The School and the Christian Mind - Dr. F. G. 0osterhoff
We welcome to SpindleWorks Dr. Frederica G. Oosterhoff, who is a resident of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, and of University College, London University, England, where she received a Ph.D. in European history. Now retired after serving as Principal of a local Reformed Christian highschool, she has for many years taught courses in Ancient and European history, Church history, and the history of ideas at the secondary and college levels. She is a member of the "Cornerstone" Canadian Reformed Church at Hamilton and a regular contributor to several Reformed periodicals.
Feeling, spontaneity, and experience are in among Christians, and the use of the mind is out. That is the complaint of an increasing number of Christian authors. They admit that emotion plays a legitimate role in religion, and in life in general, but they do not want feeling to crowd out thought. The neglect of the mind, they warn us, and the failure to develop a specifically Christian mind, inevitably lead to the secularization of the church.
In the present article I intend to address that issue. Specifically, I want to pay attention to the need of developing a Christian mind - that is a Christian manner of thinking - in our young people. The responsibility for this work is shared by the church, the home, and the school, but rather than making this article too wide-ranging, I will deal only with the task that the school has in this regard. I have divided this article into two parts and will begin by summarizing them.
(1) Anti-intellectualism may be a problem in the church, but the trend is not confined to Christians. It is part of the general world-view in our post-modern world and is encouraged by the media, the entertainment industry, and indeed by practically all the powers that mould public opinion. These powers include the people who decide on educational policy, and the first part of this paper is devoted to that topic. Having established that our educational planners tend to give short shrift to the things of the mind, we will look at the reasons why this is so.
(2) In the second place, we will consider how the Christian school should respond to the attack upon thinking in general, and upon Christian thinking in particular.
Content and process
In order to think as a Christian, one has to be able to think. Teaching young people to do just that was traditionally one of the main functions of the school. I am afraid that it no longer is. Increasingly in recent decades, educational theory discouraged the development of independent thinking. One of the means employed for that purpose is the subordination of content to process. Let me briefly define these two terms. By content I mean academic content or curriculum: the study of languages and literature, history and geography, mathematics and science, and so on. In brief, it is the stuff that, if properly taught, furnishes the mind and enriches it, intellectually, morally, and emotionally. It is also the stuff that allows students to hone their thinking skills in a serious manner. This academic content, then, receives increasingly less emphasis in Ministry policy, while process takes over.
The term "process" can mean two rather different things. Firstly, it refers to learning skills, teaching methodology, and so on. This type of process is a necessary part of the school's business, and we have no quarrel with it, provided it does not squeeze out content. The problem lies with the second type of process. That one has little if anything to do with the school's traditional function. Rather than facilitating the teaching of content, it interferes with it. This second type of process includes the teaching of life and social skills. Much attention is also given to the inculcation of politically correct attitudes with respect to radical feminism, so-called "alternative lifestyles," and similar matters. In addition, quite a bit of emphasis has, in the past, been placed on the need that students learn to question authority and work for the radical transformation of society.
Socializing the masses
That goal of transforming society has not been abandoned. I have the impression, however, that it no longer receives the same emphasis as it used to. The reason, I think, is not only parental protest, although that has played a role. But there is also the fact that we live in the 1990s, a decade that provides us with serious economic and social challenges. In the economic field we are faced with global competition, high unemployment, and an uncertain job market. Socially the situation is also volatile, and that partly because of the changing economic situation. Unemployment is high among young people, minority groups, and the less well trained. This leads to social discontent, crime, and strife among groups and regions.
It is this type of problems, I believe, that play an increasingly important role in educational policies. These policies have two goals. Firstly, they are to ensure that all students are socially well adapted, feel that they can succeed in school, and therefore don't drop out. This the ministry hopes to accomplish by such policies as the downgrading of curriculum so that all students can master it, by a heavy stress on process, and by de-streaming - that is, by placing all students in the same group, rather than dividing them according to ability. Equality is emphasized. Indeed, there is a constant stress on the doctrine that there must be equality of opportunity not only, but also equality of outcome. Everybody must have a chance to do as well as the next one. Once the school has managed to enforce this equality, the reasoning appears to be, everybody will be successful in the workplace.
Of course, enforced equality will not by itself make our workers more competitive and eliminate the spectre of unemployment. Educational planners know that. Attempting to deal more effectively with not only the social but also the economic challenges, they have lately been giving quite a bit of attention to a new approach to schooling known as Outcome-Based Education (OBE). This is the invention of an American sociologist by the name of William Spady and aims at the production of well-socialized consumers and well-trained, adaptable producers. Traditional curriculum plays only a secondary role in this system, and evaluation is not based on the students' acquisition of specific skills and content, but on their having mastered what Spady calls Complex Life Performance Roles. These outcomes have to do with the students' ability to perform well in the society and market place of the future. And they are sufficiently general that teachers will be able to pass everyone, even if some students may have to spend more time in school than others.
Spady insists that if his system is followed, then everyone, no matter what his or her native ability, can reach the goal. And once they have done that at school, students will be able to take on the world. They will be prepared for the challenges of our post-industrial and ever-changing economy. Indeed, some of Spady's disciples assure us that the result will be a social paradise. Once the system is in place, we may expect the end of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and crime.
Ministries of Education are interested in such experiments like OBE in part, I fear, for ideological reasons. The "progressive" element has long been prominent among educational planners, and that element has traditionally attempted to enforce equality not just of opportunity, which is a most laudable goal, but also of result, which is a utopian one. But it is only fair to add that, as we already noticed, practical considerations play a role as well, and that these are weighty ones. Traditionally only the more academically inclined student attended secondary school. In today's economy every worker, if he or she wants to find and hang on to a job, has to have at least a high school diploma. And the schools have no choice but to accept and accommodate every applicant. In short, when criticizing the Ministry's policy we have to keep in mind that it is working under real restraints and that there are no easy answers to today's educational problems.
This realization does not have to prevent us, however, from questioning the means educational planners use in dealing with the problems. It is my contention, firstly, that these means are ill chosen and will not lead to the predicted result; and secondly, that even if they did so, the cure would be far worse than the disease.
Indeed, I am afraid that they will have disastrous results. When reading up on these issues I couldn't help thinking of the scenario that Aldous Huxley painted in his novel Brave New World. You probably know the story. It is about a society that practises selective breeding and in-vitro fertilization. The planners manipulate every individual from conception onward, and so ensure that all will execute the role assigned to them effectively, happily, and without questioning. All are equally well adjusted and equally contented, no matter what their ability or socio-economic role. And if discontent does threaten, the problem is solved by the wonder drug soma, a combination of tranquillizer and happiness pill.
Brave New World?
Huxley wrote his book in 1932 and thought that the situation he portrayed would not come to pass until some centuries hence. He was too optimistic. Barely 60 years later all the technology needed to realize the Huxleyan night~ mare exists already. More ominously, a Huxleyan type of social engineering is, as we have seen, beginning to make a lot of sense to some of our social planners. No, I am not suggesting that the people at the Ministry of Education consciously want to dehumanize our students. Far from it. They are well intentioned: all they want is to ensure that these students become well adjusted, successful, and governable citizens. But they don't seem to realize that such expertly socialized citizens will be little more than robots; that they will become, as one author put it, "fodder of the service economy" (Martin Levin in the Globe and Mail, Dec. 7, 1995). And that is uncomfortably close to the fate suffered by the inhabitants of Huxley's brave new world.
Developing the mind
The importance of curriculum
So what are we to do? We must make sure of three things. The first one is that our schools continue to be parental ones: in the final analysis it is the parents who decide on the type of education their children will receive. In the second place, our schools must continue to be Christian schools, not just in name but also in fact. That means that the Scriptures illuminate whatever we teach; that they are a light on our path, also our intellectual path. And in the third place, our schools must make sure that curriculum, particularly the transmission of knowledge, is and always remains a primary concern. This third point is the one that I want to concentrate on.
Why is curriculum of such great importance? For two reasons. Firstly, it allows us to know about God's work in nature and history: that is, His work of creation, providence, and government. And secondly, it acquaints us with thousands of years of human experience and achievement, an inheritance from which we may learn and on which we may build. The aspect of building, incidentally, is important. The transmission of knowledge does not imply (as some people seem to think) a reactionary adherence to customs and practices of the past, or a static view with respect to scientific and other knowledge. Rather, acquaintance with perennial values and past accomplishments is a precondition both for the establishment of practices suitable to our times, and for the advance of knowledge in general. We don't have to reinvent the wheel and should not attempt to do so. We should, at least at the primary and secondary levels, teach and study curriculum instead.
Now you may want to object that teaching curriculum, particularly as it refers to human achievements, can be a risky business. After all, much human wisdom is, as the apostle Paul calls it, "wisdom of this world," which means that it ignores and opposes the wisdom of God. It is also true that the most savage attacks upon Christianity have been and still are being waged in the name of human reason. And there is no question about it: our students will encounter the results of anti-christian reasoning in practically every subject they study.
They will also encounter them, however, if they do not study curriculum content, for anti-Christian ideas reach them via other sources: via radio and TV, book and magazine, video and Internet. I am not exaggerating when I say that never has there been a generation which was so exposed to "the spiritual forces of evil," to use the expression of Ephesians 6, as the present one. Because of the universality of education and the great advances in communication technology, information reaches people from all sides. "Plain men," C.S. Lewis once wrote, "are forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before." Which means, he added, that they must struggle so much the harder to find the truth.
To arm our students for this struggle is a primary task of the Christian school. And in order to fulfil that task it must teach curriculum content. It must do so in order to acquaint students with the ideas that assault them, and in order to teach them how to deal with these ideas. I chose the verb "acquaint" on purpose, for an important teaching strategy - increasingly so in the higher grades - is guided confrontation. There must be confrontation. In order to discern the spirits, students must know what these spirits are and how they came about, and in order to analyse ideas, they must find out what these ideas entail. And they learn about these spirits and these ideas, and about their origins, through curriculum content. There must not be confrontation, however, without guidance. Students can't be left to do the discerning and testing and analysing on their own. They need the help of their teachers. No less importantly, they need the very curriculum content that acquainted them with the ideas and their origins in the first place.
In the time that remains I will try to prove this last point by providing some illustrations of the role which curriculum content can and should play in this aspect of Christian education. In other words, I will try to show how it can and should contribute to the development of a Christian mind in our students.
Curriculum and the Christian mind
Teaching curriculum content means, as we have noted, transmission of knowledge. And transmission of knowledge, in turn, implies a historical approach to the subjects we teach. It also implies the importance of history as a separate discipline. Much could be said about the ways in which the teaching of history can help us in arming our students, but only a few points can be mentioned. One is that the past speaks of mankind's wisdom and folly, of obedience to God's Word and of disobedience, and of the consequences of these attitudes. The study of history therefore teaches students, directly and indirectly, how to act and what to avoid.
It also enables students to analyse the ideas that govern our times, for modern ideas have their roots in the past. Old heresies don't die; they simply hibernate and reappear in season. By studying past developments students can learn why and how ideas arise and what they lead to. And that applies not only to religious ideas but to all manner of theories, including scientific ones.
Furthermore, history acquaints us with human schemes that have gone awry, and therefore helps us relativize the exaggerated claims of modern thought. It teaches us, as Blaise Pascal put it more than three centuries ago, that "Reason's first step is the recognition that there is an infinite number of things which are beyond reason. . . ."
"Our earthly existence is brief, and it serves as a training ground, a preparation for the world to come. "
In brief, the benefit of the study of the past is its capacity to enlarge our experience and to teach us wisdom. And what applies to historical studies applies to other subjects, such as literature. I already provided one example, Huxley's Brave New World. That brief novel has warned untold numbers of the dangers of turning human beings into mindless producers and consumers, programmed by a planning elite with the help of an increasingly clever technology. And the warning issued by Huxley's book is only one example of the benefits of the study of literature. There are many more, and they apply to all grade levels.
To take away curriculum content, therefore, is to rob students of an inheritance to which they are entitled and which they cannot do without. It is also to deny them the opportunity of developing their thinking skills. For thinking cannot be done in a vacuum. Human reason, one of God's most precious gifts to man, is a tool and needs something to work on, and much of what it does work on is curriculum content.
In brief: academic subjects provide us with material that allows us to discern the spirits, to "escape the tyranny of the present" (Cicero), and to think independently. And all these benefits run counter to the effects of the type of schooling planned by today's educational leaders, for that is a schooling which will provide future citizens with ready-made, homogenized attitudes. These planners, whether they realize it or not, ignore the citizens' own responsibility. They make possible a situation where Big Brother is in control as the one who knows best. And Big Brother, I assure you, is by definition totalitarian and anti-Christian.
Of course, Christian thinking is not concerned with intellectual issues only. I have stressed that aspect because I had to deal with education, but I do not want to leave you with the idea that I have exhausted the topic. Much more is at issue in the development of the Christian mind. Ultimately, Christian thinking is covenantal thinking, which means that it takes seriously God's claim upon all of our life. It therefore also has to do with the Christians' choice of entertainment, their use of leisure, their use of technology; indeed their attitude to life as a whole. As one author put it (Harry Blamires, in The Christian Mind), it implies that we see the things of this world under the aspect of eternity.
It is good to keep that warning in mind. We live in a secular, materialistic society with many opportunities, and this does not fail to affect us. We run the danger of forgetting what our forebears knew so well, namely that our earthly existence is brief, and that it serves as a training ground, a preparation for the world to come. Christian thinking implies the realization that there is no profit, only irreparable loss, if we gain the world at the cost of forfeiting our soul. To teach that, and to model it, is an essential duty of Christian educators.
Peter C. Emberley & Waller R. Newell, Bankrupt Education; The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Paul Gagnon, "What children should learn." The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1995, pp. 65-78.
Various articles on Outcome-Based Education in recent issues of Educational Leadership.
Various reports on Outcome-Based Education, the Common Curriculum, and similar issues, prepared in recent years on behalf of the Canadian Reformed Teachers Association and the Ontario Principals Association.