Posts Tagged ‘education’

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.




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.


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,



JG Vos on Education

Dear Reader,

I have my first book recommendation for you: What is Christian Education? by J.G. Vos (Pittsburgh: RPCNA Board of Education and Publication).** “Book” is actually an overstatement; this is a small 16 page pamphlet but it has a lot in it for all that.

Though he does not clearly state it, Vos seems to be arguing for Christian education at the college or university level. This is, of course, not our main concern, but he still advances principles which we can apply.

Needless to say, Vos comes to education from a thoroughly reformed perspective:

“By Christian education is meant education of which the basis and unifying principle is the historic Christian view of God, man and the universe in their mutual relations. This historic Christian philosophy finds its most comprehensive and consistent expression in Calvinism, or the Reformed Faith; therefore the most comprehensive and consistent Christian education must be based on, and unified by, the Reformed or Calvinistic view of God, man and the universe in their mutual relations.” (p. 1)

We have not yet gotten to discussing the biblical purpose of education but Vos points us to Matthew 22:37: “‘Thou shalt love the Lord they God . . .with all thy mind'” (p.2). The problem, of course, is that man is fallen so we must ask to what extent and in what ways this affects education. Again, this is a topic we will return to in more depth, but Vos argues that man’s mind or intellect, as well as his moral and spiritual nature, is fallen (p. 2) and that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to regenerate it (p. 3).

“Nor will education which originates from society as such assent to the truth of the damage done by sin to the human intellect, and the resultant need for regeneration, the recognition of which is absolutely basic to any truly Christian view of education.” (pp. 8-9)

True Christian education, Vos concludes, must: (a) come from Christian people (p. 9); (b)have a single unifying principle, “that the God of the Bible is the sovereign, active Lord over all reality” (p. 11); and (c) have as its goal “the glory of God, and the true welfare of man in subordination to the glory of God” (p. 12).

This is a wonderful little pamphlet and I recommend reading it if you can get your hands on it. Because of its brevity and its (presumed) focus on higher education it does not answer all the questions we have but it does point us in the right direction with regards to the two big questions which we have said any philosophy theology of education must answer, namely, What is the nature of man? and What is the goal of education?


**Sadly, I am not sure if this book is still available. I bought one recently from Crown and Covenant’s clearance section and I can no longer find it on their website. . . but perhaps we can inspire them to reprint it . . .  hint hint?




Book Review: The Crisis of Western Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961). This was a decent book and I am glad I read it as it gave me some new things to think about and new avenues to pursue on my current venture. I am not calling it a must read but if you have some spare time, it is not a bad book.

As the title suggests, Dawson is responding to what he sees as the flaws in the current educational system in America (at least current in 1961 when he wrote it, though I don’t think much has changed).  While he raises some interesting points, I am not willing to climb aboard his particular bandwagon for two reasons. First and foremost, Dawson is a Catholic and ultimately the purpose of his book is to call for a definitively Catholic education. Christian culture, to Dawson, means a unified Catholic (big “C”) culture under one Catholic church (p. 124). He is not unkind and his criticisms of Protestantism are sometimes merited, but he is clearly not a big fan [especially of Luther (p. 28), though he is a little kinder to Calvin (p. 29)].

The other issue I have is in some ways even more fundamental to Dawson’s argument. He starts the book by defining education, and while I love that he does so (I am a big believer in defining terms), his definition is purely anthropological —

” . . . education . . . is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation,’ i.e. the process by which culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual.” (p. 3)

The problem I have with this is that it states what education does in a society but it does not ask what education should be. I am willing to acknowledge that education does produce a common culture but as Christians I think we need to be asking what God’s purpose for education is. This touches on what will be one of our big topics — whether the primary purpose of education is to benefit the individual or the society — and so we will have to come back to it more in depth in another post. For today, I’d like to spend time on some of the other points that Dawson raises–

The first part of Dawson’s book is a history of Christian education. This is the most valuable section of the book (though it is not unbiased). Dawson raises concerns about the classical tradition, some of which he knows are concerns, some of which would concern me though he glosses over them. He mentions, for instance, the strong and long-lasting educational traditions of China but fails to address what seems the obvious question — why did we adopt and adapt the Greek system and not the Chinese? Obviously, there is a historical reason for this as Christianity arose in the west, but we must still ask if there is some inherent value in the Greek way over and above other approaches to education. Dawson suggests that the Greeks and Romans prepared the West for Christianity (p. 9) but if that is the case I would like to see more of an elaboration of this idea. Van Til, whose book I will be reviewing in the coming weeks, argues that Greek culture, not being Christian, is fallen, as all non-Christian culture is, and that we should not look to it for more wisdom than modern secular culture (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974, p.14). If we were to look to any culture for an educational and intellectual foundation, the obvious choice should be the Hebrew tradition. So, we continue to ask: Why the Greeks? There may be a legitimate answer to this question. Dawson raises the point, but I have yet to read a sufficiently convincing answer.

As he moves into describing the current state of education, Dawson raises (again, some purposefully and some not) some interesting questions and makes some good points which I will only list here briefly:

  • Each educational system seems to have a core subject, or collection of subjects. We might choose history and natural theology or grammar and rhetoric or mathematics (pp. 12, 40). Is there a natural or right choice?
  • Education fits the society which it serves (p. 23). But to what extent should we fit education to out society and to what extent should we use it to transform our society into what it should be?
  • State control of education leads to state-ordained goals and a lack of religion in education (pp. 52, 61ff, 82). What are the roles of church and state in education? Can there be any role for the state without de-Christianizing education?
  • “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” (p. 132). I love this quote. An excellent argument for viewing Sunday as the Lord’s Day — a day belonging to the Lord and not to us. If it is once ours, we are free to do with it what we will and begin to resent any intrusions into it, even the intrusion of worship.
  • ” . . .the more science a culture has, the more religion it needs” (p. 153). I am not sure I understand what he means by this but I want to know more.

The latter part of Dawson’s book is a call for a Christian education which teaches Christian culture:

“It is vital to the survival of the West that we should recover some sense of our moral values and some knowledge of the spiritual tradition of Western Christian culture. The way to do this is by education, and specifically by making the study of Christian culture an integral part of our educational system, which is theoretically directed to this very end.” (p. 117)

For Dawson, as I said earlier, this Christian education and Christian culture are inherently Catholic and he is dismissive of Protestant efforts  and contributions (pp. 75, 124, 134).

While The Crisis in Western Education comes from a different tradition, and quite passionately so, Dawson writes an interesting and thought-provoking book. This is not a must-read but, if read critically, I think it is a worthwhile book.



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.


**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.


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




Some of the Leading Thinkers on Education and What They Really Believed

Dear Reader,

We have been discussing why we need a truly reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. On that topic, I thought it could be interesting to look at some of the minds behind the modern approach to education and what they really believed.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):

  • Who he was: A French philosopher who also wrote on education; a major influence on Pestalozzi and Froebel
  • Educational ideas: education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society; learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn; downplays books (except Robinson Crusoe); the goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences; one is educated to be a man, not towards a profession; no education for females; environment is an important part of education
  • What he believed: man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil; children are different from adults and develop through stages; organized religion is unnecessary; females only role is to please men

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827):

  • Who he was: Swiss educational reformer who ran a number of schools in his lifetime. His main concern was for the poor and he saw education as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. “The Father of Modern Education”
  • Educational ideas: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. The focus of education should be the child with his individual needs. Education should not be teaching facts but teaching one to think. The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship.
  • What he believed: the sacredness of personality and the potential of the child; education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity; the child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines with negative outside influences

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852; discussed previously in this post):

  • Who he was: the founder of the modern kindergarten movement
  • Educational ideas: importance of the early years; children are compared to hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten); children learn through games
  • What he believed: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity.

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841):

  • Who he was: devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century; the first to connect psychology and education; he is also credited with introducing the science of pedagogy
  • Educational ideas: He developed a five step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge).
  • What he believed: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught.

Horace Mann (1796-1859):

  • Who he was: credited with introducing universal public education to America beginning in Massachusetts; politician; father of the Common School movement
  • Educational ideas: goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens; education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers; common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions; moral education was also the domain of the school; though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator
  • What he believed: humanitarian optimism, the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness; Unitarian

Lester Ward (1841-1913):

  • Who he was: applied the science of sociology to education
  • Educational ideas: goal is an equal distribution of the human knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, needed for democracy; higher education for all classes; education manufactures correct opinions and cannot be left to the individual (or the family); favored one curriculum for the whole country, controlled by educational experts; not child-centered
  • What he believed: society can be controlled through science; mankind is not at the mercy of evolution but can control its own progress (Telesis); rejected social Darwinism in favor of government intervention; man’s mind places his above evolution and allows him to control his own fate; he had some idea of a good that society is aiming for beyond just what the majority says

John Dewey (1859-1952):

  • Who he was: arguably the most influential American educationalist; contributed greatly to the professionalization of the teaching profession
  • Educational ideas: purpose is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas; higher education for all social classes; education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community; children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led; material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge; education should not be a one-way street from teacher to pupils
  • What he believed: morals are social and pragmatic; secular idealism; democracy is almost a religion with him; no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural



Cremin, Lawrence. “Horace Mann: American Educator,” in Encyclopedia Britannica.

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

Doyle, Michele Erina and Mark K. Smith. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education.” the encyclopaedia of informal education, Last update: January 07, 2013.

Froebel, Friedrich. The Education of Man.  Translated by W.N. Hailmann. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908.

Hilgenheger, Norbert. “Johann Friedrich Herbart,” from Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education vol. 23, no. 3/4, 1993, pp. 649-664.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi,” from

Johnson, Paul. “Horace Mann on Religion and Education,” in The History of the American People. 2004.

Kim, Alan. “Johann Friedrich Herbart,” from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015.

Monteiro, Ternan. “Rousseau’s Concept of Education,” from snphilosophers.

The Roots of Educational Theory: Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778),” from Educational Roots.

Ruddy, Michael. Pestalozzi and the Oswego Movement. Buffalo, NY: University of Buffalo, 2000.

Smith, Mark K. “Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: pedagogy, education and social justice,” from

___________ “John Dewey on education, experience and community,” from

Sniegoski, Stephen J. “State Schools versus Parental Rights: The Legacy of Lester Frank Ward,” from Entitled to an Opinion, 2012 (originally published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 1985, pp. 215-228).

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971. (See especially pages 49-55 on John Dewey.)

Wylie, G. Lorraine. “Educational Theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau,” from New Foundations, 2011.


Calvinist Education?!

Dear Reader,

A side rant to my main series — in writing my recent post on public education in America, I ran across (again) a couple of quotes on the Calvinist influence on education. I’ll give them to you first before I rant so you can form your own impressions:

“The most suffocating of the constraints are generated from traditional Calvinistic roots: Mistrust of children, mistrust of teachers, a reluctance to face that adolescence is a junk word, fear of looking bad, fear of scoring poorly on standardized tests, and suppression of imagination — voluntary suppression — which the collective teaching staff imposes on those of its colleagues who haven’t yet lost their talent.” [John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction  (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010), p. 75]

” . . . if you believe dumbness reflects depraved moral fiber (the Calvinist model) . . .” (Ibid., p. 87)

“Lurking behind the magic is an image of people as machinery that can be built and repaired. This is our Calvinist legacy calling to us over the centuries, saying that the world and all its living variety is just machinery, not very hard to adjust if we put sentimentality aside and fire the villains either symbolically or with actual bonfires, depending on the century.” (Ibid., p.89)

“To the Protestant reformers who started them, schools were meant to be correctional institutions, built on the assumption that children are natural sinners. To be saved from hell, children were required to go to schools where their sinful wills would be broken and then reshaped along lines consistent with Protestant teachings.” [Peter Gray, Free to Play (New York: Basic Books, 2013), p. 68]

Sigh. Do you think he knows any Calvinists? I’ll start with the first long quite from Gatto. He is clearly blaming everything wrong with American public schools on Calvinists (as least the way the sentence is punctuated). I can’t imagine he  means it. How can we blame Puritans (which is undoubtedly who he is thinking of) for the use of the term adolescence and standardized testing? I *think* is associating them (us?) with mistrust of children and the rest is just tacked on. Ignoring most of what is in the first quote, here are the charges  against us/them:

  1. Calvinism leads to a mistrust of children, presumably because . . .
  2. Children are born sinners.
  3. The solution to #2 is to break the child and then reshape him in the “right” mold.
  4. Schools are therefore correctional institutions in that they are designed to correct what it wrong in children.
  5. Intellectual deficits are correlated to moral deficits.
  6. The world is just machinery, presumably a reference to a God’s sovereignty in preordaining what happens in our world.
  7. Somehow we can manipulate this machinery, mostly by burning those who disagree with us.

Most of this is pure bunk and I have no idea where Gatto and Gray got it all (though Gray may have gotten it from Gatto). There are shreds of truth, though, so I think it is worth noting the principles they are mangling here.

We do believe in total depravity; children are born sinners. How will this relate to education? That’s one of the issues we have to explore. How can we even begin to educate an unregenerate soul? I am pretty sure the answer is not that we break and remold the child. A preview of what will come: if salvation is the work of God (and it is), perhaps education is too.

Which brings me to #5 above — the correlation between the intellectual and the moral. Total depravity means all parts of the person are fallen so I think there is some truth here. It is not just that we sin in breaking God’s moral law; our reason, our intellect is also fallen.

Lastly, the world as machinery. I don’t know if Gatto is just very wrong or if he has been reading some sort of hyper-Calvinists. Of course God knows and ordains all that will happen. That does not make the world a machine. It certainly does not mean that we can come in and manipulate the machine to our ends. Quite the opposite.

If you are still asking why we need a reformed theology of education, here’s another answer: to counter drivel like this.

Next time: something less depressing.



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