First-Order Issues In Christian Philosophy Of Education

by N. H. Beversluis

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The stimulus this issue of the Journal will provide for getting on with some public consensus on Christian educational philosophy should be welcomed by all thoughtful readers. It is time not only to draw some special dividends from the best of past writing on educational philosophy, but also to build upon them in exploratory forays of our own. Having this goal, our big question is, How do we proceed?

Because not merely discussion of educational philosophy but discussion focused on clear and present needs is required, we must ask, What are those needs? They are, of course, many and diverse, and we may even disagree about them.

Throughout this article I assume, and toward the end I briefly enlarge on, some of the needs to which I believe my recommendations speak. One of these worth noting here is the present crisis of commitment to Christian education. People are today asking as never before, I believe, one or both of these questions: Are Christian schools as good as they can be? and, What are Christian schools all about, anyway? Because that crisis is a serious one, new discussion of Christian educational philosophy must, it seems to me, above all help us come to a better understanding of Christian schooling, in-the hope that this will not only improve such schooling, but also shore up conviction about its importance.

To meet this and other needs, I suggest we proceed by identifying and facing what I will call first-order issues in Christian education. Certainly, Christian philosophy of education will as soon as possible need to deal with other matters too: with institutional practices and policies, with classroom procedures and methodologies, and above all with the intricacies of the teaching and learning process-all having to do with decision-making at the frontier of daily schooling. But for the moment, in the short run, to meet our clear and present crisis of understanding and commitment, and to get well-started toward some new progress in our time, I suggest we back off to an examination of more basic questions, and try above all else to construct a platform of agreement out of answers to those questions. I suggest, in other words, a radical simplification of educational philosophy-not only to draw as many non-experts as possible into the dialogue but also to face together what I judge to be first-order issues. Far from being simplistic, or far from retreating into theological obscurantism, what I have in mind entails hard conceptual thinking, controlled on the one hand by religious commitment and on the other by requirements of educational relevance. What I suggest is that we sort out, classify, and order the great variety of educational issues, and then concentrate on those we see as first-order questions and answers.

Priority of What and Why Questions

Mainly, I suggest we separate out questions about the what and why and major strategies of education from questions about the how and when and implementing tactics of education, and that we try together to reach some solid public consensus on answers to the first kind. While the day is past when the second kind of questions about implementation, procedure, method, and practices in education can be ignored in Christian philosophy of education, those questions are nevertheless subordinate to the others; in fact their good resolution waits in all sorts of ways upon a prior asking and answering of the first-order questions.

Failure to separate out the major questions of Christian education has hindered us all in educational decision-making. I for one, after a quarter of a century of wandering with fellow teachers, and watching others wander, in and out of the same doors of educational philosophy; of searching for the main corridors and of poking into this room or that; of finding all sorts of good things along the way but always feeling that things didn't hang together, that somehow we came in by the wrong door or missed the central corridor; after a long time of observing myself and others, when we engaged in educational philosophy, acting as if we had entered a movie somewhere in the middle, without orientation and never really being on top of things-after all this, it seems clear to me that in order to get good answers in education we have to sort out the questions, especially the order in which we ask and answer them.

Surely, differences exist among educational questions, and the order in which one faces them is all-important. The decision, for example, that Johnny ought to learn to read, ought to become a participator in his education, ought to behave in what we call an accepted social way, ought to study poems and science surely precedes decisions about how he should be taught or when he should learn these things. So with the whole range of school aims and program and procedures. Some issues are first, others second; some non-negotiable, others experimental; some central, others peripheral. Some are germinal and generative, others derivative. Some are concerned with goal, with aim, with vision, with perspective; others are concerned with method, procedure, organization, structure. Some get to the heart of the what and why of education, others deal with the when and how.

It should be equally clear, of course, that unless the whole class of complex questions about teaching and learning, about methods, procedures, and implementing tactics are also squarely faced, Christian education will fail. If such matters are nevertheless here judged to follow logically after the first-order concerns, it is so that the how and when questions may be more wisely and productively answered.

I suggest in passing, therefore, that in my view the two kinds of creed-writing featured elsewhere

in this issue of the Journal can be a supplement to but not a substitute for the sort of basic educational philosophy we need most of all. The first kind of creed-writing aims at theological statements that are more educationally relevant than the familiar church creeds ever were. This is surely a needed improvement, and should be welcomed. But at best this sort of creed-writing is but a preamble to what I believe we need. The second kind of creed-writing aims to face up to the "thousand and one" decisions teachers must make. It aims to help teachers with such decisions by means of a series of theses or articles on the "practices and policies" of Christian education, each article supported in turn with biblical and theological justifications. Such a creed would certainly get theology to the frontier of educational decision-making and would, if we could get it, be welcome. But this sort of creed, as I understand it, would need to follow what I believe we need first of all.

To reach some solid public consensus about both the theory and practice of Christian education, I propose that we take the route I have suggested. I propose that as educators and community we try together to identify those questions in Christian education that are most basic, most central, and most generative, in distinction from those that are procedural, secondary, or derivative; that we try together to reach answers to those first-order questions; and that with those answers we try to put together a basic platform of commitments about Christian education.

First-Order Questions Summarized

What are those first-order questions? To make clearer what I mean by them and to stimulate some new dialogue on these matters, I will briefly indicate my perception of what they ought to be, and the direction in which I think answers to them should be sought. The questions and answers I propose have to do with 1) the religious vision, 2) the major learning goals, and 3) the core curriculum of a Christian school. I see those three concerns closely interrelated in a continuum, encompassing a Christian school's fundamental aims as well as its basic strategies.

First, What should be the religious vision of a Christian school? This question goes beyond asking what the school thinks of the Reformed creeds, or even of the new "basis" article of the NUCS constitution, although the latter gets closer. It rather asks about world and life view, about cultural obedience as religious obligation. It asks about religion centered in, but going far beyond, its creedal, ceremonial, private, and institutional expressions. It asks whether the religious vision and commitment the school seeks to promote extends to more than personal piety and private morality; whether its religious vision is in fact, and not merely in word, a comprehensive life orientation; whether, although the school is Calvinist in doctrine, it is fundamentalist, pietist, and other-worldly in its basic stance and spirit and expression.

This question faces the issue of differences among religious outlooks, even among Reformed Christians. It asks about Jesus Christ as Savior, of course, and about the private and personal implic4tions of this for life and learning. But it asks about this in relation to a school. It asks whether a school has a unique obligation as a school to get on with the almost endless implications of personal faith for Christian discipleship in the world. It asks what it is that a school must do, grade after grade, to get on with the disturbing, prodding, expanding education of young persons into what it means that Christ is Lord. It asks what Christ's Lordship means for the concrete, daily, unavoidable, challenging life young persons must live, now and in the future-within nature, society, culture, and history. The religious question asks about what we used to call Calvinism, for the expression of which we say Christian schools were founded and have their chief reason for existence.

The religious question is, I judge, foremost among the first-order questions of Christian education. It bursts out with all sorts of satellite questions about the range and variety of Christian life in the world. It bears directly on a school's spirit and style-and, of course, upon its aim and strategy and program. It is the old question of Christ and culture, of world and life view, of living the Christian life in contemporary society. By whatever slogan we express the school's religious vision, it is the substance behind the slogan that teachers and principals must face up to, for themselves and for the school's program. It is surely a question that Christian educational philosophy can ignore or merely take for granted only at the risk of failing at the very outset. Without answering the religious question well, we may have a school, even a "Christian" school of sorts, but not a school in the best tradition of Calvinist Christianity.

Second, What should be the major learning goals of a Christian school? Given its religious vision, reaffirmed and fleshed-out beyond the older or newer slogans; given also the desire to get beyond mere theology, beyond mere theory, beyond mere exhortation and inspiration; and given the clear and present need to embody its religious vision in its educational program, at what learnings, what changes in young persons, should the school mainly aim? This second question asks directly about educational matters, about the relation of a school's religious vision to what goes on in the classrooms. It asks: What changed actions, attitudes, understandings, insights, awareness, commitments, and the like should a school designate as its central and ongoing learning goals for the young persons in those classrooms?

This question faces the issue of differences among learning goals. After agreeing that the promotion of normal social, psychological, physical, and spiritual growth is a shared obligation of teachers and parents, and is, in fact, supportive of any other learning, teachers must still ask whether the school as school has a unique obligation to set certain prioity learning goals. It asks the school to identify those goals, and asks whether, having identified them, it will pursue them as the chief means of religious growth, not only for the bright and able pupils, but for the slower pupils as well. And so this question asks especially what the school's convictions are about such basic matters as (a) growth in intellectual understanding and insight; (b) growth in moral awareness and choice; and (c) growth in creative self-expression and participation.

The issue of learning goals prods teachers and principals to sort out and declare their priority learning goals, to do so mainly by asking about the kinds of growth which most directly and most productively promote understanding and acceptance in young persons of the school's religious vision. This question, too, a school's philosophy of education can ignore or just take for granted only at the risk of failure in a basic strategy of Christian education.

Third, what should be the priority curriculum of a Christian school? Given the school's articulated and fleshed-out religious vision; given also a commitment to learning goals controlled by that religious vision; and given the desire to embody that vision and to promote those goals concretely and specifically in its educational program, what curriculum pattern will best meet those commitments? What core curriculum will the school select? What subjects, what sorts of studies, will this core be composed of?

This third question gets us into the somewhat abstract but nevertheless crucial relationship of curriculum to what we call the objective "givens" of creation, of nature, of society, of culture, and of man's long history in the world-all of these raising questions about man's worldly obedience and disobedience to God. It asks whether "objective reality," as philosophers call it, comes with special claims upon a Christian school, and, if so, which curriculum pattern will, on the one hand, most directly present the great range and variety of this reality and, on the other hand, will most directly promote the young person's intellectual, moral, and creative growth-all of it as essential religious growth.

Given first-rate teaching procedures as well as appropriate adjustments for grade level, ability, readiness, and the like; and given the ideal of educational closure between the pupil's vital learning and the school's disciplining subject matter, this question asks whether the school should require a core of preferred studies of all normal young persons; require it, that is, of slow as well as of fast learners, of the unmotivated as well as of the self-propelled. It asks especially at the high school level whether what is sometimes described as aristocratic education in terms of learning goals and curriculum pattern shall be for only the most able and the college-bound, or also for the slower or so-called practically-minded student.

The curriculum question faces the issue of differences among school subjects. After agreeing that, at whatever level it is possible, a variety of elective subjects will be provided to meet special interests, aptitudes, or needs (including manual arts and even perhaps automotive repair as well as cooking and sewing), teachers must still ask whether the school, as school has a unique obligation, for Christian reasons, to struggle with this problem of a required core. It asks whether, in fact, some studies are more directly productive than others for promoting in normal young persons the school's priority learning goals and its all-controlling religious vision; and it asks which studies these should be.

Specifically, the curriculum question requires that the school decide about three issues that are often only half-decided in some Christian schools: ( 1) whether as long as possible through their high school years all students, not just the ablest and most talented, should follow significant studies in the curriculum groups we call mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, history studies, studies in literature and the arts, and religious studies; (2) whether as long as possible through their high school years all your students, not just the ablest and most talented, should have continuing education also in what may be called general developmental studies in the all-important three R's, as well as in music, art, speech, writing, physical education-these being "developmental" in the sense that all of them have in common the aim of freeing young persons, from kindergarten on, to become responders and participators both in their day-to-day schooling and in their adult life one day; and (3) what, above all, should go on in such core studies: whether, wherever needed, suitable fusion and integration of curriculum areas are arranged; whether the best methods and procedures appropriate to grade, ability, interest, and aptitude are followed; and, as its supreme concern, whether the school's religious vision is given shape and meaning in these studies, not through vague religious "applications" in those studies but through the learner's growth by means of them in intellectual insight and understanding, in moral awareness and choice, and in creative self-acceptance and participation.

The curriculum question is clearly the pay-off point in Christian education. A school with good religious commitments and good learning goals will still short-circuit its program if it ignores or just gives half-hearted attention to this question.

These three questions about religious outlook, about learning goals, and about curriculum are, I suggest, first-order questions for a basic Christian philosophy of education. Certainly all along the way of thinking about them, the implementing, procedural, tactical questions call out for attention. They cannot really be delayed, not even when the what and why issues are on the table. This is so not only because school-keeping requires day-to-day decisions, but especially because the big questions must constantly be discussed realistically, with a view to practicality and implementation. Even so, logically, as the way into the main doorway and into the main corridors of Christian education, as the way through the maze of problems we face, those first-order issues are always there, needing prior attention all along the line.

Some Advantages of This Approach

Can discussion of and eventual consensus on these major issues really help us in our present situation? The following observations suggest that perhaps they can.

Need for consensus. For a long time nearly everyone concerned about Christian education has been saying that we greatly need some consensus, written or unwritten, on the theory and practice of Christian education. When this is said, what is mainly desired, I believe, is a sort of platform on which those who debate procedures and practices and policies in education may find each other, and may be expected to stand together. 1 suggest that while this consensus must never be the sort that forecloses on the rich diversity and productiveness of opposed viewpoints on all sorts of derivative questions, it must nevertheless be a consensus, surely, on the religious vision, the major learning goals, and the priority curriculum pattern of Christian education. Although we have inherited a great legacy of educational guidance from outstanding leaders of the past, we did not inherit such consensus. (Consider, for example, the major differences between those two foremost Christian educational writers, Professors W. H. Jellema and C. Jaarsma.) Failure in our time to seek and find consensus on first-order issues has not only kept major questions open and unresolved; it has blocked important advances in education all along the way. Discussion of the matters 1 have proposed could eventually lead, 1 believe, to such consensus.

The present crisis. Such agreement could help us meet, I think, the present crisis of commitment to Christian education. Although this crisis has surfaced with educationís rising cost, it is not first of all a financial crisis but, as suggested earlier, a crisis of confidence (Are our schools as good as they can be?) and of understanding (What are Christian schools really all about?). Greater clarity and unanimity about the school's religious vision, its major learning goals, and its priority curriculum could, I believe, not only improve Christian education, but also help almost everyone's understanding of it and commitment to it.

Educational progress. Consensus on first-order questions will not answer all sorts of questions, especially all those procedural and tactical questions which lie at the frontier of Christian education, but it could free us for handling many of them. Psychologically, those of us who work on committees would gain security from the assurance that we meet on a platform of common commitments, a security that could free us from both the fears and the inertia that merely situational decision-making often produces. Substantively, such freedom could provide new impetus for solving old problems and for exploring new opportunities. Whereas uncertainty about major aims and strategy has often left second-order issues only half-accepted and half-solved, agreement on those aims and strategy could, I suspect, double our motivation and productivity as we face day-to-day decisions.

Religious and educational relevance. But to get such consensus, to meet our crises, and to provide a basis for educational progress, we need more than the soft language of the old slogans, of familiar exhortation and inspiration, of remote theological doctrines; and more also, surely, than the brittle language of cultural separatism and militancy. We need, rather, the solid language of Christian educational strategy and program; this language must be rooted, to be sure, in relevant theological and religious commitment, but focused directly on such strategy and program. The first-order questions I have proposed seem to me to move in that direction.

Enlarging the dialogue. Finally, the crisis of understanding and conviction we face today requires, I think, discussion about the basis and strategy Christian education by all sorts of people, in a widening circle. The matters 1 propose can be discussed that way; they could, in fact, cause many to be less afraid of "philosophy of education." In an expanding dialogue, these matters must be discussed, not just in the manner of experts speaking to experts, but in such a manner that the average house-holder as well as the newest home missionary can take part-and feels impelled to do so. My perception of the way things are in the Christian school community is that we shall continue in a losing battle if this dialogue does not come off. Those of us who initiate it should therefore ask: What is it about the ends and means, about the aims and processes of Christian education that we need to talk about together? What is it that our teachers need, our parents need, our clergymen need? that our board members and our National Union Committee members need? that the enquirer across the back fence or the new church member with the Irish name needs? The issues I have highlighted here are the sort that all of us can discuss, and the kind, I suspect, that can help all of us get clearer about Christian education.

Both to meet our immediate need, therefore, and to ensure continued dialogue and progress in the future, I suggest we give prominent attention to what I have called first-order issues of Christian education. Facing these issues squarely could surely get us moving again in Christian educational philosophy, and could also generate some religiously virile and educationally relevant first-order conviction about Christian education. Such conviction, in turn, could make it more possible than it now is for many of us to give good answers when we are asked: What mean these bricks, these slogans, these exhortations, these rising costs? Let us get on with searching for those good answers-beginning, as I have been urging here, with agreeing on what the major questions ought to be.