Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

Alfred North Whitehead Follow-Up

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

 

Homeschool Curricula by Approach & A Quick-Start Guide

Dear Reader,

Where I am at least, the number of people considering homeschooling in the coming year (2020-21) has skyrocketed. With them in mind, I created this list of homeschooling curricula by subject. If you need direction in what approach to choose, please see this page in which I list all my posts on the various philosophies of education including questions to ask yourself and a quiz to help identify your style. There are two versions of this list. The full one lists the curricula by approach and the quick-start guide narrows things down even more if you are still overwhelmed.

Homeschool Curricula by Approach (opens a Google doc)

Quick-Start Homeschool Curriculum Guide (opens a Google doc)

I am sure there are inaccuracies and curricula I have missed so feel free to comment and I will try to keep the documents updated.

Nebby

Alfred North Whitehead and Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

The Man and His Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitehead on Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitehead and Classical Education

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

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

The characteristics are:

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

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

Whitehead is critical of classical methods as well:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Habitual Vision of Greatness”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

Nebby

Notes:

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

[2] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

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

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

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

[6] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smitha, p. 2.

[9] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Johann Sturm

Dear Reader,

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

I am returning again to my “Reformed Thinkers on Education” series-within-a-series to look at Johann Sturm. Sturm is an older writer — about as old as you can get and merit the label reformed! — a contemporary of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. I have just read a few essays from Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning [ed. Lewis Spitz and Barbara Sher Tinsley (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995)], but I think they are enough to give me a pretty good idea of his approach and philosophy. Though he is an older writer and in many ways what he has to say may not seem applicable to today’s world, his influence on later educators, both Protestant and Catholic (p. 12), has been great so it is well worth our time to see just what Sturm was all about.

Sturm’s philosophy of education is very definitively classical (see this recent post on the characteristics of classical ed). Like much of classical education, morality was the goal of education, and an education based in literature (p. 57) was seen as the way to produce good morals (p.71).

“For there is nothing in the nature of the universe that cultivates morality as does the study of letters.” (p. 72)

Sturm acknowledged the place of nature and experience but argued for the role of learning in further shaping character (p. 73). This learning, of course, might not be available to all but was a powerful force in the lives of those suited to it. [Sturm’s educational program was not universal. He did advocate for the inclusion of select poorer boys but girls were left out entirely (p. 16) as were those deemed “slow” (p. 78).]

Though definitively Christian and reformed — he “represented a Calvinist element within the church” (p. 350) — Sturm valued classical authors, seeing them as “a harbinger of rather than a challenge to Christian morality” (p. 45).  In practice, classical authors were exalted even above Christian ones. They were assumed to give the proper moral base and distinctly Christian subjects like dogmatics were left out of the core curriculum (p. 50).  Despite this lack of Christian sources, the teacher was expected to be a Christian and to provide the right mindset and perspective through which to view the materials studied (p. 54). And education was said to be useless if not “imbued with sound Christian values” (p. 347).

As is common in the classical tradition, Sturm placed a high value on being able to speak well, saying that “eloquence without knowledge was as dangerous as knowledge without eloquence” (p, 49). This indeed seems to have been the motivating factor in Sturm’s approach to education and his return to classical sources — he saw in his own day a lack of learning which paled beside the vision he had of the ancients and turned to classical sources and oratory as a way to recover learning (p. 119). The early years in particular were given over to the development of morality and proper speech (p. 74) so that these habits, ingrained early, might form a proper basis for the later years. The end goal was a “wise and eloquent piety” (p.85), combing the three goals of morality, knowledge, and eloquence.

Sturm advocated for a large role for parents in the early years (p. 19), but ideally expected qualifying boys to enter school around age 6 (p. 86). At that time they would go to centralized schools. Sturm preferred a very centralized education, both in terms of geography and curriculum. Thus boys would be expected to go to the big city (wherever that might be) and the curriculum was standardized. Large classes were the ideal (p. 84). This was not interest-led learning. Even individual teachers did not make decisions about what was to be taught, but everything was standardized across the school so that all students would learn the same material.

In “The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters (1538)” Sturm presents his program, year by year, outlining which books of Cicero, for example, were to be studied in which year. The first nine years, to age 15 or so, would be for general “boyhood education” and then five more for advanced education (p. 85). In terms of methodology, Sturm was very modern in that he threw everything he had at students. Many different approaches were tried so that if one didn’t work with a particular student, another might (p. 51). He advocated strongly for the use of rewards and prizes as motivations to learning (pp. 51, 88), playing upon students’ innate desires for validation and victory in competition (p. 65).

Though there is a strong emphasis on competition as a motivating factor for the boys, yet Sturm seems to have valued cooperation above all in his teachers. The students’ ambition was used against them (or for them, depending on your perspective) to urge them on in their studies. Yet, for his faculty, Sturm says “nothing corrupts religion more than ambition . . .  When men are contorted by envy and tossed by ambition, there is no loyalty in them, and nothing perfect” (p. 116). The theory in the younger years seems to have been that competition breeds friendship among boys (p. 117). I am not a male so perhaps this is lost on me, but this seems like a very fine line to tread, using a quality you ultimately don’t want to inculcate.

Though he was not opposed to corporal punishment, above all his goal seems to have been to make learning enjoyable for students, to keep their motivation up. To aid in this, lessons were to be kept short and varied (p. 92). Yet too much variation in one day was also to be avoided; Sturm advocated no more than three subjects per day (p. 93). In all this, there was a large role for the teacher in keeping up students’ motivation and appropriately varying the curriculum (yet without varying it too much).

Latin and Latin authors were the backbone of the curriculum. One began with Cicero in grade 9 (which was the youngest grade; Sturm counted from grade 9 up to grade 1; p. 89). Sturm made much use of memorization (p. 55) and in the early years one goal was to train the faculty of memory (p. 91). Greek and Greek authors would be introduced in fifth grade (p. 95). In the last years (grades 2 and 1 for him), the emphasis was particularly on “ornate speech” (p. 102), defined as speech which is “literary, embellished by learning, worth of a free man, and appropriate to the occasion and the person” (p. 103). Subjects like math and astronomy would also come up in these last years.

Though, as we have said, “Christian” subjects were not part of the main curriculum, they were included in some ways. Festival days were for “sacred lectures” and boys were expected to know “the entire history of Christ and the apostles” (p. 104). When this was supposed to happen is not clear, but there was apparently a good amount of reading expected to be done apart from school hours. In all subjects original sources were preferred to later commentaries (p. 48) and this was true of the Scriptures as well (p. 106). In the last years of schooling, the catechism would be explained and Hebrew grammar taught (p. 104).

Sturm believed all subjects were inter-related and warned against over-specialization especially in those first nine years of education. As we have seen, the curriculum was very much a top-down, standardized affair so that there would be few if any options for boys.  Older students, those in the five years of advanced education, were at the age of specialization but were also encouraged to attend lectures in fields outside their main interest (p. 49).

There is no doubt Sturm has been influential, on both classical and non-classical educators, Protestants and Catholics. He lived at a time when the reformed church, brand new itself, had a new situation to deal with. Education had been the work of the Roman Catholic Church and Luther and others sought to break it free (see this post on the history of education during the Reformation). The Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures led to a desire for not just an educated clergy but an educated laity as well, yet in an environment in which few structures were already in place.  Sturm was called in to build a school system essentially from scratch, a rare opportunity.

As he began to do so, Sturm looked around and saw an appalling lack of education in his own day, especially in comparison with the educational level of the past (or at least the perceived level). At a time when the gospel was once again begin preached and spread abroad, it is no wonder he felt very much the need for not just Christian morality but eloquence. The great orators of Greece and Rome seemed to provide just the model he needed and so it was to them that he turned, developing an approach to education which was almost the definition of neo-classical.

I have not made a secret of the fact that I am not a big fan of classical education. As we evaluate Sturm’s work we need to keep in mind the environment in which he lived and the resources available to him. What he created was of incredible value for the church and the society of the time. But we must also realize that we live in a different situation. We have many more centuries of thought about education behind us. We have different needs, different ways of communicating, even different bodies of knowledge, and many, many more resources. We can appreciate Sturm’s work, and take from it what might still be useful to us, but it would be foolish to try to recreate his system today. My critique of much of modern classical education (see this recent post in Clark and Jain’s work) is that it assumes a classical foundation and builds up from there without asking if this is the proper foundation. Sturm does this as well. In his case, I think it was much more excusable; he was in a unique situation and had little else to turn to. We don’t have the same excuses.

Nebby

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Dear Reader,

I am a Reformed Christian who has been reading and posting on issues relating to education, homeschooling, Charlotte Mason, and Reformed Theology for a number of years. Among other topics, I have written in the past on how Charlotte Mason’s thoughts line up with the Scriptures and why Charlotte Mason’s views are not reformed. Today I would like to take that last assertion a step further and argue that in addition to not being reformed, Charlotte Mason had Arminian tendencies. I am not willing to say that she was Arminian in terms of having a well worked out Arminian theology that she held to, but I do think that her underlying theology shows Arminian tendencies.

Setting the Stage

I am not an expert in Charlotte Mason, theology, or Anglicanism (my educational background is in Biblical Hebrew). I am a homeschool mom who has read and thought about these things for a number of years. I have read Charlotte Mason’s six-volume homeschool series cover to cover once through and with various other readings here and there I would guess I have read everything she has written in that series at least twice, some books or sections more than others. I have read a few other articles by Charlotte Mason when they have come up. I am just beginning to read her volume of poetry on the gospels because I feel I should in order to get a more accurate idea of her theology. My initial impression is that her poetic volumes are going to have little to contribute to our understanding of Mason’s theology. It is very hard to discern a theology from poetry with any confidence. I have heard it said that Wesley was an Arminian in his theology and a Calvinist in his hymns. Though I doubt I will find Calvinism in Mason’s gospel poetry, the point that more artistic expressions can betray a different theology that one might not adhere to if pressed is worth mentioning.

Charlotte Mason lived and worked in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was a member of the Church of England. These facts about her should already orient us somewhat as we begin to examine her theology. Within the broad realm of Christendom, they narrow things down a bit and begin to give us some expectations about what she believed. The Church of England is a fairly broad umbrella, however, so they don’t narrow things down too, too much, especially on the issues we will consider today.

I would point you particularly to this earlier post I did on Miss Mason’s Anglican foundations. There I very briefly reviewed Benjamin Bernier’s “Education for the Kingdom“. Bernier shows the Anglican roots and influences of Mason’s thought which, while “Christ-centered,” embodies a kind of “mere Christianity” that is not terribly specific theologically. The same may be said of Anglicanism in general. It rests not on a rigorous confession like that of Westminster but on the non-binding standards of the Thirty-Nine Articles and various later proceedings known as the Lambeth Conferences. [1] Thus knowing Mason’s Anglicanism tells us something about her beliefs but leaves a lot still undetermined. There is a range of things she could have believed and still been a good 19th-20th century Anglican.

It is always worth remembering as well that Charlotte Mason was not writing theology (though again we will come back to her gospel-based poetry in a future post). My contention has long been that education is an inherently theological enterprise but often we have to ferret out what those theologies are. Mason is more direct than some but her goal in the Home Education series is not to give us her theology but her philosophy of education. We often have to read between the lines to try to determine what she believed. My contention on this blog has been that the underlying ideas behind any approach to education will out themselves in the end and that we should be aware of what they are, even if the authors themselves do not know or acknowledge them. So I think it is worth our while to look more closely at Mason and to ask what her ideas were so that we can adapt her approach as need be and bring it better into alignment with our own views.

This is going to be one of my longer posts because I want to take some time to establish the background. We will begin by defining Arminianism. This is very important as it is a term that is used in many different ways. We will then look at the overall theological environment in which Mason lived in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Beginning to narrow in, we will look at the theology of J. Paterson Smythe whose works Mason used in her schools. Finally, we will turn to Mason’s own words from her six-volume Home Education series.

What is Arminianism?

“Arminian” is a label which gets thrown a lot around in reformed circles. Anyone we disagree with might be termed Arminian. But I want to be specific today about what that term entails and what it doesn’t.

Within the spectrum of possible theologies, Arminianism is not the opposite of Reformed theology. That award goes to Pelagianism. In between fall Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. For our purposes today we are going to look at two related issues: the nature of man (that is, his goodness or badness) and his role in his own salvation.

Reformed theology (aka Calvinism) says that man, after the Fall, is totally depraved, which is not to say that he is as evil as he could possibly be but that every aspect of his nature is fallen and corrupted by sin. Though it is a false dichotomy to say that Reformed theology champions divine sovereignty over human free will, man, apart from saving grace, is so bound by his own sinful nature that he can’t be said to be truly free to choose good. Because man is unable to contribute to his own salvation, his election must be unconditional, not dependent on his own character or actions. His salvation is entirely a work of God. Saving grace is essential, particular (bestowed on a particular people, the elect; not general), and irresistible (man cannot turn down God’s saving grace).

Pelagianism, at the other end of the spectrum, says that “humans can freely choose to obey God’s commands rather than sinning.” [2] Adam’s sin was not passed on to his descendants as such but men sin in imitation of Adam. They are free not to sin. Grace is general in Pelagianism, and saving grace can even be said to be unnecessary.

In between these two extremes fall Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. There is a fine line between these two. In Semi-Pelagianism the first step is taken by man; in Arminianism it is taken by God. [3] Semi-Pelagianism says that “initial faith is a free human act, only later increased . . . by divine grace.” [4]

Arminianism does not deny the effects of the Fall on man’s nature, even perhaps admitting total depravity, but it posits a kind of intervening grace which is general and enables man to have faith. [5] This preparing grace is called prevenient grace (or sometimes preventing grace). [6] There is some variety in belief here but usually it is considered to be general, i.e. to go out to all men, and to undo the effects of the fall to the extent that man is able to make a first step toward God.  Thus man in this state does have some real ability to choose good. His election is not unconditional but is dependent upon God’s foreknowledge. God looks ahead to see which will have faith. Because of prevenient grace, man is able to believe, an act which precedes saving grace.

To sum up, there are four basic positions (with many possible convolutions thereof):

  1. Pelagianism: Man does not inherit Adam’s sinful nature. Man is free to do good and makes the first steps toward salvation. Grace is all but irrelevant.
  2. Semi-Pelagianism:  Man makes the first step toward salvation and then God’s saving grace comes in.
  3. Arminianism: Man does inherit Adam’s sin and may even be totally depraved, but by a general act of grace (called prevenient or preventing grace), he is made able to take the first step toward God. Saving grace comes after this initial step.
  4. Reformed Theology: Man is totally depraved and unable to do or choose actual good or to take a step towards God. God’s saving grace, which is only for the elect, must act first. Man is unable to resist this grace.

The argument I am making is not that Charlotte Mason falls into categories 1 or 2, but that she falls into category 3, Arminianism, in that she believed that there is a kind of grace which enables all men to be able to choose good and to make that first step towards God. I am not saying that she did not believe in original sin or even possibly total depravity (though I am skeptical that she would have used that term).

What Might Charlotte Mason Have Believed?

Before turning to Charlotte’s own words, I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at ideas that existed within her time and culture. [7] My goal here is to show what ideas were circulating in the culture. An article I have looked at previously summarizes an interview conducted in England in 1905 about the salvation of children. [8] Those interviewed for this survey were a low churchman (of the Church of England), a high churchman (ditto), two Presbyterians, a Wesleyan (Methodist), three Congregationalists, a Baptist, and a Unitarian. The first thing we can notice here is the variety of denominations represented.

The question particularly addressed is whether some children are capable of good and are, as it were, born into the Kingdom of God. The low churchman, the baptist, and one Presbyterian believed that all children must be born again.  The other Presbyterian and the three Congregationalists believed that children may be born saved. The Unitarian believed that all children are born into the Kingdom. The positions of the others are not specified in the summary article. The second point to notice, then, is the variety of beliefs represented and that within a given denomination (COE, Presbyterianism) there was not necessarily agreement.

Among those surveyed, there were four positions: 1) no children are born into the Kingdom of God (the position of the Baptist minister); 2) all children are born into the Kingdom (the Unitarian position); 3) children born to Christian parents are in the Kingdom; and 4) children born in a Christian nation are born into the Kingdom. [9] While we are not given the reasons behind these positions, I do not think it is too much of a stretch to think that some at least saw a kind of general grace at work, either inducting children into the Kingdom or preparing them for it.

The position of the Wesleyan Methodist minister is not specified but here we can make some fairly solid guesses. By my reckoning, around the year 1900 about 2.5% of the population of England would have been Methodist. [10] The theology of this English-born denomination is based in that of John and Charles Wesley (1700s) who themselves came out of the Church of England. Wesleyan theology is Arminian to its core. John Wesley “followed Arminius in holding that prevenient grace enables all humans to respond freely to the gospel. This universal work of the Spirit overcomes the dire effects of original sin.” [11] Prevenient grace is general; it is “a universal benefit of Christ’s crucifixion,” [12] general and universal in that it is applicable to all men, not just the elect.

The Church of England is, as I have said, a fairly broad umbrella. I have struggled to find a clear source to explain to me the Anglican take on prevenient grace. What I have found is this: Wesley based the Articles of Faith on which Methodism is founded upon the COE’s Thirty-Nine Articles.  In fact, he changed these articles very little. Of particular importance to us is Article X (Article VIII of the Methodist Articles of Religion) which reads:

“The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” The Thirty-Nine Articles X (= Articles of Religion VIII; emphasis added)

Note the word “preventing” which is used here. Prevenient grace, you may recall, can also be called preventing grace. Wesley and the Methodists take this Article to mean that prevenient grace enables man to have a good will. Is this how the COE understood the same words? Based on my research thus far, I am not clear on that. It is certainly a possible understanding of these words, however. The Gospel Coalition, in their article on Methodism, speaks of Wesley drawing on the Arminianism “implicit in the articles as they stand.” [13]

At least one Anglican of Charlotte’s day did take the Arminian understanding. Joseph Miller says that:

“Does not Holy Scripture throughout in its commands and admonitions proceed on the supposition that it is in the power of each to choose to hear the word of God and to yield oneself to its holy guidance, or on the contrary, to turn aside and resist the impulses of grace ? At least it is apparent, that man must refrain from wilful and obstinate resistance, if divine love is to work savingly. Take conversion, for example. Whilst it may be admitted to be mainly God’s act, a fruit of regeneration, must there not be in it a certain yieiding or movement on the part of the man himself ? Otherwise how is the necessity of irresistible grace in order to salvation and eternal life to be evaded ? Are not faith and repentance necessary conditions of regeneration in those of riper years ? And have the will and other natural powers no part in these acts? Observe that [The Thirty-Nine Articles, chapter IX] says, that ‘man is very far gone from original righteousness,’ not ‘altogether.’” [14] (emphasis added)

A few points to note: There is an explicit rejection of the doctrine of irresistible grace. The conclusion that man must be able to make some movement towards his own salvation is based on a rejection of that doctrine.

Summing up, what we see is that England circa 1900 was a diverse place both denominationally and theologically. The Arminian view that there is a kind of universal grace, called prevenient grace, which enables men to have a good will and thus to make the first step toward their own salvation, was evident. This view is implicit, but not explicit, in the COE’s Thirty-Nine Articles. Because the COE is a fairly broad umbrella, it is hard to say how Article X which seems to allude to this universal grace was interpreted at the time or how a particular Anglican (in this case Charlotte Mason) would have understood it, though there is evidence that some (as Joseph Miller) took an Arminian view. [15]

Narrowing in: The Theology of J. Paterson Smythe

J. Paterson Smythe was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland whose book The Bible for Home and School Charlotte Mason recommended and used in her schools. I have recently read two of Smythe’s books, volume 8 from the above work, which is on the Gospel of Mark, and On the Rim of the World, a book for adults which addresses what happens to those who die. I reviewed these and discussed the theology evident in them in this post and this one.

What we saw in those posts was that while Smythe holds to some widely accepted Christian tenets — the sinful nature of man, his need of a savior, and that Christ is that savior — he also takes a very clearly Arminian view. He makes quite clear that God’s will to save us is dependent upon our willingness to be saved. Specifically, Smythe speaks of man’s Will as the key deciding factor. That is, the first step that is required of man is that he must make a conscious and deliberate act of the Will to choose to align himself with God. In the absence of this act of the Will, his fate remains undecided. The default option seems to be neither condemnation nor salvation. Man must ultimately move one way or the other. If he does not clearly do so in this life, he will be given another chance in the next. This latter bit is not necessarily characteristic of Arminianism, but the idea that man must act and contribute to his salvation is and Smythe adds some specification: that what man contributes is that act of the Will.

Now Charlotte Mason, as we have said, recommended and used Smythe’s book for teachers. This does not imply that she adhered to all his theology, but it does point us in a certain direction. So next we must turn to Charlotte’s own words.

The Theology of Charlotte Mason

As we move to looking at what Charlotte herself said, I want to clarify again the questions we are asking. We are not asking if she believed men are sinful. Arminianism admits original sin and perhaps even total depravity. We are asking if there is a kind of general grace which affects all men and enables them to do any good. We are asking if they contribute in any way to their own salvation. And in light of Smythe’s writings, we are looking particularly at whether the Will might be that contributing factor.

In her six-volume Home Education series [16], Mason addresses issues of the Will and faith most directly in four places: chapter 6 of volume 1 (Home Education) which is on the Will; volume 2 (Parents and Children) beginning on p. 127 when she discusses a series of sermons by a Rev. Canon Beeching on faith; volume 4 (Ourselves), book 2, parts 2 and 3 on the Will and the Soul respectively; and book 1, chapter 6 of volume 6 (Towards a Philosophy of Education) which is again on the Will. Much of the material in the chapters on the Will in volumes 1, 4, and 6 is the same, sometimes word-for-word. I would say that volume 1 introduces a topic, already fairly fully formed, which becomes expanded in volume 4 and recapped in volume 6. It is interesting to note that while Mason wrote her series over quite a span of time — volume 1 was written in 1886 and volume 6 was published in 1923 — her ideas of the topics we will address seem to have changed very little.

In volume 1 and again in volume 4, Charlotte Mason offers us a kind of anthropology or psychology of the inner man. The inmost person, she says, consists of 3 chambers, a structure analogous to that of the Israelite temple (vol. 1, p. 317). The outermost is the Will (p. 317). Next is the Conscience (p. 330) and the “holy of holies,” the innermost chamber, is the Soul (p. 342).

If you have read much Mason, you know that she talks about what she calls the Way of the Will quite a bit. Charlotte herself says the Will is hard to define (vol. 1, p. 318). She seems often to speak of it in two ways. When she discusses the training of children, much of what she says of the Will will seem acceptable to us. Under this heading she speaks at length about the difference between being wilful and will-less and she notes that making use of one’s Will, while essential to true advancement in faith, is not a prerequisite of the Christian life (vol. 1, p. 322).  Much of what she says is good, practical parenting advice and I encourage you to read it. Yet, as we will see below, at other times she speaks of a certain act of the Will as the first step towards God. It is this latter use of “Will” that concerns us today. 

The Will is the executive, or commanding, power (vol 1, p. 317). The Will orders all the other human faculties — reason and the emotions among them (vol. 4, p. 127). There is an important distinction between the Will and what we commonly call being wilful. Those who are wilful actually do not exercise their Wills at all but are carried away by their own desires. Esau was a wilful man; he sacrificed his inheritance for an immediate appetite (vol. 4, p. 130). Jacob worked for a higher end though his methods were not always good (p. 131). Thus we see on one hand that some men, like Esau, never use their Wills, and, on the other, that the Will is not inherently good or bad. It is amoral and can be used in the service of either good or evil. Neither does using one’s Will inherently make one a great man nor does being great mean one makes use of his Will. Mason gives the example of Napoleon who was not a man of Will but was led by his desires and yet conquered most of Europe (vol. 4, p. 132). 

Though some men may neglect this ability, Mason says men are made to will as kings are made to reign (vol. 4, p. 140). The Will always has an object outside itself (vol. 4, p. 139). The ideal is a “simple, rectified Will, what our Lord calls ‘the single eye’”  (vol. 4, p. 138). I am not entirely sure what she means by this but my guess is that she is talking about having one, focused Will, being what the Bible calls whole-hearted. 

 “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose” (vol. 6, p. 133). For Mason, the Will is a free agent, the only faculty of man that is free (vol. 4, p. 143).  According to her definition of Will, it cannot be anything but free (vol. 4, p. 173). Whenever the Will chooses one option, it inherently rejects another (vol. 4, p. 147). [17] Every choice is ultimately not a matter of one action or person versus another but of choosing between ideas (vol. 4, p 147). This use of the word “idea,” which runs throughout Mason’s work may seem a little odd to us. In the context of her discussion of the Will, one might think of ideals. Even seemingly simple choices, she tells us, as that between purchasing one suit versus another, may rest on deeper values (vol. 4, p.148). 

There are many choices one makes in life, but one is ultimate: the choice between serving God (and secondarily one’s fellow man) and the service of self (vol. 6, .p 135; cf. vol. 4, p. 172). Mason says that this choice is open to all but urges that one not wait to make it (vol. 4, pp. 150-51). Note that this choice too is presented as a choice man makes and as an act of Will. 

The next chamber Mason speaks of it that of the Conscience. According to Mason, each man is born with a conscience. He is born to love the good and hate the evil (vol. 1, p. 333). Yet a child’s conscience is immature and must be instructed (vol. 1, pp. 333-34). This is not an endless process. Maturity is possible: “The instructed conscience may claim to be, if not infallible, at any rate nearly always right” (vol. 1, p. 335). 

The innermost chamber is what Mason calls the Divine Life or the Soul. Only God can satisfy men’s souls and the Soul is made for God (vol. 1, p. 342; vol. 4, p. 175). Yet the Soul has its “disabilities” (vol. 4, p. 177). Mason speaks of the souls of some men as dead, but later contradicts this and says they are not dead but asleep (vol. 4, p.177). Elsewhere she uses the words “nascent,” “torpid” (vol.1, p. 343),  “lethargic” (vol. 4, p. 177), and “crippled” (vol. 4, p. 179). The child is not born with an awakened soul, but one that needs to be unfolded like a flower opening (vol.1, p. 343).

Though the human soul is made to love God and has that inclination yet it is also averse to God (vol. 4, p. 179). The initial aversion to God is not in itself sin. To deliberately reject God is sin, but one’s innate aversion is not sinful (vol. 4, p. 180).

The choice of which of these two inclinations to follow is a free one for Mason (vol. 4; bk 2, pt 3, ch 2). “[F]aith is the act of Will by which we choose Him whom we have learned to know” (vol. 4, p. 199). This freedom she views as a good: ” . . . if our hearts flew to God as inevitably as raindrops to the earth where would our election, our willing choice of God before all things, come in? Where would be the sense of victory in our allegiance?” (vol. 4, p. 180). Note the use of the word “election” here. Mason is not referring to God’s election of us but our election of Him. 

The dormant soul, whether of a child or an adult, is awakened when it is confronted with the idea of God (vol. 4, p. 178). Remember that it is ideas, for Mason, that the Will must choose between. For her to say that children must be presented with the idea of God is as much as to say they must be presented with God.  For children it is their parents who are to present this idea to them, though they cannot control whether the child accepts the idea (vol.1, pp. 343-44). She also speaks of the necessity of God’s written Word as the means by which we know Him (vol. 4, pp. 184-85). These both, then, the witness of the Bible and of other people, are tools used by God Himself to present the one most needful idea to our Souls. 

There seems to be some initial action on the part of God in this. It is He who reaches out to the Soul (vol.1, p. 322, 344; vol. 4, p. 177). But our response is by no means inevitable; the Will must choose and the Soul must respond. 

“But, fit and necessary as it is to us to know our God, it is by no means inevitable . . . We must begin with an act of steadfast will, a deliberate choice . . .” (vol. 4, p. 186)

This issue of God’s role versus ours is key to the question we have before us today. If we neglect the means of grace given to us, Mason says, “I do not see much ground for hoping that divine grace will step in as a substitute for any and every power we choose to leave unused or misdirected” (vol. 1, p. 331). Quite often Mason speaks as if God’s effort depends upon our own:

“It is even so; in every department of life, physical or spiritual, human effort appears to be the condition of the Divine energizing; there must be a stretching forth of the withered arm before it receives strength; and we have every reason to believe that the instructed conscience, being faithfully followed, is divinely illuminated.” (vol. 1, pp. 340-41; empahsis original)

“But there is one great, perfect and satisfying Intimacy open to us all . . . We are abashed when we think of the promotion open to every poor human soul . . . and this knowledge, this exalted intimacy, is open to us all, on one condition only––if we choose . . . it is startling to know that this supreme friendship is to be had by each of us if he will, because every human soul has capacity for the knowledge of God” (vol. 4, p. 183; emphasis original)

In her discussion of Canon Beeching’s sermons, Mason speaks clearly of the human ability to turn to God:

“ . . . just that measure of moral light and leading which a man lays himself open to receive is freely given to him.” (vol. 2, p. 135)

And again:

 “‘ . . . He is so far from declaring that men can do no good thing, that He assumes always that man in his proper state of dependence upon God has the power to do righteousness. ‘Whosoever shall do the will of My Father, which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother.’” (vol. 2, pp. 139-40; emphasis added)

Elsewhere, she says that “faith is itself no self-originated impulsebut (quoting Beeching) “‘the springing up of a man’s heart in response to the encircling pressure of the ‘Everlasting Arms”” (vol. 2, p. 137). There is some ambiguity, then, in Mason’s thought as to which comes first, God’s grace or our faith.

To conjecture that Mason adhered to something like the prevenient grace of the Arminians seems to resolve this discrepancy. This doctrine, you will recall, says that there is a grace which enables all men to have faith if they will. God then responds to this faith with saving grace. Because grace which ultimately leads to salvation enters into the process at two points, one can both say that grace precedes faith and that grace is a response to human faith. 

In defense of such a supposition, I would point to Mason’s use of the phrase “redeemed world” [18]. She speaks of our “redeemed world” as a lovely place in which children turn naturally to their Savior as flowers turn toward the sun:

“And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Saviour and God with unconscious delight and trust.” (vol. 1, p. 20; emphasis added; cf. p. 331)

Once she uses the phrase “redeemed human race”:

“… believing that there is such ‘progress in character and virtue’ possible to the redeemed human race as has not yet been realised or even imagined.” (vol. 2, p. 248; emphasis added)

And finally, this most revealing quote:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (vol. 2, p. 65; emphasis added)

Note what she is saying here: all children born into this redeemed world have been delivered from the Kingdom of Nature to that of Grace. I conclude from such quotes, and from the other statements that we have seen Mason makes about human ability, that she does believe in a kind of prevenient grace which, since the work of Christ, enables all men to have faith if they will, that is, if they make a conscious act of the Will.

Conclusion

We have seen that the Arminian position, that there is a kind of prevenient grace which precedes saving grace and allows men to be able to have faith and choose God, was extant in Charlotte Mason’s society. This position would have been well within the realm of belief in her own denomination at the time and was that of J. Paterson Smythe, a source she used and recommended.

Looking at Mason’s own words, we have seen that she too speaks of the Will as the faculty by which men choose and that she attributes faith to an act of the Will. Though she clearly acknowledges human sinfulness, she speaks of the ability of all men to make this choice for God. God’s grace is at times said to precede human action but just as often, if not more so, to be dependent upon human action. Though Mason herself does to use words like “prevenient grace,” she does speak of us living in a redeemed world and she relates this concept to our innate ability to have faith. In my reading, Mason’s theology seems to be quite clearly Arminian.

Though we have not dwelt on all these points, for those of us who are Reformed it may be helpful to hold up Mason’s theology to the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. She does believe in man’s sinfulness, though she might not use the term “total depravity.”  There is some difference from the reformed understanding of sin in that she does not count our natural aversion to God as in itself sinful. Mason does not speak of our election but once at least speaks of us electing (i.e. choosing) God. Perhaps due to the initial working of a kind of prevenient, or preparing, grace, she sees salvation as being open to all men. The workings of grace and the effect of Christ’s work are then nor limited and particular for her but general or universal. She occasionally speaks as if grace were irresistible, but when she does so she seems to be talking of universal salvation. [19] God’s saving grace is made dependent on human action. It is again not clear if she expects men, once having chosen God and received saving grace, to remain always in that state, but she does seem to tend in this direction. As we saw with Smythe, one’s path is determined by a number of small actions and choices in one direction to the other. So for Mason, it seems that once one is on the path towards God, there is not much opportunity to get going back the other direction. [20]

If we are Reformed and Charlotte Mason is not, this does not mean that there is nothing  good in her philosophy of education that we can make use of. I have spent quite a long time working out my own philosophy of education and I have found myself back quite close to Mason in many, many ways. But I do think we need to be realistic about what she said and to take her at her words. It does neither her nor us any good to pretend she believed things she did not. We need ultimately to be discerning and to recognize that no one person is going to get everything right. We need to come at Mason with clear eyes, taking the good but being alert for things she may have got wrong, and we need to be willing to see that because her theology differs from ours, there may also be aspects of her philosophy of education to which we need to take exception.

Nebby

[1] Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019) p. 263. Because I have been reading it recently, I am relying heavily on Treier’s recent and comprehensive work for various theological definitions and concepts. I don’t believe any of these are particularly controversial ideas, however.

[2] Treier, p. 228.

[3] John Hendryx, “Differences between Semi-Pelagianism and Arminian Beliefs,” Monergism (accessed 4/10/2020).

[4] Treier, p. 228.

[5] Treier, p. 241.

[6] It is important to note that prevenient grace is not the same as the Reformed doctrine of common grace. The latter has no power to save. In the life of the unbeliever, common grace ultimately serves only to further condemn (see this earlier post). For a good discussion of prevenient grace and the similarities and differences between Arminianism and Reformed theology, see John Hendryx, “A Short Response to the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace . . .,” Monergism (accessed 4/13/2020).

[7] See this earlier post for a more general survey of Christian beliefs on the effects of the Fall.

[8] “The Child and Religion,” Crown Theological Library (1905). Available from Forgotten Books here or from Archive.org here. See also this earlier post for a discussion of this article.

[9] This latter category may be a little foreign to us in the modern political environment in which we live. This is not a category we tend to think of, but they lived in a different time, one in which England could be said to be a Christian nation in that it had one majority religion, not to mention a state church.

[10] According to Wikipedia [“Demography of England,” (accessed 4/13/2020)] the population of England was approximately 30,000,000 in 1901 and 33,000,000 in 1911. “Methodism in Numbers” (July 2018) tells us that in 1906 there were upwards of 800,000 Methodists in England. By my calculations this means that in 1906, roughly 2.5% of the population was Methodist. For the sake of comparison, in 1901 England was 4.8% Roman Catholic [“Catholic Church in England and Wales,” Wikipedia (accessed 4/14/2020)].

[11] Treier, p. 268.

[12] Treier, p. 230.

[13] Thomas Nettles, “Methodist Theology,” The Gospel Coalition (accessed 4/14/2020).

[14] Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition( 1885) pp. 25-26.

[15] Still in the 2000s the question of whether The Thirty-Nine Articles present a reformed position is up for debate. J.I. Packer has argued they are reformed as opposed to Lutheran, but Martin Davie takes a contrary position. He argues that the Articles do not fall into either of these categories, nor would the writers have thought in terms of these categories, but that they present a more eclectic theology [Martin Davie, The Inheritance of Our Faith (Gilead Boks, 2013)].

[16] There are a number of editions of the series available today. Because it is free and easily accessible, I will refer to the page numbers in Ambleside Online’s online editions in my citations.

[17] Note that this, for Mason, does not mean rejection of authority,  whether ecclesiastical or civil; to submit to authority is also an act of the Will (vol. 4, p. 145).

[18] I have previously discussed one of these in my post The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought. 

[19] This is not a point we got into, but Mason does at times speak as if she expects all men to be saved: “He will draw all men, because it is not possible for any human soul to resist the divine loveliness once it is fairly and fully presented to his vision” (vol. 2, p. 138). I suspect that this is not as much a doctrine she has worked out clearly for herself as an inclination she has. 

[20] “ . . . when we see that, in desiring God, we have set before us a great aim, requiring all our courage and constancy, then the Will rises, chooses, ranks itself steadfastly on the side of God; and, though there be many failings away and repentings after this one great act of Will, yet, we may venture to hope, the Soul has chosen its side for good and all.” (vol. 4, p. 182)

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 3)

Dear Reader,

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

This is the third and final part in my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

IMG_2415

In part 1, we looked at what Clark and Jain have to contribute to classical education and where they stand in relation to previous writers. Last time we looked at how their philosophy would answer a series of questions including:

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

Today I’d like to look at a few issues that I have yet to address in detail and to give my overall thoughts and conclusions on The Liberal Arts Tradition.

Schooling

The subject of formal schooling, public or private, versus homeschooling is one I have addressed in many previous posts [1]. Clark and Jain’s book is an argument for a certain approach to education. Though they do not address homeschooling directly [2], their ideal seems to be Christian schooling. I will deal with the “Christian” part of that phrase below when looking at Christian culture.

For now I’d like to look at the argument for schooling as opposed to home education. As I said, Clark and Jain do not make this argument directly, but their approach does seem to push one towards a traditional school setting. This is due largely to the prominent role of the teacher. As we saw inpart 2, their method relies upon imitation and discipleship. The course of study is largely set by the interests and abilities of the teacher.

One problem with giving the teacher such a large role is that it inevitably diminishes the role of the child’s God-given instructors, his parents. Clark and Jain, like most other Christian educators I have read, acknowledge that God gives parents the responsibility to educate their children. The teachers operate in loco parentis (pp. 217, 247). The problem I have with this is that the parent cannot give away their responsibility to educate and train their children. They can, of course, delegate that responsibility to others for certain times. We all do this and I don’t want to be unrealistic about that. But in my mind there is a big difference between hiring a babysitter for a night, sending your child to Sunday school, or using online classes and sending your child to a school for 6+ hours a day and allowing that school and its employees to make vital decisions about how education will occur and what resources will be used. Because humans are complex individuals, composed of body and soul; heart, mind, spirit, and strength, education, however well-intended, tends to suck in more and more areas of life. It is impossible for it not to. [3]

I realize there are some issues that my pro-family stance raises. There are pros and cons to each approach to education. One is that not all families are well equipped to educate their own children. Clark and Jain allude to this. It is not abundantly clear if they believe all families are incapable of the task or only some. They seem to imply that while piety (a bottom-level subject) can be taught at home that moral philosophy is beyond families (p. 161). This I would not agree with, though our disagreement would largely stem from my rejection of their hierarchal view of the subjects one learns (discussed in part 1 of this mini-series). I am not sure that the best solution to the problem of incapable parents is formal schooling all around. I do think parents need to be equipped and helped and I do think the Christian community needs to think more creatively about how this can be done.

Which brings me to another possible objection — I do think that the larger Christian community, which is to say the Church, has some interest in making sure its children are educated (p. 178). The parents are not meant to stand or fall on their own. In my denomination the congregation also makes vows at a child’s baptism to support and encourage the parents. These are vows we need to think more about in terms of practical application. If we do so, I believe we can devise novel solutions which will help without undercutting the parents’ God-given responsibility.

Christian Culture

Clark and Jain advocate not just schooling but Christian schooling. Which is to say, education with specifically with Christian curricula taught by Christian teachers and aimed at Christian students.

While I do not share their view of the role of the teacher, yet I can see there are good reasons to desire Christian teachers for our children. I am not as convinced that our schools (if we have them) should cater exclusively to Christian students. Like many others, Clark and Jain gear their educational approach to covenant children, those being raised in Christian homes (pp. 211, 228). Such a philosophy has little to say to or about those outside the covenant community. It is not an approach to education for all people, but only for some.  In my own search for a philosophy of education, my goal has been to find an approach which applies to all children. If (as I have argued) in education we put before children the things of God, then we must also ask if this has any meaning or effect for those who are not yet redeemed and may never be redeemed. This is a theoretical concern, but also a practical one. Most of us who spend time with children will at one time or another have children who are not from good Christian families under our care. (I hope that we will even seek out such opportunities!) How are we to address these children? Must we preach to them first and see them saved before we can begin to educate them?  These are questions our philosophy of education needs to answer and so it also needs to think about education more broadly, as something that does not just influence the Church but as something that goes beyond it to the world.

The question of the curriculum is actually quite a similar one. Just as we must ask what education can do for non-believers so we must also ask what they can contribute to education. Clark and Jain don’t go deep into specifics in this book, but they argue that the main thing to be taught is “Christian culture” (pp. 231ff). Here I will admit a fair degree of ignorance: I am just not sure what they mean by this phrase. I am not sure if they are referring to a particular body of knowledge or if they are referring to something more akin to a worldview or mindset (as I discussed here). Though there is certainly some aspect of the latter in their philosophy, they seem to be thinking of the former as well. That is, that one should study Christian thinkers and writers and historians and scientists. The question one must always answer, then, is: What of the works coming out of non-Christians? Is there a place for their study? Not surprisingly, as they rely heavily on ancient pagan sources themselves, Clark and Jain acknowledge that we can “respect and appropriate the learning of the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures” (p. 239). Though I am nor sure they use the phrase “common grace,” they do subscribe to the belief that, as God is the author of Truth and as He has given gifts to all men, that there are good and true things which we can learn from non-Christians (p. 240). How we do so remains a bit of an open question and brings us to the final topic of the day . . .

Western Civilization and Culture

Closely tied up with questions of Christian culture are those of Western civilization and culture. Here I am indebted as well to a podcast interview with Ravi Jain on Forma [4]. In this interview he goes a bit further than the book in explaining how their approach may apply to other, non-western cultures. The key phrase here seems to be “appropriating” or “redeeming” culture. That is, one must use discernment in evaluating non-Christian cultures — whether ancient Greek or Chinese — and deciding what can be used and what must be rejected. While I was slightly uncomfortable with the degree of acceptance given to western culture in the book, the podcast did assuage some of my concerns. And Jain has said, I think this is still a topic which needs further thought. I am not a fan of the view advanced by Wilson and others that Greek and Roman culture was somehow uniquely suited to the Christian message. I do think that God had prepared a time and place for the incarnation and work of Christ, but I think many go too far in assuming that that means that Greek and Roman culture are somehow exalted above others. The pax romana certainly aided the spread of the gospel, but so too did persecution. One could make an argument that it was the vast sinfulness of Roman culture which made the work of the Church stand out.

The flip-side of this is the lack of consideration of Hebraic culture. If there was any people and culture God was preparing for the advent of His Son, it was the nation of Israel (and they rejected Him). Clark and Jain (like so many others) spend very little time on what that culture has to contribute to the field of education. [5] They do tie piety (again, an early age part of education) to Hebrew culture (p. 17). They note the use of stories in the Old Testment (p. 223), and they argue for the learning of Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek (p. 275). Overall, however, in a book of some 300 pages, one or two paragraphs worth are spent on Hebraic culture.

Conclusions

This observation brings me to the conclusion to this series and my main overarching problem with The Liberal Arts Tradition. Let me emphasize again that there is a lot to like here. If you read one book on classical education, it should be this one. Clark and Jain have given me a lot to think about and expanded my thought on education in a number of ways. But my lingering issue has to do with where they start. They assume a classical foundation. They start with what the Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Church, have said and work from there. The points where I end up disagreeing most with them are just those points which still line up with classical education. These include a hierarchy of subjects, a developmental view of the child that reserves some subjects for later years, and the prominent role of the teacher. One wonders if Clark and Jain had started elsewhere rather from a classical foundation if they would have ended up in just the same spot.

Nebby

[1] See: Implementing a Christian Education; Church, State . . . and School?;  Lockerbie on Schools; also: History of Education: Biblical Times; History of Reformed Education; History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation; Public Education in America

[2] As far as I can tell, the only direct reference to homeschooling is in a footnote on p. 244.

[3] I discussed the expansive nature of education briefly in this post.

[4] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[5] For some posts on what Hebraic education was and what it had to contribute see: Book Review: History of Jewish Education; Book Review: Train Up a Child; Hebraic vs Hellenistic Education and Revisiting Hebraic vs Greek Education.

Characteristics of Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

I may be reinventing the wheel here, but I wanted to talk a little about the characteristics of classical education. The term is used very broadly to refer to education movements and styles from antiquity, the middle ages, and modern times. In each of these eras there can by any number of classical educators, each with their own unique take (even the ancient world was not uniform; see this post for some background on the varieties of classical ed). If we pick any two at random we may find little that seems to unite them. Many fruitless conversations happen in online forums, discussing whether such-and-such a person is classical because we have no one good definition.

What I’d like to propose today is a list of criteria. If the curriculum you are looking at has all of the following characteristics, it is classical. If it has none, it is not. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. I am inspired in this approach by a book I read recently about some scientists researching near-death experiences. They talk in the book about typical elements, some of which are quite common (seeing a light, being in a tunnel, seeing loved ones) and some of which are less so. The IRS’s list of criteria for what makes one a small business versus a hobby is similar — it is a list to use in evaluating the issue but there is no clear line drawn. Still another way to think of this might be as: “You might be a classical educator if . . . ”

So, without further ado, here is my list of

Characteristics of Classical Education

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

A Test Case: Is Charlotte Mason Classical?

Though it is really not my sole purpose in putting together this list, the oft-disputed online question of whether Charlotte Mason’s (CM) philosophy of education is classical serves as a nice test case to show how we might use these criteria.

Let’s start with what is CM on this list. She does use classical sources (#2). Plutarch stands forth quite notably. Though I would venture to say that she might use fewer than some others. She also believed in the learning of ancient languages (#16). She also believed that there is a body of knowledge outside of man (#8) and that truth can be known (#12). She very definitely had a high view of man (#13).

Next let’s look at those characteristics which are distinctly not present in CM. She does not primarily quote classical sources as the foundation of her philosophy (#1). While it is quite possible she knows these sources and is relying on them, she points to the gospels as the source of her ideas. She does not use the term virtue overly often (#3, 4). There is some element of developing virtue in her philosophy; it is not that she in unconcerned about virtue, but she does not speak of it as classical educators usually do and does not frame it as the goal of her approach. The role of the teacher is distinctly different than in classical education (#5, 6). The teacher provides material, as one spreads a feast, and then largely steps back. While there is some common body of knowledge (#9) and, given her own cultural situation, she relies largely on western civilization (#10), she does not expect every child to glean the same things. So one might say in her philosophy there is a common body of knowledge but not every child will take in the same parts of it. She does not particularly emphasize or make use of questioning (#14), rhetoric (#15), or logic (#17). While she seems open to modern science, because of her time period, it is not an issue she addresses head-on (#18, 19). If I had to guess I would say she might reject the modern reliance on scientific knowledge alone. She rejects a staged approach to education (#20) and does not present a hierarchical or pyramidal view of the fields of knowledge (#21).

Overall then, I would say that Charlotte Mason really does not fall in the classical camp as I define it. I don’t have any illusions that this will end the debate, and it is not that there aren’t points of overlap, but if I were to quantify it, I would say she is not more than 25% classical. In contrast, many of the other authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these criteria.

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Motivating Students

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.

A friend has challenged me that I need to spend more time on practical details. As a homeschool mom who has to have something to do with her kids every weekday morning, I completely understand this need. The particular question before us today is how we motivate our students to learn. If I were to classify most of what goes on in most education today, I would put motivational strategies in two categories: those which act on the material we teach and those which act upon the learner.

To act upon the material is to try to make what we teach more accessible and/or attractive to students. The underlying assumption behind such methods is that the students either can not or will not want to take in the material as it stands.  Some level of blame, perhaps unconsciously, is put on the material itself.

Charlotte Mason compared education to a feast laid before students. If so, the methods in this category treat education like Brussel sprouts, something inherently unappetizing to most kids [1]. If your child won’t eat their sprouts, there are a few ways you can go about getting him to do so. You might dress it up in some way, maybe make them look like little animals. This perhaps will make them more acceptable without actually changing how they taste.  You might change the flavor, maybe putting them in a creamy dip.  Or you might hide it altogether, chopping them small and baking them in brownies, so the child has no idea hat he ever ate the detested vegetable.

Just like Brussel sprouts, we try to sneak education into our children in various ways. Unit studies (see Unit Studies and additional thoughts), which relate different areas of learning to a common theme or topic, are one way we might both make learning more attractive and put in manageable chunks for children. In a typical unit study, there is a topic which all learning across subjects relates to for the length of the study. So we might decide on a knights and castles theme and in math word problems will feature knights; science will be about the physics of catapults; history will be about the middle ages; and literature will be stories about King Arthur. On one hand, this approach aims to make learning more attractive to children (what kid doesn’t love stories about knights and dragons?). On the other, it also to some degree cuts up the child’s intellectual food for him. That is, it makes particular connections for the child across subject areas. This has the effect, on one hand, of doing work for the child that he might be able to do for himself, but also, on the other, of potentially robbing him of different connections he might have made on his own. Other ways we dress up learning to make it more entertaining (or to hide it altogether) are to use games and craft projects and videos and . . . well, the list could go on quite a while.

The second major approach is to act on not the material but the child (though these two approaches may be, and often are, used in unison). The underlying assumption here is that the child will not want to learn and needs to be given other motivations. In doing so, we substitute temporary or secondary goals for a primary goal. The teacher’s goal is to get the student to learn some fact or body of knowledge. We assume that that will not happen directly and so we provide intermediate goals that we believe the child will desire.  Thus, if we want the child to learn the fifty states and their capitals, we might give him a sticker on a chart for each state he learns. The teacher’s goal is to have those states learned, but the child is given another goal: to fill up his sticker chart. In a class setting, there may be other goals as well — maybe the first child to fill up his chart gets an extra cookie at snack time. Now we have added one or even two new goals: the desire to win and the desire for a cookie are in play.

The problems with both of these approaches – that which acts upon the material and that which acts upon the child — are that they begin with faulty assumptions and that they have unintended, negative consequences. On one hand, we assume that the material — the intellectual food we have for the student — is unappetizing and possibly also indigestible. On the other, we assume that the student has no inherent desire to ingest what we have for him. The first assumption dishonors God and the second dishonors the child.

I have argued that in education we place before the child the things of God, His general revelation. If the things we have to give the child are good and true and beautiful (as they should be), they won’t need us to dress them up or disguise them. We need to trust that God’s things can work as He intends them to and we need to believe that they are inherently attractive and desirable. They don’t need us to make them more entertaining. [2] (I have discussed this previously in this post.)

Babies are intellectual sponges. They are learning more than we can imagine before we ever think to educate them. This innate ability and desire to learn continues into toddlerhood. Most 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds love to learn. Somewhere along the way we come to expect children to resist education and, sadly, they often comply. When treating the issue of motivation, we need to be realistic and acknowledge that some children have truly lost the desire for knowledge. Life is much easier if you start with young children who have not lost it yet. Then the main thing is to continue to give them the good intellectual food they crave.

But what of those children who have already begun to resist education? I believe the key to getting them back — and to never losing them in the first place — is to always keep our biggest and most important goals in mind. In the example above, the teacher’s goal was to have the student learn his states and the child’s goal (dictated by the teacher) was to get stickers. Neither one of them had a right or good goal. The ultimate goal for the teacher should not be to have the child learn this or that bit of knowledge. It is not a matter of what is learned at all but a question of who the child is becoming. Christian writers have defined the goal of education in various ways but wrapped up in them all is that the child, no less than the adult, should be conformed to the image of Christ (see Goals and Purposes). If we keep in mind that who the child is matters infinitely more than what he knows, then we will realize that if in the process of learning his states he loses his love of knowledge, he has lost more than he gained.

And how do children, whom God made learning machines, lose their desire to know? It is precisely our methods which rob him of it. We take a good, God-given love, the love of knowledge, and we place lesser loves in its place — the desire for a sticker, the desire to outdo one’s classmate or to get some other prize or privilege. These are the unintended consequences of our methods. We teach children that the things of God are not attractive, that they need to be dressed up by us. We teach them that the immediate, transitory award right in front of them is more to be desired than the less tangible thing.

Having once lost one’s love for knowledge, the road back is not an easy one. None of us ever give up our idols easily and in some sense that is just what needs to happen here. A God-given love has been replaced with a lesser one. Substituting in another lesser love is not going to solve the problem. Our goal needs to be te rekindle that first love. Though the process may be a long one, I’d like to offer the following suggestions for how we can get there:

  • Start with yourself. If you, the teacher, do not love knowledge, if you do not see God in what you are teaching, your students will follow your example. How do you get there? As with all things, pray. But also read, study, fill your mind. Find books and projects you can delight in and don’t begrudge yourself the time they take.  (See also this post on the Teacher’s Attitude)
  • Expect God to work in your students. Expect the best for them. Pray that God will work in them. If you are a Christian teacher, every child God has put in your class this year has been given to you for a reason. He is your neighbor. Know that it is God who works in him and trust that He will do so. (See also the Teacher’s Expectation)
  • Trust the things of God. Whatever your subject, from math to chemistry to history to music, the things you are putting before children are the things of God. All truth, beauty, and goodness are His. As such, they are powerful things. You find delight in them (see the first point above); let your students do so as well.
  • Don’t get between your students and what they are learning. Don’t talk too much. As much as possible let them get at the thing itself. Don’t put yourself in the way. You don’t need to be the mediator. Let them get face-to-face with the things of God.
  • You will be their teacher for a time only (even if you are the parent). It’s great to have a relationship with your students but make sure that your personality and interests are not the only motivation they have.
  • Don’t deprive young children of the things of God. Young children are great at memorizing, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they can do. Make sure you are presenting them with real ideas that their minds can begin to chew on even at a young age.
  • Don’t feel you need to dress up the things of God. Tone down the extras like videos and games. Let the inherent value of what you have to share with these children shine through. (See Interesting but not Entertaining)
  • Don’t drain the life out of your subject. Yes, these things should be inherently interesting but sometimes, honestly, we grown-ups have a knack for taking an interesting thing and making it dull. Don’t do that. Use materials that bring out the inherent joy in your subject. Use real books by real authors who love their subject. Avoid textbooks if possible, or use them sparingly. Avoid tedious repetition. Don’t provoke children with drills, busywork, mindless tasks. (See Should We Use Textbooks?)
  • Be okay with different outcomes. We are all created by God as unique persons. While the things we have to share with our students should be inherently interesting, they are not all going to respond in the same way to every subject. It is helpful again to think of education as a feast. Not everyone at the table is going to like those Brussel sprouts. The rule in our house was you have to take firsts and eat it but you don’t need to take more if you don’t want to. The same principles work here: you have to try it all; you don’t have to love it.
  • Appreciate the interests of each child. Let’s face it, our society values some subjects over others. If you have a child who seems to be interested in nothing, expand your definitions. They probably have something they like or are good at. Find it, even if it seems to have nothing to do with education. You don’t need to incorporate it in the classroom or make it a unit study. Just know that it is out there and appreciate it.
  • Education is not just a matter of what goes in. Whether we are in a school setting or not, we need the child to reproduce what he has learned on a regular basis. If you are a teacher in a school, the parents will want to see what their child has learned. If you are a homeschool parent, you may have to report to your state. In either case, you should not let these legitimate interests become your main concern. Seek methods of reproducing material which benefit the child above other interested parties.
  • Even given the same material, not every child will learn the same thing. Choose methods which encourage individuality. [3] Narration is a great choice (see Synthesizing Ideas and Three Ideas about Narration) because it asks students to tell what they know.
  • Questions with set answers — true and false, multiple choice — (apart from very objective subjects like math and spelling) are less desirable. Open-ended questions allow children to tell what they know. (We are not to compromise truth, however — there is still a right and a wrong. The point is not that whatever the child says is wonderful but that they may see something in the material which you do not.)
  • Testing should also be done as much as possible for the child’s benefit. There are ways to test which ask the child to synthesize material he has learned and thereby further his learning. Testing which asks a child to memorize and regurgitate material within a short span of time has no long-term benefit for anyone.
  • When it comes to motivators, remember that the goal is for the child to have a love of knowledge because knowledge is of God.
  • Don’t praise children too much. A well-placed word from a teacher who doesn’t normally praise is a lot more effective than constant praise. When we constantly praise, we teach children to work to please us.
  • Don’t manipulate children’s emotions. They should not be working to make us happy and they certainly should not feel that they make us sad or angry when they fail (whether that failure is due to ignorance or lack of effort).
  • External motivators (eg. stickers) are not verboten but should be rare.
  • Some level of competitiveness among classmates is natural, but it shouldn’t be something we encourage or exploit to too great an extent. (I am talking about academics here — I am perfectly okay with games that have winners and losers during recess and gym time.
  • Grades are not the enemy but they should not be the main focus. If you have to give grades and have the flexibility to do so, grade based on improvement and attitude especially in more subjective subjects (the humanities, the arts, the social sciences). [4]
  • Know that kids will fail sometimes and that’s okay. We need to know that we are not perfect. The child who puts in minimal effort should not be allowed to coast through.
  • But don’t let failure become a habit. The child who feels like he always fails will lose his desire to learn very quickly. Education should stretch us but not break us. Find ways for these children to succeed.

You may be thinking that I am taking away all that you normally do in the classroom and that your students will balk at not getting their stickers and games. So here are some ways to keep it fresh:

  • Stick to short lessons. Two short math lessons spread throughout the day may be better than one longer one.
  • Alternate kinds of learning. Don’t do one subject that is heavy on reading right after another.
  • Incorporate the arts, hands-on crafts, and physical activity. These don’t need to be tied to what is being learned (unit study style) but they allow you to break up the day and to alternate which parts of the mind (and body) are being used.

Many of the above ideas can be found in Thomas Edward Shields’ The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard (Leopold Classic Library, 2019; reprint of original 1909 publication). If you don’t have time to read the book, you can read my notes on it here.

Because it is so important, let me end by saying once more the best thing you can do is to cultivate your own love of knowledge and to expect the best of your students. Or, to put it another way — eat your Brussel sprouts and assume that everyone else will love them too.

Nebby

[1] Brussel sprouts ate actually quite good drizzled with oil, sprinkled with salt and roasted. When asked, one of my kids once told the pediatrician it was her favorite vegetable. The doctor was a little surprised.

[2] It is really quite a lot like what goes on in the worship of the churches these days. We need to trust what God has given us; we don’t need to add a lot of frills from our entertainment-based culture.

[3] To quote one of my favorite authors, Frank Gaebelein: “In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” [Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) p. 152]

[4] “There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” [Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) p. 143]

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

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

As promised, this is part 2 of my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). In part 1, I tried to look at the big issues — what Clark and Jain have to contribute to the discussion and where they stand in relation to previous writers on classical education. My short take on all that is that while I have generally been critical of classical education, Clark and Jain do a lot to win me over to their side. I am not fully convinced and I do have some questions and concerns, but I like how they frame the purpose of education and I like how they relate the various subjects one studies.

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Last time was for the biggest issues, today I’d like to look at some of the other points I liked as well as those I had questions about. In the past, when looking at various approaches to education, I have asked a series of questions so I’d like to follow that model today. The questions we will be asking are (this is a somewhat modified version of the list I used in this post):

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?

One of the fundamental beliefs underlying this whole blog is that every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the nature of man and, as a subset of that, the nature of children. Some philosophies do so explicitly and some need to be ferreted out, but all do so. Though Clark and Jain do not lay their assumptions about human nature out in one place, they seem to have some pretty clear beliefs on the subject. I would add that I find them to be quite biblical. Because it is easiest, I’ll give these as bullet points:

  • Humans are “unities of body and soul” (p.5; cf. p. 29). At one point they speak of the heart as a “middle element” between the two (p. 33). I have my own ideas about the relationship of the heart and mind in the biblical conception, but I don’t think the distinction is worth quibbling about. The implication of man’s composite nature (physical and spiritual) for education is, as many other Christian educators have argued, that we need a “holistic” approach to education which addresses and takes into account both aspects (p. 254). As something of a side note, Clark and Jain also make an argument for spiritual disciplines which I am a little less comfortable with as it seems to tend towards a kind of Gnosticism, implying that the soul is benefited when the body is deprived (pp. 222f).
  • Language is essential to human nature. Citing Aristotle, language more than reason here is called the defining human trait. Making a connection to the Word of God (in the manifold meanings of that phrase), language is able “to change reality, to exercise authority, and to lead men’s souls” (p. 46). There are clear implications for education here — we would expect to be very language-based and developing communication skills becomes a major goal.
  • Man is made for relationship, with his Creator and with his fellow man (pp. 161-62). The implication for education: “All learning occurs within the network of relationships” (p. 283).
  • Man is rational, but fallen (p. 161). His reason was never meant to operate in isolation and must be informed by revelation (p. 207).
  • “Man also possesses a will, or volition . . . which allows man to act and create” reflecting “God’s creative ability” (p. 163).  I think we need to be a little careful how we state this lest our will seem to be completely free, unbounded by our own fallenness, but I agree with the basic point and I am intrigued by the connection between will and creativity.

Some philosophies have different conclusions for the child vis-a-vis the adult. For the most part, this does not seem to be the case for Clark and Jain. They have a covenantal view of children (pp. 211, 228) which tends to emphasize their personhood. They also make clear that all human faculties are innate to the child (pp. 29, 47, 67). They need to be developed and trained but not taught or inculcated. As we shall see in the next section, however, there does seem to be a transition point from child-who-needs-educated to educated adult.

Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?

While The Liberal Arts Tradition does not have the strict stages found in some other versions of classical education (particularly “neo-classical versions), there is a progression here. The youngest children are in the gymnastics/piety/music stage. At this age imitation (see below) and the filling of the memory (though not rote memorization) are immediate goals (p. 25). Afterward comes the Trivium/Quadrivium stage which gives one the necessary skills to move on to the philosophies and ultimately metaphysics and theology. I am not entirely sure how all this plays out for Clark and Jain practically speaking. As discussed in part 1, they do speak of the earliest years as a time to fill the imagination (though not through rote memorization as some would have it), and they also speak as if there is an end to education and a time when the child is fully outfitted, so to speak.

What do they believe is the goal of education?

We discussed the goal of education in part 1, so I will not dwell on it again here. Suffice it to say that for Clark and Jain there are some subsidiary goals but the end goal of education is to transmit the culture of the Church, to train the child’s innate human abilities, and to cultivate virtue while acknowledging that this cannot be done apart from union with Christ.

How do they believe education works?

There are a couple of levels on which we can answer this question. On a big picture, theoretical kind of level, Clark and Jain say, quoting Anselm and the book of Proverbs, that faith must proceed understanding (pp. 148, 218), and therefore, one would assume, there is little true understanding for those without faith. (It’s looking like there will be a “part 3” so I will address this more fully next time.)

Charlotte Mason called the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Clark and Jain are not so explicit but they do say that “Christian education cannot be accomplished merely by human effort” (p. 220). I take this as a book of Esther-like allusion [1] to the role of God in education. And, as we have seen, Clark and Jain acknowledge that virtue, which is a goal of education, is impossible without union with Christ.

The place of God in education can also be seen in the assertion that “all human knowledge finds fulfillment in the knowledge of God” (p. 209). This is a bit of a heady concept. As far as I can discern, the idea is that all truth, beauty, and goodness (the transcendentals) reside with God and originate with Him. To know these things is both to possess them and to be mastered by them. Our knowledge, of course, is always finite. “We know reality truly but only analogously to the way God knows it” (p. 118).

Without minimizing the role of God, there is also a transformative power to what one learns. This is particularly true of those “musical” subjects which young children are exposed to  — poetry and stories and music tune the soul and make one “receptive to truth and goodness” (pp. 32, 223).

On a much more mundane level, we can look at the methods of education. Narrative is seen to be central to human understanding, a position which is founded in the Scriptures themselves (pp. 209, 223). It is used even in subjects which may appear non-narrative. For example, science and math include the history of those disciplines (p. 125).

There is a hands-on element as well as students are encouraged to work through experiments for themselves and to keep sketchbooks.

Imitation is a word which Clark and Jain use frequently. Education as imitation happens on a couple of levels. Very literally, children are encouraged at a young age to copy good things, whether art or music or writing (p. 25). Imitation is seen as a precursor to creativity (p. 40).

Even at a later age, imitation still plays a large role. We imitate nature (pp. 110-11) and we imitate other people. There is an element of submission to our imitation of nature. There is a level on which I understand this. As our knowledge follows God’s and as what we learn is His truth, submission seems appropriate. On a very literal level, we can see that much science and technology derives from nature (as when a new technology is based upon a characteristic seen in animals). On another level, I do have some concerns. There can be a false elevation of nature. We are told not to submit to Creation but to master it. Biblically, it is nature that should submit to man. I am particularly concerned about statements like “societal patterns should be fitted rightly to nature” (pp. 151-52). I have no evidence that Clark and Jain take this idea too far but I have read other educators who clearly do. [2]

One can also imitate other people. This is true both of people long gone and of those who stand in front of us every day. Clark and Jain advocate putting students in touch with great thinkers of the past through their writings so that they can “emulate genius” (p. 128). Perhaps even more important, however, is the imitation of our contemporaries which brings us to . . .

What is the role of the teacher?

As with much of classical education, the role of the teacher is key.  Based on the time they spend on it, I would say that for Clark and Jain the imitation of the teacher looms larger than the emulation of those more archaic minds. Education, they would say, is discipleship. Ultimately, the goal is not to make the student the disciple of his teacher but of Christ (pp. 215-16, 243; and here they are on firmer ground at least than many classical educators). Still the teacher is key. They say, for instance, that there is no one curriculum which suits all schools or all classrooms (a point I like) because the individuality is largely determined by the teacher and his interests (p. 245).

Where does this idea of imitation come from? With narrative, we saw that a link is made to God and the nature of His revelation to man. With imitation, the biblical basis is less clear (though certainly discipleship is a biblical idea). Education for Clark and Jain is largely the passing on of a culture, the end of goal of which is the development of virtue. This emphasis on culture seems to lead them to the emphasis on imitation. That is, the culture is a thing which must be passed from (living) person to person so there is an intimate, relational element. [And, they say, “One cannot develop virtue in isolation” (p. 161; why this is, I am not sure).]

When we looked at the work of Bruce Lockerbie, I briefly outlined two views of the teacher. In Lockerbie’s view the teacher is essential and therefore his personal character is as essential as his knowledge if not more so. In contrast, for Charlotte Mason the teacher’s role is largely to step back.  Ideas, for Mason, are communicated from mind to mind, but the minds from which we get our ideas are largely those we find in our books (or art or music). Clark and Jain tend more toward Lockerbie’s side of things. Though there is a place for the teacher to put the student in touch with other minds through the medium of books, the role of the teacher is still fairly large and so his character is also important (p. 216). Charlotte Mason would say that the teacher spreads a feast of ideas for the students and what they take in is up to God. For Clark and Jain, “[t]he teacher’s job is then to mediate that Great Conversation” (p. 128; emphasis added). This seems a much more hands-on, involved role. It is the teacher’s interests that drive the curriculum (pp. 244-45). Though there is an overarching focus on Christ, the teacher is in some sense the immediate master to whom the child is discipled. Mason would agree that “[a]ll learning occurs within a network of relationships” (p. 283)  but would argue that the relationship is with the material and the minds behind it, not necessarily with the teacher.

A consequence of this view of the teacher as mediator and discipler is that his role in his students’ lives is a profoundly influential and important one, a fact which we will discuss further in part 3.

What does this approach say about God and His nature?

In Clark and Jain’s version of classical education, there are transcendentals — being, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity (p. 196) — which give shape to all of Creation and which find their meaning in God Himself. God is good. He is knowable. His attributes, particularly His ability to know and His creativity, are reflected in man. As noted above, man’s knowledge is a poorer and imperfect reflection of God’s. Nonetheless, it shares to some degree the character of God’s knowledge.

These transcendentals are knowable (p. 104), and as they appear in Creation they reflect God’s character: “a perfect God had woven mathematical harmonies into the world that reflected the truth of reality” (p. 96).

Conclusions

There are many ways in which Clark and Jain’s philosophy as presented in The Liberal Arts Tradition is profoundly biblical and Christian. There are also ways in which it shows its classical roots. For myself, there is much I agree with and a few things I would take some issue with. Next time in part 3, we will look at a few remaining issues and make some more conclusive comments.

Nebby

[1] The biblical book of Esther is the only one not to mention God explicitly. However, in Esther 4:14, Mordecai tells Esther that if she will not help her people, salvation will come to them “from another place” (ESV). This is traditionally taken as a reference to God.

[2] John Dewey comes to mind. His ideas about education were based on his evolutionary views. What was believed to be true of plants and animals was assumed also be true of humans.

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

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

Classical education is not a term which is easy to define. It is used of ancient and medieval and modern movements. It may be pagan or Christian or secular. I have tried to the past to make sense of some of the variety of what is out there. Today I have one more take on classical to add to that list: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

Of all I have read on classical education, this volume is the most likely to make me veer in that direction. (That is actually high praise as I have been fairly critical of other classical sources I have reviewed.) There is a lot in this book so I will likely spread it out over a few posts. Today I’d like to try to introduce Clark ans Jain’s philosophy to you and to focus on what makes it classical, what makes it Christian, and where it stands in the broader field of classical ed. 

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Purposes and Intellectual Context

The authors offer two justifications for their book. They argue that “the seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own” and that “the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.” (p. 2). The first of these refers to how the various fields of knowledge relate to one another. The second alludes to the goals of education.

The bulk of The Liberal Arts Tradition addresses the first goal — providing a paradigm for how all fields of knowledge relate to one another. Many of the term used are familiar from other (neo-)classical sources, but Clark and Jain provide a new understanding which often uses the same words in different ways. They give them their own spin to words like grammar and dialectic and rhetoric, trivium and quadrivium. This actually made the book a bit hard to read; it is hard to see a word you think you know the meaning of and to remember that it now has a different lexical range than what you are used to. This is not meant to be a criticism, however. Overall I much prefer what Clark and Jain have to say, but it is a warning that one may need to put in a little more effort here to keep definitions straight. 

It is in the realm of goals that Clark and Jain do the most towards taking classical traditions and putting them in a Christian context. Though the purposes of their approach to education are stated in various ways through the course fo the book, in the introduction they give perhaps the fullest definition:

“This full-orbed education aims at cultivating fully integrated human beings, whose bodies, hearts, and minds are formed respectively by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts; whose relationships with God, neighbor and community are marked by piety; whose knowledge of the world, man, and God fit harmoniously within a distinctly Christian philosophy; and whose lives are informed and governed by a theology forged from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus . . . ” (p. 3)

Each of these could take quite some time to unpack. Before diving into specifics, I’d like to try and place Clark and Jain within the field of classical and Christian classical education. Though they are very polite about it and never openly criticize anyone else’s work, it is clear that Clark and Jain reject some key aspects of what may be called modern classical education, that which began with Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning.” At least in practice, modern classical can become a very stiff, rote thing with lots of memorization and strict stages of learning. There is little of that here. Though the same terms are used, new meaning is given to them. From the authors’ perspective, they would say that the terms so typical of modern classical — grammar and trivium, for instance — have been misunderstood and therefore misapplied.

Clark and Jain look back instead to the ancient Greek classical roots and to medieval Christian ones. They speak of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, though they also acknowledge that we must see their contributions through the lens of Christianity which they did not have. Among Christian sources, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are heavily cited. So, for example, the authors cite Plato when giving reasons for the study of mathematics (p. 66), but the Trivium and Quadrivium are rooted in medieval sources (p. 44).  I will add here that Clark and Jain themselves seem to be fairly solid evangelical and even reformed Christians (the end of book bios tell me both attended Reformed Theological Seminary). 

Knowledge in The Liberal Arts Tradition

One of the major contributions of this volume, relative to other modern works on classical education, is to provide a fresh paradigm for how we understand knowledge. Clark and Jain have a few pictures on their book of trees or concentric circles with words like trivium and musical knowledge and the like arranged in them. As I read the book I also found myself making little charts to illustrate what they were saying. Here is the picture I made (think of it as my narration):

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The liberal arts are the subject of education. The top line shows that they are interdependent with common arts and fine arts. (Common arts are those things that have a practical end — blacksmithing or plumbing for example. Fine arts are those which produce beauty.)

The pyramidal shape below “liberal arts” shows its constituent parts. Theology is the top of the pyramid, the highest of the liberal arts. At the bottom are those subjects which the youngest children begin with. Gymnastics refers very broadly to “the entire physical conditioning of a child” (p. 25). Gymnastics, like all education, trains abilities humans already have (p. 29). Musical education is likewise a very broad subject and the term music is perhaps misleading to us. It refers to all those things which the Greek muses covered — poetry and art and music but also history and astronomy (p.26). At this age (though specific ages are not given) the learning is all “musical.” It is what James Taylor termed “Poetic Knowledge” in his book of that name. The focus at this stage is very much on the imagination and on wonder (p. 33). Clark and Jain call it “soulcraft” (p. 32). Piety has to do with knowing one’s place in the order of things. It encompasses a proper attitude towards God, one’s parents and society (pp. 15ff). These three form the foundation of all later learning.

As the child moves into more traditionally academic subjects, the Trivium and Quadrivium are not as much subjects as tools or ways of learning. They are what gives one entrance into the higher subjects. This represents a fundamental difference with other modern classical approaches. Broadly speaking the Trivium is how one learns language-based subjects while the Quadrivium is for math-based subjects though there is much overlap.

The Trivium has three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These are not, as in Sayers’ approach, three chronological stages though there is an escalation to them. The three together give all the tools one needs to understand a text. Grammar gives the basic tools — vocabulary and semantics and also things like the historical context (p 50). Dialectic looks at language itself and teaches one which questions to ask of the text and brings one in the Great Conversation of western civilization (p. 59). Rhetoric is about using persuasive, public language (p. 60). I am reminded of Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor which talks about all the background knowledge one needs to truly understand a piece of literature. If you have ever reread a book from your younger years and been surprised how much more you were able to get out of it with some experience and knowledge under your belt, you have a sense of what this is all about. Appreciating a text is about more than just knowing the meaning of the words and the Trivium provides all the tools needed.

What the Trivium does for language-based learning, the Quadrivium does for numbers-based learning. As its name suggests is contains four stages: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Each of these is a fairly misleading name. Arithmetic has to do with discrete numbers and in addition to the basic functions we think of (adding, multiplying, etc.) includes things like sequences and series (p. 70). The emphasis again is on wonder, not on rote memorization. If arithmetic is discrete, geometry is continuous. Everything one needs to know about geometry was known by Euclid (p. 75). Geometry teaches one to think about numbers in something akin to the way dialectic teaches one to think about text. Astronomy takes mathematical data and observations and places them in a system (p. 85). Music addresses how systems work together. It assumes that all of reality is related in proportional, mathematical relationships (pp. 89-90).

Once these tools are in place, one moves higher in the pyramid. Towards the top are three broad fields of knowledge. Natural philosophy encompasses what we would call natural science but is more than that. Much of the difference is one of attitude. Natural philosophy focuses not on mastering nature but on submitting to it. The emphasis is on imitation and wonder which lead to worship (p. 110). In the younger years especially, there is a hands-on element. The common arts are combined with natural history which seeks to observe and classify the diversity of nature (p. 112). The use of sketchbooks is encouraged (p. 284). Tracing the history of scientific discovery is also emphasized and as much as possible the student should recreate important scientific milestones.  As the student ages, there is an emphasis on the hows and whys (what Aristotle called final and efficient causes; p. 119).

Moral Philosophy encompasses all those subjects which today we term the social sciences. Again there is much more that comes into play under the heading moral philosophy and the main difference is one of outlook or attitude. Moral philosophy looks at not just what humans do but what they are and what they should be (p. 191). It seeks to shape as much as to describe. In order to proceed all these “social” subjects — subjects like psychology and economics — must have a goal in mind (p. 148). To begin with moral philosophy, then, we must have some idea of what man’s end is. The authors discuss various definitions of happiness and various ways this ultimate goal has been formulated (quoting the likes of C.S. Lewis and Augustine). We will return to the questions of man’s nature and purpose later. On a practical level, Clark and Jain argue for a “narrative formulation” (p. 193). History, surely an anchor subject, would be studied not just for what it tells us about the past but as an impetus to moral contemplation (p. 193). Many of these subjects — history, geography, economics, literature, and the like — might also be combined (p. 194).

On a somewhat higher plane is divine philosophy, aka metaphysics. This subject looks at universals, those things which are transcendent. Among them are goodness, truth, beauty, and unity (p. 196). For the Christian, a central question of metaphysics is how God relates to His creation (p. 199). What of His nature is reflected in it and how does God’s causality relate to our own?

For the ancients, divine philosophy was as high as they could go, but for the Christian, there is another layer: theology. Theology is both the apex of the pyramid (p. 206) and what informs all the lower layers (p. 207). It says that there is something behind and above even the transcendentals of divine philosophy. There is meaning behind the goodness, truth, and beauty.  It is from the Scriptures, God’s special revelation, that we learn theology (p. 207). Theology provides a framework for everything else that is studied. It gives shape and justification to everything else. For Clark and Jain, our knowledge is in some sense a reflection of or a derivative of God’s knowledge (p. 209).

Purpose and Goals

With the exception of the top layer of theology, much if not all of what Jain and Clark have laid out can be found to some degree in classical, non-Christian sources. But their philosophy of education is inherently Christian and it is at the level of purpose or goals that this becomes most apparent. Though they give a statement of purpose early on (quoted above), on first reading I found it a little hard to discern what they would say the goal of education is. On further examination, I realized that this is because they speak of purpose at very levels. That is, studying language has one goal, moral philosophy another, and the whole enterprise one overarching goal. These are not radically different or contradictory goals. One might say they are layered, as their view of knowledge is layered. Thus the goal of rhetoric is to cultivate innate human potential so that men may lead souls through language (p. 62) whereas “the goal of moral philosophy is the cultivation of virtue for human flourishing” (p. 133). Elsewhere they speak of “the love of wisdom” (which is the literal meaning of philosophy) as “the common aim of both Christian and ancient education” (p. 202). They quote C.S. Lewis who says that one should pursue wisdom to “‘conform his soul to reality'” and Augustine who says that virtue “ordered loves” (p. 140). Considerable time is spent in the section on moral philosophy discussing how happiness has been identified. The authors seem to agree with Martin Seligman whom they quote at length that the highest and best form of happiness is to find meaning in attachment to something bigger than oneself (p. 160).

I have argued myself that the purpose of education is found in the purpose of man’s life. INSERT LINK There is no one clear statement in Christian thought of that purpose (though the Westminster Catechism — “to know God and enjoy Him forever” — is oft-quoted) so perhaps we should not be too hard on Clark and Jain if they do not offer one clear definition. Having read their book and listened to Jain on a podcast or two [1], I would sum up their goal as follows: Education transmits the culture of the Church which is itself formative in that it trains innate human abilities. Virtues are cultivated but these virtues themselves flow out of the foundation of piety (right relationship to God and man) apart from which they would be impossible (p. 230). There are also practical outcomes as one’s knowledge becomes wisdom which in turn leads one to serve God and neighbor (p. 7).

What I Liked

While I was a bit confused on first reading [2], I have to say I am quite enamored of the purpose of education as Clark and Jain lay it forth. It is actually quite similar to what I have been saying — the education serves a role in sanctification and that knowledge is itself transformative. LINK I particularly like the use of the phrase “fully integrated human beings” in the first quote above. We have seen this idea of integration as the goal of education from a number of other Christian writers on education (for example, Lockerbie and Gaebelein). My favorite definition of what this integration is comes from Henry Schultze who connects it with the biblical idea of being whole-hearted, that is, having an undivided heart which is unified and in line with the will of God. While Clark and Jain may not use the same words, I think we are all trying to get at essentially the same thing.

The bulk of the book, as we have seen, outlines the authors’ view on how all the fields of knowledge relate to one another. I found this discussion quite helpful. One problem any Christian philosophy of education faces is how to get from the theoretical to the practical. What does it mean, for instance, to say that we want to teach math or history or economics in a Christian way? Jain and Clark go a long way towards answering these questions. For the most part, they don’t get quite down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what I am going to teach my kids today, but they provide a framework to help us understand these subjects (and most others one could think of besides) and it is thinking about these subjects in a Christian way that we really need, not Bible verses appended to a page of math problems. (I do hear that there are various curricula coming out from Jain and others that will help with the even-more-practical questions.)

What I Have Questions About

There is a lot in The Liberal Arts Tradition and I think I will do at least one more post on it in which I deal with the minutia. For today I’d like to concentrate on the big issues. The two major goals Clark and Jain laid out in the introduction to their book had to do with the relationships between the fields of knowledge and the purpose of education. On both of these, I have a significant amount of agreement with them. So while what follows may be more critical, it should be taken with the understanding that there is quite a lot here which is good and thought-provoking.

My own view is that education is a life-long enterprise. This is a natural outflow of the place I give it as a subset of sanctification. In this life we are never perfectly sanctified and so we will never reach the end of our education. Youth is a time in which education is particularly concentrated, but it is not confined to one’s youth. Clark and Jain never explicitly say that education has an end but in a number of places they do speak as if there is an endpoint at which the student could be said to be educated and would then enter into a new stage of life. They say, for instance:

“When the students have fully learned and assimilated this curriculum, then  . . . they would be ‘bachelors of arts’ . . .” (p. 255)

And again:

“Once the students have been discipled unto Christ, received the culture of the Church, and been brought into the fellowship of friends who love the truth and can celebrate a feast, then, they are ready to become teachers; they are ready to be imitated.” (p. 256)

Discipleship, like sanctification, is a lifelong process. That statement looks not only forward but backward. That is to say, even while I am being discipled and I can and will disciple others. I am reminded of my 2- to 6-year-old Sunday school class. Those 2-year-olds are watching and copying everything the 6-year-olds do. Whether they are aware of it or not, the 6-year-olds are discipling others, sometimes into bad things, occasionally into good ones. I don’t believe there is a point at which imitation starts or a point at which we can say, “Now I know the culture of the church. Now I know the truth.” Our knowledge is always partial. Hopefully it will increase but there is no clear line I see between “educated” and “uneducated.”

This may seem like a minor point (and I suspect if I could talk with the authors that our positions would not really be terribly far apart), but there is also a deeper principle at stake. It has to do with the nature of the child and his standing before God. As Clark and Jain have phrased things, it sounds as if there is a point when children are grown and can begin discipling others and therefore can enter fully into the life of the Church.I would argue that covenant children are always a full part of the Church. They have a relationship to their Creator and a standing before Him. They are held accountable for sin and are capable of faith (by grace, of course). God is working in their lives as much as He works in the lives of their elders and they are just as able to serve Him. I don’t think Clark and Jain mean to do this, but there are those who almost make children a separate species (though not Christian, the Waldorf method is the most egregious example of this). We need to be careful not to do so. Children are fully human. There is no point at which they become ready to serve God; they should already be doing so.

To somewhat counterbalance what I have just said, I will add that I do like that Clark and Jain speak of education as developing children’s innate abilities. One does not need to produce these certain faculties in children but to direct what is already there (p. 29). This does seem to respect the personhood of the child and his completeness.

Though The Liberal Arts Tradition does not use a Sayers-like staged approach to the Trivium, there is a progression up the pyramid from one kind of learning to another. The youngest children learn piety, music, and gymnastics. At one point Jain and Clark speak of filling up the imagination of younger children (p. 55) as a precursor to later learning. While this may not be the rote learning of those who follow Sayers, it still seems to present a kind of “grammar” stage which is for learning facts before more advanced learning can begin. I tend to follow Charlotte Mason on this subject and to say that ideas are always the food of the mind, even for the youngest children.

In the middle comes a stage in which the Trivium and Quadrivium are the focus and then later the various philosophies — natural, moral, and eventually divine philosophy and finally theology.  The role of theology in particular is a bit confusing to me. While it is at the apex of the pyramid, it also is said to be foundational. I am not grasping what this means practically speaking. I am reserving judgment at this point, but I am wary of such a staged approach. I would not, for instance, say that young children should be spared from theology. There is, of course, some progression in what people can understand, but, in that what we present to children in their education are the things of God, I tend to favor giving them a rich diet which does not shy away from real, meaty issues. I would not say theology is reserved for higher ages.

Having touched upon what are some of the largest issues, I think I will leave things here for now. In part 2, I will look at some more secondary concerns.

Until then,

Nebby

[1] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[2] In his interview on the Forma podcast Jain speaks of having been thrown the classical use of the word virtue and it is this word that has also often put me off of classical formulations. It is nice to hear that I am not the only one who has been put off by the term and also to hear Jain speak of the relationship of virtue to faith and sanctification. He clearly states that one can only begin to achieve virtue through union with Christ.

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