Posts Tagged ‘Christian theology’

Teaching in the New Testament

Dear Reader,

We recently looked at words for “teach” in the Old Testament; now it is time to move on to the New. My own training is in biblical Hebrew and, though I have taken some Greek, I am pretty rusty at it, so I will be relying a lot more on my concordance for this post. The point of all this, if you will remember, is ultimately to build a reformed Christian theology of education. We are in the beginning stages now where we are collecting evidence and simply answering the question: What does the Bible have to say about education and teaching? I suggest skimming this post on methodology if you yet.

Teaching in the New Testament

While words for “teach” and “learn” occur many times, there is really nothing directly about educating children in the New Testament. But there are a few passages which are worth looking at —

As we saw in the Old Testament, learning and wisdom come from God. In the New Testament all three persons of the Trinity are associated with learning (the Father: John 8:28; the Son: Matt. 11:29; the Spirit: Jn. 14:26; I Cor. 2:13).

Other sources of learning include the apostles (I Cor. 4:6); prophecy (I Cor.: 14:31); for a woman, her husband (I Cor. 14:35); church officers (I Cor. 12:28-29); and older believers (Tit. 2:3-6); or even non-believers (Acts 7:22; 22:3). Teaching is integral to the Church’s ministry (Matt. 28:19-20). One should be careful, however, — not all learning is good and not all teachers are sound (Tit. 1:11; Rev. 2:14, 20).

Nor does all learning come through people. As in the Old Testament, nature is given to us as a source of learning (Matthew 24:32=Mark 13:28; cf. Prov. 6:6; Rom. 1:20). Experience also may be a teacher (Heb. 5:8). Above all, Scripture teaches us:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:14-17; cf. Rom. 15:4; ESV)

Note that Timothy is said to have learned these things “from childhood” and that learning is not mere head knowledge but is to be practical, resulting in good works (cf. Phil. 4:9).

The majority of occurrences of the word “teach” in the New Testament have to do with Jesus teaching His followers, the crowds, and even His adversaries. These are not prescriptive passages for us; they are not given us as a handbook on how to teach. Nonetheless, we may glean some knowledge from them. In another post we will look at Jewish models of education. We will also look at the whole Bible as God’s instruction to His people and ask how the Creator of men teaches them. But for today, let’s confine ourselves to how Jesus taught.

Jesus’ teaching is oral. He often addresses quite large groups that include all kinds of people, men and women, adults and children. Though His class at times numbered in the thousands, Jesus is a caring teacher (Matt. 15:32; Mk. 6:34). When with a smaller group, He does take questions (Matt. 15:15). His teaching is often in response to questions (Lk. 10:25ff), and  He himself, when a child, asked questions of the teachers (Lk. 2:46).  

Jesus teaches often, though not exclusively, through parables (Mk. 4:2). We modern people with years of biblical scholarship behind us, tend to think: “Oh, Jesus taught in stories to make things simple for His audience.”  The opposite seems to be true. Even His closest disciples rarely understood His parables. They had to ask for interpretations (Mt. 13:18; 15:15) and didn’t really get most of what He had been saying until after His death when their minds were opened (Lk. 24:27). Rather than using stories to make learning simple, Jesus tells us that He teaches through parables to make learning hard and inaccessible (Mt. 13:10-13).

Conclusions

What can we draw from all this? Here’s what I see:

  • The focus in the NT is on teaching the things of God. This is no way argues that we don’t need to know other subjects. (In the OT we saw that the law of God more than any other subject was the focus though more practical skills and subjects were taught as well. )
  • As in the Old Testament, God’s teaching is for all ages.
  • Learning comes through other people, the Word of God, Creation, and experience.
  • Learning comes from God. All three Persons of the Trinity are associated with giving knowledge.
  • At least in the realm of spiritual things, people just don’t get it unless God opens their minds and gives them understanding.
  • Learning is practical; it is not just “book knowledge” but is to produce right behavior.

I’d love to say that Jesus shows us that we should teach through stories, but, as we saw, He uses parables intentionally to obscure His meaning. I am not willing to take this as prescriptive for how we should teach.

I have often heard it said that the Hebrew way of teaching was for a teacher (rabbi) to sit in a circle with his disciples and to teach through questioning. At times, this is the picture we get, both of the boy Jesus in the Temple and of Jesus with His disciples. For now we are going to keep this in the back of our minds as a possible model for how we should teach. While it makes a lot more sense to me to build our model of education on the Hebrew mindset than on the (pagan) Greek one, we also need to keep in mind how much has changed between then and now, starting with the availability of books.

Nebby

 

 

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Van Til on Education

Dear Reader,

Since I began this series, I have gotten a few recommendations from you, my readers. One of these was for Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974). Though I don’t believe I have read anything of Van Til’s before, the name is well-known to me so I shelled out the $$ for a used copy (there are about two reasonably priced copies on Amazon as we speak; get yours now) and have been reading away.

This is a dense book and is not going to be for everyone. I have to admit I didn’t understand it all, but I did get a fair amount out of it. If you really want to tackle this subject (reformed Christian education) with me, it is probably a must-read. If you are happy to have me distill it down for you, you can probably skip reading it yourself.

Van Til begins with a discussion of culture, Christian culture and non-Christian culture and why they are completely incompatible. He begins with culture because, like Dawson whose book I also reviewed recently, Van Til sees education as a means of transmitting culture. To the extent that the cultures are irreconcilable, the systems of education are also.

This touches again on a topic I have discussed once and will probably keep circling around to — why not classical Christian education? Van Til is quite clear that Greek culture, because is was not Christian, is no less fallen than any other non-Christian culture and no better than modern secular culture (pp. 4, 14).  He is opposed to any sort of syncretization to combine Christianity with classical Greek culture, attributing such efforts to “Roman Catholics” and “Arminians” (pp. 10ff, 115-16).

After dealing with the classical model, Van Til addresses some modern (in 1974) approaches to education. These tended to be the parts where he lost me, especially when he discusses the ideas current in Christian higher ed. My confusion is often due to me not understanding the ideas he is arguing against. The long and the short of Van Til’s argument, for every theory he addresses, is that there are only two ways to approach education because there are only two worldviews, the reformed one which is based on God’s absolute sovereignty and everything else. He is quite intolerant of any approach which relies on man’s understanding, reason or judgment to any degree. So, while I don’t understand everything he says, it all boils down to — there can be no standard other than God; if we rely on man, even in part, we have entered the realm of subjectivity and God is not truly sovereign.

In the final analysis, Van Til sees no difference in the end between the modern approach to education, as exemplified by John Dewey (see this post for a little on him), and the classical approach found in Plato among others. He compares the two to Assyria and Egypt, the two political powers that Old Testament Israel wavered between when they should have been relying upon God (p. 137).  Nor are many of the so-called Christian approaches any better.  The Roman Catholics are too syncretistic as are the Lutherans (p. 144). Even the Fundamentalists, because they rely to some degree on man’s acceptance of God’s grace, end up preaching a different gospel and therefore a different way of education:

“According to American Fundamentalism . . . Man is not altogether viewed in the light of Scripture. The Bible does not teach that God controls whatsoever comes to pass for that would be out of accord with the autonomy of man. Scripture does not teach that Christ died for His people only; that would be out of accord with the autonomy of man . . . As a result education cannot be God-centered, Christ-centered and Spirit-centered.” (pp. 76-77)

As he moves to describing what Christian education should be, Van Til raises a number of points/questions that are worth considering–

  • What is the purpose of Christian education and where, or really when, does it originate? Van Til sees the purpose of education in Creation (pp. 79-80, 125, 167). I find this very intriguing as I know realize I had, without knowing it, assumed that the purpose arose form the Fall. 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 a fulfilment of man’s creation mandate, albeit one that has been delayed and must now be reached perhaps more circuitously.
  • To the above, Van Til adds an idea about what the goal of man is, namely to become more and more a distinct personality (pp. 152ff). This is done  by developing the powers God has given him. I am intrigued by this idea, but I would like to hear more about it, particularly how it derives from the Scriptures. In developing hos personality man fulfills another goal: more fully displaying the image of God and thereby giving glory to Him (p. 79). The end is at once individualistic, as the personality is developed, and more communal, as such development contributes to the overall building the kingdom of God as He intended it (p. 45).
  • The idea of the child as a person (as Charlotte Mason would say) or a personality, as Van Til does, is central. Children are not, cannot be, empty vessels or blank slates (p. 158; see also this post on the nature of children in the Bible).
  • But this view Van Til applies to covenant children, the children of believers. It is they who are educable in his view and he goes so far as to say there can be no education apart from Christianity (p. 202).
  • What about non-Christians then? Are they at all able to discern truth? Is there anything we can learn from non-Christian scholars and thinkers?  Van Til’s argument, if I am understanding it, is that God is redeeming human culture and that non-Christians benefit from it and contribute to it as a kind of side effect. Likewise, non-Christian education, to that extent that it is effective, is so because of Christian principles which is relies upon unbeknownst to itself (pp. 89ff).
  • But what about common grace? Van Til mentions common grace in a few places (pp. 89ff; 191-92). I have to admit I am confused by how he uses the term as it does not seem to be how I have usually been made to think of it. His common grace is not much of a grace at all. Our pastor has said that to believers even God’s curses (not that they fall on us) are a blessing but to non-believers even his blessings become as curses. This seems to touch on the idea that Van Til is getting at. I think I need to understand this much better. 
  • Van Til seems at time to all but say we should abandon non-Christians as their systems of education are not true education and as they themselves are uneducable. But he also says this: “We do not expect men to be reasonable unless God has once more made them so. But this does not vitiate the usefulness of reasoning with unreasonable men. Such reasoning strengthens our faith, and who knows, may be used by the Spirit to make men reasonable” (p. 138). This begins to touch on an idea I have in the back of my mind and which I will have to return to: Education as call (Matt. 22:14).
  • Van Til argues for a completely distinct and separate system of Christian education which differs from worldy education in all ways — not just why we teach but what and even how (p. 188). He argues quite fervently that we must not adopt non-Christian methods without transforming them (p. 199).
  • What does this mean practically speaking? How do we then educate? I wish he gave more specifics than he does. Van Til uses the example of a simple math problem, 2 times 2, to argue that we must see all facts as not just bare facts but as part of the laws that God has set up in our universe. Nothing is to be seen apart from Him (pp. 199ff).
  • But math, for Van Til, is not a core subject. He compares the subjects to a body, all are members and are included but some are more vital. The most vital for him is history because it is about man (pp. 204, 206). Nature is less important and math perhaps still more peripheral. All, of course, are to viewed in their relation to God. Religion, he says, need not take a lot of time to teach as a separate subject because it is in all the other subjects.
  • Van Til (sadly) stops short of explaining what this all looks like. In discussing teaching Christian math he does say that it is not about opening class with a prayer but that it starts with the attitude of the teacher who understands that all facts fit into the God-ordained law (p. 203).
  • The battle for Christian education is a spiritual one. Satan battles for hearts and minds and so we must also. There are not areas of subjects which we can leave “neutral” (pp. 25-26). The idea that all areas of study are included is not new or unique to Van Til but his framing it as a spiritual battle adds force to the argument.

There is a lot in this book, though at times it drags and seems overly dense and theoretical. I wish there were more practical details, more of how this all plays out in the day to day. For anyone who is serious about considering what it means to have reformed Christian education, this is a must read, but it is not an easy read. Still, Van Til has given us a good starting place and there are many ideas here to which we will have to return.

Nebby

 

Children in the Bible

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education.

The two fundamental questions anyone must answer in creating a philosophy of education are: What is the nature of the child? and What is the goal of education? We are working through the first of these. Today’s question is: What does the Bible does tell us about children? What follows is largely a reworking of this earlier post.

While I want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, I think it is helpful to have some idea of the range of beliefs out there regarding children. When we look at the many philosophies of education available to us, we see many ways of characterizing children. They are blank slates (Rousseau). They are lumps of clay. They are empty vases. They are hot house plants (Froebel). They are (gasp!) persons (Charlotte Mason). Many philosophies, classical among them, also speak of stages through which the child develops. 

Words for “Child” in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.

Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel.  They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).

Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16).  They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:

“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)

“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to refer to those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle, all presumably falling into the “needing care” category (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).

The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture).

The Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7). Children are said to have faith from the womb, but also to be sinful at that very early age. John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith in utero (Luke 1:41a). Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). On the flip side, the Psalms speak of sinfulness being from before birth (Psa. 51:5; 58:3)

Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:

“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)

When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)

My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons– the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong; if we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak much less give praise.

Children in the Gospel of Matthew

Turning to the New Testament, we find a few passages which seem to speak of the faith of children (I have discussed these passages in more detail here):

“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt. 19:14)

In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching.

Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:1-6)

In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.

Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.’” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)

In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.

Conclusions

What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:

  • The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones– and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
  • Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished.
  • Children are characterized as ignorant or foolish. They are in need of instruction and discipline.
  • Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such as covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
  • Children are called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can sin but they can also exhibit faith. There is no indication of any minimum age for faith.

What are the implications of all this for education? I certainly don’t think we have all the answers yet, but we can make some preliminary conclusions. Children are not presented in the Bible as something other than adults. What we have seen thus far does not give us a lot of insight into children’s mental or intellectual capacity but their spiritual capacity is equivalent to that of adults in that they can both sin and have faith. I think this excludes the blank slate, empty vase ideas which depict children as empty and therefore neutral substances. [Children are lumps of clay — but then again, so are adults  (Rom. 9:20ff).] Children are in need of training which would seem to preclude the more laissez-faire approaches to education such as unschooling. We will talk more about education in the Bible; for the moment I see no clear stages of development such as classical education posits but neither have I seen that the Scriptures preclude such a view.

Until next time,

Nebby

 

Why Not Christian Classical?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I explore a reformed Christian philosophy of education. Thus far, we are still on the whys. Last time I looked at the Charlotte Mason approach to education. Today I’d like to look at Christian classical. My goal in these couple of posts is to show you why we need something overtly reformed and can’t just take what is out there and spiff it up a bit.

I am much better versed in Charlotte Mason’s method than I am in classical so my approach this time will be a little different. I am going to ask questions and perhaps express concerns more than I am going to make definitive statements.

One difficulty in discussing Christian classical is that there is more than one interpretation of it. I will try to address some of the bigger proponents but what I say may not be true of all sources. My subject today is Christian classical and it is (oxymoron of the day:) modern Christian classical. As homeschoolers, parents, and teachers, this is what is on the table before us so it will be my focus.

Foundations: The Article and The Book

wtm spine

The modern fascination with classical education began in the 1930s. Amajor inspiration was a fairly brief article by Dorothy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” (LTL; originally published in 1948).  I have previously discussed this article in greater detail here. Sayers, as with most educational reformers, was reacting to the problems she saw in her own day. Her solution was to return to the Middle Ages for inspiration. The key to her approach is the Trivium (followed in later years by the Quadrivium) which divides  learning into three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. These stages are sequential. In the first, Grammar, the child learns much through rote memorization. The second, Dialectic, “is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums.” Rhetoric, the third stage, “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” (Kindle Loc. 169). To me, these are harsh words (and there are more besides which I quote in that earlier post). As I read her article, my impression of Sayers was that she was not someone who liked children very much. Beyond this, I am uncomfortable with saying, for example, that all tweens are argumentative. Such statements take what is basically a sinful behavior and turn it into a stage which tends to excuse and allow the behavior. In addition, I find Sayers too academically minded in her goals and approach. She relies heavily on fallen human reason, and her approach does not encompass the whole person.

Though Sayers is perhaps the modern impetus, she is not the whole of the movement. The handbook of classical Christian homeschoolers is The Well-Trained Mind (WTM) by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (originally published 1999; I have not reviewed this book at length but do discuss it in this post on classical education). While Sayers’ article was quite slim, this is a hefty book with lots of practical details. It uses the same Trivium approach which is typical of modern classical education.  The title — The Well-Trained Mind— gives us some clue as to the authors’ goals. The intellect– the mind — is in view and the method of education is one of training (in contrast to unschooling or Charlotte Mason which see education as self-education). Specifically, the mind is trained how to think.  The Well-Trained Mind does not have as clear a statement of purpose as I would like (at least not that I found). But I did find this:

“Remember, classical education teaches a child how to learn. The child who knows how to learn will grow into a well-rounded –and well-equipped –adult . . . ”  (p. 55)

The purpose of education is one area with which WTM rubs me the wrong way. Another is in its view of the child. The authors say that:

“The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument. The critical and logical faculty simply doesn’t develop until later on . . . Children like  lists at this age. They like rattling off rote information, even if they don’t understand it . . . Don’t make K-4 students dig for information. ”  (p. 54)

The view of the child here seems to be that, at least for younger children, they are less than adults. Now, we will look at what the Bible has to say about children in another post so this point is still open to question. But I think we need to ask: How are children different than adults? Are they, or their faculties, lacking in some way that needs to be developed? [I will note that I teach the littlest kids Sabbath School class, ages 2-6, and my observation is that they can and do make some very good, even theological, points at times.]

So How to We Make it Christian?

My concerns about the modern Christian version of classical education fall under two headings: goals and methods.

The Christian adoption of the classical model is characterized as a re-adoption. The various Christian classical sources often point not back to Greece (and later Rome) but to the Middle Ages as the precedent for their version of modern classical education:

“Historically, the Christian church assumed the mantle of classical education, modified it, calibrated it to serve the Christian gospel and then greatly extended it. Thus a great deal of what we know as ‘classical education’ has been ‘Christian’ as well.” (Christopher Perrin, “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014)

This merely shifts the burden of proof; rather than asking why do we now use classical methods, we must ask why did the church in the Middle Ages adopt classical methods?

Concerning the very beginnings of Christian education, Christopher Dawson says:

“The new Christian culture was therefore built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption . . . But alongside of — and above — all this, there was now a specifically Christian learning which was biblical and theological and which produced its own prolific literature.” (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, pp. 7-8)

This synthesis of the classical model with Christian thought and literature persisted through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.** As Dawson, a Catholic, tells it the biggest threat to this mode of learning was the German Reformation under Martin Luther with his crazy emphasis on sola scriptura:

“This revolutionary change [i.e., that of the German Reformation] was even more serious than we can realize today, owing to its destructive effects on the minds of the masses and the education of the common people. In the Middle Ages that education had never been a matter of book learning. The main channels of Christian culture were, liturgical and artistic. The life of the community centered in the Church, in the performance of the liturgy and the cult of the Saints.” (Dawson, pp. 27-28)

Despite what Dawson sees as Luther’s destructive influence, later reformers, including Calvin, continued to incorporate classical learning, at least to some degree:

“Calvin himself fully appreciated the importance of education and study. Wherever the Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not only the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of the classics.” (p. 29)

What is not clear to me — the first question I would like to see answered– is: Why the classical model at all? Its adoption seems to have been initially a matter of convenience and familiarity. Its lifespan has no doubt been long but that alone is not an adequate justification.  Some modern proponents do argue that this way of educating is God-given:

“The best reason for choosing a classical style of schooling is simply because this is the natural model and method for education – which God wrote into reality. So what if the Greeks and Romans used it to serve their ungodly purposes? We simply take it back, clean it up, and use it to serve God in the way which He originally designed. The classical style of education has been successful for thousands of years because it conforms to the created order of things. It works well because it matches reality. If we ever learned anything, then we learned it by the Trivium method – whether we knew it or not.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

However, I have yet to see a good, coherent argument for why it is biblical, or, if not biblical per se, in line with biblical thought and principles (by the way, see this post on how we decide what is good and acceptable). A related set of questions I would like to see addressed: What would the Old Testament/Hebrew/Jewish model of education be, how does it compare to the classical model, and, to the extent that they may differ, why then prefer the classical?

But method is only half the battle; goals are also important. I said above that I was not enamored of the goal of classical education as defined by LTL and WTM. The modern Christian versions of classical do much to rectify this situation. Though their statements of the goal of education vary somewhat, there is no denying that they sound very orthodox. A sampling:

“Classical Christian education’s objective, then, is to shape the virtues and reason so that they will be in line with God’s will. In other words, our objective is to cultivate a Christian paideia in students.” (“What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?”)

“The goal of education is to fully prepare a child for adult life. . . A complete education should prepare a child for mature adult life. All elements of education should work toward preparing sons to make a livelihood and to be husbands and fathers, and toward preparing daughters to be wives and mothers and to manage their households. True education will build a genuine family-oriented culture upon the foundation of God’s word. . . . The ultimate goal of education is holiness – to teach separation to God in order to serve Him.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

“Classical Christian education is not designed to fit the student for our times. It is designed to transform the student to God’s times (Romans 12:2). It is designed to produce an student with the mental discipline and ability to read an in-depth book (even one with more than one hundred pages), write discerning, thoughtful essays on the book, present lectures or debates on the contents of the book, and evaluate its contents in light of the Christian worldview . . . It can and has produced workmen who can rightly divide the Word of God and who do not need to be ashamed to confront and unmask the idols of our age.” (Ben House, “Classical Christian Education,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics)

“The purpose of Classical Education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom. The classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’ The ultimate end of Classical Christian education is to enable the student (disciple) to better know, glorify, and enjoy God. Since we are able to know things with which we have a common nature, the more we are like God the better we can know Him. A student gives glory to God when he is like Him. Our enjoyment of God is derived from our ability to see Him and to see His handiwork.” (“Principles of Classical Education,” from The Circe Institute)

While these goals all sound pretty good, they are not identical. What I would like to see is a goal that starts with the Scriptures, asks how they define education, and works from there.

I also have some concerns about how the method and the goal work together. Christian classical — whether in medieval times or modern — seems to accept the method of the Greeks and to add to it Christian goals like holiness and glorifying God without ever asking if this method can be used to achieve these ends. Perhaps we will find in the end that the methods and the goals are not intimately connected but I think it is at least worth asking how the two work together (or don’t).

So Why Not Classical?

Ironically, my main complaint against the Charlotte Mason method was that it follows too closely on its (faulty) principles whereas Christian classical does not tie its principles to its method enough. In truth, I want something that is like the Charlotte Mason method in that the practical details flow from the initial assumptions. But the modern version of Christian classical — and in truth its early Christian version as well– does not begin with Christian principles but takes a non-Christian method of education and adds Christian purposes on top of them without questioning the methods themselves or their suitability to their goals. It is my conviction that in order to build a truly biblical and reformed philosophy of education that we must begin with goals. We must first decide what the purpose of education is and then ask how we are to go about achieving those ends.

This post wraps up the whys of this enterprise. In the coming weeks, we must begin to look at the evidence and to answer the questions.

Nebby

**Note: Looking for more? I have posts coming out soon reviewing books by Dawson and Van Til; both will revisit this issue. I also recently ran across a podcast from Charlotte Mason Poetry in which Art Middlekauff mentions that the Christian tradition was not as unified as it is often portrayed. I have not had a chance (yet) to listen to it myself. You can find the podcast and related video here.

Bibliography

Association of Classical Christian Schools. “What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?” from Classical Christian.org. Moscow, ID: ACCS.

Bauer, Susan Wise and Jessie Wise. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. ??: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Bluedorn, Harvey and Laurie. “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit, 2001.

Circe Institute. “Principles of Classical Education,” from Circe Institute. org.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010 (originally published 1961).

House, Ben. “Classical Christian Education: A Look at Some History,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.

Perrin, Christopher. “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014.

Sayers, Dorothy. The Lost Tools of Learning. Amazon Digital Services, 2011 (originally published 1947).

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971.

 

 

Why Not Charlotte Mason?

Dear Reader,

Thus far we have talked about why we need a reformed Christian philosophy of education, why we need a theology of education, how we should decide on such a theology, and what we can learn from public education in the United States today.

This week and next I’d like to look at two popular approaches to education — the Charlotte Mason method and Christian classical education. [Some would argue that Charlotte Mason is a subset of classical; I am not going to get into that debate as it really doesn’t affect what I am discussing.]

Around the time my oldest (who is now a high school senior) was in third grade, I began to explore the Charlotte Mason approach to education. A lot of what I read initially rang true with me and I began more and more to incorporate that philosophy in our homeschool. More recently, however, as I read even more I have found that I cannot wholeheartedly subscribe to Miss Mason’s approach as there are parts of it which just not in line with my (reformed) theology.

I have written a lot about this, a whole series at the end of last year in fact; I will  not rehash it all today. If you want to get up to speed, the key posts are here and here.

First, the positive — what is there in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education that appeals to the reformed Christian? Charlotte’s approach has been summed up in 20 principles. The first and last of these (in my opinion) serve as a kind of bookends to her method. They are:

“1. Children are born persons.

20. 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.”

Simply put, Charlotte recognizes the personhood of the child (see this post for more on what that means) and the role of the Holy Spirit in education (see this one).  These are the ideas which first attracted me to Charlotte’s thought.

Charlotte bases her philosophy on what she calls the divine law — which boils down to special revelation (i.e. the Bible) and general revelation (God’s revelation through creation including what we know through science). In particular she points to what she calls the gospel principles of education. I count this as a positive in that, in contrast to many other approaches to education available to us today, she has a definitively Christian, biblical foundation.

On the negative side, I am not enamored by her interpretation of those passages. I find it plausible but not convincing as I discussed here.

The big negative, however, and the thing that has caused me to abandon Charlotte as my main role model in education and to begin this series, is her second principle which reads:

“2. They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

I diverge from most of those who write about Charlotte’s ideas in my understanding of this principle. I maintain that she pretty much meant what it sounds like she meant — children have the possibilities for good and evil in them from birth. This is not just a statement about education but about their spiritual state as well. You can see why I believe that in this post.

This conclusion was disturbing enough but more recently, I ran across a quote in her second volume, Parents and Children, which goes even further. There she says:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (Parents and Children, p. 65; emphasis added)

This seems to say that all children are born into a state of grace. As I contemplated this idea, I realized that it is pretty foundational to her thinking. She assumes that the child can not just learn but can, when presented with the good, choose it. If you want to read more on all that see (again) this post or this one.

The problem for me as a reformed Christian is– if Charlotte in her method assumes that the child is capable of good, even bases her approach on that assumption, and I do not believe this, how can I apply her philosophy? [I do actually have a partial answer to that question –I consider my children covenant children and as such can expect them to be able to choose the good. The problem is that if I were educating other children I might not be able to assume this. I want a philosophy that I can apply to all children.]

My goal is to begin to develop a philosophy which is biblical from the ground up rather than to take an already existing approach and tweak it. Nonetheless, I think we can learn some things from Charlotte’s approach:

  1. I want a philosophy which acknowledges the personhood of the child.
  2. I want to be able to say something about the role of God the Holy Spirit in education.
  3. I want a philosophy that is built from the divine law, as Charlotte is, but with a better understanding of/treatment of Scripture.
  4. I want a philosophy that acknowledges man’s fallen state.
  5. I haven’t covered this yet but Charlotte’s approach is profoundly practical. It tells me as a parent  how to educate. This is not something I have gotten from most articles on reformed education but it is something that we homeschooling parents ultimately need. I don’t expect to get there soon but we need more than exalted theories; we need boots on the ground how do I get my child to read, add, learn history, etc.

Next time: Why not Christian classical?

Nebby

 

 

 

Public Education in America Today

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series on reformed theology and education. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

Before we go too far to look briefly at public education in America today.  I am by no means an expert on any of this but I think it is useful as we begin to form our own philosophy of education to see what our culture does and how it got to be the way it is.  My goal is not to give a thorough analysis of all the issues; that could take volumes (and has), but there are few points I’d like to draw out.

I want to be clear from the start that though a lot of what I say is going to be negative, I am not making an argument that public schools are inherently evil; that we should all homeschool; that there is no place for public education; that the teachers and administrators are evil, godless, or misguided. I do think there is a place for public education and that there are a lot of truly caring and even godly people working in the schools. I am very glad they are there.

Having said which, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if the schools were all we wanted them to be. Our goal for today is to look at the history of public education in America and the ideas which lie behind it.  [I am relying primarily on four authors; see the bibliography with my notes on each at the end of this post.]

A Bit of History

Education as we know it today — which is to say universal compulsory education — has only been around in the United States for about the last hundred years. The idea of universal compulsory education began in Germany in the early 1800s as that country moved toward nationalism and away from feudalism (Dawson, p. 49; Gray, p. 61). The German/Prussian model of education was a democratic one in that it extended education to all levels of society. Education served the nationalistic goal and was a unifying force. Peter Gray and John Taylor Gatto both make the case that public education was never about academics as literacy rates were high in both Europe and the United States at the time (Gray, p. 60; Gatto, Weapons, p. 9). Indeed as public education grew, literacy rates only declined (Gatto, Weapons, p. 17). While some still valued education for its own sake, education was for many the tool of social change. As such it included not just intellectual instruction but moral training as well (Dawson, p. 50).

As the movement toward universal schooling expanded geographically, England and America were the lone hold-outs (Dawson, p. 52; Gray, p. 62).  It wasn’t until the mid to late 1800s that the German educational system began to make headway in the United States. Horace Mann is credited with introducing the idea in the 1850s in Massachusetts but even there it was slow to take hold. The various authors disagree on the exact details of when and why public schooling did take hold, but they all place it in the early 1900s, sometime around 1920-1930.

Why Universal Education?

Though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus, it is interesting to think about the ideas and trends that were present in American culture between, say, 1880-1930 that may have contributed to the acceptance of universal education:

  • Darwinian evolution presented the idea that people as well as animals have evolved and are evolving. This is the era of unapologetic eugenics. Wiker in particular draws the connection between Darwinian evolution and liberal politics (pp. 194-97).**
  • Following close on its heels is social engineering, that is, the remaking of society through political means (Wiker, p. 197). “Sociology,” Wiker tells us, “would take the place of theology as the queen if the sciences” (p. 276).
  • Christians were not exempt from this trend. Wiker shows how Christians with legitimate, godly concerns — caring for the poor, for instance — worked with and were ultimately used by non-Christian liberals (Wiker, pp. 284-86). This is the era of the social gospel.
  • Industrialization and a move to the cities brought a trend to mechanization and systemization. Gatto and Gray have a fair amount to say on this — the school as factory assembly line. Children, Gray says, are “passed along , from grade to grade, like products on an assembly line” (Gray, p. 64; cf. Gatto, Dumbing, p. 89). For some context, Ford’s first assembly line was in 1913.
  • Dawson ties the rise of universal schooling to the end of unlimited immigration in the early 1900s (pp. 60-61). America had always been a dynamic place — both filling its borders and absorbing so many peoples from so many places. Now this was on the decline. Americans began to find their own group identity. This is when the melting pot, with less new cheese being added every year, really began to melt (my analogy, not his; never blog hungry). As education in Germany went hand-in-hand with nationalization, so in the United States education was linked to a new sense of national identity.
  • It is odd to me that none of the writers I read on this topic mentioned World War I. My own observation from reading Charlotte Mason’s volumes is that in her sixth and final one, Towards a Philosophy of Education, which was written after the war, that there has been quite a change in focus and intensity. I see a desperation in her writing that was not there before. “The War to End All Wars” (if only it had been so) really threw people for a loop. Perhaps this was more true in Europe than America, but people wondered how, if we are so advanced and civilized, we can yet be so brutal. The answer for Charlotte was a renewed commitment to her own philosophy of education as the means of changing what is wrong in society and ultimately in the human heart.
  • Miss Mason was not alone in this. The early 1900s were a boom time for educational philosophies. Maria Montessori, of the Montessori method, and Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf education movement, were also active during the period.
  • On the political side, the exaltation of the secular schools and the corresponding downfall of the church were aided and abetted by a reinterpretation of the First Amendment creating a new wall between church and state (Wiker, pp. 251-52, 290ff; Dawson, p.84).
  • Trends in education often work from the top down — spreading from the university down to the elementary school. In the 1930s and again after WWII more and more students attended (liberal) colleges and therefore absorbed and perpetuated their ideologies (Wiker, pp. 272-73).

Expansion and Secularization

Sectarian differences among different Christian groups have led them to, at various times, support state control of education in an effort to limit the influence of other Christian groups (Dawson, pp. 83, 142; Wiker, pp. 295-96). This has often been a Protestant versus Catholic issue though Dawson, a die-hard Catholic, also faults “the fissiparous tendency of American Protestantism” (p. 142; your assignment: use fissaparous in conversation five times this week). In seeking to exclude the other’s version of religion, Christians have willingly opted for a “neutral” secular version of education. But education cannot remain morally and spiritually neutral (Dawson, pp. 79-82).

I am not sure education anywhere at any time has ever been about pure academics, but even if it had started that way, education has an expansive tendency. It takes more and more time — the school year in Massachusetts was originally only twelve weeks long (Gray, p. 64). It expands to new age groups “from the university to the nursery school” (Dawson, p. 53). It expands to all areas of life, absorbing not just the academic but the physical, emotional and spiritual (Dawson, pp. 53, 78).

This trend is inevitable but it is not inherently bad. In fact I would say it is as it should be. We are composite people — intellect, body, soul, emotions. We cannot separate out one part and educate that only. If one’s students are coming to school hungry, emotionally broken, or pregnant, they are not going to learn well. A caring teacher naturally wants to see all her students’ needs met, both so they can learn and for their own good. But the end result is that school is not just about the 3R’s but comes to absorb almost all facets of life.

I say “almost” because the spiritual is sadly lacking. As in the German model, education is seen as the cure for whatever ails us (Dawson, p. 48). When problems arise within education itself, the solution is not to reevaluate but to offer more and more education. To the extent that is the answer to societal problems, education becomes a kind of savior. But it is a limited savior, touching the emotional and psychological but denying the spiritual.

In offering a kind of salvation, the schools step into the realm of the church. Wiker argues that this liberalization, which he traces through both politics and education — is not unintentional; it is a deliberate liberating from religion (p. 15). Dawson argues that universal education and secularization feed on each other:

“And in fact there is no doubt that the progress of universal education has coincided with the secularization of modern culture and has been very largely responsible for it.” (p. 78)

The more the school absorbs, the less is left for the church. And as a man cannot serve two masters, one will win out:

” . . .the fact that secular education is universal and compulsory , while religious education is partial and voluntary, inevitably favors the former . . .” (Dawson, p. 79)

“If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary.” (Ibid., p. 132)***

As in Germany, education in America is a nationalizing force. It spreads  a common culture; in doing so it also creates a common culture:

“For modern culture is not pluralistic in character, as some social scientists have assumed; on the contrary, it is more unitary, more uniform and more highly centralized and organized than any culture that the world has known hitherto. And modern education has been one of the major factors in producing this, since it brings the whole of the younger generation under the same influences and ideas during the most impressionable period of their lives.” (Dawson, pp. 111-12)

For those without strong church ties, school often becomes the center of cultural life (Dawson, pp. 60-61, 68, 85).

The result —

” . . . the majority of the population are neither fully Christian nor consciously atheist, but non-practicing Catholics, half-Christians and well-meaning people who are devoid of any positive religious knowledge at all.” (Dawson, p. 85)

Dawson argues further that these “sub-religious” people are “also in some sense subhuman” (p. 132), deprived as they are of fully realizing one aspect of their natures.

Logistics and Fragmentation

Conformity to some degree is probably unavoidable in mass schooling. For the sake of convenience, children are divided by age. This is often characterized as a factory-like system as but I think we must also use some charity in our interpretation; it is not an easy thing to come up with a way to educate thousands of children at once. I think there are ways, and Charlotte Mason’s schools seem to have done so without turning children into numbers, but grouping children by age or level seems like a logical first step. What begins as a logical move generates unintended consequences, however. Children who spend six hours a day primarily with their peers and not interacting with adults or all ages and stripes as they once would have been. There is evidence as well that this is not psychologically advantageous; children are more compassionate when not placed with their immediate peers (Gray, pp. 35, 76). But beyond that, the normal bonds of human life are broken. Gatto speaks of networks versus communities and spends some time showing that what we have now are the former, not the latter (Dumbing, pp. 49, 65). The family in particular is down-graded to a lesser role (Dumbing, p. 56, 67; Weapons pp. 41, 100).

Nor can one teacher necessarily teach every subject to the full. So as children are divided, so are subjects; science occupies this hour, history that one. There is a general tendency to fragmentation. With subjects taught separately by different teachers at different times, it is hard to give or see the big picture. With no overarching theology or philosophy [though one could argue, as Wiker does, that liberalism has its own philosophy (Wiker, p. 11)], with subjects taught in isolation, there is no coherence, no unifying principle (Weapons, p. 16). This tendency is enhanced by what Dawson calls “scientific specialization” (p. 101). Wiker describes this trend:

“The rise and ever-increasing authority of the ‘expert,’ too came from the German model of university education, wherein academic study was divide up into ever smaller numbers of distinct disciplines, each focusing on a narrowly defined area.” (p. 275)

This fragmentation is furthered by the need for evaluation. Testing, and in particular standardized testing, contributes to the break down of knowledge into discrete, unconnected facts. “Memorizing the dots,” Gatto says, “is the gold standard of intellectual achievement. Not connecting those dots” (Weapons, p. 16).

Conclusions

What can we learn from all this? First, when we look at the origins of universal compulsory schooling, we should become very wary. The ideas behind this movement are suspect. We should not, perhaps, throw the baby out with the bath water, but at the same time we need to make sure that we are not unconsciously adopting ideas that are without a biblical, God-honoring basis. In another post, I’d like to look at some of the people behind compulsory education so you can see who they were and what their motivations were.

Second, there are some interesting trends here that we can keep in mind as we begin to form our own philosophy of education:

  1. Moral and religious neutrality is impossible. Christians have at times supported “neutral” public education arguing that no religion is better than a religion that is not my brand. But it is impossible to be truly neutral. There is always a worldview behind what is being taught.
  2. #1 is due, at least in part, to the fact that education does not stay purely academic. Man is made of many aspects and one cannot educate the mind without bringing in the body and the emotions and the spirit.
  3. Yet at the same time, education has become fragmented in many ways. Even while it encompasses more and more of life the disciplines are fragmented. Science, history, math, language seemingly have nothing to do with one another. We need a unifying principle that extends through them, explains them and how they relate to one another.
  4. Education as it is usually practiced in the United States today shatters other social institutions, especially the church and the family. It is not inherently bad to have someone other than mom and dad do the educating but we need to keep in the forefront that social units which God Himself has instituted and be wary of undermining them. Jesus tells us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. I am going to paraphrase that — what your time is spent on, there will your heart be. Apart from any other concerns, when schooling takes so much of one’s time, when it is compulsory (and church is not), it threatens to seem more and more important and to consume more and more of one’s life to the detriment of those other, God-ordained institutions.

Nebby

**Wiker also has a book on Darwin which I highly recommend: The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington, D.C. Regnery Press, 2009).

***Side note: This seems like a pretty good argument for Sabbath keeping to me. If we view the first day of the week as our own, we come to resent any intrusion into it, even that of the Church.

Bibliography

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1961. Dawson is ardently Catholic and comes off at times as anti-Protestant. I have some issues with his depiction of education before modern times which I may discuss in another post, but he also makes a lot of insightful observations which really made me think. It is amusing to read his depiction of education in medieval times alongside Gray’s.

Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2002 (10th anniversary edition).

______________ . Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010. The title of this book probably says all you need to know about Gatto’s take on things. He is a favorite of the unschooling movement and was himself a public school teacher in New York City. Dumbing Us Down is a series of lectures and as such is a bit more disjointed. In Weapons he has worked out his argument a bit more. 

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Gray’s main purpose is to argue for how children should learn (through play). In the process he gives a brief history of education. He is an unschooler, arguing against hierarchical control of children. His approach is essentially the paleo diet of education; i.e. what worked for primitive societies is clearly best.

Wiker, Benjamin. Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2013. Wiker is one of my current favorite authors. If you are going to read any book on this list, make it this one. His primary subject is politics but in the course of it he touches on education as well and makes an argument for Christian education. I believe he is Catholic but you could easily read his book without realizing that.

 

 

Why We Need a Theology of Education

Dear Reader,

Last time I talked about the need for a truly reformed (Christian) approach to education. I want to expand a bit upon that now and say why I think we need not just a philosophy but a theology of education.

When I began to look at the various approaches to education, I found that they all were founded upon certain beliefs. Some are deliberate and up front about their beliefs; others may not even know they have these beliefs. But either way, they all make assumptions about two very important topics:

  1. They all assume something about the nature of the child. As the child is a person (or will at least become a person), this means that they are really saying something about human nature.
  2. Even the most basic has some idea of goals. If I write a spelling curriculum, I still have some belief about why we should teach this subject and what the desired end result is. Every approach to education has a goal in mind. Whether education is a life or the preparation for life, the goal of education tells us something about the purpose of life.

Whether you know it, whether your curriculum writers know it, these are the big questions they must answer: What is human nature? and What is the purpose of human existence?  If we believe in a Creator, we cannot answer these questions without asking how and why God made man.

In the next few weeks, I plan to look at two of the most popular Christian approaches to education, Charlotte Mason and Christian classical. Today I would like to begin to show you what I mean by looking at a secular (by which I just mean not inherently Christian) approach: Unschooling (see my original post on unschooling here). For my purposes today, unschooling is useful because it is philosophical — it has definite ideas behind it and knows what they are — and because it is not inherently Christian. While I do not think unschooling is compatible with biblical Christianity, I have a lot of respect for the unschooling parents I have met. More often than not, they are very involved, responsive and loving parents who truly want what they think is best for their children.

Unschooling has a very high view of the personhood of the child. So high that it says we should not impose our own views upon the child. The parent or teacher does not decide what should be learned; only the child is able to make those decisions for himself.  The underlying assumption is that the child is able to and will choose what is good for himself.  Individuality is highly valued. Janey may choose to learn calculus and use correct punctuation; if Johnny does not, that is fine for him. Looked at from one perspective, unschooling  says that the child can choose and do good. The flip side is that what is good is defined as what the child chooses. In other words, each person decides what is good for himself and what is good for one might not be good for another.

There are other assumptions at work as well. Each child is equipped to learn; learning itself need not be taught. There is a natural curiosity and love of learning which the child, unimpeded, will pursue.  Learning is to some degree an individual pursuit. Though unschooling parents are often quite active in providing materials, all education, in the unschooling environment, is self-education.**

In unschooling, the child learns not just what but when he wants to learn. Some of you will be saying, “Well, if I didn’t make my child learn, they never would.” Unschooling  takes a different approach; rather than looking at a child who might be coloring or playing video games or picking his nose and saying they are not learning, they look at the child and say he is getting what he needs. In other words, there is a kind of educational sanctification of all life. Whatever the child does is learning. There is no separation between education and life. All life is education.

If the material of an unschooling education is thus individualized, we should not be surprised that its goals are also personalized. Individual parents may have specific goals; an unschooling mom once told me her goal was for her children to be kind people. I am not sure that in the unschooling community as a whole that there is one clear idea of what the goal is, but I think there is an implied goal. If each child naturally acquires what is good for him, then, conversely, the goal of education is for the child to acquire what is good for him. But education is also life so we can say that the goal of life is for each person (not just children) to obtain what is good for them. Because my good may not identical to your good, we might say the goal is a kind of self-actualization in which each person achieves his own good.

So what assumptions have we seen in unschooling? Here’s my list:

  • The child has a natural ability to learn and an inborn love of learning.
  • The child is naturally good at least insofar as he will gravitate to what is good and necessary for him.
  • There is not one body of knowledge everyone needs to know.
  • There is not one “good” which applies to everyone. What is good for me might not be what is good for you. (I assume there are theists, if not Christians, who are unschoolers and hold to some higher standard of good beyond ourselves. I would love to hear how parents deal with things philosophically when their unschooling child chooses something that the parent thinks is not good. Another way to ask is, I suppose: how does unschooling account for the existence of “not good”?)
  • One does not truly teach another; “all education is self-education.”
  • Education is not separate from life. All life is education.
  • The purpose of education is for the child to acquire what is good for him.
  • Therefore the purpose of life is also for the individual, child or adult, to achieve his good.

I have used unschooling as an example so we can see how the ideas one holds manifest themselves in a philosophy of education. Unschooling embodies assumptions about: the nature of the child, his abilities and inherent goodness; how learning happens; what good is; how education relates to life as a whole; and what the purpose of one’s life is. If we were to change any one of these assumptions, the philosophy of education would change.

As Christians, we need to ask the same questions: What is the nature of the child? What are his abilities, both intellectual and moral? How does learning happen? What should one learn (is there a set body of knowledge that everyone needs)? What is good? (and perhaps: What is true and beautiful? and maybe even: What is evil/bad/not good and where does it come from?) What is the goal of education? How does education fit into the rest of life? To the extent that education either is life or prepares one for life, what is the purpose of life? Because we believe that there is One who created us and has a purpose for us, these will be for us inherently theological questions.  So to return to my initial claim: we need not just a philosophy of education, as if education were something apart from the rest of our beliefs, we need to see how our theology plays out in our approach to education. We need a theology of education.

Next time I want to talk a little about methodology, how  do we go about forming a theology of education? After that, I’d like to look at two popular approaches to education, Charlotte Mason and Christian classical, to see how they answer the questions above, to see the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Nebby

**I have often quoted this statement, “All education is self-education.” I looked up the source for this post; apparently it was first spoken by western author Louis L’Amour.

 

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