Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

Creating a Philosophy of Education: Questions to Ask

Dear Reader,

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

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

What is the nature of the child?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is his purpose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is knowledge and how do we know? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Frank Gaebelein

Dear Reader,

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

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

Today’s thinker is Frank Gaebelein who was head-master of a Christian school in New York in the 1960s. His “Towards a Christian Philosophy of Education” (Grace Journal, Fall 1962) was originally a series of four talks later published as one work. You can find them online here: chapter 1 and chapter 2 and chapter 3 and chapter 4  (sadly, there seems to be one page missing from chapter 1).

Gaebelein begins in the first chapter with a call for a Christian philosophy of education. He calls in particular for something thoroughly biblical while acknowledging that the Bible provides us with principles rather than laying out a philosophy of education as such. As we have seen with most of the other thinkers in this mini-series, school is his default; he does not consider homeschooling. He does say a number of times, however, that the home is the center of godly training. He also ties education closely to the Great Commission which he says is a command primarily to educate and which is given to all believers.

Though Gaebelein nods to the sciences of education and psychology, his approach is quite biblical and he strives to stick close to Scriptural principles. He gives some brief history of Christian approaches to education but concludes that we do not really have a good, workable approach with “full reliance upon Scripture” (p. 6).

In the second chapter, Gaebelein begins to give his own philosophy of education which is governed by the principle: “All truth is God’s truth” (p. 12). Because “all truth, wherever it is found, is of God” (p. 13), there is no separation between sacred and secular. All areas of study are open to us and should be studied by us. He acknowledges the effects of sin, and, quoting Emil Brunner, argues that some disciplines have been more corrupted by the effects of sin than others. Theology is the most corrupted followed by philosophy and those fields which have most to do with humanity — psychology and history and such. The hard sciences and mathematics are the least corrupted so that math is “the most objective subject” and is almost uncorrupted (pp. 14-15).

Having made some attempt to say what truth is, we must also ask how we learn truth. This, as we saw when we looked at Oppewal, is the science of epistemology. Truth, Gaebelein says, does not come to us through unaided reason but through “the believing heart and mind” (p. 14). The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means, literally, “without a veil” implying that we do not discover truth but that it is revealed to us.

Most of the thinkers we have seen, being reformed and not Anabaptist (as one of the articles reviewed here explains), argue for some level of interaction with secular culture. Gaebelein does as well. He is perhaps not quite so strong as some others in his langauge. He says not that we should lead culture or transform it but that we must “maintain a conversation with culture” (p. 16). He acknowledges that, through common grace, that God uses “non-Christians to bring forth enduring works of truth, beauty, and excellence” (p. 16).

In the third chapter, Gaebelein expands on an idea he presented in the second: that there is a connection between truth and beauty. Specifically he looks at music which he considers the greatest of the arts. I am not very musical myself so I feel ill-equipped to evaluate the specifics he presents for what makes music good and truthful or vulgar. I do like what he has to say about exposing children to greatness in music. And this: “With the advent of TV and the wide-spread use of record players and hi-fi sets, the great God-ordained center of education, the home, has been infiltrated by the musical devices of Hollywood and the night cub” (p. 23). He wrote this, you will remember, in 1962 (as if the word “hi-fi” didn’t tell you that). Imagine what he would say about today’s society with its utter saturation with media. There is a hint of a warning  here as well to those who send their children to schools that the home is still important. We cannot outsource education and neglect the home atmosphere.

In the fourth and final chapter, Gaebelein returns to a topic he addressed briefly in the second and discusses te role of the teacher. The most important thing for him is that the teacher be Christian. He gives a number of qualifications for Christian teachers from their personal faith and Bible knowledge to a genuine liking for children. I am not entirely on board with him here as I tend to place less emphasis on the person of the teacher. He does not provide a lot of specifics for how he envisions education working, but it seems from this chapter that it is very teacher-driven for him. I do agree with a couple of his points, however. I agree that teachers should genuinely like children (and I am very wary of those who write on education and do not seem to). I also agree that the attitude of the teacher is important. He quotes, “‘Every headmaster should think of every boy as having been sent to him by God'” (p. 31). And if God has sent them to us, we should expect Him to work in them.

Gaebelein makes two other good points in this last chapter. The first is that education must not be too easy. We must strive for excellence and we must feed our minds. The second is that God Himself, the source of all wisdom, is the “one greatest Teacher” (p. 32).

There is a lot I like in Gaebelein’s work. I agree with him that we must be utterly biblical in our approach and that “All truth is God’s truth” is a guiding principle for us. I like his emphasis on the home, though I wish he had considered homeschooling as well. I like his emphasis on atmosphere and attitude in education. And I like what he has to say about the disciplines and the lack of distinction between sacred and secular. One idea he just begins to advance and which is most important to add to our discussion is the role God Himself plays in education. Gaebelein just touches on this idea. Charlotte Mason, as we have seen, saw the Holy Spirit as the supreme Educator and all education as ultimately His work. I agree with her on this and I have been disappointed up to this point to find that more modern Christian writers do not seem to think of what God might be doing. Gaebelein is the first to even hint at such a thing.


Reformed Thinkers on Education: Donald Oppewal and Epistemology

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Most of the people I have looked at thus far are represented in a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997). The final article in this volume is by the editor, Oppewal himself, and it is well worth reading.

In “Biblical Knowing and Teaching,” Oppewal discusses how we know and what the practical implications are for how we teach. The theory of knowing is called epistemology and it is our topic for the day.

Though Oppewal has assembled quite a collection of essays in this volume, he begins his own by in some sense minimizing them. Other authors have discussed the covenant and how it relates to education and a lot has been said on human nature. These issue are not irrelevant to education but Oppewal’s argument here is that more than any other subject epistemology is going to point us to how education actually needs to happen.

Oppewal begins by accepting the view propounded by Jaarsma and Wolterstorff that we must view humans holistically and educate the whole child. His view of knowing will be similarly holistic.

Two models of knowing are presented as alternatives. In the first, the spectator model, knowledge-getting is primarily mental. Truths are believed when they are seen to be logically consistent with self-evident truths. The second, the respondent model, is more hands-on. In it knowing is tied with doing. It is the latter for which Oppewal argues.

When it comes to the theory, Oppewal’s foundation is the Scriptures. Though he says that we can only derive principles about knowing from the Bible rather than finding a full epistemological theory there, his arguments actually show that the Bible presents quite a coherent theory of knowing.  Briefly — James tells us that “believing in” is not the same as “believing that” (James 2:14-20; p. 318). Verses like Genesis 4:1 (“Adam knew Eve”) tell is that knowing has quite an intimate connotation. And the book of Proverbs shows us throughout that knowledge needs to have practical applications; it is not just head knowledge but is about how you live your life. Having established what knowing means in the Bible and that knowing God is more than head knowledge, Oppewal makes an assumption — and I think it is a very good one — that we know other things in the same way:

” While . . . the paradigm of knowing is knowing God as a person, it is here offered as a model for all knowing. Thus knowing an idea or an object has the same components.” (p. 319)

Because knowledge is so intimate, Oppewal favors the respondent model described above with requires interaction.

Oppewal then turns to the practical applications for education. He begins by describing two extremes: In Plato’s philosophy one learns through dialogue and knowledge is very much head-knowledge. In John Dewey’s, one learns through problem solving and knowledge is hands-on. Oppewal’s methodology is holistic in that it combines these two — it acknowledges the value of truth while requiring interaction. He distinguishes three phases which he calls considering, choosing, and committing. (You may recall Nicholas Beversluis also had a three-stage process which seems roughly similar.) In the consider stage, the learner is confronted with new material. He must be confronted in  a way that produces some dissonance or tension so that there is something to be resolved. In the choose stage options and tensions are explored. And in the commit stage there is movement towards action. Because of the nature of this process, he favors an approach which organizes material around topics which cut across traditional disciplines. Topics he suggests include: environmentalism, which includes political and historical issues as well as scientific ones; sexuality; and hunger.

When he is laying our his view of epistemology, I really like what Oppewal has to say. I am less convinced by the practical application in his methodology. I think he is right that more than other questions — though those questions need answered too — our theory of knowing will affect how we educate. I also think that the Bible has quite a lot to tell us about knowing and that he does a good job of explicating the biblical view. I agree with his general conclusion that we ned to account for the existence of absolute truth but also allow for the learner to interact with the materials. I do not see how he of necessity gets from there to his consider/choose/commit paradigm.

This series largely began because I was moving away from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education because she is not reformed and I think she has some things about human nature quite wrong. But as I read some of these reformed thinkers, I am struck by what she did have right, and on this topic of epistemology I think she was on target. She would agree with Oppewal that knowing is more than information gathering and that it requires the learner to respond and to integrate that knowledge. The height of Oppewal’s argument, to my mind, is in the quote above — we know other things as we know God. And how do we know God? We have a relationship with Him. Oppewal gets to this point and then I feel he drops the ball a bit and returns to education-ese. The things studied become things again, For Mason, the things studied are things we can have relationships with and that realtionship is the goal.

Practically speaking, this is what relationship looks like: If I know a person, I know not just what he likes or how he looks or even what he has done, but I have some sense of what he will do. I know his character and I can predict how he will act or think. If I study an artist, say Van Gogh, I may learn facts about him: that he painted a lot of self-portraits, that he had a disturbed personal history, and that he used bright colors. If I can walk into a museum and see a Van Gogh I have never seen before and know it is his, then I know Van Gogh because I have developed a relationship with his work. We can thus “know” even the most mundane, un-life-like objects — a potter knows his clay and a five-year-old boy similarly may know mud in a way that his mother cannot begin to fathom.

The biblical epistemology — and I do think there is a biblical epistemology– leads us to this point: to know is to have a relationship. We can envision what this looks like, how we can thus “know” an author or an artist or a period of history or a branch of science or even a lump of dirt. The next question then is how we educate to this end. Since Charlotte Mason, despite some other flaws in her theory, sets forth this goal well, I think it is reasonable to look again at her methodology and to see if it will serve our purposes. A thorough examination would be the subject for another post. For now, briefly, Oppewal points us to the need for an approach which includes both an acknowledgement that there is absolute truth and that the learner must interact on some level with the material. When he turns to the interacting, he makes it ultimately about external things — what are you going to do or what would you have done? Mason keeps it more internal; she asks how much the student cares. Her approach is analogous to digestion; the child takes in the material and must process it for himself. This I think is where we want to end up. It is not that there will not be practical outcomes; there very much should be. But that is not our primary goal. Our goal is to transform the individual.



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Synopses of Shorter Articles

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Most of the people I have looked at thus far are represented in a volume edited by Donald Oppewal, Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997). There are a few articles within the volume that are from a committee or journal and stand alone. In this post I will try to briefly sum up two of them.

Thoughts from the Calvin College Curriculum Committee

In 1970 the Calvin College Curriculum Committee released “Christian Liberal Arts Education.” The purpose of this article was to lay out a plan and justification for a liberal arts education at the college level. Though this is not my area of interest, there are some points in the article worth considering. 

The Committee begins by detailing two approaches to liberal arts education, the pragmatist and the classicist. The former is utilitarian and focuses on problem solving. It relies upon the psychological claim that learning only happens when it is centered around the interests of the student and/or tied to the problems he faces. The latter focuses on knowledge-getting and tends toward a general education. As described it sounds much like the philosophy of Jellema whom we looked at previously. The Committee rejects both of these models. The former it finds too utilitarian. It does no good, they say, to focus on the problems of the moment as these may change and the student does not necessarily acquire skills that transfer to new situations. While it is good for students to be interested in what they learn, they do not need to have a stake in every subject. Education they define as the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. As for the classicist view,  the main objection is that it is too general and too disinterested. It focuses on critiquing culture but not engaging it in. Again, this sounds like Jellema who valued art criticism over creating art.

The view which the Committee favors it calls the disciplinary view (not to be confused with the disciplinary approach as outlined by Jaarsma). The focus is on disinterested knowledge and the goal is to produce Christian citizens in contemporary society. The article spends lot of time discussing academic disciplines and how they relate to one another. The basic idea seems to be that one should have a broad knowledge of all disciplines but should be able to delve into and apply the proper methods in one particular discipline. What unites them all is our conceptual framework which must be biblical. We do not get all we need to know about science or literature from the Bible, but it does provide us with the foundations in the form of a framework or way of thinking and viewing the various disciplines. Only a biblical framework can lead us to true knowledge. Other frameworks may provide some measure of truth. Not all non-biblical ways of thinking  are equally bad and some disciplines are going to be less affected by a wrong framework than others. 

Lastly, the Committee notes that our study is part of the cultural mandate. That is, is it part of the Christian commission to transform human culture. This is a commission given to the Church as a whole. It is not  necessary for every individual Christian to be so educated, but those who are able to engage in higher education should proceed in this way.

I balk instinctively at language which excludes some people and deems them uneducable (though the Committee does not by any means go so far as using that word). There are, of course, differences between people and some of these are in their mental capacity. But I also believe that education is a lifelong enterprise and that we should all be gradually getting more educated. We may not all get to the same place or go in the same directions, but I am wary of an approach which says that some people should pursue higher education and some shouldn’t. Which is again not to say everyone need to get a Ph.D., but education itself is not for some and not others. What I like about this article is the emphasis on the biblical framework which informs all the disciplines we might study.  The discussion of the various disciplines and how they relate to each other does not directly relate to what I am seeking in this series but it was interesting.

Anabaptists versus Reformists

In “Christian Schools: Anabaptist or Reformist?” [originally published in Christian Scholars Review, vol. 15., no.4 (1986)] Paul F. Scotchmer discusses how Anabaptist and reformed schools have differed and argues for the reformed approach. The underlying issue is not about the schools themselves but about the proper Christian attitude towards culture. Anabaptists have, historically, been separatists when it comes to culture whereas the reformed have sought to be in but not of the culture and ultimately to transform it.

Scotchmer provides some historical background and it is interesting to read how Luther, Calvin and others viewed the issue. The interesting point for me is what Scotchmer’s arguments have to say to more contemporary debates — whether Christians can and should use the public schools, what Christian schools should look like, and how homeschooling fits into the picture.

Scotchmer’s argument, and I think he is correct in  this, is that though schools were operated under the auspices of the state in Luther’s day and that of the other reformers, that the situation is not the same today. There was a time when the state and church worked together more or less as they should — that is, the state supported the church without interfering in its mission. This is not the case today. Scotchmer acknowledges a state interest in an educated populace, but what the public schools provide in America today is not a Christian or even a religiously neutral education. The argument is often made that Christians should use the public schools in order to engage the culture and ultimately to provide a witness to non-Christians. Scotchmer argues in opposition to this that sending one’s child into the public schools does nothing to transform the culture. The transformation we seek is more communal and not so individual.

Instead, Scotchmer argues for an approach to Christian schooling which can be transformative. Many of the thinkers we have studied have spoken of Christian education as if it is only for covenant children and this has been one of my major criticisms of them. Scotchmer says that Christian schools should be open to all. We transform by educating young minds. The Christian school, he says, should not be “so much a shelter from the winds of secularism as a nursery for the cultivation of Christian citizens” (p.302).

Scotchmer makes a good argument against modern public schools, while acknowledging that there may have been times and places in which government-supported, if not government-run, schools were quite acceptable. Though I am pro-homeschooling, I am not inherently opposed to the idea of schools. Scotchmer comes as close as I’ve seen to presenting a good model for how such schools could operate and serve not just covenant children but all children.



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Louis Berkhof

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here).

I was excited to read Louis Berkhof’s thoughts on education. I have made use of his systematic theology and respect his work. Though the essays I read by him are, as most of the ones I have reviewed so far, included in Donald Oppewal’s volume Voices from the Past (Lanham: University of America Press, 1997), he is an older writer (1930s) and was not, as the others were, employed by Calvin College (though he did live in Michigan, having emigrated from the Netherlands).

The two essays by Berkhof are primarily calls for reformed people to use and support Christian schools. He begins by assuming that schools are the modern method of education. Of course, in his time this was perhaps understandable. Homeschooling as such seems to have been unknown. In our current environment, I think we need to go beyond this. I have said before and will say again — family and church are institutions established in the Bible and given specific authority; schools are not. Which is not to say schools are wrong. We can point to other institutions which are non-biblical but serve us well — hospitals, for instance. But given that Scripture does give explicit authority and responsibility for various activities to the parents and church, we need to be sure to lay out a role for the school that does not contradict or undermine them.

In “Being Reformed in Our Attitude Toward the Christian School,” Berkhof presents and rejects two common justifications for schooling: one based on national self-interest and one based on evolutionary presuppositions. He actually makes quite a strong case for parents as the proper and biblical educators of their children and further argues that this education should be a religious one. Like Jaarsma and others, he argues for a unified view of the child. We cannot separate the mind from the heart or the soul so we cannot educate just to the mind. Because this is so, there is no secular or neutral education apart from one’s religious view: “We should never forget that the education which the child receives in the school, though divorced from religion, is nevertheless an education of the entire child and is bound to make a deep impression on the heart.”  His conclusion then is that “[i]n view of the fact that the influence of the Christian home is waning” (!) we must have reformed schools to educate our children (p. 240).

Berkhof second article,”The Covenant of Grace and Its Significance for Education,” seeks to demonstrate that Christian schools are a necessary outgrowth of covenant theology. Again, his stance is very pro-school and his aim is to argue for Christian, and specifically reformed, schools as opposed to public schools; homeschooling is not within his purview. The connection between the covenant and schooling he says has often been maintained but never explained. He begins with a brief introduction to the concept of covenants and the content of the covenant of grace in particular. I have some interests in the idea of covenant and how it plays out but those are beyond the scope of this series so I will not indulge myself in analyzing Berkhof’s thought on this topic. As regards education, his main argument is that at their children’s baptisms Christian parents promise that by the strength of God they will “utilize the means which God has ordained for the realization of the covenant life in their children” (p. 256). Covenant children are heirs to God’s promises and His blessings. “These bounties naturally call for gratitude” (p. 259) and so it is incumbent upon their parents to teach them the fullness of God’s work so that they can be appropriately grateful. Note that as they are covenant children, Berkhof does not say that we are educating them unto salvation in any way. The promises are assumed as is their membership in the covenant community. We are educating them to be able to fulfill their covenant responsibilities (if they were not to do so, they would be covenant-breakers; p. 256). Though he does not use this language exactly, Berkhof essentially says that Christian education is the ordinary means by which God brings faith and sanctification in the lives of covenant children (p. 262).

I am a little disappointed to find that, as Berkhof assumes the school as the means of education, that his work here is of limited usefulness. I do like what he has to say about covenant children. This is a concept I find often inadequately explained. My overall goal, however, is not to provide a philosophy of education for covenant children only but one that covers all chidlren. As most other Christian writers I have read, Berkhof does not consider how we could educate those from non-Christian homes who might come under our care. My own thoughts, as I have said before, are that there is one way to educate though there mat be different effects depending on whether the child is in or out of the covenant.



Reformed Thinkers on Education: Cornelius Jaarsma

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.

We are in the midst of a series within a series in which I look at various reformed thinkers and what they have had to say about education (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). Last time we began to look at Cornelius Jaarsma, focusing in the four approaches to education which he lays out in “The Christian View of the School Curriculum” [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc, 1997)]. Today I would like to look more specifically at Jaarsma’s thought as it is presented in the Oppewal volume.

In his first essay in this volume, “A Christian Theory of the Person,” Jaarsma, as the title suggests, lays out his view of what it means to be human. I like that he begins with the Bible. His basic idea, most simply put, is that man combines the physical and spiritual into one inseparable whole. He speaks of man as soul (psyche), spirit (pneuma), and body (soma). The image of God in man he associates with the spirit. He rejects the Roman Catholic view which sees the image as something added to and not essential to man. “The Reformed view,” he says “holds that the image of God is essential to man’s humanity” (p. 161). In a position which is new to me (which says nothing; I am by no means a theologian), he says that “[i]n the primary sense, man is the image of God collectively” (p. 161). Nonetheless individuals participate in the image because they have the qualities of their race. Among these qualities are tendencies to unity and freedom. Man’s purpose is to fulfill, express, and realize the image of God in him.

All of this Jaarsma seems to get from the first chapters of Genesis. He then goes on to look at the word “heart” in the Bible. His synopsis in this essay is fairly brief and it may be that a deeper study lies behind it. If so, I would like to see it, because I am not wholly convinced that he is identifying the heart correctly. It is no doubt true, however, that “heart” is used many ways and conveys a variety of things within the Scriptures. Jaarsma’s conclusion is that there is “a kernel or essence that is new in each person” which he identifies with “the life principle in man, the directive center of his total being” (p. 163). He rejects the Greek view that man’s intellect is his highest faculty. Because man is a unity, no one aspect of his being is either above the others nor is any one the seat of evil within him.

At this point Jaarsma advances a theory of personality which at first glance does not sit well with me. He begins by saying that ” infants . . . can hardly be said to have personality” (p. 165), a statement which to my observation seems blatantly untrue. If we allow him to define what he means by personality, we find that it is for him mainly an affect. Personality is how we affect others. Man is in constant tension with his environment. It is in his interactions with it and his adjustments to it, that we find his personality. “When a person communicates in the dimensions of life according to consciously accepted ends, he is a personality . . .  An infant, comparatively speaking, is without personality” (p. 167).

I will admit that I don’t fully understand this. It maybe that I am missing his point entirely,. As a mother, I have to say that we can see distinct personalities (in the very ordinary use of that term) in even the youngest children, and I think most mothers will say that they could perceive unique differences in their children soon after birth and sometimes even before birth. The child that kicks a lot in the womb tends to come out kicking. Which is to say that from earliest days, the child is a person and has an environment and is able to react to it in ways that another individual does not. Think of John the Baptist leaping within his mother’s womb. And even if we were not there to perceive the personality of a small child, would that mean it didn’t exist as a unique thing? Would he not still have a personality in the eyes of his Creator?

Summing up this first article, I would say that I like that Jaarsma turns to the Bible, but he seems to combine it with modern educational and psychological ideas and I feel these need more justification.

In the second article, “How to View Learning,” Jaarsma gives the example of a teacher trying to educate poor, urban children about where milk comes from. His argument basically boils down to: the children need to make a real connection to the material they are learning. They need not facts but a story that they can participate in, if not in real life then vicariously through narrative. The process he describes for true learning is much like Charlotte Mason’s approach. He essentially describes what it is to engage with a living book and he stresses the need for the child to appropriate the truth for himself. Again like Mason, he stresses the role of relationship in learning. His synopsis of his view is: “Learning . . .is the activity of a person as he focuses his attention upon an object for understanding and acceptance of it in its true nature” (p. 178). The article ends with a brief discussion of goals. As he indicated previously, Jaarsma sees the end goal as the expression of the image of God within the individual. Because this is a very large goal, one must establish “directional process goals” along the way as intermediate stages (p. 181).

Jaarsma’s third and final essay within this volume is “The Christian View of the School Curriculum.” In it he lays out the four approaches to education which we discussed previously. As I said in that earlier post, Jaarsma favors a combined methodology which takes from each of the four. This fits well with his emphasis on the whole child. Indeed, one could argue that we can’t use one approach without incorporating at least something of the others. As Jaarsma says: “Never can we seek his mental development without affecting him spiritually” (p. 186).

Again Jaarsma lays forth his goal for education and for life: the fulfillment of the image of God within us. He acknowledges in this essay that that image has been corrupted by sin, but man “can again be formed, patterned after the excellencies of his Creator . . .Education to be true must now be redemptive” (pp. 187-88). He goes on to lay out a few expectations for such an education: It must meet the child’s primary need for “the truth about himself and about his world” (p. 188). It must prepare him to be in the world but not of it, and it must prepare him for his calling in life.

There is a lot I like about Jaarsma’s thought. I found his delineation of the four approaches to education quite helpful. I was struck in the second essay,  “How to View Learning,” by how much his thought coincides with that of Charlotte Mason, who while not perfect herself is quite influential in my own thought. His goal for education and for life, the development of the image of God within the person, reminds me of Van Til’s and is not, I think, terribly far from my own though I would not express it the same way. There are portions of his thought, however, which I found either hard to understand or difficult to swallow. Though he makes an effort to be biblical and to think of education in a Scriptural way, I did find that Jaarsma combines biblical ideas with psychological and educational ones more than I would like.




Cornelius Jaarsma and the Four Ways to Approach Education

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.

Recently I have been reading various reformed thinkers on education and “narrating” to you their views along with some of my responses (see the introductory post to this series with a series here). The next thinker I will be posting on is Cornelius Jaarsma. Because he has so much meaty stuff to say, I wanted to take the time to meditate a little more deeply on his ideas.

In “The Christian View of the School Curriculum” [in Voices from the Past, ed. Donald Oppewal (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997) pp. 183-95], Jaarsma lays out four approaches to education: Knowledge-getting, Disciplinary, Social, and Psychological. The first two Jaarsma identifies as ancient or classical, being represented in the Greco-Roman traditions. The latter two are more modern. 

The first approach, knowledge-getting, focuses on content. There is a certain body of material and the goal is to get the student to learn it. This approach tends toward memorization and quantitative testing. It also tends to minimize the individuality of the student as it is the material to be learned that is paramount. This approach is most closely associated with the modern classical education movement

The disciplinary approach is about training and developing the mental faculties. It assumes that education is not so much about getting a certain body of information into the student but about teaching him how to use his mind. If you have heard it said “education is about learning how to learn,” that is the disciplinary approach. If you read any Charlotte Mason, she tends to rail against Herbart and others of her day who sought to train the faculties. Her objection to them was that they assumed that children are not complete but that there is something in them that needs built up and developed in order for them to be able to learn. The process is more important than the content in this approach. And, as Jaarsma says, “there is an external mold or pattern according to which the learner is to be formed” (p. 185). There is some of the disciplinary in the modern classical movement, particularly in the view that there are three stages through which a child progresses. Montessori schooling would also fit here as above all it seems to be about molding the child and developing his faculties. The Waldorf school may as well. It certainly views the child as something almost other than human who has to evolve into an adult.

The social approach focuses on the student as part of a society and strives to fit him for that society. This was the approach of John Dewey on whose ideas much of the modern public school system are based. This is the view John Taylor Gatto, the patron saint of unschooling, criticizes in his provocative books Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction. It is a very industrial approach to education which sees the individual as part of a machine. The mindset behind it is factory-like and very utilitarian in that the individual is fitted for a certain role. One can find elements of this approach on other circles as well. One of my criticisms of Rousas Rushdoony was that he seems to tend toward a kind of Christian utilitarianism that could fit this category as well. 

The fourth and final approach is known by a few descriptives. It may be called psychological, creative, or experiential. It emphasizes the individual and his responses. “Self-expression, self-appraisal, motivation, self-activity, and the like are the key words” in this approach (p. 186). Unschooling which more than any other philosophy emphasizes the individual would fit here. 

In truth, many educational philosophies combine two or more of these approaches. The last thinker we studied, Nicholas Beversluis, delineated three goals of education: intellectual, moral, and creative. The first and last of these correspond to the knowledge-getting and psychological approaches. The moral, which is about choosing based on knowledge, is a little harder to pin down. It does seem to bear some relation to the disciplinary approach in that the child it trained to choose what is right. There is a kind of molding going on here though it is not really a training of the faculties.

Beversluis, in the little I have read from him, does not allude to the social, but I think we need to keep in mind that the social approach can aim at different goals. We may think first and foremost of Gatto’s bugaboo — the evil state turning our children into cogs in its godless machine (though Gatto would not have minded the godless bit), but there is a way in which Christians also shape children for the good of the collective. The society in this case is the church. Though I found Rushdoony far too utilitarian, the focus need not be so overtly practical. Nicholas Wolterstorff spent a while arguing that as Christians we have an alternative society. His point was that we therefore need our own schools. But the basic idea is that it is this alternative society, the heavenly kingdom which is our true citizenship, for which we are preparing children.

The philosophy I have spent most time on is  Charlotte Mason’s. She too seems to combine approaches. She believes in truth so there is an element of the knowledge-getting. She would not, as unschoolers do, allow children to select their own curricula (though she certainly also makes clear that knowledge itself is not the goal). Against those in her day who said that the purpose of education is to develop latent faculties, she argued that children are born whole persons, already mentally complete. Yet at the same time, there is an aspect of her approach which is disciplinary. Habit-training is a major part of her program for children, the idea being that what is established by habit comes to shape character. Similarly, she provides children with good, wholesome materials so that they will develop a taste for them and not what she calls “twaddle.” This too is a kind of training of the tastes, though not a development of the abilities. Miss Mason expresses her goal in a few different ways in different places, but she does say at times that chidlren are being raised to be good citizens or to be of service to their society. Lastly, there is the creative or expressive approach. Because she had a strong view of the child as an individual person, Mason fits here above all. In her philosophy the child must take in what is presented to him and process it for himself. Not all children will get the same ideas even if they read the same books. So there is not the wide-open individualism of unschooling, but there is also not the cookie-cutter approach towards which classical schooling tends.

The reformed thinkers I have been reading of late for the most part seem to be trying to balancing the knowledge-getting and psychological approaches. From the Scriptures we learn both that there is absolute truth and that each child is an individual and unique person. Mason, I think, does this quite well, and that is why to a large extent I have followed her philosophy (though, as I have argued many times, she is not reformed, hence this series).

To return to Jaarsma, he, like Charlotte Mason and others, comes down in favor of a mixed approach to education:

“All the curriculum concepts we have discussed have elements or aspects of truth, according to the criteria we secure from the Scriptures. There is preexistent truth to be understood and mastered. Our mental resources gain power through their exercise in knowledge-getting. Our social resources are responsive and must be cultivated. And finally, we are creative beings, and our capacity for originality must be given opportunity for expression.” (Oppenwal, p. 190)

I find the categories Jaarsma presents very helpful in evaluating the various approaches to education and in determining best practices. Though we may not agree on all the particulars, I do agree with him that the end result must be something that combines two or more of these approaches.

Next time we will step back and look at Jaarsma’s views from a bit of a wider perspective.

Until then.


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