities? Can he freely choose? Is he bound by determinism? Or again, something in between these two? Can he think? Can he will? Can he reason?

Having made some statements about man in general, we must also ask about the child —

How does he differ from the man? Does he have the same nature (moral and otherwise)? Does he have the same abilities? Are his faculties inherent to him or must they be developed? Is the child in his essence a small man or must he become a man?

Whether we are steeped in a theological tradition or not, I think most of us have some opinion on the moral nature of man — whether the average person is basically good or basically bad or how the good and bad intermingle. And most of us will, I think, say that we have some mental abilities (if we don’t believe it of others, we certainly believe it of ourselves). The big practical question for education is how do these things play out in the child? Does he begin good or morally neutral and learn to do wrong? Does he begin wrong but learn to be good?  As a parent, do you see your job as disciplining against wrong or training for good or cultivating an inherent good?

And how is the child different from the adult in terms of his abilities, particularly his ability to know and learn? Must he be taught to reason, or to use the reason he has?

One way to begin to think about these questions is to imagine a child who has no outside influences (raised by morally neutral wolves, maybe). How will he develop? Will he have compassion and empathy? Will he be entirely self-serving? Will he think (beyond what his wolf-y brothers do)? Will he develop discernment? Will he be able to gather information and form ideas and create new tools on his own?

Another way to begin to get to the answers to these questions is to think of what metaphor you would use for the child — Is he a blank slate to be written on? an empty vessel to be filled? a lump of clay to be molded? a seedling to be nourished and trained to grow upright? or something else? (Philosophies have been built on each of these metaphors.)

Similarly, we may ask about the role of the teacher — Does he fill, mold, train, nourish? Is his ideal role passive or active? Is he an example, a mentor, a source of knowledge, a provider of materials?

What is his purpose?

Education has some purpose or we would not do it. This purpose may be final or it may be a step along the way to a greater purpose.

One of the first questions me must ask, then, is what is the ultimate purpose of man? Or is there any? Which is as much as to say: Is there meaning to human existence and if so, what is it? Is there one purpose for all of us or do we all have different purposes?

If you are a parent, you probably have some vision of who and what and how you want your child to be. Try finishing this sentence: The thing I would most want for my child is __________ . And now think about how you will feel if your child doesn’t finish that sentence for himself they way you would for him. Is that okay?

When we speak about purpose in this way, we are thinking fairly long term. We are looking to the end of life and asking what will make that life good or meaningful or worthwhile.

When we think of education, we need to ask how it relates to this ultimate goal. Is education for the long term or is it for the short term? (It may be some combination of the two as well, though I would argue that one goal will always take precedence over the other.) A question that will help us answer this is: How long does education last? Is it for the young only (or primarily)? Or is it a life-long enterprise?

If we take a long-term view of education, then our purpose for life is also our purpose for education. That is, whatever our ultimate goal is, that is what we are educating towards. If our goal is an ultimate one, education will not end when schooling does.

Alternatively, education might be something we need to get us to the point where we can begin to achieve our purpose. Education in this view is equipping. It is a stage along the way and there will be a time when it ends, or at least changes in some significant way. If this is the case, then we must ask what preparation is needed. What is lacking that education will supply? Is there some body of knowledge that needs to be learned? Some skill to be learned or developed? How can education contribute to the greater purpose?

Notice that there is a lot of overlap here with the previous “big question” — if we believe that the child is born good and with all the abilities of an adult, we are probably not going to have a short-term goal for education. It may point to a greater purpose but there is no real equipping or preparation along the way that is needed. Alterntively, if the child is lacking something the adult has (or should have) then maybe education is simply how he gets from point A to point B so that he is then able to begin living out his purpose.

What is knowledge and how do we know? 

When we are talking about knowledge and knowing, we are in the realm of epistemology. Though it seems backwards, I’d like to begin with the second half of this question: How do we know?

Again, we go back to the nature of the child. Can the child integrate knowledge in the same way an adult does or does he need to be taught how to do so? Does he need to be taught how to think or does he simply need to be given the fodder for thought? Is he already equipped to deal with knowledge if it comes before his notice?  If we say his reason needs to be trained or developed, this will tend towards a short-term goal. At some point we will have done as much as we can for him, and he is on his own, released into the world to do all that thinking.

There is another aspect of the “how do we know” question which leads more directly to educational methods. Whether education is primarily for childhood or is life-long, there is something that happens between reading (or hearing or seeing) and knowing. And what does it even mean to “know” something? Do I know something when it enters my short-term memory? When it enters my long-term memory? Or does knowing go beyond that — does it mean that I can manipulate a piece of information and use it in new ways? Does it mean that I can apply it to real-world situations? Or is knowing about relationship?

Imagine that you are reading a book about birds. You might read the words and then walk away and not be able to relate a single thing you read.  Or you might remember some facts about swallows (for instance) till dinnertime. Or maybe what you read enters long-term memory and you can still recall it years later. Would you say at this point that you “know” about swallows? What if you can recite facts about that swallow but you walk outside and a barn swallow buzzes your head and you don’t recognize him? Would you still say you “know” about swallows? Or does knowledge imply some ability to apply that knowledge? Then again, it’s one thing to say: “Oh, that bird buzzed my head and I think it is a barn swallow” and to say: “Oh, look, a barn swallow! You better duck; they like to buzz people’s heads.” Now there is an application that not only observes but also predicts. On another level still is the scientist who comes up with a new theory which explains why the barn swallow likes to buzz heads.

I think most of us would say that there are degrees here — the person with facts in long-term memory at least knows about swallows. Somewhere along the way there is a transition so that we can say that the scientist not only knows about but actually knows swallows.

As we educate, we have to ask: Which of these levels of knowing is our goal? I hope that most will admit that no one person can know everything about every subject so we will likely have to prioritize. Our answer may vary — we may say it is enough to know about swallows but I want my child to know chemistry and American history. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t need to know anything at all about jazz music.

Our technique will vary based on the kind of knowledge we are aiming for and how we think it gets into one’s head. Is it enough to memorize lists of facts? Does knowledge need to come in through a more relatable medium, through stories perhaps? Or are hands-on experiences key? The ancients often educated through questioning; perhaps this is the best way. Or maybe, in our scientific age, we value experimentation.

We have been talking about how knowledge gets in; we can also talk about how it gets out. Is it necessary to give practical expression to it? Our society values testing. Often this is to benefit the teacher or adminstrator by letting him know what the student has learned or how the curriculum is working. But testing, in various forms, may also benefit the student. Do you believe this is true? Is there any value to the learner in regurgitating knowledge? And if so, what is of the greatest benefit to him? Are written tests the way to go or recitation or hands-on projects?

Finally, we need to talk about knowledge itself. Depending on our view of the child’s nature, knowledge may or may not be our goal. If what we are aiming at is to teach the child to think, then knowledge may be little more than the fodder for this process. What we learn may not be as important as how we learn to act on that material. It is as if we are teaching the child to build a tower but whether he builds with Lincoln Logs or plastic blocks is irrelevant.

Most of us, however, will place some value on what is taught. So we must ask: Is there one set body of knowledge that everyone needs to know (or everyone in our western society, perhaps)? Or is learning so individualized that while we encourage knowing, each person’s body of knowledge may be completely unique to them? Many will come down somewhere in between — there are some things everyone must learn and some that are optional. We might insist our child learn to read and do math up through algebra but let them off the hook on calculus or give them a choice betwen American and European history. Again, our answers will depend on what we think the goal of education is. If learning is life-long, if we value knowledge for its own sake, we are likely to cast a much wider net. If we have more practical, specific goals, we will gear what we learn towards those goals.

We must look at knowledge itself from a broader perspective as well. How does history or literature relate to science? Is one subject more valuable than another? Is there any overarching truth which ties it all together?

I suspect that we could go on and on. There are many possible questions to ask and we don’t need to answer them all. But we do need to begin to think about them. Every additional question you can answer for yourself gets you one step closer to forming your own philosophy of education. I hope I have at least convinced you that there are some pretty big ideas at work here and that they are worth considering. And that as you ask for advice from other parents or as you choose a curriculum that it is important to think about where they are coming from and if their philosophy has anything in common with your own.

Nebby

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Nicholas Wolterstorff

Dear Reader,

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

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

Lest you think I am just a crank, I found a “reformed thinker” whose ideas I think. I introduced you last time to a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997). This volume contains selected articles on education. Today’s thinker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, is one of these. Wolterstorff was another philosophy professor at Calvin College. He has two articles in the volume: “Curriculum: By What Standard?” (1966) and “Looking into the Eighties” (1978). The latter was a speech given looks at the future of Christian education. The former discusses specifics of how to form a curriculum.

In “Looking to the Eighties” Wolterstorff asks “Is it possible to conduct alternative Christian education in a non-isolationist setting?” (p. 112). I began this series with some brief discussion (borrowed from Peter Ton who got them from Vried) of the spectrum of ideas about education. One of the biggest of these is the dichotomy between education as primarily an intellectual enterprise on one end and the need for practical, life applications on the other. Among authors we have looked at, we saw that Gordon Clark defined education as intellectualistic but W.H. Jellema took the more practical view. Wolterstorff is also in the latter category. He argues that “Christian education is to imbue the child with a Christian world and life view” and that this view must not be purely intellectual. Education is not all about thinking but “the goal of Christian education is to shape a way of living” (p. 113).

Wolterstorff then makes an assertion: “every society and community educates its members for life in that community” (p. 114). This is a definition we have seen previously when we looked at Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education. Wolterstorff concludes fro this that we must indeed have our own alternative schools because we have an alternative community. How we do so in a way which does not totally reject or isolate us from the culture is the problem he seeks to address.

Before getting there, Wolterstorff takes a detour to look at how we learn how to act. He has already established that education should shape not just our thinking but our actions so how do we do that? He refers to scientific studies to show that children copy what they see others do. If their role models act one way and speak another, they also will become hypocrites, acting as they see others act and speaking as they see them speak (p. 116). If they have diverse role models, there is no way to predict whom they will model themselves after. To top it off, digital models (those on TV or the internet, though he didn’t know the internet) are just as effective as live ones. And this is the crux of the problem because in today’s world — even more than Wolterstorff could have imagined — children are surrounded by these bad influences. And even the good influences which they hopefully get at home and school and church are ultimately imperfect people who will not always represent the best. Wolterstorff rejects the Amish solution, making a truly alternative community with no interaction with the rest of the world, but then returns to his base question: how do we do it?

The first answer he gives is to be a community of love. Though we are imperfect, sinful people, we need to give as authentic and loving a community as we can. Beyond this, we need to give reasons for acting the way we do. Relying once again on studies, he argues that children will respond better to those who give reasons for their actions. The talking heads on our screens do not, but we can and so we can win the battle (p. 118). On a practical level, this means that our curricula need to allow us to discuss real issues and how Christians have, historically, reacted to them and we should react to them (p. 119).

I like most of what Wolterstorff says here. His main arguments come from general revelation, i.e. scientific studies, but they do not contradict Scripture and they do seem to contribute to our understanding in a helpful way. As Paul says in Corinthians, “Bad company ruins good morals” (I Cor. 15:33; ESV). I do think we could add a detail — though we are indeed sinful and therefore imperfect role models ourselves, the work of the Holy Spirit in our children’s lives can cover a lot. It is not entirely up to us to set a good example; God knows we cannot do that. And then sometimes seeing adults sin and repent is a more powerful witness than just seeing us be as perfect as we can all the time (which is not an argument to sin on purpose of course; Rom. 6:1-2).

In his other article, “Curriculum: By What Standard?” Wolterstorff presents some propositions for establishing a curriculum. His assumption again is that we are looking at Christian schools. I will say as I did when we looked at Jellema, that we need also to include homeschooling in our line if sight, but it would be anachronistic to ask them to do so as they wrote before the modern homeschooling movement took off.

Once again, Wolterstorff begins with an assertion: “education is inescapable” (p. 97). We are all learning all the time. The question is not if we will learn but what we will learn. This is where discernment comes in; we must be deliberate and selective in what we learn or we will learn whatever comes across our path which will likely not be good.  This is a very Charlotte Mason thing to say and, though I have in many ways moved away from her philosophy, it is one I agree with. Though he doesn’t use the language, Wolterstorff adds an idea from economics: opportunity costs. We cannot learn everything, not even everything good, so we must choose between available options. Too often teachers use bad criteria when choosing what to teach. They may just follow what they themselves were taught and not really choose at all. Or they may follow their own tastes. Wolterstorff argues that education “must always have its face towards the student. It must answer to his needs” (p. 99).

Here we see another dichotomy that we saw when looking at approaches to homeschooling: child-led on one side versus parent/teacher-led on the other. Those who, like Wolterstorff, take a more child-centered approach, do so, as he does, because they have a high view of the personhood of the child.

Wolterstorff then asks another important question: which life are we preparing the student for, his present one or his future one? (p. 100). I love this question. (It is an issue we have touched on before. See this post.) I also like his answer which is that both lives are in view. We are preparing the child for what will come in his life but he is also a child of God right now. As Wolterstorff says, “The child is not merely a lump of clay . . . For in the Christian view, the child is already a person, demanding love and respect” (pp. 100-101). Our curriculum must equip the child for both his present life and his future service.

Wolterstorff goes on to give four principles for such a curriculum. The first is that man is both body and soul and that we must not neglect the physical by concentrating only on the intellectual. The practical application is that physical education should be part of the curriculum of Christian schools. I do not disagree with him here, but I did have a slightly different take. In developing my own philosophy of education, I defined education as focusing on the mind. This is a definition and was not meant to deny that we must also develop the body, and, I would add, the emotions and the spirit. I also agree that these things, though we speak of them as distinct, are not really separate but all work together. I do not think we are actually on different pages here, however, but only that we are defining terms differently.

Wolterstorff’s second principle is that the Christian life is one of faith, faith not in a set of propositions but in a Person. His practical application is that our curriculum needs to emphasize “the Christian approach to contemporary social issues” and “how the diverse responses of men to God become articulated in their cultural endeavors” (p. 105).

Thirdly, Wolterstorff says that we live in a community. His emphasis here is that we each have a role to play in that community. We cannot all be hands, as the apostle said (1 Cor. 12:15). So we must equip each child to fulfill his unique role. It cannot be a cookie-cutter curriculum. Nor should we exalt certain professions above others.

While we are in a Christian community, we are also in a wider society. Our curriculum should enable us to understand that society. With proper guidance, “Hemingway and Sartre must be read, Stravinsky and jazz must be heard, Picasso and Dubuffet must be viewed” (p. 108).

Lastly, Wolterstorff argues that we must fulfill the dominion that was given us in Genesis 1. He sees, or at least discusses this, as primarily a cultural dominion: “The life of the redeemed is a life of serving God in the whole range of cultural tasks. Not Christ or culture. Not even Christ and culture. Christ through culture is what we must seek” (p. 109). He goes on to say that “Mathematics and natural science belong in the curriculum of the Christian school as surely as do theology and moral instruction” (p. 110). In contrast to Jellema who exalted the art critic over the artist, Wolterstorff argues for creativity. Artistic creativity but also creativity in thought. Students must experiment and argue.

Wolterstorff never refers to the Bible in either of his articles yet his thinking is clearly biblical. Though his appeals are to scientific studies or logic, he often ends up in the same places I have in my own thinking. We do define things a bit differently, but I like a lot of what he has to say. I am particularly struck by his point that we do not all play the same role therefore we should not all have exactly the same education. I think there is a sound biblical basis for this doctrine. Though I am also probably more on the child-led end of the spectrum, I am slightly uncomfortable with some of the things he says. I could see that these things may be taken too far. We must still hold to truth over personal preferences. But some of this difference may be in our experience; I doubt he was surrouded by unschoolers . Overall, I am pleased with Wolterstorff. I have gleaned a couple of new insights which I hope to apply.

Nebby

 

What We Study and Why: Language

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.

In this part of our series we are looking at individual subjects and asking why and how we study them. So far we have discussed mathematics, science and history. Today’s subject is language. I am thinking here both of one’s native language and of foreign languages. Literature we will save till another time. My interest today is in all those things which one must learn to learn a langauge — the fun stuff like spelling (phonetics, phonology) and grammar which itself is a very broad topic including both how we form words (morphology) and how we put them together (syntax and semantics).

I think most people will agree that langauge is a necessary subject. But most also are just as happy to pass quickly over through the essential bits and to get on to something else. More than any other subject, we tend to have a very pragmatic approach to language; we see it as a tool, a very essential but very boring and often troublesome tool.

Why We Study Language

If langauge is a tool it is one so powerful it was used by God to create the universe. As I argued is this earlier post, words — those building blocks of langauge — are absolutely essential to our relationship with our Creator. God used them to create us and our world (Gen. 1). God the Son is identified as the Word of God (John 1:1-3) and it is through words (and distinctly not images) that God chooses to reveal Himself to us (Deut. 4:15). Words and names are powerful things (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). And it is through words that God continues to save His people (Rom. 10:14).

Education is sanctification. It is us confronting the things of God, drawing us closer to Him, and making us more like Him. Language is not just essential to almost all other learning – though it certainly is that — but it is also one of those things of God. If anything it is more closely associated with God than any other subject. Math, they tell us, is the code behind the universe, but the Word is God.

I don’t know how it works in the Godhead, but for us humans we don’t seem to be able to have ideas without the words to put them in. How could we understand God Himself without the word Trinity? Words and phrases like “nature” and “begotten” and “saved by grace through faith” are carefully chosen because they communicate very specific ideas. The words embody the ideas.

As we move beyond our own language, we also begin to see the possibilites in other languages. Biblical Hebrew is a language well suited to narrative but does not lend itself so well to philosophy and theology. Greek, on the other hand, is able to express complex ideas much more readily because it contains a case system and allows for much more complexly structured sentences. English, I have heard it said,  works very well for science and technology because, being a mash of so many other languages, it easily takes on new ideas.

Since there is such a tie between langauge and thought, when we learn another’s langauge we also learn something about how they think. This allows us not only to convey our own ideas to them but to understand their thought. If we know our God through langauge, we also know our fellow men through language. Being able to connect with others, both to communicate our own ideas and to learn from them, is a major goal of language learning.

If we too often view langauge as a tool and not as something that is beautiful in its own right, then the fault lies in our own educations. One of the major principles I have set forth in this series is that we need to let the beauty of knowledge (for all true knowledge is from God) shine through in its own right. We don’t need to dress it up to make it pretty but we must also not weigh it down and make it cumbersome and boring. Most of us have had langauge made boring for us.

We need to rediscover the beauty of language so that we can pass it along to our students. The primary way I know to do this is to read people who are themselves in love with language (I will add a brief bibliography at the end to get you started). In addition to reading about langauge, we need to read well-written books, whether prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. I am thinking of those whose words just seem to roll off the tongue. I found when my kids were little that there were some picture books that I just enjoyed reading aloud. The words were a pleasure to say. The same is true of some big books as well. Authors that come to mind are: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Russell Hoban (of the Frances books), and Charles Dickens (though I am often winded by the end of his sentences). These authors clearly love language themselves.

How We Teach Language

I think one of the biggest problems we have in teaching language is that we do too much. Perhaps in this subject more than any other we provoke our children to frustration. I am convinced that we need to take the formal elements of langauge slowly. The most important thing is to read children those well-written books that roll off the tongue. If you don’t love reading a book, don’t. Say no. Throw it away or return it to the library and get books that you, as an adult, can enjoy reading. Set an example of reading and give them access to good books (and limit access to poorly written books).

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of how we teach langauge, I can only offer you some observations I have made; take them for what you will:

  • Don’t rush into spelling before the child has a good ability to read and don’t rush into grammar for a while after that. These are subjects which can be learned more quickly a few years later.
  • Many, but not all, students will naturally pick these things up if they are reading good books.
  • Spelling seems to be a visual skill more than anything else. Some kids take to it naturally; others need to be encouraged to “see” words.
  • My observation is that worksheets on both spelling and grammar translate very poorly into children’s writing. As much as possible, there should be a context to what we teach, a literary and a social context.
  • English is a tough langauge because it is such a hodge-podge but there are some rules, however arbitrarily applied. Especially for the child to whom these things do not come naturally, it can be helpful to learn these rules.
  • When it comes to spelling, etymology and history are often helpful. If we know, that “crochet” comes from the French, we may remember that the “sh” sound in the middle is spelled with a “ch.” This can help us as well with chef and chauffeur (at least the first part of it). If we know some English history, we may also understand that chef and chauffeur, those fancy words for people with servants, come from the French. In Greek words, on the other hand, like chaos and anarchy, the “ch” sounds like a “k” (and what does that say about the Greeks?).
  • Choose your approach to grammar wisely. Many of us had the experience of not learning English grammar until we took a foreign langauge. The truth is most grammars were originally developed for other languages (like Greek and Latin) and were applied to English. We need an approach to grammar that it suited to the language.

Kee scrolling for my list of resources to get you started. I am sure there are many other good books that inspire a love for and a real understanding of language. If you have others to add, please let me know.

Nebby

Bibliography

Eide, DeniseUncovering the Logic of English (Logic of English, 2012). I consider myself a pretty good speller but this book taught me rules I never knew. There is a curriculum which goes with it which I have never used. I foudn it was useful for me to read the book. I also got the flashcards of phonemes and went through them with my kids when they were littler. Then when problematic words came up later in life I would refer to the phonemes and rules (“remember that  ….  can also make the …. sound” etc.). Teens could also read the book for themselves.

Leonard, Mary Hall. Grammar and Its Reasons (1909; republished by Forgotten Books, 2016). It is the first part of this book, beginning in chapter two, that I really like. Hall discusses the history of the study of English grammar and though she goes on to discuss grammar I thought she actually made a better case that we should not do so.

Norris, MaryBetween You & Me (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016). Norris is an editor for The New Yorker. She discusses grammar and her own career. I learned (finally!) when to use which and when to use that.

Schmidt, Stan. Life of Fred Langauge Arts (Polka Dot Publishing). Life of Fred is known for its math books but there is also a four-volume langauge arts series for high schoolers. The idea is that the child reads all four volumes every year. I am not sure it is necessary to go through them all four times. My high schoolers enjoyed these books though they did come away doing annoying things like telling me I use the word nauseous wrong (which just makes me sick to my stomach).

Vavra, Ed. Professor Vavra has written a number of useful articles on grammar, but the most useful by far is the free grammar curriculum he has developed. KISS Grammar takes a functional approach to the English language, asking what words do in a sentence rather than focusing on parts of speech.  You can find this wonderful resources here and a document I have written in how to use it here (opens a Google doc). Other articles by Dr. Vavra include: “A Psycholinguistic Model of How the Human Brain Processes Language” (here; Click where it says “click here to get article” and you will be able to download a word document). This article explains some of the basis for his approach. He explains how we understand sentences and how words “chunk” together in units of meaning. I found it fascinating and had my high schoolers read it as well. Practically speaking, this article helped me think about how to do dictation with my children.

Warner, George Townsend. On the Writing of English (1918; republished by Forgotten Books, 2013). This is an older volume which speaks to teens on how to write essays. I like Warner’s approach because (a) it is very practical and (b) it favors language which communicates well rather than heaping up long, descriptive words.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2012). Though 30 years old, this is a more modern book on how to write well.

The Holy Spirit in Education (A Podcast Review)

Dear Reader,

I am writing this having just listened to a recent podcast from A Delectable Education. Given the non-written nature of the material, I want to reflect on it while it is fresh in my mind. A Delectable Education, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast devoted to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. The episode in question (#140) is entitled “Live from Charlotte Mason Soiree Retreat Q&A” and was released on September 28, 2018.  As its title suggests, this podcast is actually the audio from the Q&A session of a recent retreat. The portion I am interested in comes about 35 minutes into the podcast episode.

The panel of speakers is asked how if, as Charlotte Mason says, the Holy Spirit is the prime mover in education, we can educate our children if they are not yet saved and have not yet been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There are two answers given: that God is the source of all truth and that He does work in our children’s lives.

I am sorry I am not good at identifying which of the female panelists is speaking when, but one of them provides the first answer (not first in the order they say them; they go back and forth a bit), that all truth comes from God. This does not actually get to the heart of the question but it is a statement I heartily agree with. Art Middlekauff (the only male member of the panel) adds that just because we get a certain truth through say, Euclid, that does not mean all he has said is worth listening to. In other words, God may speak through an unbeliever on one topic or one set of topics but that does not mean all they say is inspired. This is a good reminder to us to use discernment.  In our own culture, we tend to put too much faith in anyone who does anything at all impressive from movie stars to sports heroes. I have read for instance that  Isaac Newton had some really wacky ideas on theology. This does not detract from his scientific theories but neither do his scientific theories lend credence to his theological ideas.

The second point, which is made primarily by Middlekauff, is that the question is flawed because our children are saved. My own church, like his, baptizes infants and considers them part of the body of believers. Middlekauff’s explanation is a good one as far as it goes. It addresses the case of Christian homeschooling parents educating their own kids.

We are left still with the question of other children. Whether at home or in a school context, we may find ourselves teaching children who do not have believing parents. Middlekauff partly addresses this issue. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing, not an exact quote): even if you do not believe your children are saved, it is still the Holy Spirit that works in them and since your primary concern is presumably that they be saved you should very much desire and rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Again, I agree largely with what Middlekauff has to say, but I do have two concerns. I believe that it is the Holy Spirit that is working even if our students are unregenerate. If there is any good to be done in and for them, it is He that does it. Charlotte Mason’s philsophy of education relies upon the student being able to choose the good and I would not say that the unregenerate (children or adults) have any power to do so. I think then that more needs to be said about how this philosophy can work for such children. (I do have my own theories about the purpose of education in the lives of both regenerate and unregenerate children; you can read them here.)

My second concern is that I am just not convinced that this is how Miss Mason herself thought of the issue. I *think* that Middlekauff is saying something very similar to what I have been saying in my current blog series, that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of regenerate covenant children and that if any are outside of the covenant we still educate them while praying and hoping for His work in them too. (I hope I am not misrepresenting his ideas; this is how I took what he had to say. Though we seem to get to the same place, I am not sure our reasoning is the same.)

In contrast, when I read Charlotte Mason’s writings, what I understand her to say is that her education is for all children (she is particularly concerned to include those her society would have deemed uneducable). I do not think she makes a distinction between regenerate and unregeneate children because I do not think that she sees such a difference. She had a very different view (from mine) of what it means to live in a “redeemed world” (her term) and of the general moral and spiritual ability of people apart from the saving work of Christ. (I just did a long post on that here.) The long and the short of it is that her philosophy relies upon the ability of all children to choose the good because she believed that all children were capabale of doing so. She does not address what we do with unregenerate children because she did not believe in them as such. She believed all children had, through Christ’s redemptive work, been given some ability to choose and do good.

So I guess my conclsuion on this episode is that I like a lot of what the panelists had to say. I was surprised, in fact, to find myself agreeing so much with them. I am less convinced that how they explain the situation is how Miss Mason herself saw things. I still think we need a philsophy of education which considers all children — whether from believing parents or not — and which finds its origins in a reformed understanding of human nature and the purpose of life.

Nebby

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

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.

Charlotte Mason Poetry had recently released in audio-form a series of articles by Benjamin Bernier entitled “Education for the Kingdom” (these articles were originally published on their website in 2017). The five articles in this series form one argument. Bernier, an Anglican minister and homeschooling parent, has done extensive research into the religious basis of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. This series presents his argument that Charlotte’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Christian religion and that it is a distinctly Christian philosophy of education.

Bernier has clearly done his research. He shows specific authors and their writings that he believes influenced Miss Mason and makes a compelling case for each. I have no quibble with his scholarship and am very grateful to him for the work he has put in and his willingness to share it. Nor do I disagree with his conclusions. All in all this is an article well worth reading for anyone who uses Charlotte’s methods or who is interested in Christian education (and I do think reading is probably a better option than the audio versions as there is a lot here to take in). What I would like to talk about today is not Bernier’s scholarship but what we do with the information he has given us.

Miss Mason sought to develop a disticntly Christian approach to education. What Bernier shows is that that approach is heavily influenced, as it should be, by Miss Mason’s own church, the Church of England.

“In order to properly understand Mason’s philosophy, it is important to grasp the essential socio-religious context of her life and work, whch in this case happens to be the Anglicanism characteristic of the late-Victorian era England.” (Benjamin Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom, Part 1,” from charlottemasonpoetry.org, Feb. 18 2017)

Bernier goes on to argue that as the Anglican Church of the time encompassed a wide range of opinions that the form of Christianity embodied in Miss Mason’s philosophy is one that focuses on essentials, what he calls, following C.S. Lewis, a “mere Christianity.”

Bernier argues that Miss Mason’s goals in education were intrinsically religious. He shows from lesser known early writings that her concern in education was mainly apologetic. Specifically her motivation was to guard to youth of her day against the then very new theories of Darwinism and the Documentary Hypothesis [1] which threatened traditional faith assumptions (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings,” Feb. 25, 2017). He maintains that she never abandoned the faith-basis of her method though she was forced, as the method became more popular and widely used in different contexts, to downplay the overt religious elements:

” . . . the Christ-centered foundation of Mason’s thought was not diminshed one bit; it simply became less overy and less conspicuous to a general audience when her message was repackaged in the hope of influencing the evolving national system of education as such a crucial stage.” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 5, Enthroning the King,” March 18, 2017)

Note that Bernier here calls Mason’s philosophy “Christ-centered.” Elsewhere he speaks of the gospel foundation of her work. Mason herself spoke of the gospel principles of education which she derived from a few passages from the Book of Matthew. “As far as I have been able to trace,” Bernier says, “Mason was the first Christian educator to define a connection between these words of Christ [in Matthew’s gospel] and a philosophy of education” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 2, Beginnings”).

Bernier thus makes three points that we need to consider:

  1. Mason’s philosophy cannot be separated from her Anglicanism which is itself a kind of “mere Christianity.”
  2.  As Mason’s philosophy reached a wider audience, its Christian foundation became more covert to the point that many in the modern CM movement are unaware of it altogether (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 1”).
  3. The biblical foundation for Mason’s philosophy is found primarily in certain words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.

Given these points, those of us who use or are considering Mason’s philosophy need to ask ourselves a few questions starting with: Is Mason’s Christianity my Christianity? If you are not Christian, Bernier shows clearly that Mason’s philosophy is not for you as it cannot be separated from its Christian underpinnings. If you are Anglican (as Bernier is) you can probably use Mason’s methods in good conscience. If you are from another Christian tradition, you need to consider what her faith is and if this “mere Christianity” is enough for you. Bernier points out, for instance, that Mason renounced the authority of the pope (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 3, Christ Himself for Himself,” March 4, 2017). If you are a Roman Catholic using this philosophy, it may be that you can ignore her personal views and still use her methods. Or maybe not. But it is an issue that needs thought.

Personally, I am a reformed (read: Calvinistic) Christian. I have certain views of human nature (total depravity) which do not gel with Mason’s approach. I have blogged on this many times now (see this post and this one, for example) so I will not rehash all the arguments but I believe that when Charlotte states her infamous second principle — “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil” (“CM’s 20 Principles,” from Ambleside Online) — that she means this as a spiritual statement, that this statement is foundational to her philosophy, and that this view is incompatible with reformed Christianity [2].  Mason’s “mere Christianity” is not simply the core essentials that all Christians would agree to but is a kind of Arminianism (though no doubt it is not far from the faith of many evangeicals today). [3]

I also have concerns about the biblical basis of Mason’s philosophy. I do not deny that she derives her approach from the gospels, but I do question her use of these texts exclusively. There are many other passages in the Bible which speak of children and topics related to education, both in the Old and New Testaments (see this post, this one, or this one).  Though I doubt they had red-letter editions of the Bible in Mason’s day, her selection of these passages from Matthew, and only these passages, exalts the words of Jesus there recorded over other parts of God’s holy and inspired Word. And, as I discussed here, I do not even particularly like how she interprets and uses these passages.

“Education for the Kingdom” is well worth reading. Bernier’s scholarship is excellent. It is an article (or series of articles) that demands a response, however. Bernier shows us clearly what the religious basis of Mason’s philosophy of education is. But, if you are using or considering using this philosophy, it is not enough to know what it is, you must also ask if it is compatible with your own beliefs. Are Mason’s foundational ideas your own? And if they are not, is there enough commonality that you can use her methods as written in good conscience?

Nebby

[1] The Documantary Hypothesis is a theory about the origins of the biblical text, specifically the Pentateuch, which posits different authors for different sections and tends to chop the biblical text up into parts.

[2] Bernier quotes Charlotte Mason’s “A Catechism of Education Theory” which says: “‘What is the part of man? To choose good and refuse the evil'” (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017). Though the immediate topic is education, the discussion is of spiritual food and it is hard to take this as anything but theological statement about man’s ability to choose.

[3] Charlotte Mason’s view of man’s state and abilites seems to be tied to the phrase “redeemed world.” Bernier, quoting Mason, also uses the phrase: “Christ is shown to extend His light and life over every sphere of knowledge and practice in this ‘redeemed world'”  (“Education for the Kingdom, Part 4, Meditation and PNEU Philosophy,” March 11, 2017).  I have discussed Mason’s use of the phrase and its possible meaning in this post.  I do not at this time feel completely confident in my grasp of what Mason means when she speaks of a “redeemed world” but I suspect that there is some odd soteriology underlying it.

Movie Review: Calvinist

Dear Reader,

This is not inherently education related but I am going to try to tie it in 😉  (You can see all the posts in my current series on reformed Christian education here.)

The Calvinist Movie was made fairly recently by a guy names Les Lanphere. It is available on DVD, Blue-Ray or as a digital download from his website here. My short take on this is that it is well worth watching and even buying (price to rent is $5 and $15 to buy). There are really two parts to the movie– the bulk of it is about trends in evangelicalism and how and why Calvinism has become hip and new again. Sandwiched in the middle is about half an hour (of 1.5 hrs total) which explains Calvinism with lots of biblical quotes and (intentionally?) cheesy graphics.

The best part of this movie is the middle bit exlaining what Calvinism is. I could definitely see showing this section to anyone who asks “Reformed? What does that mean?” (which actually happens a fair amount when I say the name of my church). Admittedly they are preaching to the choir with me, but I went away from this section thinking “Why on earth wouldn’t anyone believe this?” They do a very good job of highlighting (literally) biblical verses to support all they say. The one lack, if there is one, is that while they show reformed theology to be biblical, little is said about what comes between the New Testament and the Reformation. I’m sure time was limited and one had to pick and choose but you wouldn’t know from this video that there was any good theology in the early church which the reformers were returning to.

Two-thirds of the movie is about the trend that has been called “Young, restless and reformed.” I think I am old enough that I am not part of this trend though my own journey (from Catholicism to 4 or 5 years as a generic evengelical to reformed faith) is not so different from many in the video. It was interesting to me as the study of a social movement. I don’t think this bit would be for non-Christians. I do plan to show it to my soon-to-be college student because, though he has been raised in the reformed faith, I think it would be good as he goes out in the world to have some sense of where his Christian peers may be coming from.

The Calvinist Movie does a good job of showing where the evengelical movement is lacking and how the continual altar calls with no emphasis on what comes after have left church kids empty and anxious. Though this is not my own experience, the feelings I got from growing up Catholic, with the continual need to repent, were similar. The movie makes the point that we have been depriving our kids by exiling them to children’s church where they are basically entertained. We need to treat them like people and to include them in the worship of the church, a position I fully support (see this post on children in the Bible).

A major theme in the movie is that what we believe matters; we can’t just boil down the gospel to the simplest terms. People (children too) need the meat of theology. This is a point I have been making on this blog for years — ideas  matter. To bring it back to the topic of this series — it is why we need a reformed theology of education. There is one particularly good quote near the end where one of the interviewees (Joel Beeke, I believe) says that theology changes us and flows out and affects our feelings and actions as well.  I completely agree with this. I would extend it and say that, perhaps to a lesser extent, the other, not inherently theological, ideas that we take in do this also. Our ideas shape us.

If there is one flaw in this movie, it is that it doesn’t go far enough. The core beliefs of reformed theology (I have just learned we call now these  “the doctrines of grace”) are clearly presented but beyond that there is no effort to present a biblical ecclesiology or a biblical doctrine of worship. And while I would agree that there is some diminishing importance and that we can’t get hung up debating every point small point of doctrine, some of these other issues are still quite important. I am not going to dwell on worship because though the film shows mostly what I would consider unbiblical worship, I hear that the filmmaker has since come to a more biblical understanding of worhip and that his next project will be on the Regulative Principle of Worship.

In the latter half of the film, Lanphere addresses Mark Driscoll, a popular reformed pastor who suffered a dramatic downfall from his ministry.  He then moves to talking about the various reformed Confessions, the implication being that adhering to Confessions will keep us from getting into situations where we are too dependent on the personality of one charismatic leader. Confessions are good, but I would argue that what we need is a biblical ecclesiology. In the movie’s defense, it uses the word ecclesiology a lot but it fails to take that added step and argue that there is a biblical ecclesiology and that we need to adhere to it (I would argue that what the Bible depicts is essentially a Presbyterian structure — one with a lot of accountability).

I definitely recommend the Calvinist Movie. The bulk of it is best for those who are already Christian and even reformed but the half an hour in the middle (actually about 15 minutes in, I think) is a very good, concise and clear way to present reformed theology to anyojne who shows an interest.

Nebby

A Teacher’s Expectation

Dear Reader,

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

Last time I laid out for you the theory behind my philosophy of education. Today we begin to move into the specifics of how one teaches. I want to start with something  intangible but which is actually fairly foundational to all we do — the expectations and attitude of the teacher.

As we move into the practical details and away from the pure theory, we are moving away from the clear testimony of the Scriptures and into the realm where we are using the sense God gave us and the wisdom He gives us through General Revelation, which includes both scientific research and personal observation. Today’s comments have to do with matters that are not directly addressed in Scripture. We need instead to rely upon our own discernment. As such, we should not hold to them too tightly but should be willing to revise and correct as God gives is greater wisdom.

Having said which, the underlying belief I am working with today is that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can to more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. I am basing this largely on my own observation, from seeing the education and discipline of my own children and others. I do not think it is a particularly radical stance to say that a teacher’s mindset affects her students so I hope that you will be willing at least to venture forth with me in what follows . . .

If we will admit that this principle is true and that the teacher’s expectations and attitude affect the student’s learning, we must ask what those expectations and attitude should be.  There are actually two very similar ideas here — that of expectation and that of attitude — so I am going to divide what I have to say into two posts. Today we will focus on the expectation of the teacher.

My thesis for the day is this: A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. Again this is not going to seem to be a radical opinion. I think it is worth spending a moment on, however, because there are going to be many times when it is hard to do just that.

Last time I argued that when we educate we place before children the General Revelation of God. Whether our efforts bear any fruit depends upon the responsiveness of the child which is turn relies upon the work of the Holy Spirit. In the covenant child or one who has made a profession of faith, the intended goal is his sancitfication, specifically the renewal of his mind. For the unbelieving child this presentation of God’s self-revelation in His Creation is a part of the external call of God.  The ideal outcome is that he will recognize and begin to respond to the things of God.

In education we bring before the child what is good, true, and beautiful, and yet the one who is unregenerate is not able to choose or do good. This sounds on the surface like quite a fruitless exercise. It is as if we are giving children food which they do not have the ability to digest. We can pour as much as we like down their throats but they are unable to get the good of it.  And if it were not for the role of God in all this, that would certainly be the case, not just for the unbeliever but for the believer as well. Ultimately, education is the work of the Holy Spirit . As teachers, we need to see ourselves as His instruments and we need to expect that He will work.

There are going to be times when teaching seems to bear no fruit. We should not be surprised when our students’ hearts are hard and they do not take in the food we present. This is the natural human state and a certain amount of futility is to be expected. Even in the believing child, there is still a sin nature which fights the work we are doing. Nonetheless our expectation must always be that God will work. When we present the gospel to someone, we do so in the hope that they will receive it. Though in education our message is more general, we are nonetheless bringing the things of God to our audience. We should do so in the hope that they will respond positively and in the knowlegde that God can enable them to do so.  I would even go beyond this and say that if God has placed an unregenerate child in the care of a reformed Christian teacher like you that He probably has plans for that child’s life and that there is a good chance He will make His words effective unto salvation and save that child.

I only teach my own covenant children in a homeschool setting and I can testify that there are times when it is a discouraging enterprise. If you have a larger class and have unbelieving children in it or perhaps even teach in the public schools in a setting in which you cannot speak as cleraly as you’d like, I imagine the temptation to despair is even greater. But we must, as always, see with the eyes of faith and know that the seeds we sow may be germinating though we see no little shoots sprouting yet. We sow the seed; it is up to God to bring the harvest, but we must always — with prayer — hope that He will bring that harvest.  This is the expectation of the teacher.

Nebby

 

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool

A Work in Progress Productions

Learn•Grow•Shine || Based in Attleboro, Ma

dayuntoday

my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment

StrongHaven

A Literary Homestead

journey-and-destination

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more

weeklywalrus

Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Afterthoughts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools