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Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective

Paul D. Spears and Steven R. Loomis
Published by IVP Academic in 2009

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” W. B. Yeats’ oft-quoted line is useful in capturing any number of problems. When applied to the Christian life, it can suggest that we did not try hard enough to understand how — with Christ at the center — everything can hold together (Colossians 1:17). When applied to education, it can lament the incoherence of the “system” and reveal the absence of a unifying and purposeful center. While the majority of Christians have ignored or accepted the lack of a heuristic center in education, few have been able to articulate effective ways to achieve a vision of education that enables its participants to find true human fulfillment. The result is a fragmenting and incoherence that leaves every arena open to any voice that can overpower or persuade. This book explains how that happens in education and then challenges and equips Christians to do something about it.

This book is part of a larger project that responds to the imperative implicit in Christian faith to recognize Christianity as a knowledge tradition that demands integration into all of life. That larger effort is the “Christian Worldview Integration Series” which promises to promote a strong personal, professional, and conceptual integration of learning and Christian faith. In this, the first volume of the series, Christian faith is held to be a knowledge tradition that is examined dimension by philosophical dimension to show that it can replace what the authors see as dominant philosophical traditions underpinning education today. The authors — philosophers of education at two Christian institutions — acknowledge Christians’ failure to lead in matters educational. While Christians ought to assume leadership responsibilities, lamentably there are no “go-to” Christian scholars in professional education today. As a first step toward fundamental change, this book is “written specifically for emerging practitioners and scholars in the field, upperclassmen and graduate level college students in education degree programs in higher education across the world” (35).

The contents fall into two equal parts, chapters 1-3 and 4-6. The first section describes and critiques the reigning principles of contemporary education and offers Christian alternatives on each topic (anthropology, ontology, epistemology, and so on). The second half is increasingly practical, focusing on current arrangements that control what can be taught and learned (chapter 4) and the ethical impact on students (chapter 5). The concluding chapter draws the results of the preceding chapters into a programmatic call to action.

Since a central goal of education is to see “human flourishing,” we must be clear about what it means to be human. The classical view of humans as rational beings has been supplanted by a physicalist anthropology which reduces humans to mere physical structures for whom flourishing may be measured by vocational success (the apparent goal of most current education). In order to acquire true knowledge, our rational powers need what only the Christian faith can provide: forgiveness (because sin compromises those rational abilities) and revelation (to complete the wholeness of truth). Instead of allowing popular and secular thought to dominate, Spears and Loomis hold up the lens of Christian anthropology through which humans are seen to consist of body and soul in a dualism that is driven/lured teleologically by the “already perfected future kingdom of God” proleptically realized in Christ.

Chapter 2 surveys the philosophical-historical forces — primarily the rise of the university and the Enlightenment — that coincide with the jettisoning of theology as the main source of understanding and truth. The new ways of thinking coalesced into a new paradigm that strained the coherence of a Christian world view and imposed restraints on what could be known and how we understood ourselves as learners.

Chapter 3 focuses on epistemological issues, showing how today only the positivist is acknowledged as the real knower or source of knowledge. The authors warn of “intellectual bullying” (114) (exemplified by the power of the university) and of the power of media rhetoric and “celebrities” in creating knowledge. They argue for a Christian epistemology in which truth is objective and knowledge is understood as justified true belief.

Chapter 4 turns to the more practical matter of analyzing the social institution of education beginning with “how and why education has tended in the direction of least cost” (125). When the dominant values in education are vocationalization, standardization, efficiency, and utility, it is easy to grasp why students are no longer treated as unique individuals and why information cannot be allowed to flow freely (no more stopping to smell the roses). Instead of education being the messy, inefficient and truly human activity it ought to be, we find ourselves in a world where exponentially ballooning information, diversifying student bodies, and increasingly specialized teachers (three unstable and growing variables) are brought under control. In order to ensure results, managers limit the input of information, standardize students, and use teachers as accountants. The situation cries out for a new paradigm. Christianity as a knowledge tradition offers that new paradigm.

Chapter 5 addresses the topic of ethics. Many are content to dismiss the topic with shallow one-liners ranging from simple-minded complaints (“School is no place to teach morality; we’ll do that at home.”) to simple-minded boasts (“Education in a values environment!”). It is not a question of whether morality is conveyed, but only which one. The combination of physicalist anthropology, positivist epistemology, and a business-inspired management model results in an ethic that is technique.

Finally (chapter 6), the authors conclude with a call for a “Christocentric critique and resistance” (177) that integrates moral realism with pedagogy — an integration which is not forced but grows naturally out of a commitment to express faith fully and coherently. The call is for Christians to assume leadership roles as scholars and public intellectuals — with a Christocentric commitment. It is time for practical applications: the integration of Christian knowledge into the public sphere of education; restoration of teleology as part of an educational philosophy; becoming “salt and light” in every situation in hopes of effecting — over the long term — a thorough transformation with the end of providing education that leads to true human flourishing.

Christian educators will be grateful for this book. It should appeal to evangelicals and conservatives who want to make an impact. Liberal Christians will be challenged by the thesis that the Christian faith is a public knowledge tradition, by the breadth of the philosophical analysis, and by the in-your-face challenge to bite the bullet and make Christocentric changes in the world.

A Christocentric teacher education program will sound like insanity to some educators in an NCATE-NCLB world — even at Christian schools. Nonetheless, there are several reasons why this would be an excellent text to assign in a philosophy of education course or even in the introduction to education course. After all, it is intended for education students, for the new generation that can come on the scene with a new paradigm. As an introductory text it offers something new and substantive on three levels. First, it challenges the Christian to integrate faith with vocation in order to implement a Christ-informed pedagogy in the classroom. Second, it informs. General education programs required for admission to most teacher training programs usually are political compromises that are inadequate and intellectually incoherent. This book would provide a focused general education of the basics that teacher education programs require: anthropology, economics, ethics, major intellectual movements and philosophies in Western history — a dozen key elements that form the matrix within which education programs locate themselves and prepare future teachers. Third, it philosophizes. A richly analytical contextualization of education and a thorough critique of the contemporary scene offer a useful philosophical introduction to future teachers.

In conclusion, two questions might be helpful in facilitating the conversation this text initiates. First, how would the authors deal with topics they do not mention but that will factor inevitably into the theoretical and practical response to their challenge? Such topics include cultural diversity; the diminishing proportion of Christians in the population; the increase in the global significance of Islam; sports as an implicit teacher of values; electronic, distance, and home education; the (entrenched) political power, educational philosophy and institutional organization of the education profession. These and other factors will challenge the implementation of the vision of this volume.

Second, while the frequent references to their program as “Christocentric” must be applauded, it is not very clear what is meant by that term. A truly Christian pedagogy must be Christocentric. This book offers a bold advance over those who see Jesus as one who merely illustrates their points or who provides support for an agenda based on others’ foundations. However, only the most occasional examples are offered. There is one excellent profile ofJesus’ teaching model (141), but the most frequent use of Scripture is Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus speaks of “salt and light.” The authors adopt this (salt and light) as a kind of leit motifto capture something about Jesus’ unique ability and style in enabling human flourishing; in spite of using this more often than any other NT text (131, 176, 198, 215, 222), ultimately the reference obscures more than it reveals. As a teacher desiring to implement a Christocentric pedagogy, I would like to pursue answers to a number of questions about Christocentrism, including: How is Jesus simultaneously our “Lord and Teacher” (John 13:13)? What is the “yoke” we assume when we accept Jesus’ invitation to learn from him (Matthew 11:29)? What does it mean to have the “mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16)? And how can I best understand and utilize the most compelling ontological and epistemological text of all (Colossians 1:15-20) — a text to which the authors never refer?

Such questions should not dampen enthusiasm for the book, which in its own way is “salt” in the wounds of an invalidated education system. It can also provide “light” as we seek understanding on which to base new and better strategies for fuller human flourishing. The authors deserve our thanks for venturing into territory remarkable not only for its difficulties but also for its vastness. And we look forward to other books in the series, especially if they expound and defend challenging theses with this same depth and breadth of insight.

Dale Goldsmith

Oklahoma Panhandle State University
Religion/Academic Dean, Retired