As someone who has worked briefly in Christian education, I am excited to see more attention being paid to pedagogy and its relationship to anthropology.  While Paul Spears and Steven Loomis’ Education for Human Flourishing isn’t going to be the final word on the issue, it is an important contribution that should be read by Christian educators at all levels, and by those interested in understanding how Christian theology, philosophy, and education overlap.

In the first three chapters, the authors take a tour of some of the central issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and provide a brief historical overview of some of the major moments in philosophy.  Throughout all of this, their goal is to demonstrate how the various developments have lead to the scientific empiricism that dominates contemporary educational praxis.  While less technical than some professional philosophers might like, their overview would be enormously helpful for its intended audience, namely, educators who don’t necessarily have a robust philosophical background.

The next two chapters take a different approach, examining the status of our current learning institutions.  Their central critique is that in their current form, schools exist to create useful and efficient members of (economic) society, a goal which is fundamentally grounded in scientific empiricism.  A central target for Spears and Loomis is standardization, which they argue doesn’t allow for the irreducible particularity of the human person and his situation.  They write:

When we research the phenomenon [of standardization] carefully, the all-reconciling system really is just a technological adjustment of people.  It operates within the tradition of matching the person to the machine.  It stabilizes the institution of education through classification, prediction, and control over educational events…All of this leads us to conclude that rigid standardization in education tends to lead to the I-It condition [over and against the I-Thou condition].

The rejection of standardization, and the anthropological work they do in the first few chapters, allows them to reframe the goal of education away from utility toward virtue.

The final chapter is the payoff, where they point toward new ways of educating based on a more Christianized education.  They offer three general principles, before applying them in various educational contexts:

  1. Liberalize both the information flow and content, so that the specifics of the individuals being educated are accounted for.
  2. Localize control, so that decision making is more closely connected to the particular communities where the ramifications will be felt.
  3. Ground behavior and action in something like a universal moral law.

Spears and Loomis’ book is a wide ranging treatment of many of the philosophical commitments our educational system and methods presuppose.  For instance, in the first section of the book, Spears and Loomis critique physicalism and defend substance dualism.  While this left one reviewer frustrated, it’s important for the reader to keep two things in mind:  first, their main objective is to articulate dualisms distinct advantages over and against the reductionist materialism (which Nancey Murphy doesn’t hold to) that undergirds our current educational system.  And to that extent, it serves its limited purpose.  What’s more, their audience is clearly not technical philosophers, but rather professional educators who rarely have the philosophical acumen to follow technical argumentation.

But for those who don’t go with Spears and Loomis toward dualism, there is still much to be learned here.  There is an interesting argumentation surrounding the relationship between the eschatological nature of mankind and the ‘natural law.’  Spears and Loomis contend that because humans are essentially eschatological, proper education must start from the revelatory event. They write, “While we do not want to completely abandon helpful teleological constructs, we believe a more complete view comes only when we think of humans in terms of God’s eschatological purposes.”  This prompts them to argue that Christian educators should be oriented around helping students find and fulfill their vocations, rather than limiting them to becoming fruitful members of the wage-earning economy.  As they put it, “Our focus as Christian educators needs to take seriously the fact that we educate our students to work in God’s kingdom, and not just enable them to obtain gainful employment.”

Education for Human Flourishing isn’t a perfect book, and its aims are limited.  But Christian educators should read and consider its pleas for integrating educational purposes with a carefully considered, thoroughgoing Christian anthropology.  Spears and Loomis are the vanguard of a new movement of educators seeking to make Christ Lord over their pedagogy, which is a welcome and needed development indeed.

Disclosures:  IVP was very kind in sending me a review copy of this book.  As a former student of his, I consider Dr. Paul Spears a friend and mentor.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  • Jake Meador

    Matt – This sounds very similar – albeit much expanded – to the discussion of education in Dreher’s Crunchy Cons.

    Two questions – First, when you say, “Their central critique is that in their current form, schools exist to create useful and efficient members of (economic) society, a goal which is fundamentally grounded in scientific empiricism,” by scientific empiricism do you mean a type of naturalism or materialism? I’ve always heard the terms linked, but I’ve never seen them substituted for each other, so I want to make sure I’m understanding.

    Second, I’m trying to think more about the centrality of eschatology to the Christian faith (a difficulty for me given the unhelpful baggage I have from my church background). So what are some of the consequences when we neglect eschatology in shaping an educational philosophy?

    Sorry if these are simplistic questions, I’m trying to think through some of these issues but it feels like I’m barely treading water most the time, so whatever thoughts you have are much appreciated :).

    • Jake,

      Great questions. I agree with you re: Crunchy Cons. I almost wrote in my review, “This is education for Front-Porch-Republic folks!”

      As to your first question, scientific empiricism is the epistemology that is the handmaiden to the naturalist metaphysics. They aren’t necessarily dependent upon each other, but they tend to go hand in hand, especially with those secularists who want to keep the public square–and education–dominated by the claims of science.

      As for your second question, I’m going to table that and ask the authors directly. : )

      Best,

      Matt

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  • @willrich45 I read this today which makes very similar points in different ways. http://j.mp/917G7J

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Christopher Benson

    As a professional educator, here are my questions based on the first general principle. Why does “information flow and content” need to be liberalized? This presupposes that there is a tight control on the information flow and content, animated, presumably, by fundamentalist anxieties. Do the authors propose ways to liberalize? What is the connection between liberalization and accountability?

    • Christopher,

      It actually has nothing to do with fundamentalist anxieties, at least not the author’s. One of their central targets is the dominant secularism of the university and public school system. In some ways, the book is a critique of that.

      As for proposing ways to liberalize, they are pretty focused on localized control and localized pedagogy that takes into account the unique individuality of students. But like Smith’s book, their specific proposals are more prolegomena than anything else.

      Matt

  • Christopher Benson

    Matt: Thanks for the clarification. I mistakenly thought that the authors were offering three general principles for Christian education. After rereading the context, I realize that they are pointing toward “new ways of educating based on a more Christianized education.”

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