How Shall We Then Think? Recent Books on Education and the Ends of Knowledge

Ken Myers explores what to read now on education and knowledge.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Educators must necessarily spend a lot of time assembling and mastering the content of their lessons. In addition to what is being taught, teachers must also attend to matters of educational method. The best teachers go a step further and reflect on how their teaching—in the structure of form and the patterns of content—convey deep assumptions about the nature of knowledge, reason, and the life of human “knowers”. Since educational institutions and most available modern scholarship have been significantly affected by the grand assumptions of the Enlightenment, Christian educators would do well to spend some time reflecting on how the prejudices of modern Western thought frequently crowd out Christian concerns related to our creaturely vocation of knowing and being in the world.

Several recent books may be helpful both for teachers who are thinking through such questions for the first time and for those who are looking to think more deeply about them. The Passionate Intellect (BakerAcademic, 2006), by Norman Klassen and Jens Zimmermann, explores ways in which the Christian belief in redemption achieved by an incarnate and resurrected Savior—one who is fully Man and fully God—affects our understanding of the nature and purposes of reason, and hence of education. The book’s subtitle—Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education— may give the impression that it has little to offer teachers in primary and secondary school settings. But while writing especially for professors and students in higher education settings, Klassen and Zimmermann have a great deal to offer teachers of pre-college students and to non-educators interested in how and why so much modern thought distanced itself from a Christian view of the place of reason in life.

The authors insist that the firmest foundation for any intellectual life is belief in the redemption of Christ of men and women in the fullness of their humanity. “Christians are supposed to be the paradigm for a new humanity founded by Christ and inaugurated by his resurrection from the dead, a decisive event signaling the reconciliation of humanity to God and anticipating the full redemption of God’s creation.” On the basis of this historical reality, Christians are properly committed to growth in understanding about God’s creation and about the possibilities for the flourishing of human gifts and capacities therein. Only an “incarnational humanism” can rescue the contemporary academy—and contemporary thought more generally—from the nihilistic dead- end toward which modernity has led us.

Following an introduction surveying the chaotic state of contemporary higher education, Klassen and Zimmermann, both English professors from Canadian universities, begin their book with a chapter (“Can Christians Think?”) repudiating the charge that to be a Christian is ipso facto to be a committed enemy of reason. They are not responding to the observation that many Christians don’t care about the life of the mind; after all, neither do many non-Christians. They are addressing the deeper claim that because Christians believe in certain fundamental truths (the existence of God, their own identity as creatures, the reality of good and evil), they cannot fulfill the high calling of true intellectual work, of mature, heroic, autonomous reason. The authors challenge the assumption that what we call “reason” must proceed in accordance with the prejudices of the Enlightenment.

The bulk of the book is a historical survey of the developments of higher education (and parallel developments in philosophy) from early roots in a holistic understanding of God, Man, and cosmos in the Middle Ages to the fragmentation that characterizes secularized modernity and postmodernity. It is a story that moves from Christian humanism to post-Christian anti-humanism. Advocates of classical education will be particularly interested in the place in this narrative of the rupture between logic and rhetoric, a schism occasioned by the rise of one of the many dualisms this book documents. In this case, it was a dualism that separated reason from metaphysical assumptions, history, language, and revelation.

The book concludes with three chapters discussing how “incarnational thinking” looks in practice. The chapter “Incarnational Humanism and Common Grace” will be of particular interest to those struggling with a framework to integrate deliberately Christian scholarship with the work of non-Christian thinkers.

The question of the nature of human knowing and knowers is also addressed in Steve Talbo ’s Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O’Reilly Media, 2007). Like Klassen and Zimmermann, Talbo is concerned with the dehumanizing tendencies of contemporary culture and how they affect education. But where The Passionate Intellect concentrates on ideas, Talbo ’s book (twenty-one essays in five major groupings) is concerned more with the way techniques and technologies distort our understanding of who we are; Talbo is alerting us to the antecedents rather than the consequences of bad ideas.

The five essays in the middle section of the book (“From Information to Education”) will be of most interest to teachers, but the rest of the book provides a necessary handle to grasp the framework in which Talbo criticizes common uses of technologies in the classroom. He challenges the modern assumption that the main purpose of knowledge is to acquire power to do things. “Something in our culture works powerfully against a sensitive, participative understanding of the world, often obliterating that understanding wherever it does arise.” While not explicitly so, there are strong incarnational themes in Talbo ’s book as well, as he repudiates the common assumption that we know the world only as minds that happen to be in bodies.

Instead, he argues, we know the world best in a fully engaged way, attentive to its details, its interconnectedness, its specificities. Talbo is obviously critical of various fashionable technologies and their uses, but only because we assume that we can be mere “users” of technology, and not symbiotically shaped by it.

Of course, the computer itself is one of the things we need to find a living connection to. We can take justifiable pride in the fact that we conceived and developed the idea of this nearly miraculous machine. But we should not forget that, in order to do this, we had in some sense to reduce ourselves to the machine’s level—to imagine it and mime it within ourselves—until we achieved such a clear, internal expression of it that we could build it in the world. In particular, we had to enter into our own potentials for programmed, automatic thought and action before we could build automatons of silicon, plastic, and metal.

But these potentials are not the only potentials human beings have—and certainly not the highest or most delightful. And so Talbo is concerned that we not re-imagine our own identity after the image and likeness of this miracle working machine—a habit common to idolators of every age.

A different angle of vision considering education is offered in The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue (BrazosPress, 2008). The partners in this dialogue are two brilliant historians, Mark Noll and James Turner, Evangelical and Catholic respectively, both now at Notre Dame, and both keen analysts
of American cultural and religious history. Noll’s essay has a very un-Evangelical title: “Reconsidering Christendom?” He argues that Christian education has been most creative and fruitful when it has been an expression of a vision for the comprehensive consequences of Christian knowledge and practice. Christian movements or communities that promote a merely personal faith are unlikely to commit themselves to serious Christian learning.

Near the end of his essay, Noll suggests that if Christian learning in the United States is to flourish, it will be led by two kinds of individuals. The first are Catholics or older confessional Protestants (who are in many ways more like Catholics than Evangelicals) “who have been touched spiritually by the charismatic movement, by intense personal engagement with the scriptures, or by reconnection to one of Catholicism’s own traditions of intense personal devotion,” but who have not lost “the assumptions of comprehension, community, proprietorship, and universality of Catholic Christendom at its best.”

The other kind of individual likely to succeed in promoting robust Christian education is one from Evangelical or Pentecostal roots who has “come to recognize the docetic, gnostic, and Manichaen tendencies of their evangelical and fundamentalist traditions,” and who has embraced that “Christendom” vision with its comprehensive and public ramifications without losing the inner, personal fire kept alive in the communities in which they grew up.

Where Noll focused on how much Catholic and Evangelical educators need the respective strengths of each others’ traditions, James Turner focuses on the differences between them, especially how different theological emphases have led to differences in practice and mentality. There is a brief but provocative discussion of the tragedy of the specialization of academic disciplines, a loss -among Catholics, Evangelicals, and secularists—of an abiding confidence in the unity of knowledge. This is a subject Turner has addressed elsewhere with great insight (see his collection Language, Religion, Knowledge: Past and Present [Notre Dame, 2003] as well as The Sacred and the Secular University, co-written with Jon H. Roberts [Princeton, 2000]).

Finally, a recent book that does not deal explicitly with education may be the most helpful
of this lot, and also the most challenging. James R. Peters’s The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith (BakerAcademic, 2009) might be assumed—because of its subtitle—to be a work of apologetics, simply defending the claim that we have good reasons to believe. It is that, but it is more fundamentally an examination of the matter of what would constitute “good reasons.” Rather than simply defend Christian belief as rational, Peters insists (following in the footsteps of Augustine, Pascal, and others) that Christian belief properly defines rationality. Peters summarizes the argument of his book in Chapter One: Ultimately, in the Augustinian tradition, the proper function of reason is not merely to make true judgments concerning a world of neutral, nonmoral facts, but to enable the rational individual to make proper contact with reality, a state of being that requires not only ‘true belief,’ but the transformation of the will and a ections needed to put us in touch with—to align up fully with—reality. Assisted by divine charity, the proper function of reason is thus both cognitive and unitive. The perfection of reason requires our being transformed into the kind of persons we are designed to be—persons who are able not only to describe but also to a rm and become united with the God of love.

Peters insists that this Augustinian understanding of knowledge is vastly superior to and more humanizing than its allegedly enlightened alternative. The consequences for educators are significant. As an epigram to Chapter One, Peters cites a 1984 essay by Wendell Berry, who describes the pedagogical effects of the modern view of knowledge, according to which “real” knowledge requires that the knower has to be entirely disengaged from that which is known. As a result, Berry writes, “Objectivity, in practice, means that one studies or teaches one’s subject as such, without concern for its relation to other subjects or to the world—that is, without concern for its truth. If one [by contrast] is concerned, if one cares, about the truth or falsity of anything, one cannot be objective: one is glad if it is true and sorry if it is false; one believes it if it is judged to be true and disbelieves it if it is judged to be false.”

Where Klassen and Zimmermann called for a passionate intellect, Peters similarly champions a “passionate reason.” Reason has its proper ends in the love of God because this is the created telos of humanity. Human reason is not a detachable capacity, a “piece of heartless technology,” properly functioning when detached from ultimate human purposes. It is instead one of the ways in which our humanity fulfills (or denies) itself.

This is not the understanding of reason that prevails in the modern West. But the dispassionate reason championed by Descartes, Locke, Kant, and others has led us not to enlightenment but darkness. Christian educators have the wonderful opportunity to confer to their students an alternative attitude toward the meaning of knowing. Books such as these are instructive reminders of what is at stake.