Posts Tagged ‘reformed christian’

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

Trends in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology. I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Not long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,

Nebby

Major Theories in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Last time we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide is with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment.

Much has been written of the various theories of child development and I am not the best person to rehash them all (but see the reading list at the end of this post). What I would like to do is to give a brief introduction to each of the major contributors with a particular focus on the underlying beliefs which affect their overall philosophy. This will be the fodder for future posts in which we delve a little more deeply into the trends in child psychology and how we as Christians should view them. (I also have an earlier, less detailed post, similar to this one which you can find here.)

Major Thinkers in Developmental Psychology

(roughly in chronological order)

John Amos Comenius (see also this earlier post on the history of Christian education)

Who, Where and When:  a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670)

Major Contributions: Tried to create a universal education system which was “pansophic,” i.e. in which all extant knowledge was included (a goal which probably seemed more possible in his day and age). Education should follow the stages of mental development, happen through the medium of the senses, and take into account children’s interests (common ideas, as we will see). He saw language enrichment as a pre-requisite for learning and interest and attention as indicators of readiness to learn. The goal of education is to give the individual a happy, productive life and to ensure the continued morality of society.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Comenius believed education should be begun before the mind is corrupted (which tells us that he did not believe in total depravity) and that the child has a predisposition to learn. He speaks of the “seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety” being within children (Elkind, p. 35).

John Locke (Locke is also mentioned in this post)

Who, Where and When: Enlightenment philosopher (1632-1704). Though his family was Puritan and Lockerbie argues that he was Christian, it is not at all clear he was.

Major Contributions: The mind is blank at birth (the so-called tabula rasa idea). What we know comes to us through our senses. Character is formed early on. Children should learn early to deny themselves their own desires. Children learn best when their minds are in tune. Formal education should be delayed so as to not kill the love of learning. Learning is done through scientific experimentation. The goal of education is primarily to preserve the status quo.

Beliefs and Assumptions: There are no universally accepted truths. Our reason leads us to the knowledge of self-evident truths (think the Declaration of Independence here) including the belief that there is a being we call God, but a God who would have the same attributes no matter what we call him.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (discussed in this post on the origin of evil)

Who, Where and When: A French philosopher (1712-1778) and a really bad parent who abandoned his own (illegitimate) children.

Major Contributions: Education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society. Learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn. Books are downplayed (except Robinson Crusoe). The goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences. Proper education is for the individual, not the society.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil. Our first, natural impulses are good. Formal education is corrupting and bad. Nature is best.  Organized religion is unnecessary, most governments are bad and adults should not exert authority over children. (And, by the way, he said females’ only role is to please men.)

Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi

Who, Where and When: Swiss educational reformer (1746-1827). The famous Prussian schools which in turn influenced American ones were based upon his model.

Major Contributions: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. He emphasized the child’s experiences rather than verbal instruction.  The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship. He emphasized a home-like environment and teachers who truly loved each child. Movement from the simple to the complex, eg. from hands-on manipulatives to theoretical ideas. The goal of education is primarily social in that it deals with the child’s relationships and interactions.

Beliefs and Assumptions: The sacredness of personality and the potential of the child.  Education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity. The child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines without negative outside influences.

Friedrich Froebel (see this post specifically on Froebel)

Who, Where and When: (1782-1852); studied under Pestalozzi; known as the founder of modern kindergarten

Major Contributions:  He stressed the importance of the early years and thought young children could learn much more than had been thought possible. Though he invented kindergarten which implies children are hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten), he actually had studied crystal formation and thought of their development as like that of crystals — just as each element will develop a certain form and structure as it crystallizes, so the child’s natural development is contained within himself.  He believed there were some perfect forms that children could learn from through life so he gave them spheres, cylinders, and cubes. The goal of education is metaphysical unity of man, nature, universe and spirit (see below). The role of the teacher is very important and he also emphasized the role of the mother in infancy.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. Each one has an inner self which is good and an outer self which is the source of the bad in him. Children need to realize their good inner selves (which they do by playing with his perfect forms). All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity.

Johann Friedrich Herbart

Who, Where and When: (1776-1841)

Major Contributions: Herbart devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century. He was the first to connect psychology and education. He developed a five-step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge).

Beliefs and Assumptions: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught.

Horace Mann (see this post and this one)

Who, Where and When: Father of the common school movement in the US (1796-1859)

Major Contributions: The goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens. Education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers. Common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions. Moral education was also the domain of the school. Though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Unitarian. He believed children should decide for themselves what to believe. Humanitarian optimism: the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness.

John Dewey (I have discussed Dewey a lot — see especially this post and this one)

Who, Where and When: The father of the modern American school system (1859-1952);

Major Contributions: The purpose of education is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas. Education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community. Children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led. Material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge. He advocated progressive education in which children are given educative experiences which they then react to and thus adapt and progress (but not all experiences are good; some are miseducative). The teacher guides this process and selects the curriculum and experiences based on the child’s interests.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Secular idealism. Morals are social and pragmatic. Democracy is almost a religion with him. His ideas are based on an evolutionary mindset (see links above) and he believed there is no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural.

Rudolf Steiner (see also this post on Waldorf education)

Who, Where and When: Steiner (1861-1925) is the founder of the Waldorf school movement and also the creator of a philosophy known as anthroposophism.

Major Contributions: In contrast to others, Steiner did not believe we know only through our senses but that the mind can grasp truth directly. Children advance through stages. In the first they are dominated by willing, in the second by feeling, and finally they are able to think. The goal is to integrate these three. Steiner included a lot of the arts and music in education.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Steiner essentially created his own philosophy/religion. Anthroposophism comes out of the spiritualism of the late 1800s (which was itself a rejection of materialism). In contrast to theosophism Steiner did not believe in hidden spiritual knowledge only for a select group but believed that the spirit world could be known through observation and meditation. People have a three-fold nature consisting of thinking, feeling, and willing. Because children do not have all three yet (at least not in equal measure) they are more potential than actual human beings.

Maria Montessori (see this post)

Who, Where and When: First female, Italian doctor (1870-1952). Worked initially with “backwards” children.

Major Contributions: Children can do much more for themselves if their environment is scaled to their size (it is thanks to Montessori that we now have kid-sized chairs). Believed the main part of education was to create an environment in which children can learn through self-directed activities. Children thrive in an uncluttered environment (I wish someone would tell my kids this . . .). Education through muscular and sensory education, not direct instruction. Not a big fan of play for its own sake.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Especially at the end of her life, Montessori was into Theosophy, the spiritualism of the age. The child is born with potential for positive qualities but needs education to develop them. The goal of education is to promote civilized society, even to achieve world peace.

Sigmund Freud

Who, Where and When: The major psychoanalyst (1856-1939) who proposed a psychosexual theory of development.

Major Contributions: Sexuality, even in infants, is a major contributor to psychology. This term is understood very broadly and one goes through developmental stages. Infants are controlled by their oral and anal desires. The goal is mastery of instincts and emotions in healthy ways.

Beliefs and Assumptions: The human is another animal who can be studied using scientific methods and theories. Psychological determinism: our psychology is a product of the influences on us; it is not subject to chance or to our free-will. Human behavior is the product of unconscious fears, emotions, etc. It is our physical, bodily desires which drive our development.

Jean Piaget

Who, Where and When: A teacher and educational thinker (1896-1980) known for his work on the development of human intelligence.

Major Contributions: Piaget’s work is mainly about epistemology — how we know what we know and particularly how children get knowledge and intelligence. He said that we learn through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — that is, we have an idea (thesis) which is then challenged (antithesis) and thus we come to a new understanding (synthesis).  Children do reason but their reasoning is different than ours. Children start out egocentric and must learn to see others’ viewpoints. Children have unique worldviews; they do not view the world as adults do. Ideas that seem wrong to us are often age-appropriate thinking for children (eg. thinking whoever is taller must be older). Children construct their own reality based on what they know (constructivism). In the first stage (ages 0-2) children’s learning is sensory-motor and the main thing they need to learn is object permanence. In ages 2-7 they engage in transductive thinking. They must learn that things can be more than one thing (dog and animal) and have multiple relationships (mother and sister).  Between ages 7 and 11 they engage in concrete operations and only get to formal operations — being able to think about thinking and this learn grammar and algebra — at ages 12-15. After this there are no new mental systems. The goal of education is to make people who can create new things and think new thoughts.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I have found very little on Piaget’s personal beliefs. He was a student of Freud and a follower of Darwin. One can see the evolutionary influence in his theory — the sequence of thesis, antithesis, synthesis is a kind of adaptation to a new environment.  There is also a natural development. Teachers do no really teach as such but children react to their environment and thus develop along natural lines (though abnormalities can occur to derail that natural progress). Though Piaget rejected the idea that the individual’s evolution mimics that of the human race, yet his ideas are clearly evolutionary in terms of the natural progression and the ways in which it is said to occur.

David Elkind (see this post)

Who, Where and When: A modern scholar (1931-) of child development and a student of Piaget.

Major Contributions: Elkind largely follows Piaget but also blends in aspects from others. He sees a triad of elements which work together in education: play, love, and work. Each major stage is dominated by one of these — play first for young children, then work, then love in the teenage years. The goal is to integrate them to form a well-rounded individual.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I don’t know a lot about Elkind’s belief system. It is clear from reading him that he is materialistic in his world view.

Erk Erikson

Who, Where and When: (1902-1994). A German who ended up working largely in the US. A student of Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and a trained Montessori teacher.

Major Contributions: Erikson delineated no less than 8 stages of human development. He saw identity crises as the key to development. He was particularly interested in how one person’s identity crisis might have larger societal implications and wrote on Martin Luther and Gandhi. His 8 stages each represent a choice in which the child can end up going one way or another. Infants will either trust or mistrust, depending on whether their needs are met. Toddlers will either become autonomous (=self-mastery) or face shame and doubt. In the third stage the child will either begin to have initiative or face guilt. Education creates individual identity.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Humans have a long childhood in which there is, if all goes right, a lot of development. Erikson is essentially hopeful about such development whole acknowledging that the negative can happen. He does see it as possible to catch up later in life, however, if one stage has gone wrong. Though he may be using the words differently than we would, he paints shame and guilt as negatives to be avoided.  Positive mental health is equated with self-esteem.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Who, Where and When: A Russian (1896-1934) with no formal training in psychology.

Major Contributions: The major forces in education are not biological but societal and cultural. People internalize the societal tools they are exposed to, things like language and mathematics. These tools then shape their higher mental processes. Thus one can imagine him saying that a peasant who may seem stupid to others is so because of his cultural circumstances not do to any genetic or biological fault in himself. He also believed in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which says that we are able to do things with help before we can do them independently. There is always a new skill which is not yet fully achieved but which one is progressing toward (this is in contrast to others who saw the stage of development more as sudden leaps). Children should thus be put in situations which stretch them and push them on to the next level.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Heavily influenced by Marxism. Unlike others he did not see the maturing process as a natural trajectory but as entirely societal.

B.F. Skinner

Who, Where and When: A behaviorist (1904-1990).

Major Contributions: Behaviorism looks at environmental influences and sees all behavior as driven by outer stimuli and by rewards and punishments. His goal for education, as depicted in a fictional book he wrote, seems to have been to create a utopian society through operant conditioning which reinforces behavior.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Skinner took into account only the material; no consideration was given to man’s spiritual or even emotional nature. Children were experimented on in the same manner as lab rats.

John Bowlby

Who, Where and When: A researcher and child psychiatrist known for his attachment theory (1907-1990).

Major Contributions: Children are born with a need for attachments. These attachments serve an evolutionary advantage as they would get the child cared for and protected. These attachments play a role in later development, particularly if they do not form normally. Infants need to know that their mother is available and reliable. Again there is a staged development as attachments form and progress.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Again there is a distinct evolutionary basis. Though relationships are at the core of Bowlby’s attachment theory, even here they are given evolutionary justification.

Albert Bandura

Who, Where and When: A cognitive psychologist who advanced a social learning theory (1925-).

Major Contributions: Learning can happen not just through doing but through observation and modeling. Not all learning is related to rewards and punishments (vs. Skinner). Internal reinforcements such as pride and a sense of accomplishment are also important. Social influences are important. Internal mental states are part of the learning process (again vs. Skinner). One’s mental state and motivation will affect whether one learns.

Beliefs and Assumptions: I didn’t find much on his personal beliefs.

——————————–

Those are the major contributors to the field of developmental psychology as I understand them. Next time we will make some more general statements about the trends among them and how we as Christians should view their work.

Nebby

Reading List

“25 Things Research Says about Child Development,” Washington, D.C.: Child Trends, 2004.

Cherry, Kendra. “Child Development Theories and Examples,” Very Well Mind (accessed 7/8/2020). ~~ This site contains many other good articles by Cherry as well.

“Child Development, History of the Concept of,” Encylopedia.com (Updated 7/4/2020).

Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2015.

____________ The Power of Play. Da Capo Press, 2007.

Lockerbie, Bruce. A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007 (first published 1994).

Mooney, Carol Garhart. Theories of Childhood. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2013 (2nd ed.).

Murk, Donald. “Piaget, Erikson, Kolhberg, & Jesus: Growing the Soul,” Messiah College, 2017.

Oswalt, Angela. “CHILD & ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT: OVERVIEW,” Gulf Bend Center (accessed 7/8/2020).

Christianity and Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want  to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are. There are really very few Christian sources I can find on this topic for reasons which seem to be inherent to the study itself. Frankly, humanity went a few millennia without this (and many other social sciences) being a field of study.  Developmental psychology arises in the 1800s as a by-product of certain other scientific theories, evolution being a key one.

On the one hand, I do think that all truth is God’s truth and that secular scholars can find truth and that we should not discount their work. On the other, this field in particular has its basis in some very non-Christian presuppositions so we need to be very careful how we approach it.

A friend pointed me to an article from Christian Education Journal which discusses just this issue. In “Reading the Social Sciences Theologically (Part 1): Approaching and Qualifying Models of Human Development” [1], John Trentham discusses the problems in the social sciences, how Christians might approach them, and how they should. I will say from the start that though I found Trentham’s language harder than it needs to be, he appears to be not just Christian but reformed and I like his overall take on things.

Trentham starts by outlining the problem: as Christians we approach the social sciences with a very different framework than secular scholars. “The social sciences are, essentially, a modern secularist enterprise” (p. 462). They are materialistic in their assumptions. What can be known in the social sciences is only what can be observed. There is nothing of the transcendent, either in man’s nature or outside it. While it is not inherently wrong to study child development, the very discipline seems to rest on the idea that children are yet another species to be studied and that the same methods and assumptions that are applied to studying other animals will work here.

As Christians, science is not the enemy.  Indeed, true scientific thought is not possible without the assumptions that Christianity brings to the table — that the universe is knowable and makes sense. Science is part of God’s general revelation. If and when general revelation comes into conflict with special revelation (i.e. the Scriptures) we must give preference to the latter. Because developmental psychology looks at the child, including his nature and our goals for him, it is going to touch on “religious” topics. Scripture has something to say about these issues. Yet there are still things that can be known through general revelation. Our task then is to discern between the two: when is secular science giving us helpful insight and when are its presuppositions skewing its outlook? In the words of Trentham:

“Nonbelievers (i.e. those not ‘rightly related to [their] Creator’) will not lack insight into the existence and condition of humanity, but they will lack the redemptively postured interpretive capacity of corresponding their observations and analysis to the ultimate patterns and aim of God’s purpose for humanity.” (p. 469)

In other words, they may have valuable insights but they fail to see the big picture.

As we approach developmental psychology in the coming weeks, then, we must be on the alert for two stumbling blocks in particular. False presuppositions often lead one to ask the wrong questions and to draw bad conclusions. And whatever good scholarship one might do, a wrong framework which fails to see the big picture, and in particular fails to account for the transcendental, spiritual side of both man and the universe, will misinterpret even good observations. Trentham speaks of temporal conclusions (p. 470) and I think this is key — secular scholars may have good insights into temporal things but at the point where they begin to touch on the eternal, they go astray. Their understanding may at once be accurate but inverted (p. 472). “Social science models of human development are typically oriented into counter-biblical ideals, even while they may describe modes and means of growth that reflect authentic patterns of personal maturity” (p. 474). Which is to say, they may be right on the small scale but tend to be wrong on the large scale. I think of it a bit like theories of evolution (to raise another controversial topic). Microevolution can be demonstrated — we see the changes within a given species when their environment changes. But when we try to scale that to the big picture, macroevolution, we end up with something undemonstrable which depends more on our presuppositions, on what we expect to find, than on the science.

In the coming weeks we will begin to look at some of the main thinkers in the field of child development, keeping in mind these cautions — that they all come to the subject from a secular perspective and that while they may have some good insights, especially as regards temporal concerns, they often start from a wrong place and do not see the larger context as we would.

Nebby

[1] Unfortunately, I only have access to part one of this article.

Book List: Bible and Theology

One goal for the summer is to get out a series of booklists with titles we have used over the years. I thought that I had at one point given a list of Bible and Theology books we have used but upon searching find that doesn’t appear to be true. For this topic, more than any other, I think it is important to know where I come from. My approach to education has been largely influenced by Charlotte Mason though I have my own philosophy of education. Most importantly, I am a Reformed Christian (aka Calvinist). If you come from a different theological perspective, this list may not fit your needs. I would recommend consulting your pastor or older (homeschooling) moms within your church for their suggestions.

Bible and Theology Resources

Bible

This may seem obvious but one of the best books you can use to study the Bible and theology is . . . (wait for it) . . . the Bible. I myself am pretty comfortable with just opening up the Bible and reading and discussing  [1], but I realize others may not be there yet.

The Beginner’s Bible — I am not a huge fan of children’s Bibles. In general, my advice would be to try to move tour kids to the full Word of God as soon as you can. But little kids are little kids and sometimes a children’s Bible can be helpful. My husband in particular read stories from this one to our kids. I am less comfortable than I used to be with the depictions of Jesus in the New Testament. This one is at a picture book or preschool level.

The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos —  Vos has another children’s Bible. This one is more at an elementary level. I tried to use Vos’ volume with my preschool Sunday school class thinking it would be easier and found that often the stories were actually longer because of the commentary interspersed in them. If you yourself are uncomfortable commenting on the text, then this might be a way to go as it provides some interpretation along with the text (though as it is written you might not know what is text and what is interpretation).

The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study by Starr Meade — This is a workbook-y series for children which guides you through reading the Bible itself. Again for my tastes it was too workbook-y but we did it aloud and I didn’t have my kids fill in all the blanks (or any of them for that matter). I do like that it divides up the Bible into manageable chunks.

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola — This is a thinner volume that guides you through reading the epistles as well as sections from the book of Acts. Viola has his own slant — he is very pro-house church — but it gives some good background to the epistles and their contexts. I would use this one with older children (middle school +).

What’s in the Bible by R.C. Sproul — This is more of a reference book. It could be good to use yourself to get some background on a biblical book you plan to read (part of that getting more comfortable with that text yourself) or to give to an older child to aid their reading. Another similar book is How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Fee and Stuart.

The Life of Jesus Christ for the Young by Richard Newton — I ran across this two-volume series after my kids were beyond the age for it. I actually stumbled across Newton’s work because Simply Charlotte Mason uses quotes from him frequently in their copywork series. I don’t know a lot about Newton’s theology. He seems to have been an Anglican minister (which doesn’t narrow it down much, but they say Spurgeon recommended him. I’d say these are elementary level. A similar set which Charlotte Mason used but which I would not recommend are J. Paterson Smythe’s guides for teachers. You can read about why I don’t recommend them for reformed people here.

Herein is Love series by Nancy Ganz — Though I have not used them, I am including Nancy Ganz’s series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. I have heard very good things about them and Ganz is a member of my denomination. Elementary level again.

General Theology

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children by James Beeke — Beeke goes through basic doctrines at a child’s level. His take on things is not identical to mine. He is King James only (I edited the verses he gives as I read them) and his denomination uses the three forms of Unity which mine does not. But the basics of the theology here pretty solid. Topics covered include sin, the covenant of grace, Christ as mediator, etc. It is a bit workbook-y for my (Charlotte Mason-y) tastes but again I edited a but as I went. We did it all aloud as a family. There are also older children versions of these volumes which seem to cover the same material just at a higher level.

What is a Christian Worldview? by Philip Ryken — This is a thin book, practically a pamphlet. The title is a bit misleading. Basically, this is an explanation of the five points of Calvinism. I gave it to my kids in middle school. It’s a great volume to give to friends interested in what Calvinism is as well.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis — A classic on why one should believe in God. I had my kids read this one mainly because it is a classic and I felt that they should be familiar with it. Of course, Lewis has a number of other volumes that could be good as well.

31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God by Rick Stedman — This book is similar to Mere Christianity in some ways. It is fairly basic. I believe I had my children skip some chapters as it gets a bit repetitive. We used it in middle school.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by  Daniel Treier — I picked up this newer book recently and read through it. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I did so and decided I would have my two high schoolers read is, or selections from it, next school year. My plan is to have them read a couple of pages at a time and then to discuss it with them. This is an introductory book (as its title suggests) and does not go in-depth on any particular topic. Its strength is that it gives the lay of the land, outlining possible positions, on a number of issues. I will post our reading schedule when I have it typed up (likely in the fall). You can also see my review here.

Calvin’s Institutes — At some point we should all read the quintessential Calvin. I found it much more accessible than I had anticipated (for me) but it is not an easy book. This one is definitely high school level and probably upper high school (though if you have a range of kids as I do some may be getting it earlier than others). I read it aloud to my kids in short chunks over a three year period. I would read a day ahead of time. We skipped some sections and some whole chapters. Calvin often argues against the other opinions popular in his day and/or gives a number of biblical verses as evidence so I did find that there were bits we could skip.  Once you get the hang of how he constructs his arguments, it makes more sense. Don’t feel you need to read the whole thing in order. The last chapter on the Christian life is one of the most accessible and wouldn’t be a bad place to start. One project I have in mind is to arrange the Institutes much as Plutarch is laid out on Ambleside Online in short readings with some notes and questions so if that is something you would use please let me know.

Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof — Of course there are a lot of systematic theologies out there. I happen to own Berkhof’s and to find its concise style fairly accessible as a reference work when I want more information on a given topic. I wouldn’t read this one from cover to cover but it is nice to have such a resource on hand when questions arise.

Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts and sometimes this can work better for children too. I had one high schooler do a series on theology/apologetics by listening to podcasts, the primary one being the Reformed Brotherhood. You can find the schedule for that here.

Christian Living and Encouragement

A Handful of Stars and other books by Frank Boreham — Boreham is one of my favorite authors. He was a pastor in the early 1900s (I believe) in Australia and New Zealand. His books are collections of short essays. He was not reformed but I still love a lot of what he wrote. He is more pastoral than theological, For kids, I’d recommend the volumes that give brief biographies and talk about the passages that influenced particular people’s lives. Many are available free or very cheap on Kindle.

A Little Book on the Christian Life and Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin — Though he is known for his in-depth theology, Calvin has a few volumes which are brief, pastoral, and very encouraging.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken — The story of a man’s spiritual journey after the loss of his wife. A tear-jerker.

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss — Another tear-jerker. This one is the spiritual journey of a young woman into adulthood and motherhood. Probably not for boys (not inappropriate, just girly). You (moms) should read it yourself if you haven’t.

Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper — This book is essentially an abridged version of Piper’s Desiring God. I have a few reservations about Piper’s view, called Christian hedonism, but I also like the encouragement this little volume gives to delight in God.

Specific Topics

The Hand of God and Satan Cast Out by Frederick Leahy — I believe Leahy was an Irish pastor. His work is solid and fairly accessible for middle school and up. The Hand of God is about God’s sovereignty and Satan Cast Out  is about, you guessed it, Satan. My kids really liked reading about Satan. I think it’s one of those subjects they have a natural curiosity about but aren’t likely to get a lot of preaching on.

Discovering God’s Will by Sinclair Ferguson — It’s been years since I read this book but Ferguson is a solid author and the topic is a very timely one for teenagers.

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker is Catholic but he is one of my favorite authors (you will see him a few times on this list). This volume is about how things from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare show the Creator.  High school level and up.

Worldview and Philosophy

God-Breathed by Rut Etheridge — This volume is written to teens and young adults who were raised in Christian homes but have become disillusioned or never really gotten what true Christian faith is. I was not crazy about this book but there are some good bits, particularly those in which Etheridge discusses philosophy. My full review is here.

The Deadliest Monster by J.F. Baldwin — I am not crazy about this book but there are some good parts. I appreciated his comparison of Frankenstein and Dracula and, if I am remembering the right book, the French and American revolutions.

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer — This is the don’t-miss book for this section. We do both the book and video for this book to make sure my kids get it. Schaeffer traces western thought from Roman times to 1980 or so (when he lived) and shows how it played out in the arts as well.

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner — I am not a huge fan of  the term “worldview” and how it is used in Christian circles. Even less so of “worldview education.” Yet if that is a thing, it should mean not just learning the “right” worldview but learning how to discern the worldview of others on their writing and art. Horner’s Meaning at the Movies is a good, short book for helping one learn how to discern the view behind a work of art. Movies are short, quick glimpses into another’s mind and kids like watching them. I have my high schoolers do one year of “movies as literature” using this book (see this post for some specifics).

On that note I also used Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in middle school. The book is the story of their book club for kids. You could have high schoolers read it but it is better to read it yourself and then read the books they sued and discuss them. Along the way you will both hopefully learn something about delving into the ideas behind a book. I like that the Goldstone’s use fairly simple books. My opinion is that it is easier to start with books that are too easy for your kids. I have a number of posts that narrate out book studies based on Deconstructing. The first one is here.

My oldest son also did a year on political philosophy. You can find the full booklist for that here. A couple I would highlight that you might want to use and which come from a Christian perspective are Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read and The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul.

Politics

Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion by Benjamin Wiker — Another Wiker book. Very well done. High school level plus.

Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore — This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

Messiah the Prince by William Symington — This is the classic Reformed Presbyterian work on Christ’s Messianic Kingship. I usually have my kids skip some chpaters as they don’t really need to read about Christ’s rule over the church. There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited but I think it loses something.

Creation and Evolution

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker does a great job of showing how Darwin’s personality and beliefs affected his famous theory.

We usually cover this topic as part of high school biology. I have my kids read books on a couple of sides of the issue and then for their exam for the term write what the various views are and what they find most convincing. I also have a post on dinosaurs in the Bible here. 

Gender Related Issues

It is hard to avoid these subjects today and your kids will encounter them (of they haven’t already) when they go to college. My gender and marriage booklist is here. I have my teens read Rosaria Butterfield’s conversion story in her Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and the position papers of the RPCNA, The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (published by Crown and Covenant).

Art

I have one child who is particularly interested in art and it is one of those subjects in which one needs to think a bit about how to do it Christianly. Two books I would recommend for that are:

Liberated Imagination by Leland Ryken (my review here)

The Christian, the Arts and Truth by Frank Gaebelein (my review here)

Church History

History Lives series by Mindy Withrow — A four volume set with manageable chunks on church history from the earlier times on. I did find it a little bit undiscriminating in who it calls a hero of the faith but overall it is very good. Begin reading it aloud in the elementary years.

Sketches from Church History by Houghton — There is also a student workbook which I would skip but the book itself is not badly written. Middle school level I believe.

Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken — A wonderful, fair book on Purtian life and belief. We included it in history but it could also be read with theology or church history.

Here I Stand by Roland Bainton — Classic life of Martin Luther.

The Reformation 500 Years Later by Benjamin Wiker — A Catholic writing on the Reformation = I don’t agree with everything here but it is a well-wrtten, easy to read book and may make you think. It does a good job of showing all the threads that played into the Reformation. I gave my kids specific questions to answer in place of straight narrations. You can find those here. My review is here.

Nebby

[1] My degrees are in biblical Hebrew though I think that ultimately every Christian should be or get comfortable with their Bible, while acknowledging that we do not read it apart from our interpretive traditions.

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.

Edited 8/24/2020: I now have a follow-up post to this one which looks at Charlotte Mason’s Theology in her Scale How Meditations.

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). 

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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

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.