On a Christian Philosophy of Education
“By its very nature it [teaching] is not a democratic notion…. The very act of teaching implies the admission of a certain inequality not indeed in nature, nor even in intellectual ability, but at least in knowledge.”
“The good teacher then loves to teach because he loves to impart to his pupils the very best thing there is in him, namely, intellectual life, knowledge, truth….The highest reward of teaching is the joy of making other minds similar, not indeed to ourselves, but to the truth which is in us.”
–“The Eminence of Teaching” by Etienne Gilson
The above quotations concisely capture the philosophy of education at Southern Evangelical Seminary. As SES has had to think about developing its principles for online education, we have reflected on our commitments as to what we think education is. During this reflection and investigation, we discovered that many highly value a “constructivist” philosophy of education. (This philosophy says, roughly, that the teacher and the student are basically equal and that the knowledge to be gained in a class is produced primarily by the interactions between professor and student.)
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To what can we attribute this change from what we might call a “classical view” of education to a constructivist view? There is a clue to the cause of this change from Gilson’s quote above. He says, “The highest reward of teaching is the joy of making other minds similar, not indeed to ourselves, but to the truth which is in us.” If the teacher’s goal is to help the students discover and understand the truth that is in the teacher, then one will only hold to the classical view to the degree that one holds to an objectivity of truth. A constructivist philosophy of education, one might argue, is the direct result of the Academy largely rejecting objective truth.
If the objectivity of truth is one casualty of a drift from the classical view, another casualty is the degree of ownership and responsibility of the traditional teacher. As Gilson points out, there is an essential inequality in teaching not in “nature, nor even in intellectual ability, but at least in knowledge.” In the classical view, this inequality in knowledge is the source of both the teacher’s authority and responsibility. After all, authority and responsibility are in fact two sides of the same coin (it is when they are divorced that the educational dynamic is corrupted). Elsewhere Gilson notes,
“It is praiseworthy to desire one’s own perfection and therefore also to desire learning and the teaching for which learning equips one; but it is wrong to desire power over others without knowing whether or not one has the grace necessary to wield it. On the contrary, the desire to teach, that is, to communicate to others the learning one possesses, is a desire to perform an act of charity” —The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas by Etienne Gilson
The authority that comes with teaching must be coupled with proper character as well as a superiority in knowledge.
The constructivist view, on the other hand, imposes an artificial equality on the class dynamics and as such minimizes both the authority and the responsibility of the teacher. Under this view, the students are equally responsible for the class goals and the learning outcomes. What then is there a need for a teacher?
Ironically, unmindful of the connection between constructivism and relativism, there are even several Evangelical colleges and universities who have adopted this mode of learning (especially in online education). When it comes to standing against the unorthodox trends in dominant culture, it is inconsistent to try to preserve a conservative stance in the areas of ethics and theology only to give full sway to the culture’s decay in one’s philosophy of education.
A conservative Christian orthodoxy in ethics and theology, if it be consistent, must also hold to a conservative Christian philosophy of education. It is the task of the educator to be responsible for his student’s intellectual life. His goal should be to shape the student’s mind in terms of its strength, focus, and precision, as well as modeling and instilling all the intellectual virtues that sustain a lifetime of faithful Christian scholarship.
The goal of the SES faculty is to cause the student to discover truth in whatever context this discovery applies: biblical studies, theology, philosophy, or apologetics. Our professors are given the authority and responsibility for causing knowledge in the minds of the students. The ideal student produced by SES will possess a love for the truth and the pursuits of the intellectual life; coupled with a love for God and growth in godly character. In so doing, SES will have prepared its students “to defend the historic Christian faith and evangelize the lost.”
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Dr. J. T. Bridges serves as Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary. Dr. Bridges’ current academic interests include: the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas; the Philosophy of Science; and important issues subsumed under The Philosophy of Religion.