This article was co-written by Aaron Profitt, Kristin Bird, Allison Turner, and Timothy Cooley Sr.
Children’s schooling occupies a large percentage of their waking hours for most of their developmental years. This gives education — curriculum, theory, application, etc. — significant influence in each generation’s development. Despite being people committed to Christlikeness in all of life, Wesleyan-holiness Christians may not historically have given significant attention to education — or so the preponderance of Reformed Christian curricula may suggest.
This article approaches Christian education in four ways. First we rapidly survey educational history, primarily in the United States. Then, we offer five key, framing questions that can define a philosophy of education. Third, we discuss practical application of truly Christian education. Finally, we suggest some questions for future development of Christian educational practice.
We do not write as educational theorists or theologians, but as what we are: educational practitioners with varied experience. Four of us have teaching experience in K-12, and three in higher education. Three of us have also served as educational administrators, and three have experience in evaluating schools or colleges. Our experience includes in-person and online education, both secular and Christian. We offer these thoughts as starting notes on what Wesleyan-holiness educational thinking might look like today.
A Brief History of Education
The history of education, particularly in America, has a long and varied timeline. In the early years, education was not required and took place at home, mostly from an older sibling or parent. The Bible was used as the textbook, and children were taught the law of God and how to live ethically and civilly. Dallas Willard noted in the late 20th century (in Renovation of the Heart, we believe) that assumptions about God’s centrality in the universe were largely shared until the last 100 years or so. The exclusion of God and His revelation from the realm of education is a recent phenomenon and represents an assumption that thinkers today somehow know better than those of centuries past.
Parents have always had a say in the education of their children and are commanded by God (Deut 6:6-7) to teach their children continually. The first shift in learning was from the parents as the main teachers to the church providing much of a child’s education. God’s law was still the main focus, but the church leaders thought they could interpret the law better than the parents. Eventually, wise leaders (like Paul), who may not have been church leaders/priests, rose to the top of the ones entrusted to partner with parents in teaching and directing the children in the way they should go. Parents were still charged as the main teachers (Eph 6:4), but they now had help and support from those they trusted to teach their children. This happened in the context of Christian community—the “family of God” and citizens of the “kingdom of God” in New Testament language—that had a shared understanding of reality.
Perhaps the biggest shift in education took place when government-sponsored schooling began. Parents lost or yielded the most control over their children’s education at this time. The first taxpayer-funded public school did not open in the US until 1635 (the Boston Latin School for boys), and it wasn’t until 1767 that publicly-funded schools opened for girls. Until then, the family, church, and community were largely responsible for the education and training of children and therefore were able to decide what was taught. Even so, at the time these first “public” schools began, communities still largely shared an understanding of what is real and what is right.
Regardless of forced attendance then or now (the first U.S. compulsory attendance law was enacted in Massachusetts in 1852), parents still have the privilege to choose the type of education they want for their children. While the majority of children attend public schools because families see that as their best or only option, private education and homeschooling have been on the increase. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), about 1.7% of the population of school-aged children were homeschooled in 1999. That percentage jumped to 3.3% by 2016. In fall 2018, an estimated 5.8 million students, or 10% of students, were enrolled in private schools at the PK-12 levels. Perhaps fluctuations in enrollment in Christian schools or homeschools represent Christian parents’ interactions with and reactions to changes in public education, as well as demography (where Christian families live and the nature of their local schools, as well as the availability of Christian schools).
Educational Philosophy and Christian Education
As the brief overview of educational history above implies, education has become a site for philosophical — or really, worldview — difference. This arises from the necessity of education to enact a philosophy; education (curriculum, teaching, etc.) flows from assumptions and presuppositions. Here we consider five key questions that education (systems, teachers, curriculum) answer, explicitly or implicitly. We believe these are key fundamental points of difference for Christian education.
1) What exists or what is real? If “the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be,” as Carl Sagan used to intone, that limits the field of our inquiry. It sets boundaries on the questions we may ask, and things like moral values and God are not allowed in school because empirical science and positivistic logic are all we need. But if the fine tuning of the universe hints at an Intelligent Designer, or if moral values are real (and who doesn’t know that some acts, like killing innocent people, are unarguably wrong regardless of your culture?), then teachers must explore ethics and students need a foundation of how to live. If God is as real (maybe more real) than electrons and quarks, then teachers had better not skip over the questions that nearly all humans have asked in every millennium. If the teacher is not addressing the full range of reality, she is depriving the student of important learning. Education must address the full range of reality!
2) What can humans know? If stimulus and response can explain everything (a la Skinner), then teaching is complete when positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement have formed the little biochemical machines to live as the social engineers have decreed (remembering Walden Two, Skinner, 1948). If students are nothing more than advanced brains, then who could transcend her own brain? Who has climbed that mountain and can look down on the situation to see that there is nothing more than axions and dendrites and synapses shooting micro-impulses such that, from the myriad impulses, self-consciousness has emerged? Voila, humans seem to be self-conscious! The rational animal has boot-strapped itself into knowing and choosing and strategizing: now we are in charge of evolution, responsible to direct where things go from here! But if Darwin’s “horrid doubt . . . whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy” (1881) is a valid question, then surely teachers need to explain how the evolutionary process has—without a designer—produced a functional human mind. How did the human brain come to be truth-seeking rather than just survival-oriented (whatever that means!)?
How do we know anything? Knowing by logic, by testimony, by formal research, by experimentation, by analysis of evidence begins to give structure to the human desire for insight. If an Intelligent Creator designed the human mind to work reliably (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:15-25), then we have a foundation with which to begin. (Note that Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland helpfully distinguishes knowledge from certainty, as well as among types of knowledge.)
3) What is of value? If survival is the evolutionary goal, why should we protect the weak? Why should we heroically save a baby or a whale? Why not let nature take its course? But if there is value in life, if every human life matters, if harmonious relationships matter, then we need ethical instruction and social structure directed toward those goals. If the Creator Himself deigned to teach humans what life is all about (Revelation 4:11), we must include those insights in the educational venture.
From these three distinct yet overlapping questions arise two further questions, considered below.
4) What is the goal of human maturity—the model of a fully developed human? All education works toward producing a certain kind of people. What kind of graduates will make the instructor and the principal smile with satisfaction? What kind of student will demonstrate that the full learning we desired has (or has not) taken place? The model of what a human ought to be directs all educational efforts. If that intended picture is of an unrestrained, self-defined “achieve whatever you can imagine” kind of person, who can say education should direct students away from becoming sociopaths? Who could say that is not the accurate result of the student’s truly desired life, the outcome of the student’s following where desire directs?
If, on the other hand, our model is a student who loves his neighbor, how does one best pursue that goal? If students somehow owe a debt to leave the world a better place, how should they go about this pursuit? In fact, if, as Jesus taught, “The student who is fully trained will become like the teacher” (Luke 6:40, NLT), what kind of teachers should we employ? From this discussion it should be clear that we see Christian education as one manifestation of the Great Commission’s injunction to make disciples — thus the desired outcome of Christian education is students who are like Jesus would be had He been born into their families, attended their schools, had their interests and gifts and contexts.
5) How do educators draw students toward these ends? Do we just “water” these students like plants, letting them grow to their own ends? Do we manipulate them into the image we desire, reengineering the uncooperative? Can students become anything they want to be? Will we allow the sociopath to excel in proficiency? Will the primary dynamic be memorizing? Or understanding? Or experiencing life? Or just pursuing whatever appeals to each child? If students are made in the image of God, we will facilitate their growth in a manner that respects their nature, but if we discover that nature has been damaged so that their impulses are distorted and harmful, we will consider how to restrain and even redirect their growth to move toward the selected goals. And those goals will be selected with a specific intention in mind, conformity to Christ.
What It Looks Like in the Classroom
A school that teaches from a biblical worldview teaches students to view the world around them through the lens of God’s Word. This places the Bible as the foundation of all that is taught, preparing students for their futures and returning to education’s historical roots. Teaching from a biblical worldview should be intentional, but natural. This may seem contradictory, but it’s not. Although a teacher cannot really plan for a natural connection to God’s Word, one must be intentionally looking for those opportunities throughout the day.
Not only should the Christian teacher search for connections between content and the Bible, but also for connections among the content areas themselves. This helps students recognize that each subject, and school in general, is not confined to a certain class period. They all connect to form meaningful parts of life. When students realize that learning occurs everywhere, the boundaries of school walls, class times, and textbooks are broken down. This makes Bible connections more natural and relevant to students’ lives.
It should be noted that a natural connection goes beyond choosing random verses to match a thought. While you could use Psalm 90:12 as an easy quote at the beginning of math class to check off the biblical integration for the day, it would be more meaningful to show students how to find patterns in their math lessons and how those patterns point to an Intelligent Designer who values structure and order. Point out the consistencies in math and how those consistencies show how God is also consistent. Use math class as a time to encourage students to find an attribute of God that is shown through the details of math. The “pick a verse” approach trivializes Scripture, turning it into a book of maxims. It also alienates academic fields, presenting them as disconnected from God and His truth and therefore needing a verse to “Christianize” them. The integration approach, though, reminds students that all truth belongs to God. It demonstrates what one of our math teachers used to say, referencing Galileo, that math is the language in which God wrote the universe.
History class seems like an easy place to integrate biblical principles. A textbook that does not teach from a biblical perspective easily stands out as it omits the faith of the US’s founding fathers, the Crusades, or other historical events involving faith. By switching to a Christian-based text, there is automatic biblical integration. But as noted above, biblical integration must be intentional. Teachers should be searching for deep, authentic conversations that can happen in history class. Discussions can be had about decisions people made and if they were biblical or not. Motives can be brought into question (for example, the Crusades again), and while an answer may not be clear, the questions and comments that come from these discussions cause students to think about how they view the world and their place in it.
Psalm 19:1 tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (KJV). Science class provides an amazing opportunity to show students all of the aspects of God’s creation that point to Him as the Intelligent Designer. Students should discover how animals and people adapt to their environments depending on their needs, and how that illustrates the marvelous way God created them, rather than a purely random chance that would support an evolutionary frame.
A Philosophy of Life
Biblical connections must also be real and authentic. Students should see their teachers living the concepts they teach. The fact that teachers are humans means that students will see mistakes, but they should also see restorative conversations, apologies, and continuous growth. Time should be taken each day to connect with students — to praise them for things they have done well and to set goals for things that need to be fixed. Creating a positive culture in the classroom allows students to feel safe, making them more likely to challenge themselves and try things they might not otherwise. They begin to understand that failure isn’t something that is final, but rather a stepping stone in their growth and development. Students also realize that the work they are doing, no matter how small it may seem, is building them into the person God wants them to be. It helps Colossians 3:23 truly come to life for them.
Most importantly, when children are taught from a biblical worldview, they are able to give an answer to the hard questions the world will undoubtedly throw their way. The purpose of a Christian school is not to protect children from the world, but rather to prepare them for that world. When given an education through a biblical perspective students will be able to recognize non-biblical ideas and respond effectively to them (see “Forming Our Children’s Worldview Through Christian Education” by Kristin Bird).
Developments in Christian Education: The Road Ahead
In light of this, how ought Christian education to continue to develop, in order to be effective in its role in the formation of the next generation? Here are a few questions about what this might look like.
Typically people associate education with cognitive growth. The philosophical discussion above has already indicated that Christian education sees reality as more than material or cognitive. Yet Christians often approach issues of education as, at best, worldview issues in the sense that we must believe certain premises—and that reduces Christian education to the cognitive, to assent to a set of truths. The worldview emphasis has value, especially in its insistence on key, foundational truths. And certainly, right cognition matters, and it matters a great deal. But this alone is not enough.
Christian philosopher Dallas Willard has argued persuasively that Christianity cannot be restricted to simply believing statements, or to matters of belief alone (see especially his The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart). If that is true of our faith, it certainly should be true of our approach to education.
James K.A. Smith, another philosopher, has sought to address this in Desiring the Kingdom, in which he argues for Christian education (higher education, in his treatment) that focuses on students’ desires. Smith sees people as more “lovers” than “thinkers” or “believers,” primarily defined by what we love. Whether or not his approach to what it means to be human rings true, he focuses on a truth about human behavior: we do what we truly want to do. This shows itself in many ways: we find time for activities we truly want to participate in, we find money for purchases we truly want to make, we show with our schedules what we truly prioritize. So education that does not attempt to shape desire—the heart, in Smith’s approach—misses too much of the whole person.
A third Christian philosopher, James Olthuis, has argued that Postmodernism provides Christianity with an opportunity for increased cultural engagement. Modernism’s emphasis on materialistic science, knowledge exclusive of wisdom and wholly negative freedom (“freedom from”) worked to exclude spirituality, thereby excluding Christanity’s truth about reality. Postmodernism, Olthuis argues, opens the door for the spiritual, varieties of knowledge, positive freedom and other Christian ways of thinking and living. (On this point that Postmodernism breaks science-as-religion’s stranglehold on knowledge, see also Willard.)
Smith and Olthuis, as Reformed philosophers, limit the scope of application for their points. A Wesleyan approach, though, can aim to marry education with discipleship — can, in Charles Wesley’s words, “Unite the pair so long disjoined, / Knowledge and vital piety: / Learning and holiness combined, / And truth and love, let all men see.” This sees the classroom in harmony with the sanctuary, both sites where God transforms hearts and renews minds with His truths. Of course the specific truths taught differ, but understanding teaching, discipleship and learning as examples of growing in grace (and stature and knowledge) may help Christian educators internalize and live out the integrationist approach presented in the practical examples above.
As students get older, we can go even further. Resources like Willard’s Renovation of the Heart provide blueprints for seeking to educate (change, transform) the whole person. While Smith’s approach can seem to leave head and heart dissociated, a Wesleyan approach can embrace the student as an integrated person, made in God’s image, made to be conformed to God’s Son. And this has implications far beyond content. What does a pedagogy that disciples look like? What does it mean to see our students as being shaped — right here in our classrooms, right now in this class period — into the image of Christ? How should we treat our students in light of their identity in Christ?
One of us likes to say that a question worth discussing doesn’t have an answer — that the best questions are too big for easy answers. We offer these questions in that spirit, as questions for teachers to live into, not to answer. But we believe this vision of Christian education — resting on God’s Word as its foundation, integrating God’s sovereignty over all knowledge, recognizing that wisdom belongs in the curriculum instead of only facts, including the matter natural science explores but also the spiritual that has its own science, seeing students as whole people with eternal destinies —gives purpose for Christian education in uncertain and fragmented times. This vision can lead to world-changing outcomes, because it can lead to student-changing practice.