Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

Book Review: History of Jewish Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE by Nathan Drazin. This is an older book, originally published in 1941. My overarching concern in my  current series to is develop a reformed Christian approach to education. As I believe a reformed theology is a biblical theology, this means I am seeking a biblical philosophy of education. In reading Drazin’s book, my interest has been to see how a culture other than the classical (Greek and Roman) approached education and also how another ostensibly biblically-based culture did so. Of course even before the time of Christ, there would be some differences in the Jewish understanding versus our own so it is not necessarily that we are going to follow all that they did, but still my hope was to find something instructive here that will aid us as we develop that biblical approach to education. I will first summarize Drazin’s book and then give my own reactions to it.

The period Drazin examines is a wide-ranging one, covering some 700 years from the Jews return from the Babylonian exile until the Jewish Mishnah was completed. Not surprisingly, given such a long span , there were some changes within this time. Most notably an expansion of education. Whereas before the Babylonian exile there would have been little formal education outside the home, after it the Jews first developed higher education, then secondary, and finally added elementary education for boys (girls would not receive any formal education at this time). This expansion, from higher levels down to lower, Drazin believes to be a common pattern in societies, and, indeed, I think we can even see it today when there is still a tendency to repair the deficits of the educational system by starting earlier and earlier.

Drazin makes quite clear that Jewish education is not just education using Jewish content. It was fundamentally different in its system and goals from Greek and Roman education (Kindle loc. 209). “The outstanding difference,” he says “between Jewish and Greek and Roman education was, of course, in the matter of aims . . .’The whole purpose of Athenian education was the development of virtue, but the virtues were always civic virtues'” (Kindle loc. 2161). Their purpose was often theoretical — the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the discovery of universal moral principles — whereas for the Jews the theory should always influence action (Kindle loc. 2171, 2245). Interestingly, Drazin here sees much more of a connection with the 20th century theories of John Dewey who also sought to shape behavior through education (Kindle loc. 2257).

The goal of education, then, was one of the primary distinctive features of Jewish education. This goal was always focused on Torah, the learning of the law of God, not just for its own sake but so that it may be lived out (Kindle loc. 222, 316). Education was part of life as a whole and was to continue throughout one’s life. Adults too actively sought out education (Kindle loc. 250). Though girls were not educated outside the home and were not required to learn Torah, they too were educated and an educated wife or daughter was still valued (Kindle loc. 1921, 2075, 2096).

The primary content of Jewish education was the Law. For modern Christians it may seem odd but this included not just the text of the Old Testament but its interpretations by scholars and teachers. Though at a certain level there would be discussion of points of the Law, at young ages particularly these interpretations would be memorized as well (Kindle loc. 1713). Other subjects, sciences and grammar and the like, would be learned as they were touched upon by the Torah (Kindle loc. 268, 1382). Though there is some indication that such things could be valued in their own right as they pointed to God. Drazin quotes the Talmud as saying: “‘The man who understands astronomy and does not pursue the study of it, of that man Scripture says, “they regard not the work of the Lord, neither have they considered the operation of His hands”‘” (Kindle loc. 1616).

Though Jewish education did not, like classical education, aim for civic virtues yet there was a broader, more societal goal. Education would assure the survival of the people and would draw other nations to them. This vision was based on an understanding of Deuteronomy (Kindle loc. 296). Israel was a light to the nations and their wisdom was a large part of what would attract those nations.

Practically speaking, Jewish education, particularly elementary education, included a lot of memorization (Kindle loc. 2224) and there was certainly a set body of knowledge that was to be learned. All boys ages 6 or 7 and older were educated. There was a recognition that some would not learn as easily as others and attempts were made to ensure that all learned the needed material. Though physical discipline might be used, the teachers were generally kind and had a real desire to teach and pass on their knowledge.  Intelligence and imagination, Drazin tells us, were not valued in the lower schools (Kindle loc. 1713). Education was not entirely a top-down affair, however. There was room for students to pursue individual interests (Kindle loc. 1752), and, though the Jews did not educate through play, there was an effort to stimulate the child’s interest in the subject matter (Kindle loc. 2226).

In seeking to develop our own biblical philosophy of education, it is helpful to look at those who have come before us. Though the Jewish model of education as a matter of course only looks to the Old Testament and not the New, there are still aspects of it which can be instructive to us.

The Jews of this period took the biblical injunction to educate one’s children seriously. This more than anything else was the impetus for their model of education. Though the move was away from parental education for boys (girls were still educated by their parents), this came from a concern that all should be educated well. The alternative to home education was not just any education but an education based on the community’s core values. And this would be a very tight-knit community with common ideals. It is very different from the modern choice one has between home education according to one’s own ideals and public education in which one has no say (which is not to say that I am always opposed to public education; see this recent post).

The main goal of education was a personal one, to build personal virtue and knowledge of the Law of God (as opposed to the classical model which aimed mainly at civic virtues). A secondary aim was to shine as a light to the nations so that the biblical prophecies might be fulfilled and the peoples would be drawn to the true God. This is a reason I think we are sorely missing in the church today. Note that it is the wisdom of God’s people which attracts the nations. In our day and age Christianity and scholarship are more often than not seen to be opposites, particularly in the popular conception. No one is coming to the church because of our scholarship. This has not always been the case, of course, and I think we can yet recover good, Christian scholarship.

Based on what Drazin says, it seems that more often than not education revolved largely around the Torah and that other subjects were included only as they arose in that context. But knowledge, particularly at the higher levels, might be pursued in its own right, and it was even seen as good and necessary to do so. There was certainly a belief that all knowledge was God’s and that God’s truth would hold up to investigation and experimentation.

There are ways in which the world has changed since 220 AD. Books are everywhere (not to mention computers!) and the bodies of knowledge to which we have access are enormous. Ancient education, whether Greek, Roman or Jewish, was primarily memorization. There is often an emphasis on this in modern homeschooling based on classical models. While this may not be an entirely bad impulse and I am somewhat saddened by our seeming inability to remember things in this day and age, I do think we need to have a discussion at some point about how education can and should change with changes in access to materials and very real changes in the content of human knowledge as well. All of which is to say, it is worth noting the practical aspects of how ancient education worked, but we need to also evaluate them from the perspective of the modern world. A fuller discussion of this would take another post, however, so I will leave it for the moment.

The biggest difference between our biblical model of education and that of the Jews arises from our very real theological differences. For most of the period under discussion (which you will recall was roughly 550 BC to 220 AD), the Jews were God’s people and we would say we share that common heritage. But God’s revelation was not complete at the time; His biggest revelation, His own Son, had not yet come. I hate to beat up on the Pharisees because I think they often receive a bum rap, but the New Testament does make clear to us that the teachers of the time, those who were most educated, got a lot of stuff wrong.  The primary goal of Jewish education was the development of virtue. The underlying assumption of this approach to education was that one could, by studying the Law well, be able to keep that Law. Drazin quotes the Rabbis as saying that the whole world hangs in the balance, “‘the merits of the people nicely balancing their transgressions'” (Kindle loc. 471). This is not our understanding nor do we believe it is a good understanding of the Old Testament. The good deeds do not weigh against the bad and people are not able by study to keep the Law of God on their own. In my own philosophy of education I have talked about education as sanctification. This is much larger than the development of virtues. It is a transformation because a complete transformation is what is needed (Rom. 12:2). And, most importantly, it is not something we can accomplish on our own. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit who writes His Law on our hearts (Jer. 31:33) and changes us and enables us on a very fundamental level. Education itself, even education in the Law of God, apart from the work of the Spirit has no power to make us good.

I think there are things we can learn from the Jewish model of education. It is particularly helpful to have an ancient model that it not the classical so that we may compare the two (you can see some of my thoughts on classical education here and here). There are things we can learn from the model Drazin describes and there are details which perhaps we need to incorporate in our own, but, at the end of the day, this is not  a Christian model and our very fundamental theological differences will cause us to reject this model as it is and to look elsewhere. Though, I would add, we do see once again how a people’s core beliefs are manifested in their approach to education. The Jewish model may not be ours but it was quite well-suited to their own worldview.

Nebby

What We Study and Why: Fine Arts

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

This week we will be discussing fine arts, by which I mean why and how we study what other people have produced. Hands-on art, what we ourselves might produce, will be discussed in another post.

Why We Study the Arts

Most recently we looked at literature; many of the same arguments will apply to the arts. As one of the main goals in studying literature is to explore ideas, so with art and music. These ideas are often more subtly expressed when we use images, colors, and sounds instead of words, but they are ideas nonetheless. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and there are some ideas which are better communicated in an instant with an image than with those many words.

An artist (or musician) is like an author. Human words on not on the same level as the Word of God, and human art is but an echo of the artistry of God in creation. But we can learn from it nonetheless. Art and music allow us to reflect on what God has done, to take some small portion or idea and to meditate on it for a time.

The arts often follow the philosophy of the time. As such, they tell us as much about ourselves as about God, but this is still useful and good. We learn of the evil in our own hearts and, by God’s grace, our potential for good as well. We learn about our own need and that of our neighbor. Francis Schaeffer’s books do a wonderful job of demonstrating the philosophical trends that underlie art and of reflecting on what is good and bad in human art (see bibliography).

God not only made the world good, He also made it beautiful. Another reason we study the arts is simply to experience beauty. When Paul in Philippians tells us what to fill our minds with, he includes “whatever is lovely” (Phil. 4:8; ESV). Some perhaps tend towards a utilitarianism that sees no place for beauty, but when God in the Old Testament gave instructions for His tabernacle, it was a thing of beauty with much ornamentation and artistry. I remember a professor telling me that more than anything else the Hebrews were known for the beauty and ornamentation of the high priest’s robes.

Ultimately, the reason we study anything is that it points us to God. Beauty itself — which cannot be explained by evolutionary science (see Ferris Jabr, “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution”) — points is to the Creator (see Rick Stedman, 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God). Hannah Anderson, in her exposition of the Philippians 4 passage, tells us that the Greek word used for “lovely” describes “both the thing itself and the response it produces in us” (All That’s Good, Kindle loc. 1642).  There is an irony here — beauty, by the very virtue of its being anti-utilitarian serves a purpose, to show us that there is more than what we see, something worth sacrificing for.

How We Study the Arts

If there are things which are lovely, then there are also things with are un-lovely. As God embodies an absolute standard of Truth, so He embodies a standard of Beauty. We live in a very subjective age which allows all things and says that whatever is good in your eyes is good for you. That is not what we believe when it comes to Truth, so we need not believe it about Beauty.

I am not the person to say what that absolute standard of beauty entails. Volumes could be written on the subject I am sure. Nonetheless, as I often do, I will give a few thoughts–

The arts have form and meaning. Ideas are expressed in a particular medium and within that medium in a certain genre or style. I find the ideas, once we are able to discern them, are much easier to evaluate. Which is not to say that we should only study pieces with good ideas; it is often just as valuable to look at the despair of our fellow man. We see his need and we see our own. We follow bad ideas to their conclusions and see their futility. The test of art is often in the result — does it ultimately point us to God? Sometimes it is the things that make us run the opposite direction which get us there quickest.

The intent of the artist is not necessarily the most important thing. He may not get beyond his own despair. He may not see the futile end of his ideas, or even if he does he may never reach for something more, but his work can still drive others to God. Just as the prophets did not always understand the full meaning of their message, so the artist may not fully understand his own work.

Education, I have argued, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as one person may look at an impending storm and think about nothing more than a ruined day while another sees the power and glory of God, so our reactions to art or music will depend upon the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. These moments of inspiration sometimes come upon us suddenly, but more often they come to us because we have developed that elusive thing called discernment.  When we steep ourselves in truth and in all those good things that Paul lists in Philippians, we become more adept at recognizing them when we meet them again.  This is another reason it is good to expose our children to good art and music — they will develop a taste for it and be better able to recognize what it good and true and beautiful.

The above remarks largely concern the content of art, but we can also consider its form. While there are certainly forms of art and music that I do not like, I am not a snob about it. There is always a new style that appalls an older generation. Many of the things that we now consider classic were once themselves shocking.

I am not arguing that we all need to study grunge rock because it could embody truth.  I think it is fine to follow one’s own tastes up to a point at least. On a practical level, I find it very helpful to study the arts alongside history. Schaeffer’s book, again, provides a good guide for how the art and music of a time reflect its ideas. Older children would even read this for themselves (there is a video as well which is even easier to digest).  I will include in the bibliography a list of resources we have used on in studying art and music,

Nebby

Bibliography

Books on the theory behind the arts and beauty —

how they express ideas and how they point us to God

Anderson, Hannah. All That’s Good. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018.

Horner, Grant. Meaning at the Movies. Crossway, 2010.

Jabr, Ferris. “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution,The New York Times Magazine (Jan. 9, 2019).

Ryken, Leland. The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts.  Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2005.

Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005 (originally published 1976).

Stedman, Rick. 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God.  Harvest House, 2017.

Resources for studying the arts

Adventures in Art. (Cornerstone Curriculum)

Beethoven’s Wig. (CD collection)

De Rynck, Patrick. How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters.

Hillyer, V.M. A Child’s History of Art.

Janson, Horst W. and Dora Jane. The Story of Painting from Cave Painting to Modern Times.

Kohl, MaryAnn. Discovering Great Artists.

Lacey, Sue. Start with Art (series).

Persons, Marjorie Kiel. Themes to Remember. (books and CDs)

Roalf, Peggy. Looking at Paintings (series).

Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection  (video series)

Usborne Children’s History of Art.

Van Loon, Hendrik. The Arts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937.

Implementing a Christian Education in Public, Private, or Homeschool

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

If you are in Christian parenting circles, you have probably read articles or heard talks or even listened to sermons on how you should school your kids. Maybe you have agonized over the choice. Maybe you have felt snubbed at church for making the “wrong” choice. Maybe (be honest now) you have looked down on others for their choices.

I am not here today to give you the ultimate answer to the public vs. private vs. homeschool debate. Instead I am going to argue that we are asking the wrong question. At the end of the day (or hopefully at the beginning of the day) your child needs to go to school somewhere. That’s still a decision that will have to be made, but it is not where we need to start. We need to start not with “How do I school him?” but “How do I educate him?”

I began a few years ago looking at different approaches to education (find that series here). What I discovered was that each has certain base assumptions about who the child is and what the goal of education is. Because children are (or at least will be) people, who the child is actually a statement about human nature. And because education prepares us for life (or is a part of life, depending on your philosophy) the goal of education points us to the goal of life. In other words, every approach to education is a philosophy of education which makes assumptions about human nature and the purpose of human life.  Your curriculum writers and teachers may not acknowledge these assumptions, they may not even know they have them, but they are still there under the surface affecting what we do and how we do it. And, perhaps even more significantly, they have practical consequences which tend to exhibit themselves more and more over time in the lives of their victims . . .  er, students.

We need to begin not with public, private, or home but by discerning a biblical approach to education.  That is what I have been trying to do in my current series. I am not going to rehash it all today. What I’d like to talk about is what we do once we have that information.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have a well-developed, biblical philosophy of education, your child’s bottom still needs to be somewhere at 9am on Monday morning. What’s the next step? You need to make the best choice you can for your family where you are. There are a lot of variables which might affect your family’s decision — geography and finances and special needs come to mind immediately.

Homeschooling certainly allows for the most flexibility in curriculum choices, but to simply say we will homeschool and think you are done with the decision is not to provide a biblically based approach to education. In some ways the homeschooling parent has it the easiest — they can make their own decisions with regard to approach and curricula. But they also have it the hardest — they have to make their own decisions! There are a lot of choices out there and, frankly, I have yet to see any one curriculum that I would consider on target in terms of what education can and should be. The decision to homeschool is not the end of the process, it is only the beginning and a curriculum with a few Bible verses adorning the page does not make a biblical philosophy of education. For those of you who do homeschool, I am trying to provide guidelines (based on my own philosophy of education) to help you pick from among the curricula that are out there. Perhaps even more importantly, you will need to decide how to implement the resources you choose. All that is part of the ongoing conversation we are having here so I will not belabor it today.

There are a lot of reasons why families can’t homeschool, or at least might not find it the best available choice for their family. Let’s talk first about the Christian school. Just as being advertised as a Christian homeschool curriculum does not guarantee a biblical philosophy of education, so too a Christian school may not have a truly biblical foundation.  I am not saying that if that local Christian school has the wrong philosophy that you should not use it. I am saying to use it discerningly. The homeschooling parent has a lot of freedom; the parent who sends their child to a school has less, but they don’t have none. There is a lot one can do to correct or reframe what is taught in school.

Similarly if you choose to use the local public school or another not-inherently-Christian school, you can still work to put the education your child is getting within the framework of the proper ideology. You may have even less influence on what is being taught [1], but you are still the parent and at the end of the day it is up to you to provide the framework through which your child views the world.

I will say up front that as my children are homeschooled this is not my situation, but I’ll share my thoughts nonetheless —

Implementing a biblical philosophy of education does not start with a pile of worksheets or even books but with an attitude and an expectation. Even if your children are  in a great Christian school with the right philosophy of education, these are things they should still be getting from their parents. And if their school is less than ideal, you will just have to be all the more mindful of your expectations and attitude. If we want to instill a love of knowledge in our children, we need to model it. They should see us reading quality books and appreciating art and music. They should see in us a genuine love of knowledge. If you are reading books because you want to set a good example but are not enjoying them yourself, you will not be able to keep it up. Try other books. Try another subject. Try easier books. Good books don’t have to be hard books. Look for authors that love their subjects. I am a big proponent of the written word, but if you need to start with some video or audio lectures or use audio books (listen to them in the car when your kids are a captive audience!), by all means do so. You can learn from fiction as much as from non-fiction. Ultimately, the reason we learn anything is because it is part of God’s general revelation to us. Feeding your own mind should be part of your spiritual growth whether you have kids to impress or not so find something, anything that works for you. And when you have found it, talk about it. Talk about it to your kids and maybe even more importantly talk to other adults in front of your kids. Have real conversations about ideas.

You should absolutely have good books and videos and music and art around your house, but I would be very wary of requiring extra schoolwork of your kids. Most schoolkids have way too much busywork to start with, Even if what you are giving them at home is of a higher quality, it will weary them. Don’t provoke your children by overburdening them. Make sure their schedules allow for down time.

Surround them with opportunities to interact with good materials. Make sure they have access to good books, and limit their access to frivolous ones. Again, good books don’t have to be hard books.  You can respect their need to take in a little intellectual junk food after a hard day at school without exposing them to every piece of kiddie drivel out there (and there is a lot). If they are still young enough to let you, read to them. Have family read aloud time (bedtimes and mealtimes are great for this; so is the Sabbath). If you start young, they will let you continue even when they are teens.

In education we are exposed to God’e general revelation. Nature is the most obvious and available source. Spend time outside. If the kids want to play outside without you, that’s great, but if not cultivate habits that get you all outside.

Resist the urge to sneak educational material in secretly in like black beans in brownies. The things of God which are the fodder of education should be inherently interesting. We don’t want to make them boring but we also don’t need to dress them up.

Don’t worry too much about gaps but do care about the overall arc. We all have gaps in our knowledge. I never had a history class that got beyond WWII and I am not sure we ever studied the Middle Ages, These details are not overly important. Someone who loves knowledge and knows how to get it can learn what they need to learn. It is much more important that your child see God in the things he is learning. If your child is not in a solid Christian school, they are probably not getting this. It is up to you to provide it. That means first of all that you need to believe that all things are under God’s providence and point to Him. And secondly, that you need to speak and act as if they do. If we want to see God’s hand in the great events of history, we need to begin by seeing it in the ordinary day-to-day events of our lives. A lecture is okay once in a while, but sincere belief is a lot more convincing. If it’s not natural for you to talk about what you believe on a casual, everyday basis, even to your kids, you need to get there. Education is a part of sanctification. That is a journey we are all on and the best way to help your kids along that path is to be consistently, deliberately advancing along it yourself and to let them see that.

Those are my suggestions — do you have others? Things that have worked for you?

Nebby

[1] In Massachusetts, where I am, the courts have ruled that when you drop your kids off at the school door you have no say in what they are taught.

What We Study and Why: Literature

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Last time we talked about why and how to study langauge, thinking of language as a whole including those exciting subjects spelling and grammar. This time I’d like to talk about literature. I am thinking here particularly of fiction, no matter its genre. I have already made the case for books, and “living books” especially, as a mainstay of education, but why do we read things that are not factually true?

Why We Read Fiction

Before diving in, I’ll offer a disclaimer that I have blogged on topics akin to this many times in the past. A lot of what follows will refer you to books and articles I have reviewed in the past. A bibliography of these books will appear at the end.

The Scriptures show us by example the value of stories. When God begins to tell us about Himself and how we can and should relate to Him, and how we often fail, the genre He chooses is narrative.  (And, of course, the Old Testament contains a good chunk of poetry as well.) Though these are stories, they are true stories, so the question remains: Why read stories that we know aren’t true? Turning to the New Testament we find that this is just how Jesus taught. He told parables, aka short stories. And while the message of each parable is true, we have no reason to suppose that there ever really was a good Samaritan or a prodigal son.

As long as we understand  that what we are reading is fiction, there is a lot of truth that we can get from these made-up stories. As I discussed in this recent post, narrative can have a power over us that a dry recital of facts does not. It invites us in because we relate to it on a level that goes beyond the rational. Fiction speaks to not just our mind but our emotions as well. It allows us to live through events and to experience people and places that we would not otherwise.

Stories are often a way to explore topics that we don’t want to face directly.  In  Meaning at the Movies, Grant Horner, a Christian, shows how the truth that people try to suppress comes out in the stories they tell. Similarly, Frank Boreham (see this post) argues that the desire in us for something more, beyond the world as we know it, is a sign that there is indeed something more. Rick Stedman in his 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God (see my review here) makes a similar point.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see this post, this one, and this one) makes the case that we deal with subjects in fiction, particularly fairytales, that are hard to address in real life. Not only do these stories allow us to get a feel for situations which are hard or which we have not yet faced, they provide us with solutions. They give us heroes and show us examples of how to act, or, often just as valuably, how not to act. Charlotte Mason makes a similar point (see this post or this one).

The subjects we explore through fiction need not be fantastical. I found myself recently, through no overt planning on my part, reading a number of books that deal with the subject of adultery. Some of these books were non-fiction and some were fiction. Of the two, I found the fiction spoke a lot more to actual human experiences and dealt in a much more realistic, and biblical, way with the consequences, even if the author was not (to my knowledge) Christian.

I had the wonderful opportunity once to go to a conference entitled the Story-Formed Child. The main speaker, Sarah Clarkson, made the point that we are living in a story, God’s story. It is the meta-narrative of human existence. When we ourselves tell stories, we are echoing our Creator and also contributing to the overarching story, or at least our human understanding of it. This is a paraphrase but it’s what I got from Clarkson at the time: Literature is our human conversation through the ages about what it means to live well. Another author who contributes to this thought is Terry W. Glaspey in his Children of a Greater God. He argues  that we need to create a moral vision for children, something that is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. Stories allow us to do this.

Learning facts is not the goal of any of the subjects we study but if possible this is even more true when it comes to literature. We read fiction to experience times and places and events that we could not otherwise. We read it to explore situations that might be hard to face. We explore options. We learn heroism as well as the negative consequences of our actions. Literature above all is about ideas.

How to Read Fiction, with some warnings

Having said which, we must add that not all books are created equal and that narrative, because it is powerful, can be used for evil as well as good. The fact that stories involve our emotions and draw us in means that they can be easily used to manipulate (think about that next time your pastor uses a sermon example). We need to be discerning in choosing what we read, and even more so in what we give our children to read (I have discussed some of the things to consider in picking books previously in this post).

We do not always need to read Christian authors. Sadly, Christian books are often overly moralistic. Our stories do not need to draw conclusions for us. They are often more powerful when we are left to draw the conclusions for ourselves. The stories of the Old Testament rarely tell us who is good and bad or whether an action is acceptable or not. Think, for example, of when Abraham says Sarah is his sister or when Jacob deceives Esau or when Joseph tells his brothers his dreams. We are not told how to feel about these incidents. but we do feel about them and we see their consequences.

Non-Christian authors sometimes actually have a benefit in that they are able to picture to us a world without God. They may show us our own hearts, and it can be a very scary picture. Which is not to say that we should only read non-Christians either but that we need to look at the overall book rather than judging by the religious affiliation of the author.

We also need to value truth. Our God is a God of Truth. There is some leeway in historical fiction. We understand going in that it may have to supply details that cannot be known, but there are better and worse ways to go about this (see this post). For older children in particular it can be helpful to research what is true and what may have been added or supplied by the author. Not to beat up on Christian authors but I do find they tend to be some of the worst for supplying details, especially when their topic relates to Scriptural events.

In some ways it is safer then if a book concerns a world which is entirely imaginary. I know some Christians have issues with books that contain magic elements and the like. Personally, I do not, at least not inherently. I think we suspend belief when we read books and understand, particularly if they are set in fantastical worlds, that what happens in their worlds might not happen or be okay in ours. Ideas that affect us can sometimes best be explored in worlds that are not our own. I am actually a lot more likely to have problems with books set in the real world but which assume certain dynamics, like that siblings are always opposed to one another.

Fiction, in all its varied forms, can be one of the most valuable things we can read. It allows us to take ideas and to hold them like a gem and turn them over in our minds and explore their facets, but it also requires a lot of discernment.

Nebby

Bibliography: Books on Stories and Narrative

Boreham, Frank. The Golden Milestone. Chariot eBooks, 2014 (originally published 1918).

Clarkson, Sarah. Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children. Storyformed Books, 2014. (I haven’t actually read this one yet but it’s on my list.)

Glaspey, Terry E. Children of a Greater God. Harvest House, 1995.

Horner, Grant. Meaning at the Movies. Crossway, 2010.

Mason, Charlotte. “The Knowledge of Man: Literature,” in Towards a Philosophy of Education at Ambleside Online, pp. 180ff.

Stedman, Rick. 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God.  Harvest House, 2017.

Warner, Marina. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale.  Oxford University Press, 2016.

What We Study and Why: Language

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

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

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

Why We Study Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How We Teach Language

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

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

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

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

Nebby

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Study and Why We Study It: History

What We Study and Why We Study It: History

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series, we are looking at individual subjects and asking why we study them and, to a lesser extent, how. Thus far we looked at two “STEM” subjects, math and science. This time I’d like to look at what I have always considered the core of our homeschool: history.

Why We Study History

We have all heard the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but why, from a biblical perspective, should we study history?

In mathematics, we look at the structure God built into Creation. In science, we learn about the Creator from what He has made. When we study history, we are studying how God has worked in the lives of individual humans and of larger human societies. Another corny truism: history is His story. It tells us about God and it tells us about ourselves, our propensities for evil and the good that we, through the Spirit, can do.

The Scriptures instruct us to tell our children the things God has done:

“Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps. 78:3-4; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

The forces of history, nations and rulers, are formed and controlled by Him:

“And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” (Acts 7:26)

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21:1; cf. Rom. 13:1)

“He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings . . .” (Dan. 2:21; cf. Dan 2:37-38; 4:17)

We see specific examples of this in the Scriptures themselves. God uses the situation in Egypt to save His people in the days of Joseph. He raises up the Persian King Cyrus, again to save His people and return them from exile (Isa. 45:1). He uses the nations as rods to punish His people (2 Kgs. 18:9-12; cf. Isa. 9:11; 10:5-6).

But it is no less true that Christ is king of nations today and that He is still as intimately involved with their rise and fall as well as the more day-to-day lives of people (Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:4).

Cornelius Van Til argues that because history is about man, it should be the center of our educational endeavor:

“Arithmetic and all other subjects that emphasize the space aspect of the space-time world lie in the nature of the case in the periphery of the whole area of the creation of God. This is due to the arrangement God has made in his creation, namely, that man should stand at the center of it. And since man is a selfconscious and active being his most characteristic human traits will manifest themselves more fully in the movement of time, that is in history, than in the immovable atmosphere of space. Accordingly it is easier to bring out the more specifically human and the more specifically Christian interpretation of reality when teaching history than when teaching nature.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974) p. 204]

How We Teach History

Christians tend to get themselves bent out of shape over science resources — Does it present a biblical view of Creation? Is it godless? Does it assume evolution? Does it agree with my view of Creation? But the Van Til quote above argues that the mindset of our history curriculum is even more vital. As he says elsewhere, there are no uninterpreted facts (p. 88; see also this post for a number of quotes from other authors on this point). We see history through a lens. If we assume a godless universe, there will be no meaning to the events we study. Cultures will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost because of economic and political and military factors but there can be no higher meaning nor is there any end towards which events are moving. Even those who accept the idea of a Creator can misunderstand events if they do not accept that He is a Sovereign God who is in control of all things. As reformed people, we believe that there is a purpose towards which all things work and that there is no event or detail, no matter how small, that is outside God’s sovereign plan [Ps. 135:6; Lk. 12:22-26; Acts 17:25-28; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11; Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 3:1; 5:1; Van Til does an excellent and thorough job of critiquing other Christian worldviews and showing how they fall short (pp. 72ff)].

Those beginning with young children often wonder where they should begin with history. Is it best to start at the beginning of human history or to begin with one’s own country? I don’t think there is one biblical answer to this question but my own inclination is to begin with what is closest. The child should first learn how God has worked in his own life and that of his people. “His people” here can include a few different circles. Most narrowly, it may include the family — Where do we come from? How did his parents come to faith? Are there family stories of deliverance from illness or other troubles?

Beyond that there is the state and nation in which he lives. I do not believe the United States is a Christian nation but its history does contain wonderful tales of God’s deliverance that affect the lives of small children. The story of the First Thanksgiving comes to mind. Nor should the bad stories be neglected, the ones about our failures.

I would add that though history should always be taught with the assumption that God is in control of people and events, we do not need to beat children over the head with the fact. The Bible (largely) does not do so when it tells us of God’s actions. It tells the stories and leaves us to see God working and to judge the humans involved and to make our own conclusions. It does not moralize. Lessons are best learned when one is allowed to draw one’s own conclusions. The tendency on the part of adults to want to add morals to every story often arises, I believe, from our own lack of faith in God’s story. His deeds speak for themselves more powerfully than we can when we turn a history lesson into a sermon.

We are also all part of a community of faith. The Scriptures give us part of the story of God’s work among His people. The story continues as well through the history of the church, both on a broad basis and, depending on one’s denomination, on a more local level. (As I outline my proposals for a Reformed approach to education, I am assuming that “religious” education is going on as well but I am largely confining myself to education on “secular” subjects so I will not spend much time on how we teach the Bible.)

Though we may begin with history close to home, it is also good and necessary to expand beyond one’s own people. We learn first what God has done for us, but then we also need to learn that God works in other societies as well. How we expand may depend upon our particular circumstances. It seems reasonable to me for those of us in the United States, having learned something of our own nation, to next consider those close to us. What it means to be “close” can be defined in various ways. We are a big country and personally I don’t live especially close to a national border. So “close” may be defined by geography but it need not be. Historically and culturally, England is our closest neighbor. In my own homeschool, I tend to emphasize the history of England when we cover the middle ages in the hopes that it will give my children a feel for where our own government comes from. Looking back even further, we are part of the stream that is western civilization so again it seems reasonable to spend a little more time on western civilization and its foundations (read: Greece and Rome) than on other cultures. There may be other societies to which you feel a particular tie that you want to spend more time on as well. It could be a family tie. It could be another kind of connection. Perhaps your church has missionaries there. Perhaps you have friends from another country.

And then there are peoples to whom we have no immediate tie (though you never know where God will take you in the future). Here too we can study them to learn how God has acted among people very different from us. We can also learn about the people themselves. We may see that they are very like us and that the same forces work in their societies as in ours. We may learn that they have different values and that the things we have always assumed need not be true for everyone (perhaps this is good, perhaps not).

A word especially to homeschooling parents: Human history if a huge subject. You will not get to everything. We all have gaps in our educations. Personally I learned very little about the middle ages when in school and no American history after WWII. The point is not to do everything but to do what you can and to do it with the right mindset.

The other big question I hear about history is whether it is safe or wise to teach the myths of pagan cultures to children, especially young children. Of course if you begin, as I am suggesting, with more local history this may not be an issue for a few years. I will say my own children heard Greek myths from an early age. One child was particularly attracted to these and now has declared a college minor in classics. I have never known a child to be confused by these myths and to wonder if Zeus is real or Jesus isn’t. If anything, even younger children seem to see quite clearly how messed up the lives of the Greek gods are and how hard it is to live in a world with many gods to please. On the positive side, I do believe these myths teach us about human nature (which is really what is reflected in them, though the characters are divine). And, as mentioned above, they in some sense form the basis of our own culture and a familiarity with them can help one understand later allusions and ideas.

While I am trying to give broad outlines and not specifics in these posts, let me make one more plug for “living books” (see this post for a longer explanation of what makes a living book and why we should use them). If the history we are teaching is God’s story and if we want children to see Him in it, we need to provide them with interesting books. Dry compendiums that are little more than names and dates are not going to engage their interest or help them see the majesty that is there. And similarly, I am not opposed to all memorization, but recalling facts (lists of presidents, for example) is not knowing.

Those are my thoughts in history, why we study it and its importance and place within the curriculum and a little bit on the how. Do you have other questions about history?

Until next time,

Nebby

What We Study and Why: Science

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series, we are looking at individual subjects and asking why we study them and, to a lesser extent, how. Last time we looked at mathematics; this time I thought we could tackle science.

Why We Study Science

Most people take for granted that children should study these “STEM” subjects. But for our purposes, the real question is not whether they will help us get ahead of the Chinese or get high paying tech jobs, but how can they help us grow in our knowledge of God and His creation.

The Scriptures make it pretty clear that we can learn about the Creator from His creation:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

We learn from the biological world:

“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” (Prov. 6:6)

““But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-9)

And from astronomy:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1)

And some quotes from other writers, on astronomy and geology:

“We are living in a universe that is constantly trying to talk . . .’The air,’ says Emerson, ‘is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object is covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.’ The stars above my head are signaling; the astronomer masters the code and reads the secrets of the universe. The stones that I tread beneath my feet are signalling; the geologist unravels the code and interprets the romance of the ages.” [Frank Boreham, The Uttermost Star (Pioneer Library, 2015; originally published 1919) Kindle loc. 89]

On chemistry:

“The chemistry of life is like an unknown alphabet and language rapidly spoken to us.” [Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006) p. 113]

How We Study Science

Because science is so central to modern world, it is also perhaps most prone to being done with the wrong attitude. The world recognizes the value of the sciences for the things the world values: making money and beating out the Chinese. It is very easy for us also to fall into the trap of making our studies entirely practical and serviceable. As I have argued in this post about attitude, what we need most is to keep the right focus. If our science does not ultimately point to God and revel in the truth and beauty He has created, it is fruitless.

On a practical level, especially for younger children, my own inclination is keep the focus on joy. Most small children are inherently fascinated by the world around them. Often animals, but sometimes pmats and rocks and less directly tangible things like dinosaurs and volcanoes. We want to encourage and not dampen these natural tendencies. Our world tends to discourage close, patient observation so this also must be encouraged and even taught (though some come by it more naturally). Getting facts into children is not as important, especially in the younger years, as cultivating attitudes and habits that will keep them looking at and appreciating God’s Creation throughout their lives.

Sadly, we live in a time when many consider science and God to be opposites. This is not the case and should not be the case. Science, rightly done, should point us to God. And we do not need to live in fear that if we look too deeply or think too hard that we will lose our faith. (Which is not to say that we shouldn’t ideas against the Scriptures.)

While it may take a little searching around, there are many wonderful science books that inspire awe at God’s Creation. I quoted from Benjamin Wiker’s A Meaningful World above. This is an excellent book which touches on subjects from Shakespeare to chemistry to astrophysics and I highly recommend it.

We need not only read Christian authors. Sometimes even those hostile to faith can be inspiring. This is the case for E.O. Wilson. I disagree heartily with his views on the origins of life but when he talks about his main subject, which is entomology, he is inspiring.

For more on the value of Christian and non-Christian scholarship, see this post in which I argue that all truth is God’s truth and, conversely, this one in which I argue that we should expect more truth to come to us through Christian sources.

As I said last time, I’d love some input on this part of the series. Do you have other good quotes on science? Do you have questions? Recommendations?

Until next time,

Nebby

My Booklists for Science

 

High School Biology

High School Chemistry

High School Physics

Environmental Science

Fossils

Geology

Weather

Anatomy and Medicine

Meteorology

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