Posts Tagged ‘reformed theology’

Reformed Thinkers on Education: W.H. Jellema

Dear Reader,

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

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

A number of the thinkers we will consider are represented in Voices from the Past: Reformed Educators (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997), a volume edited by Donald Oppewal. The first of these is William Harry Jellema who worked in the 1950s as a philosophy professor at Calvin College among other positions. Two of his essays are included in Oppewal’s volume. The first, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” addresses specific decisions that Calvin College faced at the time with regard to revamping their curriculum. The second, “The Christian School a Prerequisite for and an Outgrowth of the Calvinistic World and Life View,” argues for Christian schools. Because the latter is more general, I will begin with it.

The thrust of “The Christian School . . . ” is contained in its title — Jellema argues the need for distinctly Christian schools. Though this rankles me a little as a homeschooler, I realize that he was writing in the 1950s when the modern homeschooling movement had really not begun so I will give him a pass and assume that this option was just not on his radar.

Jellema spends considerable time arguing for something that I have often said on this blog — ideas have consequences. In his words, our “life views” have practical “outgrowths” (p. 48). There are probably people who would contest this position, but I am not one of them nor do I suspect most of you are so we will not dwell on it overly much. Jellema’s argument is a philosophical one rather than a biblical one though I think this would be an easy point to argue from the Scriptures which ask of us not just faith but obedience. In the course of making his argument, Jellema shows that we are “rational moral” beings (p. 50) and that we embody biological, social, and religious impulses, all of which impact our actions (p. 53).

Jellema goes on to argue that, given that our beliefs have practical consequences, Calvinism will result in the need for Christian schools. This is a multi-stage argument. First he argues for the comprehensiveness of our worldview — that “the God who revealed himself in the Christ of the Scriptures” is “the source of ultimate principles for our world and life view . . . [S]uch a world and life view rooted in the Christian faith will issue in Christian education” (p. 56). But Calvinism “need not create its own social instrument” so he goes on to argue that we need to establish schools to provide this education.

His primary argument on this point is again one that we have seen before and boils down to the idea that there are no uninterpreted facts. Calvinism insists, he says, that “God is not only the object in a narrower sense of religious faith and devotion but is also the ground and end of all existence and truth and value” (p. 57). It is not sufficient to allow secular public schools to teach facts and to allow the church or home to provide religious instruction; the two must be merged and therefore a Christian institution is necessary to do the job.

Though in this essay Jellema does not say too much about the nature of education in the Christian schools he envisions, he does towards the end hint at a purpose for education:

” . . . only in the light of that view can my bits of knowledge become intelligible. And in the sphere of morality and character building this conviction means that my every experience of worth strengthens and deepens my appreciation of and loyalty to God . . . The cutting edge of our view is that intellectual or moral growth and the religious life are in each specific instance and at that moment inseparable . . . ” (pp. 57-8)

In other words, knowledge only makes sense in the light of our beliefs and this intelligible knowldge serves to point us to God so that we give Him glory and grow in Him.

Though I take issue with the idea that we need schools specifically, I am largely in agreement with Jellema thus far. His other article, “The Curriculum in a Liberal Arts College,” leaves me a little more puzzled. As I said above, he is here arguing for specific changes in the curriculum and course requirements at Calvin College. I am not so much interested in the particulars but along the way he makes some general statements about education.

“Education is for wisdom” (p. 5), Jellema tells us. If this is meant as a definition, I am willing to accept it as such. But Jellema goes on to define wisdom saying it “consists very simply in the ability so to use nature as to achieve position in a society devoted to mastery over nature” (p. 5). Though wisdom is a topic covered at length in the pages of the Bible, this is no biblical argument nor is there  any appeal to the Scriptures. Jellema seems to be saying that our goal is mastery over nature — an argument which could certainly be substantiated by Genesis 1 — but he also says that nature shapes us, that our minds are molded by the patterns in nature. Though we know that God is revealed by His creation, we also know that creation was changed by the fall of man. There is no discernment here, no recognition that not all we find in nature as it now is would be worth emulating. He repeatedly calls this a “new idea of wisdom” (p. 15, 25) which I find quite disturbing given that wisdom is such a deeply-rooted biblical concept. It is not something that it seems we should have a “new” concept of.

Jellema’s overall argument in this essay is for a Christian liberal arts education. The liberal arts, he says, deal with the man as an individual and as a whole (pp. 16, 27). They educate the intellectual for the sake of the moral.  He implies that the ultimate goal of such an education is to fit us to discharge our moral responsibilities (p.16). Though a liberal arts education covers many subjects, he argues against a fragmented approach — a little here, a little there — and for an approach that looks to unifying principles across subjects. He speaks specifically of three or four minds, that is, ways of thinking. The Christian mind, which is associated with the Middle Ages, is primary but one also should learn the ancient and modern minds (pp. 21-22, 31). These minds are learned through the reading of their literature and also the learning of their languages. It is not enough to read the classics in translation but one should also learn Greek and Latin (p. 25).

I like some of the specifics here. I agree that we are much better equipped to understand someone when we learn their langauge (I argued as much in this post). I also like the idea of a broader more unifying perspective rather than a smattering of knowledge from a range of fields. I am a little confused by the minds thing. It may be true but I would like to see more on why these three distinct minds are valuable to know and understand. There is certainly Christian thought and non-Christian, but, as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. I am not so convinced that the ancient and modern are really all that different. There is also the matter of other minds. Jellema mentions a couple of times that we should learn the occidental (i.e. western) minds.  Perhaps the world has changed since his day; I am not sure we can so limit ourselves. Eastern philosophies pervade our culture.

The biggest issue I have with Jellema, however, is this idea of wisdom that he advances. I cannot get over a reformed thinker advancing a “new” idea of wisdom without any reference to the Scriptures. In the first article we discussed, Jellema hints at quite a good goal for education — it causes us to glorify God and it transforms us. I would have liked to see him pursue that train of thought rather than the “new wisdom.”

Nebby

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Peter Ton

Dear Reader,

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

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

I have written a number of times on the modern philosophy of education known as  Christian classical (see here and here). The long and short of it is, I am not a huge fan. I was excited to stumble across this article by Peter L. Ton. “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?” (2005) is Ton’s Master’s thesis from Dordt College. The lovely thing about a thesis is that it starts with an abstract that tells you exactly what the author wants to say. Thus at the beginning we get Ton’s conclusion:

“When compared to the Reformed understanding of covenant children as well as Reformed purposes and methods of education, classical Christian education is found to be too intellectualistic and elitist to be compatible with a Reformed Christian perspective on education.” (p. iv)

Because of his genre, Ton spends a lot of time defining terms. One of the first things that struck me is that he places the heart of Christian classical education in  Moscow, Idaho. This is a red flag for me. If you are unaware, Moscow is the home of Douglas Wilson, a prolific Christian pastor and author, who has, sadly, been associated with some at least borderline heretical movements. I know even within my own denomination there are some who love Wilson and it is not the purpose of this post to discuss him or his work. Suffice it to say, for me mention of Moscow and of Wilson is an indicator that I need to be discerning in what I read. The other major figure behind Christian classical is Dorothy Sayers. I reviewed her article, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which really inaugurated the modern movement here. The short story on that is that I had serious reservations about her own view of and attitude toward children. Ton notes that Sayers “tried her hand at teaching in an elementary school for a brief period, but gave it up quickly and without any misgivings” (p. 74).

Ton begins with a review of what Christian classical education, its origins, goals, and methodology. “Classical” refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Medieval educators went back to the classical model, and modern ones in turn went back to the classicism of the Middle Ages. When looking at the ideas behind the modern Christian classical movement, then, we have a number of layers to consider. What Ton finds in those predecessors is an emphasis on the intellectual and theoretical:

“Faith in human intellect, or intellectualism, clearly looms largest, while idealism
with its exaltation of ideas and denigration of matter is a close second.” (p. 21)

“Clearly evident also is the Greek glorification of theoretical knowledge.” (p. 23)

With such roots, it is not surprising that many “Christian educators uncritically adopted or synthesized many pagan Greek ideas in their curriculum” (p. 26). As I have said many times on this blog, not all ideas that come to us through non-Christian sources are necessarily wrong. Nonetheless, we must be discerning in adopting ideas that come to use with such a pedigree (p. 30).

Ton moves on to an examination of if and how these ideas have come through into the modern Christian movement. There are some more technical or methodological differences — grammar, for instance, is defined differently by Sayers than by her predecessors. There are also some common elements, including an emphasis on the social function of education:

“Quintilian and Wilson both assume education is to lead and govern” (p. 42)

Particularly concerning is a view of the child which comes through:

“The purpose behind Greek education was to make good adults, particularly good men, and they did not believe that infancy had much to do with the process’ (Castle, 1969). In fact, infanticide was practiced regularly, no cultural value forbade parents from selling their children into slavery and no civil law prohibited a father from condemning his child to death! This classical view of the child is necessary to point out because it has implications in today’s classical Christian schools. Classical Christian educators are, of course, innocent of such heinous practices as those just mentioned, yet remnants of this view of the child still linger in today’s classical Christian psychology despite their sincere attempts at articulating a Christian understanding of children.” (p. 45)

Ton then moves on to comparing the classical approach to the reformed view of education. He admits, however, that there is not just one reformed take on education. (I used the three-fold division he artiuclates in my introductory post.)  Ton himself takes the antithetical position which combines an emphasis on content with concern for the practical application. Education, he says, “equips the child for ampler and better oriented cultural activity” (p. 69). Which is to say education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are both important.

In his analysis of Christian classical education, Ton sees a conflict between covenantal and communal views of the child. The difference seems to be that a covenantal view emphasizes the need to educate all (covenant) children, even those whose natural gifts might be lacking (p. 47), and places a paramount importance on the role of the parents. Ton argues that Christian schools should not function in loco parentis and thereby diminish the parents’ God-given, even God-commanded, role in education (p. 51). One of the dangers in doing so it that education comes to be seen as the solution to all problems. With parents and church de-emphasized, education becomes almost salvific. It is seen as the solution to all society’s problems (pp. 75-76).

I agree with Ton when he concludes that Christian schools do not take the place of parents and can not, by themselves, apart from the parents, satisfy the demands of Christian education. But I am puzzled when Ton concludes: “A Reformed Christian community ought to encourage Christian school enrolment” (p. 53). Many of the arguments he has made would be good arguments for homeschooling so I don’t know why in the end he seems to dismiss this option.

With regard to the goals of education, Ton’s main criticism of the classical movement is that it is too intellectualistic. Biblical wisdom is lived out; it is not just head knowledge. Classical education, in contrast, views the content, the fodder of education if you will, as the main thing.

“[T]he program is oriented much more toward the mastery of content than to Christian discipleship. This emphasis on content over and above individual learning styles, pedagogic strategy, heart response, student application and discipleship is yet a legacy of the ancients’ faith in curriculum. ” (p. 55)

I recently reviewed a book on Jewish education which made just this same point. The education of the Jews from 550 BC to 220 AD was distinct from that of the Greeks and Romans in that it sought to make wisdom affect life. (In contrast, our previous thinker was Gordon H. Clark argues that reformed education should be “intellectualistic.“)

Because Ton believes that practical application is important as well as content, he ends up rejecting the methods of classical education which he sees as dividing these two enterprises. Modern classical education sees strict stages. Initially children are in the grammar stage and are memorizing but not analyzing. This is a misunderstanding, or at least a reinterpretation, on Sayers’ part of the classical term “grammar.” For Ton, it renders classcial education unacceptable:

“A Reformed philosophy of education insists that memorization, analyzing
and presenting are taught simultaneously, not consecutively. Upholding the
dignity of subject matter and student, this method underscores that knowledge and
skills are to be used, not stored away without comprehension or application.” (p. 76)

He rejects the classical methodology both because it separates memorization from application and because it does not recognize learning differences which he attributes to the unique image of God in each child.

While the first stage of a classical education, the “grammar” stage, according to Sayers and other modern classical educators focuses on memorization, the second stage, which roughly corresponds to middle school, is the logic stage. In it the focus is on argument because, they would say, children are naturally argumentative at this age. I agree with Ton here that it is wrong and unbiblical to attribute one particular, sinful characteristic to all children of this age and only to children of this age.

The third stage, the rhetoric stage, which corresponds to high school, Ton also criticizes. At this age students are said to focus on appearance and peer interactions. Ton argues that the training of the rhetoric stage will not combat these desires.

Ton spends most of his critique arguing against the broad outlines of classical education as delineated by Sayers. At the end of his analysis he briefly addresses Wilson’s arguments. Wilson uses some Bible verses to support the classical stages, saying that children get knowledge early on but must develop wisdom. I again agree with Ton that there is little true biblical support for this view and that a much more in-depth analysis of the biblical view of wisdom would be necessary.

When it comes to his analysis of classical education, I agree with a lot of what Ton has to say. I think he does a good job of describing this approach to education and showing why it falls short of the biblical view of wisdom, which is always very practical and applicable, and why it undervalues or misvalues children at the various stages of life. It has been my contention for years that any philosophy of education makes statements about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. Without necessarily using that language, Ton shows how the classical approach falls short on both these counts.

I am less convinced by Ton’s own philosophy of education. He states clearly that there are multiple theories about reformed education and he is up-front about his own position, but he does not defend or argue for his position. I understand that this is a master’s thesis and a more detailed presentation of his own view may have been beyond the scope of the work. I would like to see — from Ton and all the other authors I am reading — a truly biblical argument for why their particular philosophy of education is best.

Nebby

 

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Gordon H. Clark

Dear Reader,

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

I am endeavoring to look at more of what’s out there by other reformed thinkers on the topic if education. You can find my introduction to this series within a series here. Today’s thinker is Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) who was primarily a philosopher.  His “A Christian Philosophy of Education” was published in 1988 (apparently posthumously) in Trinity Review (this seems to be a shorter article summarizing a longer book originally published in the 1940s). The period from roughly 1965 to 1990 generated a lot of  Christian writing on education, most of which took the form of a call for a more distinctly Christian approach. Most of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern homeschooling movement has its roots in this era.

Clark, like these others, is clearly responding to a crisis he saw in his own day. He cites particularly modern advances — the telephone! and end to typhoid! — which though seemingly good can also be used for evil and do not make people inherently better (and, yes, he does see a downside to the end to typhoid as well; read the article to find out what it is 😉 ). One can only imagine what he would have made of the internet. If there is any specific event which seems to have generated this article it is the prohibition by the courts of prayer in schools, though he is not entirely opposed to such a prohibition, acknowledging that not all prayer is righteous prayer.

Like all those others whose books I have reviewed, Clark sees no compatibility between Christianity and public education. He spends some time on the origins of the public schools and notes that they have never been Christina institutions. Be their very nature, they must be opposed to true Christian doctrine. Though he laments the lack of good Protestant schools, he does not mention homeschooling (perhaps it was not at all on his radar). His call is a fairly general one — for an education based on Christian doctrine (he cites the Westminster Confession of Faith specifically as a proper ground for such education).

In the first half or so of this article, Clark seems to be focused on stemming the evils in society. Discipline in the schools seems to be an especial concern. Interestingly, the view of evil is cited as a key element behind one’s philosophy of education:

“The two philosophies [Christianity and secular humanism] and their educational implications differ on what to do, on what evil is, and on how it originates.” (Kindle loc. 100)

In the latter half of the article, Clark advances a particular theory related to the image of God in man. He argues that the image of God is reason. He sees reason as the thing which separates us from the animals. “Christianity,” he says “is intellectualistic” (Kindle loc. 180). Fellowship with God requires thinking and understanding. Morality as well is impossible without reason. The animals are incapable of sin, or of doing good, because they cannot reason. We could glorify God, he says, without reason, but we could not enjoy Him forever (Kindle loc. 189). The fall did not erase the image of God in man but it did corrupt it. Errors in thinking, even something as basic and concrete as arithmetic mistakes, are a result of the fall. “[S]alvation will improve a man’s thinking in all matters” (Kindle loc. 218). Education, then, is an intellectual endeavor. He rejects hands-on enterprises, carpentry, plumbing, even the making of music and art, as skills, God-given skills perhaps, but skills nonetheless. Education, for Clark, is about the mind because this is the focal point of his view of man. The art critic, for Clark, is higher than the artist because he thinks about art rather than making it.

“The object of education is truth; the transmission of truth to the younger pupils and the discovery of new truth by more advanced students. The aim of education, at least the aim of the purest and best education, is intellectual understanding.” (Kindle loc. 244).

This series exists because, to a large extent, I stand with these (slightly) older authors. Like them, I am issuing a call for a more distinctly Christian approach to education (and in my case, a reformed Christian approach). As a homeschooling mom, I find that their calls often stopped short of where I want to be. They don’t tend to get down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what are my kids going to be doing on Monday morning? I hope that I am advancing more towards this goal.

Clark stands in this body of work. His criticism of the public schools of his day and his call for a Christian education are not new or unique. He does get into some new territory when he discusses his own view of the image of God and its implications for education. There are many ways the image of God has been delineated in Christian thought and I am very hesitant to tie it down to one quality as Clark does. I would agree with him that the fall affected our reason and I like his point that this affects even our most concrete reasoning. Our kids would not make mistakes in math if they weren’t fallen  creatures. His emphasis on the mind, to the detriment of any physically based aptitudes, also makes me uncomfortable. It smacks a bit of a dualistic understanding which separates man’s mind and spirit from his body. I do not believe this is the Christian view of man.

My short take on “A Christian Philosophy of Education” would be that it stands firmly within the Christian writings of the time on education. There is a germ of a new idea here, but it is not one I can wholly subscribe to.

Nebby

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Introduction

Dear Reader,

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

Though I have been blogging for a while on a reformed Christian approach to education and slowly developing my own philosophy of education, I am realizing that there is a body of material I have not interacted with and should.

I have come to this enterprise with my own particular bent, coming from  homeschooling and having used Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. Most of these other authors come from Christian schools often with a classical bent, or at least influenced more by the Christian classical movement. My goal over the next months is to read and distill what they have written.

I have a few convictions that I come into this enterprise with. One, born of my readings in various approaches to homeschooling, is that every philosophy of education says something about the nature of man and his ultimate purpose. I believe that the Bible is the “only infallible rule for faith and life.” The wording is from my  denomination’s membership vows and it is important. “Only” here modifies “infallible.” God’s Word is our only infallible rule, but not the only place we may go for guidance. I do not believe the Bible will give us all the answers to all the questions we have. I do not believe, for instance, that it tells us which diet is right. But, given that questions about education are ultimately questions about the nature of man and his purpose, we should expect to get a lot of insight from the Scriptures. Lastly, we need an approach to education which accounts for every child, not just covenant children. I find it quite odd actually that most Christian approaches are just for kids from Christian homes. Anyone who teaches can have non-Christian children under their care. This is certainly true in public schools but also in Christian schools unless they strictly limit enrolment. It can even be true in the home for those who take in foster kids or watch others’ children. There may be differences in how education is applied and received by covenant versus non-covenant children, but our statement of what education is should be applicable to all people.

One of the thinkers I will be looking at is Peter Ton. His master’s thesis, “Is Classical Christian Education Compatible with a Reformed Christian Perspective on Education?,” following Vriend, lays out a few schools of thought among reformed thinkers on education, he distinguishes three categories: confessionalist, positive Calvinist, and antithetical. Though not everyone need fit into one of these boxes, I think it is helpful to have these categories in mind. They give us some sense of the issues at stake and some way to evaluate where a given thinker falls on the spectrum of belief. Confessionalists, Ton says emphasize content. It is not enough to put a Christian spin on non-Christian facts. We need to teach our own theology and confessions and history. This approach is more in line with classical education which also emphasizes content. Awareness is preferred over action. Little concern is given to learning styles and teaching strategy. The Positive Calvinist is more progressive and emphasizes process over content. The  response to what is learned is important. The goal is not so much to develop students’ minds as to practice stewardship, justice and compassion. Lastly, the Antithetical approach, which Ton himself takes, bridges some of the gaps between the other two. It states that all ages have their problems and there is no golden age to which we look back. It combines the content of confessionalist with the practical application of positive Calvinist. Education equips children to live in this world and fulfill their covenant responsibilities. The faith of the teacher and community and the content of the educational materials are important. A distinctly Christian curriculum is also important.

Some questions to ask of each thinker, then, include:

  • What does he assume about the nature of man, including his ability to learn and to receive what is good?
  • What does he see as the ultimate purpose of man?
  • What is the purpose of education and how does it serve man’s ultimate purpose? Are they the same or is education a stepping stone?
  • Can these ideas be applied to all children, whether from believing homes or not?
  • Is there more of an emphasis on taking in knowledge or on application and action?
  • Is there a set body of knowledge that one needs to know?
  • How much individualism is allowed for?
  • What does it say about knowledge, especially knowledge that we get from non-Christian sources?
  • Is the method applicable to both home and school environments? Does it prefer one over the other?

Lastly, I will point you to a few writers whose work I have already reviewed:

J.G. Vos What is Christian Education?

Cornelius Van Til Essays on Christian Education

Rousas Rushdoony Philosophy of Christian Curriculum

Christopher Dawson The Crisis in Western Education (a Roman Catholic writer)

Greg Harris The Christian Homeschool

David Smith and Susan Felch Teaching and Christian Imagination

John Milton “Of Education”

Nebby

Implementing a Christian Education in Public, Private, or Homeschool

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

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

What We Study and Why: Literature

Dear Reader,

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

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

Why We Read Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Read Fiction, with some warnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

Bibliography: Books on Stories and Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Study and Why: Language

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

Why We Study Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How We Teach Language

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

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

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

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

Nebby

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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