Category Archive: Education
Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is, in many ways, a disappointing book. The problem is not just that it’s outdated. The problem is that the flashes of insight that impressed me at the beginning of the book were reduced to a trickle midway through and that, while I appreciated a lot of Illich’s critique of compulsory government schooling, his own suggestions for a “deschooled” society struck me as quixotic and utopian, bordering on ludicrous.
That said, there was stuff I appreciated, stuff that (even if you don’t agree with it) makes you say “Huh! I need to think about that some more,” beginning with the opening paragraph:
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question (1).
Between the two concepts of education, the Calvinistic and that of the Enlightenment and contemporary thought, there can be no compromise. They are in hopeless contradiction. The modern concept, with its cosmopolitanism and its clean-tablet ideal, is erosive and destructive of all aspects of culture except the monolithic state, which is then the ostensible creator and patron of culture. When it speaks of the whole child, it speaks of a passive creature who is to be molded by statist education for a concept of the good life radically divorced from God and from all transcendental standards. The goal of such education will only be reached when man ceases to be man, and, this being an impossibility, the only outcome of such education can be the increasing resistance of the child to its radical implications.
Modern education thus is statist education, and the state is made the all-embracing institution of which all other institutions are but facets. The state and the person, government and individual, become thus the two realities of such a world-view. both demand freedom and power for themselves. The state recognizes no law beyond itself and the individual insists on his own autonomy and ultimacy. But the child of the state, being a man without faith, has no vital principle of resistance and thus even in his rebellion is statist. Every philosophy of autonomous man from the Greeks to the present has foundered on the problem of the one and the many, universality and particularity. If the one is affirmed as the ultimate reality, the individuals are swallowed up in the whole. If the many be affirmed, then reality is lost in endless particularity and individuality, and no binding concept has any reality. Thus, the one and the many are in perpetual tension. The individual and the state, for example, can only each affirm themselves at the expense of the other.
Against this, the consistent Christian philosophy, as developed by Calvinistic thinkers such as Kuyper, Bavinck and C. Van Til, by beginning with the biblical revelation and the ontological trinity, begins thereby with the equal ultimacy and the fundamental congeniality of the one and the many in the trinity, three persons, one God.
The concept of the covenant furthers this unity in that the self-realization of the individual is the advantage of all and is advanced by and integral with the self-realization of others. In the modern conception, the fulfilment and self-realization of the individual are at the expense of others and may involve their sacrifice. For the orthodox Christian, self-realization apart from the covenant is an impossibility, and it involves life in an organism, the true body of Christ.
This latter concept, the body of Christ, asserts emphatically in all its biblical statements that individuality is not monotonous repetition but the fulfilment of varying functions and callings as individuals who are yet part of a common whole. The service of the body requires the fulfilment of the individual; the eye must fulfil itself as an eye that the entire body as well may prosper. — Rousas J. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis and Education, pp. 9-11.
If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little. We would love their games, and would want to play them once in a while, stirring in ourselves those memories of play that no one regrets, and that are almost the only things an old man can look back on with complete satisfaction. We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do. — Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, xii.
Many men live one step behind life’s events. They try to to learn to work after they get a job. They seek a class for husbands after they are struggling in their marriage. They read about fatherhood after their children rebel. A good education prepares a young man for his future situations before they come.
Education and going to school are not necessarily the same thing. You may attend the best college, graduate with highest honors, and still remain uneducated. Even if you have a degree, you are uneducated if you are not ready for the coming events in your life. The American educational system expects each student to spend about sixteen years becoming “educated” to get a successful job. Earning money and job security are often the goals. When students get their college degrees they are told, and often think, they are educated. They may be fit for a job; however, if they remain unfit for the majority of life’s situations they remain uneducated. Life is much more than having a job. — Bob Schultz, Boyhood and Beyond, 66.
In September, I lectured for the Bucer Institute on “Genesis and the Future,” focusing on what Genesis teaches us about eschatology and our hope for the future. But I also got to speak at the Institute’s convocation banquet, and there I talked about humility and education.
Much of what I said was probably obvious. Humility includes recognizing that we all have a lot to learn and that God puts us in certain environments — such as the Bucer Institute — to learn from others. That learning may start with being silent. As Anselm says in his “Duties of Clergy,” “Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak?” And so we must humble ourselves to learn from our teachers and to recognize that they are, in some way, superior to us. Likewise, we must also humble ourselves to learn from our fellow students, not just to learn but to learn together.
In fact, sometimes shyness can be a form of thinking too much of ourselves (though I am not saying that this shyness is necessarily the sin of pride): “I don’t want to ask a question and have people think I’m stupid.” Or: “I don’t want to raise my hand and interact with the prof as if I think my opinions are worth his time.” On the contrary, I said: Humble yourself and ask in order to learn.
But I also wanted to speak about something perhaps less obvious, namely, humility before the subject, putting the subject ahead of yourself. If your goal at a particular school is simply to use it as a stepping-stone to advance yourself, if your focus is on your marks or on impressing teachers or on impressing future employers or whatever, you will not learn the way you could if you were really interested in the subject. I’ve often said that I would rather teach someone who is interested than someone who is simply intelligent.
And what’s the mark of that sort of humility, that sort of fascination with the subject that puts it ahead of yourself? Perhaps one mark is that you sometimes bore people by talking about the subject. Which brings me to G. K. Chesterton and to the following quotation, which was, in fact, a major impetus behind my entire talk:
Neither in public nor in private life … is it all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person. It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow. The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest. The man who talks too much generally has a great deal of humility. Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.
It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious. The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject. He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better. If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing: and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.
A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man. He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship. He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.
No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows. They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine. The loud talker is humble. The very phrase you use about him proves this. If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.” It is the very ecstasy of altruism — an impersonal apotheosis. You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.” What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? — Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907, 132-133.
If you never bore someone with any subject, then you have a problem: either nothing in the world fascinates you (how sad!) or the thing that matters most to you is how you appear to others. But if things do grip you, you’re going to end up boring your wife or a friend or someone at church by talking too much about them from time to time.
On the other hand, as I went on to add, if you don’t forget yourself and the subject you love in order to love others — which in this case means to shut up about your subject and talk about what interests them — you also will not excel in your learning, because truly learning anything means learning how to use it to serve others. The goal is not just to be so full of your subject that you forget yourself and spill out onto others from time to time, important as that is. The goal is, with your love of the subject subordinate to the love of others, to be the servant of all.
Did you hear about the protests today in connection with President Obama’s address to the nation’s schoolchildren? It wasn’t related to the content of the speech; rather, it began even before he spoke. What the protesters were objecting to, it seems, was not what the president said or even what the protesters thought he might say but the very fact that President Obama would say anything to their children. And so, as one headline said, many conservatives were enraged over the Obama school speech.
Oh, wait. That was last year. This year, President Obama addressed schoolchildren again. Were there protests? No. At least none that made the news. Did some parents keep their children home? Maybe, but certainly not in enough numbers that it drew the attention of NPR.
What made the difference between last year and this year? Was it that conservative parents realized that President Obama was not the first president to address schoolchildren and concluded that they had no real reason to protest? Was it that these parents heard last year’s speech, figured it was harmless, and though that today’s speech would be more of the same and hence not worth protesting? Maybe.
But it occurs to me that what upsets people the first time it happens (in this case, the first time with a president some find particularly objectionable) barely makes them bat an eyelid the second time it happens. If it happens often enough, in fact, it becomes a matter of course, not concern. Before long, it’s just the way things are done.
The other thing worth noting, it seems to me, is that last year’s protests don’t appear to have had any significant effect. They certainly didn’t deter the president from making another speech to the public schools. Maybe some parents who protested last year or kept their children home have figured that their actions weren’t going to change anything and so they gave up. Why bother?
Now I’m not saying that these parents ought to protest, whether by writing letters to the school board or by wearing anti-Obama-speech sandwich boards and parading up and down outside schools or even by keeping children home for the day of the speech. If you’re going to hand your children over to the government to educate, then on what grounds can you legitimately protest when the government — in this case the president — procedes to do just that?
But what if you really wanted to make a statement? Better, what if you didn’t care so much about “making a statement” or catching the attention of the government as you did about bringing up your children as Christians? What if you didn’t turn their education over to the government, regardless of whether that government includes President Obama? Then pulling your kids out of the public school for one day is hardly enough. Why not make it permanent?
A while back, I was blogging some things I had gleaned from Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles. I hadn’t intended to give up that project, but I did get sidetracked into a bunch of other things. In my last blog entry on this book, I talked about Peterson’s distinction between learning and schooling. Peterson argues that in schooling, because of a drive toward standardization and uniform performance, there is a strong emphasis on the learning of facts and on the transfer of data from the teacher to the student “with as little personal contamination as possible” (94). He goes on to say that this approach to education affects our ability to read:
The reading skills that we acquire under such conditions are inevitably attentive primarily to the informational: we are taught to read for the factual, the useful, the relevant. Most pastors have twenty years or so of such training. We read to pass examinations, to find out how to parse a Greek verb or to run a church office. If we read occasionally to divert ourselves on a cold winter’s night it is not counted as serious reading. We are not systematically taught over these twenty years (I don’t count an occasional course as “training”) to pick up nuance and allusion, catching the meaning and intent of the living voice behind the words on the page. As a result we are impatient with metaphor and irritated at ambiguity. But these are the stock-in-trade of persons, the most unpredictable of creatures, using language at their most personal and best. Our schooling has narrowed our attitude toward reading: we want to know what is going on so that we can get on our way. If it is not useful to us in doing our job or getting a better one, we don’t see the point (94-95).
Peterson goes on to say that, though language does provide information, its primary purpose is relational:
The primary reason for a book is to put a writer into relation with readers so that we can listen to his or her stories and find ourselves in them, listen to his or her songs and sing with them, listen to his or her answers and question them. The Scriptures are almost entirely this kind of book. If we read them impersonally with an information-gathering mind, we misread them (95).
I’m not sure if Peterson means to imply that we are to question the answers God gives in Scripture, and surely questioning is not the only thing we are to do with someone’s answers. But leaving that aside, Peterson’s point is worth pondering.
How much exegesis is really a give-me-the-facts or give-me-something-useful approach to reading the text of Scripture? The Bible is full of poetry, of metaphor, of allusion, of recurring patterns, of “deep weird” comments, of long lists, of a host of things that may not at first seem all that helpful. What am I do to with all the repetition in Numbers 7? Wouldn’t it have been better to say it all once (“Each prince presented …”) instead of saying it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again? Would we really have lost any information if Moses had simply given us a summary? And why did we need to know this stuff anyway? How does having this information help us? And so, as Peterson says, when we read for information or for something we think will be useful, we get frustrated with the Bible as it is.
There are certainly things that we can do to improve our reading — better: our hearing — of Scripture. But Peterson is suggesting that one thing that would help would be a change in our approach to education, so that reading is not presented primarily as a fact-finding mission.
I realize that I know little about how literature is taught today, even in classical Christian schools. So I’ll end with questions instead of ignorant assertions, and hope that someone who knows more (or better) than I do can help answer some of them.
Is Peterson right? Do we do students a disservice with regard to their reading of the Bible — or of literature — by such things as focusing on whether the student picked up certain facts from reading a novel (e.g., a quiz on Pride and Prejudice that focuses on names and relationship and who did what and so forth) or by requiring students to paraphrase or summarize or (the thing I hated the most in school) find the theme of a given story or poem? How could we improve our teaching of literature — and of reading in general — so that our reading of the Bible may also be improved?
In his discussion of hearing (vs. reading) the Word, Eugene Peterson says that we all suffer from “an unfortunate education,” which “has come about through the displacement of learning by schooling”:
Learning is a highly personal activity carried out in personal interchange: master and apprentice, teacher and student, parent and child. In such relationships, the mind is trained, the imagination disciplined, ideas explored, concepts tested, behavioral skills matured in a context in which everything matters, in a hierarchy in which persons form the matrix…. The classic methods of learning are all personal: dialogue, imitation, and disputation. The apprentice observes the master as the master learns; the master observes the apprentice as the apprentice learns. The learning develops through relationships expressed in gesture, intonation, posture, rhythm, emotions, affection, admiration. And all of this takes place in a sea of orality — voices and silences” (Working the Angles 93).
As Peterson points out, what he is describing here is the way children — even infants — learn from their parents. Interestingly, I noticed that my son picked up the music of “Thank you” before he could say the words: he was imitating our pitches, first a higher one (“Thank”) and then the lower (“you”).
But learning, Peterson argues, has been replaced by schooling:
Schooling is very different from learning. In schooling persons count for very little. Facts are memorized, information assimilated, examinations passed. Teachers are subjected to a supervision that attempts to insure uniform performance, which means that everyone operates as much alike as possible and is rewarded insofar as the transfer of data from book to brain is made with as little personal contamination as possible. In schooling, the personal is reduced to the minimum: standardized tests, regulated teachers, information-oriented students” (94).
Peterson admits that this sort of schooling does not replace learning all at once: elementary school teachers must interact with their students as persons. But he suggests that the replacement increases as the student progresses in his education, so that in the end the student’s education can be “summarized on a transcript in number, the most abstract of languages. Learning, a most intricately personal process, will not submit to such summarizing” (94).
I’m not entirely sure how to evaluate what Peterson is saying here, and I invite your feedback. Some of what he says sounds accurate. Some even seems inevitable: include more than one person in your classroom and you have to standardize; you simply cannot teach Jane at her pace and Wendy at hers, ensuring that each girl learns what you are teaching and has adequate personal interaction with you to do so.
But I can see, too, the problem he points out with standardization: if you are going to require a certain grade point average for admittance into a college or university, you also want that grade point average to mean the same thing, no matter what school the student graduated from. And the best way to achieve that goal is to reduce education to things that can be standarized: facts and numbers and dates and so forth.
I’m still thinking about these things, and again I welcome your thoughts.
In Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick criticizes both “Values Clarification” and the more sophisticated “dilemma” approach to moral education developed by Lawrence Kohlberg. In the latter approach, the teacher presents students with a moral dilemma and then encourages the students to debate and discuss what they would do if they were in such a situation.
Here’s one of Kohlberg’s favorite dilemmas: “Your wife suffers from an incurable and potentially terminal disease for which she must take regular doses of a very expensive medicine. The medicine is manufactured by a single company, and you have exhausted all of your financial resources in past purchases of the medicine.” Now, should you let your wife die or should you attempt to steal the drug to save her life?
Interestingly, when Kohlberg presented this dilemma to a bunch of prisoners, the discussion did not go the way he expected:
The convicts were unperplexed. To a man, and without hesitation, they said, “Steal it.” “But why,” Larry Kohlberg asked them, “would you do that?” Laughing, they answered, “Because we steal things. We wanna know why the stupid husband didn’t steal it in the first place” (cited p. 87).
I had heard about this approach before but hadn’t thought much about it. Kilpatrick’s treatment of it is helpful. He points out that “the decision whether or not to steal is only a dilemma for those who already think stealing is wrong” (p. 87). And that is part of the problem with this “dilemma” approach to moral education. It presupposes that the students are already committed to being people who want to do the right thing. But if they don’t care to do what’s right, if they think that it’s okay to lie or cheat or steal or commit adultery, the “dilemma” is no dilemma at all.
Moreover, as Kilpatrick points out, dilemmas are not the best way to teach students morality. Difficult dilemmas can engage students’ imaginations and lead to lots of discussion and even disagreement. The result may be an entertaining class (and even popular teachers), but the result is not moral education. Why not? Because most of the decisions we have to make in life are not difficult moral dilemmas:
The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic. After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students will conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess. They will gain the impression, as Cornell professor Richard Baer has pointed out, “that almost everything in ethics is either vague or controversial…” (p. 85).
Furthermore, the “dilemma” and discussion approach does not provide students with guidance. As a result, it gives the impression that there are no right and wrong answers, not only to the particular dilemma being discussed but to all moral questions. The answers given by the Bible (or, for that matter, by a student’s parents) are accorded no more weight than the answers given by a kid who wants to be controversial or who wants to justify his own rebellion or whatever.
That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to talk about a moral dilemma. But, as Kilpatrick’s discussion of this approach suggests, such discussion ought to take place in the context of a commitment to rigiht morals, to moral guidance, to (though Kilpatrick doesn’t say it outright) the Bible as the standard. Commitment to Scripture doesn’t free us from all moral dilemmas, of course, but it does provide a context in which we can evaluate the various options.
Furthermore, it would seem, dilemmas shouldn’t be the primary focus, lest the students focus on rare exceptions instead of on the choices they must make every day. As Kilpatrick says,
Before students begin to think about the qualifications, exceptions, and fine points that surround difficult cases they will seldom or never face, they need to build the kind of character that will allow them to act well in the very clear-cut situations they face daily (p. 88).
Listen to the defense of public schools by members of teachers’ unions, local educational associations, or professors of education in universities, and one hears few new ideas and no radical proposals. Instead, they tend to blame parents. This seems odd since these are often the very same people who have been telling us for decades that they are “professionals.” (A major ? though usually unstated ? function of public education, as articulated by founders such as Horace Mann, has been to detach students from their parents in order to make them more dependent upon the state for their primary means of making sense out of the world.) So, after having our children for about eight hours every day and after receiving our tax money, now they say that it is up to us parents to teach our children after we get home from work or they cannot be taught.
The truth is out. Education is not a matter for “professionals.” Education is a mystery, a complex interaction between human beings who care about one another. The positive effects seen in some home-schooled children suggest that parents may very well know more about education than the educators. ? William Willimon, “I Was Wrong About Christian Schools,” Christianity Today 37.2 (Feb. 8, 1993): 30.
Here’s a new essay by Peter Leithart on “Cruciform Education.” A lot of it is quotable, but I’ll simply give you this snippet:
All philosophy originates in wonder at the strangeness of the world, but the Christian philosopher finds the world infinitely stranger than Parmenides or Plato could have dreamed. For Christian philosophy, the central questions must be, “What kind of world do we live in if everything hinges on a crucifixion one spring afternoon in first-century Palestine?” and “What kind of world is it if ultimate reality reveals itself as Gift, as incarnate and self-sacrificing Love?”