The Foundation for a Christian, Classical Philosophy of Education
FROM OUR HEAD OF SCHOOL
Having a worldview that embraces deep biblical truths is essential to a Christian philosophy of education. A biblical world view gives rise to a need to lead the students, teachers, and families of a school to a deeper understanding of how Truth informs the content and context of schooling. A biblical worldview undergirds an educators view of the learner, the role of the teacher, and the substance and the setting for the learning. Parker Palmer (1983) captures the level of significance personal theories of learning have on the teacher and the learner.
The patterns of epistemology can help us decipher the patterns of our lives. Its images of the knower, the known, and their relationship are formative in the way an educated person not only thinks but acts (p. 58).
As Palmer’s statement implies, education is a deeply spiritual process which leads us from worldly wisdom to Godly wisdom (I Corinthians 2:6-7).
Secular epistemological systems consider man the measure, means, and end of learning. They lean heavily on reason and scientific method as the foundation for learning. A biblical epistemology of learning finds both its foundation and meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. In defining himself as the Way, the Truth, the Light, and Love (John 14:6), Jesus declares himself as the means, content, and aim of all learning. He is the subject and the means to our knowing and to being known. “In Him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
The Role of the Learner
At the end of her life, 19th century English educator Charlotte Mason wrote; “A child is a person with the spiritual requirements and capabilities of a person” (as cited by Cooper, 2004, p. 51). What does it mean to say that a child is a person? Most gloriously, it means that the child, like his teachers, is created in the image of God. Students can never be seen as objects to be manipulated or molded, nor as animals driven by their instincts and appetites. Children should be viewed as bearing the image of God, thus capable of reflecting some of His attributes– exercising dominion over the created order, being relational, rational, creative, moral and expressing mercy and love. “The child’s person unfolds as he or she relates to God, family, others, nature, books and knowledge” (Cooper, 2004, p.59).
God is relational. Education is about relationship because children, like their Creator, are relational. From the Garden of Eden, to His people Israel, to His twelve disciples, the Bible is a declaration of a God who desires to be in relationship with His people. As His creation, humans also hunger for relationship. Socrates demonstrated the value of relationship through his philosophical dialogue and personal interactions with his pupils. The Socratic approach to education, still relevant today, mirrors the transformational power of the greatest teacher of all time—Jesus Christ.
Being fully human means that students are sinners in need of the redemptive power that can only be released by knowing God. While educators do not have the ability to change the hearts of students, they do have the opportunity to recognize students’ potential in Him. This is the motivation to extend the respect, grace, accountability, and love that can give the Holy Spirit freedom to do His work. A Christian liberal arts education, taken from the Latin word libera, meaning freedom, suggests an experience that promotes freedom. An expanded study of the word increases its impact when it reveals that libera also means child, denoting a free child with full rights as a member of the family. The initial step toward spiritual restoration is the recognition that children need and desire freedom because they are meant to reflect His image. Christian schooling is an opportunity to unlock the door to this liberty for children because its primary focus is the care of their immortal souls.
Children reflect the creative nature of God. God is an artist. From Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 21:1, He reminds humans that He designed and created the most beautiful work of art ever created—the heavens and the earth. In honor and celebration of the Image bearing gifts of each student, a Christian education will encourage and develop creativity and creative thinking. “Artistic, mathematical, scientific, literary, and even theological creativity are signs of a growing disciple and of a healthy learning community” (Littlejohn, 2006, p.45).
The Content of the Learning
Because the content of a Christian school curriculum serves the dual purposes of molding the minds and shaping the souls of the pupils, there ought to be value in what is taught. If the intent of education is to “nourish the soul on truth, goodness and beauty,” then the subject matter will reflect that goal (Veith & Kern, 2006). Content and methods are not chosen with the intention of molding the child into the image of the teacher, but rather to disciple the learner as a follower of Christ. True Christian schooling presupposes that to embrace the sovereignty of God in its fullness, we must recognize that content presented for His revelation has the power to transform. The life of famed theologian, A.W. Tozer, gives evidence of this truth. “With no teacher but the Holy Spirit and good books, A.W. Tozer became a theologian, a scholar, and master craftsman in the use of the English language” (Tozer, 2006, p.5).
The study of great literature gains us entrance to the wisdom and beauty of the past. In the light of Scripture, these books have the power to engage our students in the Great Conversation of the centuries—who is man, what is his purpose? Through our reading, we are, as GK Chesterton stated, connecting ourselves to “the long thin delicate thread that has descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking” (as cited in Heath, 2006, p.19). Placed alongside modern works of literature, the ancient text become a lens for appraising current wisdom. In submission to Scripture, great books bring meaning to the Great Conversation (man and his purpose) as the Holy Spirit unveils truth to the reader.
The study of history is of paramount importance to a Christian education. When we examine ancient worlds, we explore the context God created for revealing his Word and Himself. Each period of history opens the door for us to gain a better understanding of our place in God’s time continuum. We all have a part in the story. Tolkien’s (1965) hobbit, Frodo, made this clear in his conversation with Sam, when asked,
Why to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. (Frodo)
Don’t the great tales never end? (Sam)
No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner (p.363).
A study of history gives us the privilege of looking back to the beginning of our story. It permits us to learn from the past, and like Sam and Frodo, find our place in the present, so we can make our deposit toward the future.
While the study of facts and information forms an essential foundation for learning, education is far more than teaching facts. It is teaching the relationship between the facts and equipping our pupils with the skills to understand and analyze those facts. A rich, Christian liberal arts study will challenge the mind of the student through the use of questions. Following the model of ancient Socrates, the teacher will enter the world of the students, partnering with them in the learning process. Mortimer Adler speaks of teaching as “a cooperative art” which cultivates acts of thinking and understanding that “involve discovery by the minds of the students” (Adler, n.d.).
The End of Learning
Cultivating an appetite for lifelong learning is an essential goal of Christian, classical education. Our world is changing, but God remains the same. In response, schools must develop the “aptitude of each student to memorize, analyze and synthesize information and experiences.” An education that maximizes these intellectual abilities will produce students “who possess the capacity to learn and adapt to all sorts of circumstances and challenges” (Littlejohn & Evans, 2006, p.151). The capacity for continuous learning and growth rooted in the truth of the Gospel will empower Christians students to confront a rapidly changing world from the perspective of an unchanging God.
Confidence to gracefully present and defend one’s argument on a given topic is the pearl of Socratic dialogue. The wise teacher will insist that students prudently consider all the facts and sources before embracing and presenting their ideas. The desired end of such an approach is to prepare students to face the challenges that the secular world will use in an attempt to disassemble their Biblical world view. Grace to live this out in accordance to the Gospel is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). Skilled teaching methods encourage students to develop the fine art of reflection that is required to synthesize and evaluate the positions of others. Authority with humility, modeled by the teacher, encourages students to approach others gracefully.
The greatest end of our work is not to produce individuals who know about God; but rather to produce people who know God. A truly Christian education compels students to invest their hearts, souls, and minds in seeking Him everywhere He can be found. God is not bound by time or space; thus the physical world, its people, and its history stand as living epistles to His existence, His attributes, and His person. He has honored man, the crowning act of His creation, with the capacity to know Him.