Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Education for Human Flourishing: Interview with Paul Spears and Steve Loomis (part one)

IVP Academic recently launched a Christian Worldview Integration series, edited by Biola University's J.P. Moreland and Baylor University's Frank Beckwith. Education for Human Flourishing, by Biola's Paul Spears and Wheaton's Steve Loomis, is the first book in that series. The book handsomely thinks about philosophy and theology of education from a Christian perspective, with implications for educational public policy, practice and endeavor. Below is part one of three of our interview with Spears and Loomis.

How did this book come about?

Spears: Both JP Moreland and I teach at Biola University. We have had numerous discussions about philosophy of education, analytic philosophy and theology. Often our discussions would turn to how we as educators should be thinking about integration, given the diversity of disciplines within the university. We realized that it is easy to become focused solely on our disciplines and not consider how our fundamental theological and philosophical commitments should be guiding our work. We agreed that it was our fundamental duty as professors to teach our students that a fully-orbed intellectual life was an integrative one.

When Frank Beckwith and JP began brainstorming about editing a series of books on integration with IVP Academic, they were kind enough to ask me if I would like to contribute a book on education to the series. As I began to think about the book, Steve Loomis’s name kept coming to mind. Steve is a faculty member at Wheaton College where he teaches in the education department. Steve and I became friends while we were both pursuing our doctorates at Claremont Graduate University. He and I are kindred spirits in terms of our desire to see educators begin to think about how fundamental theological and philosophical principles should ground the discipline of education. We do not believe it is enough to teach well in a technical sense, but that we need to be helping educators understand how their beliefs about the world, which are often tacit, influence how they go about the task of education. As we discussed the direction of the book, we quickly came to consensus about the scope and form the book was to take, and that made the collaboration a joy.  

How has the college classroom in general, and specifically your work in Biola’s Torrey Honors Program and Wheaton College, helped to form the content of this book?

Spears: When you think about the way in which most institutions of higher education are driven pedagogically, you tend to think of lectures to rooms of students who are diligently writing down what the professor says so they can prepare for the upcoming test—which is really a sort of factual regurgitation. Professors don’t see their task of educating students as a sacred trust. Often, students are seen as impediments to their real academic work—that of research and writing. Torrey has, from its inception, been committed to a different project. We strive to see our students much more holistically. I want them to be properly educated, and we see a liberal education through a classical model as an important aspect of that, but that is not even sufficient. I realize my students are an amalgam of diverse experiences and abilities, but that we are all unified under the Lordship of Christ. I want our students to understand what the implications of an intellectual life dedicated to following Christ looks like. Students who may be able to perform very well academically, and who often find solace in their educational abilities, but our students need to come to grips with the fact that, as humans, we are so much more than just well trained minds. So often they are under the grip of a society that only sees people in terms of what they accomplish—not in terms of their intrinsic value. As a professor, I wanted to be able to communicate the importance of thinking of your students holistically, and this needs to be the case from the kindergarten teacher to the university professor. 

Loomis: At Wheaton College, we began to notice that the well-meaning rule changes across government and the private sector, e.g., accrediting agencies, were impinging on the professional work of teachers in the schools and the faculty working in schools of education, not to mention higher education faculty in general.  The upshot for teacher preparation in independent colleges and universities is that two general arcs of practice have formed in teacher work: one being the teacher as a technician dispensing pre-programmed curricula, employing uniform assessments, engaging in a kind of planning and exchange that would have made Fredrick Taylor proud, et cetera, and the other an increasingly rare arc of the teacher as a liberally educated scholar, a public intellectual, a professional educator and decision-maker.  The turnover in rules that had begun in the mid-1980s, when schools of education began to move away from the disciplines of the university (e.g., the humanities) and toward a tight alignment with the State, where money and the illusion of status was located, had begun to bias more technical forms of practice, emphasizing top-down changes in assessments and high stakes testing regimes, narrowing teacher decision-making on curricular and other productive issues in classrooms, and especially fortifying updated versions of the Behavioral Objects model originated by Ralph Tyler, at the University of Chicago in 1947.  Tyler’s model is now so widely used and taken for granted, that professors would not know what to do with themselves without it.  Tyler’s model does a lot of work for the positivists and empiricists among us.  Yet it’s epistemological assumptions are suspect.  And the time frame for the development and evaluation of students shortened considerably, condensed to an easily replicable formula of stimulus and response (behaviorism) assessed over the course of a semester, or atomistic increments within a semester.  Lost are the more longitudinal concerns and the long recognized intercultural first order goods of human development and flourishing; standardized examinations became near the sole criterion of educational success.  Today the textbook and testing-industrial complex is a dominant player in K-12 and higher education.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 reinforced much of this development.  We’ll see more of it in higher education.  The Standards movement transformed into a Standardization movement; the schools became rationalized instruments of social efficiency.  All of this activity is rational from one point of view on the social choice spectrum.  But it does not embody a Christian view.

What do you think is unique about worldview integration at your institution?

Spears: Biola takes integration seriously—that is we believe that the Bible has a very fundamental place in academic discourse. I appreciate how at Biola Christianity is not seen as some thin patina that you place over the real academic disciplines, but that it is a crucial aspect to seminal academic discourse. It enables true collegiality. So often faculty members stay cloistered in their academic guild, and don’t have much contact with faculty members of other disciplines, but Biola’s commitment to integration changes all of that. Since we are all committed to the fundamental principles of the Protestant Christian faith, we have a unified starting point that encourages a unique form of collegiality. This enables us to have openness about other academic disciplines as we know that fundamentally Biola’s faculty are all about the same thing—following the Triune God and pursuing his kingdom purposes. This enables us to have discussions about things we may even have deep disagreement about because we know that we are unified in what is most essential. 

Loomis: Allow me to say a brief and possibly controversial word on this worldview question.  There is, unfortunately, a set of objections to worldview thinking being put forward by normally very thoughtful people.  I am presently trying to understand the nature of these objections on several levels.  I suspect much of it has to do with certain cost-attenuating attractors within postmodern thought.  However, one way we might investigate these kinds of claims in the future is through an institutional lens.  Some and perhaps many of our colleagues in and at the periphery of the Academy simply do not understand the sustainable power and influence of the emerging technical model of thought.  As we imply in the book, it is a very powerful apolitical, antirealist worldview or way of thinking about the production and allocation of scarce resources.  They do not see or they altogether ignore the non-trivial costs being raised against the individual human being in society, including most of all her liberty.  I’m not talking about the frequent whipping boy ‘individualism’ here.  Why can’t they see it?  They may not be able to see how, for example, the technical model of thought is progressively undermining important pillars of modernity, such as classical political liberalism (democratic government), classical economic liberalism (free markets), quality and variation within the schools and higher education, reliable forms of organizations, and even authentic leadership.  Where they should see the effects of error and disequilibrium in institutions (since they can’t see the causes), they tend to accommodate or conceal it.  Where they should face reality as it is, they tend to adopt the live-and-let-live posture of the subjectivist, a beguiling and deserted pluralism without genuine content.  Where they should bear the manly cost that C.S. Lewis and others were (are) willing to bear in raising objections to harm in the social welfare, they shudder and cower in the lure of the caucus.  Their answer?  Forgive me, but anemic forms of culture making and social imaginary cannot move social institutions back toward plausible ranges of equilibrium.  Surely we can do better theoretical work than that!  Some of this line of thinking clearly poses no threat to the present social choice direction; it seems to forego insisting on competing considerations of the optimal social order.  As one leading philosopher put it to us recently, it’s a form of compromising.  Well, accommodationism has many jester fathers, and in some cases harlot mothers.

How did you get into philosophy of education?

Spears: I was working on my master’s degree in analytic philosophy, and I became very interested in the philosophical questions surrounding knowledge. Eventually, my interest in the way we as humans think about knowledge led me to do my doctoral work on the question of what role does our philosophical anthropology play in the way we develop our understanding of what it means to be educated.  The more I studied philosophy of education, the more I became convinced that a robust philosophical and theological anthropology is necessary to properly ground our educational pursuits. 

What are the most fundamental questions or issues that a Christian philosophy of education should seek to address?

Spears: We need to understand what it means to be fully human, and how given how  God has made us how what role does education play in pursuit of God and his kingdom. Modern educational theorists don’t see education in terms of developing humans who can pursue what is good and righteous, but in how education is a means by which we increase a society’s ability to effectively produce individuals who have a positive impact on the economic viability of a nation. While properly educating someone achieves that, it is not the end goal of education—only an aspect of it. As long as economics is the driving force of educational practice, we will miss seeing, as beings created to be rational, the intellectual life that is a fundamental aspect of humanity. Education should be about enabling individuals to develop skills that encourage a lifelong pursuit of intellectual engagement so that they can properly serve God and their community.

Loomis: A few of the pressing questions in the philosophy of education include: Can there be in the 21st century a specifically Christian or Christian-influenced theory of reform of the institution of education in the U.S. and worldwide?  If so, what are its theoretic elements, distinctives and legitimacy?  If not, what are the theoretic or practical barriers and how might these be overcome?  How can the liberal, secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee?  How are systems of positive law legitimated (justified) only in a self-referential manner, that is, no authority or institution antecedent to the law?  How have the level and distribution of education affected the economy and the socio-political life of nations, past and present?  Does the press of globalization help or hinder a society’s and culture’s development?  What are the effects of institutional expansion (scale and scarcity) on information, knowledge, human and social capital development?  What does a technical model of education do to teacher-student exchanges and relationships?  Is there a public-private convergence in educational markets?  Does the Standards movement (and its rules) in public schools enhance a private, secondary educational market?  Is there a general asymmetry between educational attainment and the actual possession of knowledge and skills?  Under an institutional analysis, why are educational inequalities for certain minority populations expanding in the U.S.?  What explains the similarities and differences among nations and among geographical regions in the educational provisions they offer their inhabitants?  What accounts for historical similarities and differences in those provisions?

What are philosophy of education areas that need further attention from Christian philosophers?

Loomis: Recent philosophers of education have given almost no attention to the ontology of education as a social institution.  This is not their fault.  Until recently, there has been little by way of a coherent theory to approach institutional questions.  Most everyone who does work in this area is using an organizational unit of analysis, studying the players of the game, and not an institutional unit of analysis, studying the rules and information components of the game.  It is the philosophers (e.g., Rawls, Searle, MacIntyre) and economists and political economists who have given some attention to institutional thought.  For example, Nobel economist Douglass North observed that institutions are the underlining determinant of the long-term development of markets—economic, political, and cultural.  Institutions also determine the long-term direction of economies and governments and help to form the social welfare.  If institutions are integral features of the productive base of the economy and politics, if they form the capital assets of society, if they function to guide the production and allocation of scarce resources, if they set the parameters of law, rights, morality and education, and if they affect the conditions of social structures in helpful, harmful, or other ways, then it would seem relevant, even urgent for Christian higher education to develop resources to investigate the significant role institutions (and the organizations within them) play.  As Samuel Bowles phrased it, ‘Institutions influence who meets whom, to do what tasks, with what possible courses of action, and with what consequences of actions jointly taken.’  Therefore, institutions matter.  From a plain reading of Scripture it would seem that a Christian philosopher of education ought to account for education as an institution.

Spears: I would echo Steve’s answers. I would also add that Christians who are engaging in philosophy of education should be grounded in philosophical theology, systematic theology, and Biblical studies. So much of this pursuit needs to be understood cosmologically, that is in terms of God’s created order.  Without an understanding of the Bible and of theology, we are unable to properly develop a holistic view of education.

Part two of our interview with Spears and Loomis can be found here

Paul Spears is a philosopher of education with the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. Steve Loomis is a professor of education at Wheaton College.

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