Philosophy of Education
There is no avoiding the fact that we live at the mercy of our ideas.
This is never more true than with our ideas about God.”
― Dallas Willard
I build my philosophy of education on biblical theology and on correlating beliefs about humanity. Beliefs about human origin, constitution, purpose, corruption, and development are particularly impactful. I’ve organized this paper around five questions:
- The question of origin. Where did we come from? Are we designed or accidental?
- The question of constitution or design. What are we made of?
- The question of purpose. Why are we here? What are we made for?
- The question of evil. What is wrong with us? What is to be done about it?
- The question of development. How do we grow? What and how should we learn?
1. Origin. Where did we come from?
The popular notion about human origin (or origins) built over the past couple of centuries does not inform my philosophy of education. I find that Darwin’s theory as originally framed is self refuting, built on the assumption that living things are just arrangements of simple building blocks (cells). Subsequent knowledge of the many types of cells, their wide range of functions, and their interdependent parts has shown that these building blocks are irreducibly complex and full in themselves of incredible design. I also find current, popular versions of the “scientific” theories of evolution unsatisfying and unstable, driven by scientific and academic correctness more than by an honest curiosity about our origin.
I can logically accept complex evolutionary processes as tools in the hands of God for creation, but I have no biblical or practical reasons to need such an explanation for human existence. What I rely on is the conviction that God is our Maker. His time frame and His means are not fundamental to my philosophy of education.
However, His creation of humans in His image as His highest, “very good,” creative work is fundamental. Scriptures teach that the human race is God’s special creation, and that each particular human is His special creation. Together, we are of infinite value. Individually we are of infinite value. This understanding of our origin and value has tremendous implications for education. The infinite value of each child makes the care and teaching of each child vital. Our creation in the likeness of God suggests that attributes such as creativity, beauty, autonomy, order, goodness, virtue, and freedom are key components in our learning and development. Our relationship to Him gives us certain responsibilities toward God, toward each other, and toward the created world. Education must train people to grow in capacity to fulfill these responsibilities.
2. Design. What are we made of?
I believe that modern physicalism and the later postmodern explanations about the stuff of humanity are not helpful in forming a good philosophy of education. (see this article on postmodernism: http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=70). Physicalism (like atomism or materialism) is the belief that people and all other things that exist are simply physical. In this view, we are just bodies with brains, and we last until we die. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Some of the staunchest advocates of this view seem to believe it with a sort of religious fervor, and this passion seems to refute idea it preaches. Physicalism tends toward hopelessness, apathy, and/or recklessness. It makes it hard to know what a good life might be or why one might aspire to live one. It leaves me wondering whether my annoying classmate is worth any more than the drowned earthworm squirming out on the sidewalk. It leaves me wondering whether what I do matters. If I’m just matter, than maybe I don’t really matter, or maybe I am the only thing that matters. In education, it results in much focus on the brain, and this has brought about some helpful insights. However, much brain research points to the high impact that the metaphysical world has on the formation or deformation of the physical.
This new knowledge about the brain does not demand or confirm physicalism.
Postmodern approaches are harder to define, but can be described as refuting simplistic physicalism by adding vague notions of metaphysical or spiritual reality that are mysteries to be explored by each of us. It tends to be relativistic, with each one finding personal perspectives or “truths” for various situations. Since we live in communities, this results in some confusion when my truth bumps into yours. A sort of majority-rules approach results, as we attempt to figure out what is right or wrong at a given time. Opinion polls sometimes drive opinion as much as they measure opinion.
Postmodernism recognizes that we are more than just bodies, but it is reluctant to say anything definite about what that something more might be. It doesn’t demand logical coherency. It embraces ambiguity and notions of human identity that shift from place to place and from time to time. It tends toward a loose, experimental way of living. Human desires become confused with human identity. Bizarre notions of identity such as “metrosexual” result. Narcissism and extreme consumerism may result. Postmodernism is like a boat without a rudder. It can seem pleasant enough when the seas are calm and there is no need to get somewhere, but it’s inherently weak foundation puts its adherents at great risk. It leaves educators in a quandary, unsure how to train students to lead the good life without a commonly accepted moral compass. In contrast, I believe that a Christian view of human nature and composition is coherent and provides a solid foundation for effective and good educational endeavors. The Christian view is seen in the Great Commandment, where Christ calls on humans to love God with our whole being: heart, soul, mind, and strength. The scriptures further teach that our bodies are mortal containers that will experience resurrection and a perfecting renewal if these other parts have been reborn and restored to reality and permanency.
Christianity provides an educational framework beginning in the home, with parents responsible to steward their children on God’s behalf and train them in the basics of life, especially the curricular progression seen in II Peter 1 that systematically builds the great virtues and addresses each part of the human. Children engaged in this training enter school with great capacity to learn the sorts of things that schools are responsible to add. A child taught by his parents to diligently add knowledge to faith, and self control to knowledge is the sort of person that can best learn grammar, math, and science at school.
What’s more, the Christian home can be joined by Christian teachers in school and Christian community in local churches, and the child can be given consistent training for life that is coherent and addresses the wholesome development of body, mind, soul, and spirit. In all three contexts, the mentors and teachers will see the child as infinitely valuable and will be eager to build up every part of his being.
3. Purpose. What are we made for?
The popular answers to the questions of human origin and constitution are unsatisfactory as a basis for education for myriad reasons. A particularly crucial problem is their failure to deal with the question of purpose. Modern physicalism and post modernism struggle to articulate reasons for human existence in general or for purpose in the lives of each human. Perhaps this explains why consumerism is so prevalent in our society. If we have no noble reason to live, then perhaps we can derive some temporary meaning by being the first to own the iPhone 5s. Perhaps we can find the good life through devotion to the 49rs, at least in the years when they win most of their games. Perhaps it can be found in acquiring more Facebook “likes,” or in finding clothing that gets me the most compliments from the particular group whose opinions I now value.
Physicalism and post modernism devalue our children by seeing them as no more than bodies, or by seeing them as on their own to discover reality beyond the physical. They are left without knowledge of the truth about their origin or their constitution. Consequently, they are left without any clarity about their purpose in living. Formal education receives children from parents who think very formulaically about the reason for school, because they think do not think well about the destination for their own lives and for the lives of their children. Good grades and high test scores are seen as a ticket to college which is seen as a way to get a good job, which is seen as a way to lead some sort of good life. A relatively small percentage of students find this to be an adequate explanation of things and become effective students. They have a loose foundation of life skills such as diligence and organization, and this is enough to get them through a school system that asks for very little in terms of deep character development. A subset of these students continue to study well through their college years and find a sensible way to live.
Tragically, the success rate is extremely low, with many students never completing even high school, and fewer still completing college and actually finding rewarding employment. Most students, including the ones that seem most successful, are floundering when it comes to the reason for living, and they practice simple pragmatism in their approach to education. Teachers and parents and leaders in government get caught up in the same sort of thinking, and what naturally follows is “No Child Left Behind” sorts of solutions to our educational woes. We solve our high failure rate by doing more of what was not working in the first place. We reinforce a reductionist view of humanity by using simple extrinsic rewards as the reason for learning. Children suffer, and they enter their adult years thinking that learning is hard work and engage in it only when they receive obvious pay. In stark contrast, biblical theology answers the question of purpose with clarity and in ways that work brilliantly in the day-to-day lives of people. It changes everything when we The convictions that we are permanent, and that we are to live our lives for the good of our loving God, our neighbor, and ourselves changes everything. . The Christian view of the world allows us to learn how to love in every way and to love learning. Life is an adventure that begins here and now, but can be dominated by agape love, the greatest force in time and space. A knowledge of the Creator results in gratitude and deep curiosity about creation, relationships, and solution to the problem of evil and it’s many children. The Christian sense of purpose makes every day meaningful because each day is a part of a pathway of permanent growth, creation, and discovery.
4. Evil. What is wrong, and what can done about it?
Once again, we find insufficient answers provided by the prevailing philosophies of our time. Evil is seen simply as the things that threaten the body for the physicalist. For the post-modern, it’s a squirrely thing that needs to be addressed somehow by individuals and by society, but it is impossible to find consistent common ground on root causes or even on the symptoms of evil. The result is that we are able to agree on only the most simple matters. We can mostly agree that it would be good to pick up cigarette butts at the beach on Earth Day, but we can’t agree on what to teach little child about right and wrong.
Christianity provides clarity about the source of evil, about its manifestations, and about its elimination. Children can be taught to turn away from the things that damage themselves and others. They can be taught to be forgiven and to forgive. They can be taught to overcome evil with good. They can be taught how to give up their lives while finding a heavenly sort of life in Christ. They can be taught that they are perfectly safe in the hands of their loving Heavenly Father, regardless of their circumstances. They can be taught absolute security, hope, and love. Paul’s anthem of love in Romans chapter eight proclaims this truth with great force and beauty.
5. Development. How do we grow?
The emphasis on scientific and educational research of the past century has helped us to better understand our physical, social, and emotional development. This new knowledge works very well with the propositions described above:
1. that we are highly valuable
2. that we are complex beings
3. that we exist for good purposes
4. that we should work together to make the world a better place by standing against disease and crime.
Our Christianity is complemented by this growing knowledge of how humans learn. When we integrate this knowledge with biblically revealed knowledge of human development, we have a truly robust basis for education. I will offer two examples.
First, consider integrating Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory with biblical knowledge of the creative design, incredible worth, and potential growth and impact of each life. Consider its integration with the body metaphor for the church in Ephesians.
Or take Piaget or similar theorists’ work in describing human development. Integrate developmental stage theory with the stages of virtue taught by the Apostle Peter. Developmental theories typically show growth from simple perception and belief to capacity for logic and care. Peter calls for persistent learning of virtues corresponding perfectly with developmental stages.
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your
faith with virtue,
and virtue with knowledge,
and knowledge with self-control,
and self-control with steadfastness,
and steadfastness with godliness,
and godliness with brotherly affection,
and brotherly affection with love.
(2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV)
In conclusion, Christian theology provides us with a foundation of knowledge that answers fundamental questions of human existence and growth, thereby informing a rich educational philosophy. This philosophy addresses our worth and our design. It gives students, parents, and teachers a hopeful, purposeful model for life and learning, and it addresses the temporary problems of evil and the everlasting path of good.