Wilson on Recovering The Lost Tools of Education

In this “older” book, published in 1991, Douglas Wilson writes thoughtfully on the topic of Christian education. Education is an important and sometimes emotive topic. Wilson’s big argument is that the responsibility of educating children is with parents. Not that you have to do it yourself, but that God holds parents responsible (not governments, primarily) for the way their children are educated.

Part of Wilson’s credentials include the starting of a Christian school, a university college, and also a classical Christian education association in America that has founded about 200 schools with about 30,000 students.

Wilson suggests this biblical responsibility is often shirked or treated lightly:

“Unfortunately, some Christian parents feel they have met their obligation to educate their children if they simply send them off to public school, provided they also go to Sunday school”, p47.

The worldview of the teacher and the curriculum is significant:

“[A teacher’s] task is to help [parents] shape the way the child thinks about the world. Does God exist? If He exists, is His existence relevant to the classroom? And what is the nature of man? What is the purpose of society? How did man get here? Where should he go? How can he conduct himself on the way? None of these questions can be answered without certain worldview assumptions, and the parents in this example do not even know whether they share the worldview of their child’s teacher”, p57.

“God is the Light in which we see and understand everything else. Without Him, the universe is a fragmented pile of incomprehensible particulars. Indeed, the universe can no longer be understood as a universe; it has become a multiverse. Christian education must therefore present all subjects as part of an integrated whole with the Scriptures at the center. Without this integration, the curriculum will be nothing more than a dumping ground for unrelated facts. When God is acknowledged, all knowledge coheres”, p59.

“Education is a completely religious endeavor. It is impossible to impart knowledge to students without building on religious presuppositions. Education is built on the foundation of the instructor’s worldview (and the worldview of those who developed the curriculum). It is a myth that education can be nonreligious – that is, that education can go on in a vacuum that deliberately excludes the basic questions about life. It is not possible to separate religious values from education. This is because all the fundamental questions of education require religious answers. Learning to read and write is simply the process of acquiring tools to enable us to ask and answer such questions”, p59.

There is something in the above that makes me want to say Amen. Postmodernism keeps telling us there are no neutral worldviews, that everyone has a bias etc. But does Wilson lack a sufficiently positive creation theology? Surely if the Christian worldview is true, that is the basic of a kind of “neutral” (true) worldview, even when that God is not acknowledged? Wilson is pessimistic, for example:

“When traditional morals are adopted for their utilitarian value, the foundation for true morals has been destroyed. We cannot turn the public schools around by trying to turn the kids into Judeo/Christians. From the Biblical perspective, morals aren’t even moral when they are embraced for their side effects. In the Christian view, the truly moral thing is what is done for the glory of God”, p142.

This statement’s premise is true but I disagree with the conclusion. There is an intrinsic glory to God when his wisdom in creation is shown forth as it is discovered and utilised, even when he is not explicitly acknowledged. It is an inferior means of glorifying God, but a valid one nonetheless. This is a shaky foundation upon which to build a rejection of public schooling.

He challenges the modern strategy behind teacher training in the USA:

“A prevailing belief within education colleges holds that teachers need to be taught the methodology of teaching instead of mastering the subject matter they will teach. Thus, someone with a degree in education may teach mathematics, English, history, and the like. Someone with a degree in mathematics could not teach history – unless it is at the university level. In other words, education is considered a field of study all by itself, the study of which will enable one to teach things he has not studied. We require of our teachers a knowledge of how to impart information; we do not require them to have a thorough grasp of that information”, p137.

He quotes Harris on some of the potential problems of Christian schools:

“many Christian schools reveal double-mindedness. They want to give Christian children a Godly moral environment while they enrol non-Christian students in the interest of evangelism. The two ministry missions fight against each other and betray Christian parents”, p125.

Also, many attempts at Christian schooling is simply a

“baptized secularism. It is not enough to take the curricula of the government schools, add prayer and a Bible class, and claim the result in somehow Christian”, p62, see also p97.

He describes his own Christian school in this way:

“in our Bible classes the students frequently challenge or question the Christian faith. This happens regularly, and when it does, the students are encouraged and their questions are answered… The students are taught to think in terms of the Christian faith. This is what makes it possible for them to think at all. It is not propagandizing when teachers give their students a place to stand. Relativism has only the appearance of openness; in the end, it always frustrates the one who wants to acquire knowledge”, p61.

Wilson’s model is of classical education using the medieval trivium model of an education in the liberal arts. The goal of his educational model is not merely the propagation of information but the impartation and training in the tools of learning and critical thinking from within a Christian worldview.

So although a schools aim is to produce Christian students, we shouldn’t set too high a spiritual agenda for our Christian schools:

“Christian education prepares the way for the grace of God, and it follows up the grace of God. It does not replace it“, p76.

Unlike in Australia, American Christians are turning to home-schooling because of the public education crisis. Wilson then turns his targets toward Christian home-schoolers:

“But there seems to be a prejudice among some home schoolers against ‘forced learning,’ and the prejudice appears to be based on an overly optimistic view of the child’s innate love of learning. For example, one advocate of home schools writes, ‘Deep within, your children already naturally, organically love to learn. Let them intrinsically – inside themselves – feel the joy and excitement, because therein lay (sic) the true, natural, most highly motivating reward – and the most highly effective learning. Once you and they are able to rekindle that joy they were born with, motivation and learning for them will never cease.’ I am afraid that there is more than a little sentimentalism here, with the nature and power of sin being overlooked. Many children need to be disciplined in an intellectual way early. If they are not, then the opportunity is lost; a mental laziness is already habitual”, p128.

The above attitude is one we have encounted in many (not all) home schoolers we have met, especially among those of a more anti-institutional bent.

He puts forth the increasing difficulty of homeschooling as children get older:

“Many parents can do an outstanding job the first several years. But it is one thing to teach your five-year old how to read and quite another to teach Latin to an eleven-year-old… The reason home schooling works so well at the early years is that the parents are teaching literacy, and they are all literate. This is not true of subjects later in the curriculum“, p129.

It is not enough for home schoolers to be content on the studies that show outstanding comparative test results because:

“part of the reason home schoolers are capable of outperforming the public schools [in the USA] has to do with the horrible condition of the schools”, p130.

This is a challenging and stimulating book. Even if you don’t buy into his negativity concerning public education, the question is: where else are there Christians producing such thoughtful critiques of modern secular education’s philosophy, methodology and results? Where are the thoughtful Christian teachers doing that in Australia?

2 thoughts on “Wilson on Recovering The Lost Tools of Education”

  1. If education is not neutral (agreed) then one must ask what is the bias of the current education system?
    you said “This is a shaky foundation upon which to build a REJECTION of public schooling.”
    But following the question above should we follow up with another question: on what basis do we ACCEPT public schooling?

    On the topic of education in australia you may find this an interesting read:
    “Why Our Schools Are Failing” by Dr Kevin Donnelly.
    This is a critique of the current curriculum models used in Australia.
    This book can be found free on the Menzies Research Centre website at:
    I don’t know if this guy is christian or not but he doesn’t sound the same as everyone else in eduction.

  2. hi Cam,

    Good points – glad you are thinking hard about being both a Christian and a school teacher! You should read this book, I think you would find it challenges the paradigm of Christian schools in Australia also (I have given some of the quotes). For example, Wilson has a strong critique of Christian schools taking government funding.

    I think I gave the basis for accepting public schooling earlier in the article when I talked about the Christian worldview being the base or neutral worldview. The Christian worldview establishes why empiricism works, because God has ordered the world (hence “learning from observation” as in wisdom literature). It is not a gnostic worldview, you do not need a secret revelation to understand the world. Of course it is best understood through God’s public revelation of himself through the Word. So Christian schools should always have a head-start – if they are actually influenced by Scripture – see Wilson for challenges along these lines.

    The question then becomes what do you do with public education when it takes on idealogical elements that conflict with the true way the world is? At what point do you reject it altogether?

    Tough questions!

    I will print and read the Donnelly monograph…

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