Back in the seventies, one of the leading philosophers of education of the day claimed that it was nonsense to talk of a Christian view of education.1 He said that talk of Christian education was, like Christian farming or Christian mathematics, ‘a contradiction in terms.’ At that time, scarcely a voice was raised against what he said.

How different things are today! Enlightenment modernism is on the decline along with the rationalism undergirding such claims. Now Christians, Muslims and others can give papers at academic conferences in which they present distinctive perspectives on educational issues and are listened to with respect. Mind you, the post-modern loss of faith in the possibility of something being true for everybody may mean that these papers are received like the latest fashions on the cat-walk. Interesting and even exciting for the moment but of no permanent value. Like the Athenians and the foreigners at a meeting of the Areopagus, people move on to the next in the flow of the latest ideas. Nevertheless, Christians presenting a unique view of education have opportunities of a hearing - like Paul in Athens - which they didn’t have not very long ago.

But what do we mean by our talk of Christian education or of a Christian view/perspective/approach to education? We may assert in response to those who claim otherwise that it is meaningful to talk in such terms and at the same time be quite unclear what we do mean by it.

What do we mean by Christian education?

Francis Schaeffer awakened some of us from our dogmatic slumbers to the exciting discovery that our faith had implications for all our thinking about everything. These implications were not confined to the narrowly spiritual or religious aspects of life and thought. We began to talk of Christian ‘presuppositions’ making a difference to our view of everything, including education. This is what distinguishes Christian education, we say. It is based on different presuppositions from all other views of education. We have a different set of basic beliefs derived from the Scriptures. These concern the nature of God, the world He has made, human nature and purpose, truth and knowledge and the like. And on the foundation of these key beliefs we construct our view of education.

We see these presuppositions as being rather like the premises of a logical argument or the axioms of a mathematical system. Conclusions follow necessarily and directly from them. It is all a matter of following a direct line: a therefore b therefore c…. However, in practice, things don’t always seem that simple. We may start from the same basic Christian beliefs but we end up with different conclusions and sometimes we find that these conclusions are the same as those arrived at by people starting from non-Christian presuppositions.

Finding that we have common ground with non-Christians need not be a problem to the Christian—although it is to some. Going back to logic or mathematics, the same conclusion can equally well follow from different starting points. So why shouldn’t people of different basic beliefs reach the same conclusions about selective education, testing at a young age, the effects of being in a small class or teaching reading by phonics? Common ground is, however, not neutral ground. Because we agree in our conclusions it does not follow that our basic beliefs are not important or not needed. Shared beliefs and values are not free-standing.

An example of the importance of basic beliefs comes from the recent discussions of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s National Forum for Values in Education and the Community. The Forum came up with a statement of ‘shared values.’ These included much that we value as Christians but it also left out much we value. In particular, the list of contexts (self, relationships, society and the environment) left God out of the picture altogether. And to include Him is not simply to add another item to the list but rather to transform the whole and to give a basis to the rest. He gives us a new view of everything and everybody else. He is the ground of all our values. We should be thankful for the common conclusions and the values that we share with others, but at the same time we dare not lose sight of that which we do not share and which undergirds the lot.

That we should start from (apparently) the same basic beliefs and end up on different sides of an argument seems more problematic. Perhaps this is partly because getting from basic Christian beliefs to educational conclusions is a much more complex business than simple mathematics or logic. Our finiteness as creatures together with the distorting effects of our fallenness on our thinking combine to make it so. We may be misled by the picture of building a Christian view of education on the foundations of basic Christian beliefs. There are other ways of thinking about the process.

An archaeological metaphor may help. It may be that what we have is a building already in place in our thinking and we need to dig down to discover the foundations. Presuppositions are not always something from which we start. They may often be what we find we already have and have been intuitively (and less precisely) making use of to support the superstructure of our beliefs about education.

There are other metaphors for the process. One is the idea that our basic Christian beliefs operate more like filters than pumps. They may rule out certain conclusions and permit others. This picture can free us from too great a concern to be different or distinctive. It also provides more room for what some theologians have referred to as God’s common grace and for the effects of His general revelation in everything He has made and everything He does. We can be thankful that all truth is God’s truth, whatever its human source. The guru mentality that looks first at who said it rather than at what is said is all too common among us. The source must be first be known to be ‘sound’ in every regard and if we are satisfied that it is, we then accept everything from that source without critical evaluation. Instead, as Christians trusting in God who is behind all that is, we should be open to learn from others as we work out our views of educational issues, always however, remaining subject to the control function of our Christian basic beliefs.

Another current and helpful picture is that of acting out an unwritten final act of a play.2 This provides for the possibility of open-endedness, variety of outcomes and creative participation, which is rather different from a linear logical process entirely determined from the start. A variety of endings is possible but not any ending whatever. Some are ruled out by what was written into the early acts.

Turning from the process of getting from our Christian basic beliefs to educational conclusions, there is the important matter of what is encompassed in talk of Christian education. Our Christian faith has significance for all our thinking and living, rather than for particular aspects or compartments. So when we talk of a Christian view of education, we need to be aware that education includes theory and practice, aims and objectives, content and method, formal and hidden curricula, contexts and institutions, policy and management, rights and responsibilities and the list goes on. The scope for the application of Christian thinking is enormous.

However, our talk of Christian education can be subject to a whole range of reductionisms. We reduce it to a narrow focus on a particular aspect or small set of aspects. For example, we talk of nothing but Religious Education and assemblies and give the impression that Christians have nothing to say about the rest of the curriculum. Some of us identify Christian education with Christian theory of education and give the impression that the way we behave in the classroom is of secondary importance. Others of us equate education with schooling and suggest that Christian education is only possible in Christian schools. In these three and other ways, we focus too narrowly and attempt to integrate our Christian faith with only a part of education.

New Agers and others are reminding us of something of which, as Christians, we should have always been aware from the Scriptures: we should be holistic. The distinct aspects of reality, of our human nature and of our lives in God’s world are unique but they are also aspects of the whole. Our Lord upholds all things and in Him all things hold together. Christian education should be holistic in that it is concerned with:

  1. the development of the whole person (spiritual, moral, social, cultural, emotional, etc.)
  2. an integrated understanding of the whole of reality in all its distinct aspects (mathematical, chemical, biological, linguistic, historical, aesthetic, etc.); and
  3. the whole of life and its different kinds of activity (working, playing, resting, thinking, creating, imagining, discovering, etc.).

Opting out to do our own thing is hardly an option

Against the first reductionism mentioned, the current focus on promoting spiritual and moral development across the curriculum and through the whole life of the school challenges us to broaden our concerns beyond RE and assemblies, important as they most certainly are. Here, of course, words like ‘spiritual’ can be very ambiguous. Not all spiritualities have anything to do with the Holy Spirit and some have more to do with Him than others. But there are values that we share with others and basic beliefs that we don’t share which make a difference to the whole. Opting out to do our own thing on the sidelines, leaving the majority of children out of our consideration, is hardly an option to us. Nor is working with others and leaving our central Christian beliefs out of the picture. In this respect as in so many more, we need to be in the world but not of it. In there we can, for example, share the wonder of nature and of human achievements and discoveries but all the time with the perspective that God created it all and that He inspires our best attainments.

Formerly, Christians made much of being Christ-like in our workplaces, including our schools. More recently, we have become very excited about developing a Christian mind and thinking Christianly. The danger with the latter emphasis—the second reductionism—is that it can be very neglectful, and even dismissive, of the importance of incarnating the love of God in all our relationships. We become so preoccupied with the word or the idea that we forget that the Father sent not a sermon or a theory into the world but a person, His Son. The Word became flesh. Education is centrally to do with persons-in-relation and Christian education must be to do with the fragrance of Christ being spread in all our relationships in the classroom and any other educational context.

This point about being Christ-like applies as much to how we engage in debates about education in staff-room, academic conference or policy-making forum as it does to how we hand back pupils’ work to them or the attitudes we display to school ancillary staff. I once naively believed academic discussions of education were all about the disinterested pursuit of truth but I have since discovered that they can be far more about manipulation in self-seeking power games! Our arguments for moral education or Christian education lose most of their force when they are advanced by immoral methods or with un-Christian attitudes.

The third reductionism equates Christian education with Christian schooling. It fails to realise that, on the one hand, education is a much wider concept than schooling and, on the other, that things take place in school which are not educational. The Bible has much to say about education but our idea of schooling is almost entirely absent from its pages. Christian schools have a major contribution to make to education but to limit our thinking about Christian education to what takes place in Christian schools would mean that we had no Christian vision for the majority of children in our contemporary society.

May we have a big vision of how our faith can be integrated with our thought and action in education for the sake of the children and young people of the rising generation. May our Lord Jesus Christ be more widely and better known by them!

1 Paul Hirst, "'Christian Education': A Contradiction in Terms?" in Faith and Thought, Vol 99, No 1 (October 1971), pp. 43-54.

2 David Smith: ‘Christian Thinking in Education Reconsidered’ in Spectrum(now Journal of Education & Christian Belief), Vol 27, No 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 9-24.

John Shortt was Director of Stapleford House Education Centre, Director of the Charis Project, and Editor of Journal of Education & Christian Belief (formerly Spectrum). His research interests are in philosophy of education and he has a doctorate from the University of London Institute of Education. He is married to Valerie and they have two grown-up sons.

© CARE, The CARE Review, June 1997; Volume 9, Issue 1