Thursday, January 16, 2014

Worldview Education and Christian Pragmatism

I am delighted that Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity has now put online the article about education that I wrote for their Sept/Oct 2013 issue. My article, titled 'More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts' arose out of observations on some of the ways the idol of pragmatism has infected Christian approaches to the liberal arts, often in the name of 'worldview education.'

The pragmatic approach to the liberal arts sees their value as deriving primarily from specific quantifiable ends, such as winning the culture war. According to this mentality, when a Christian is taught the liberal arts from a Christian worldview, he is essentially being equipped with a set of tools. These tools can be defensive (helping the student shore up his faith against the challenge of false worldviews) or offensive (giving the student the intellectual equipment to make gains in the ongoing fight to claim our culture for Christ), but in both cases, they are valued for their usefulness.

According to this approach, we need to study the great thinkers and writers of the past, not so much because the things they said are valuable in and of themselves, but because studying them will give us the brain-power to better defend our beliefs and convince others that the Christian worldview is true.

In my Touchstone article I try to show that there is an alternative to this pragmatic approach which is still explicitly rooted in the Biblical worldview.
Here are some teasers from the article:

"Appreciating that some artifacts are good in themselves, and not merely because of what they do for us, is the first step towards a proper appropriation of the liberal arts. The best argument for teaching children to love Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Hopkins is simply that these authors wrote things that are beautiful. Just as the best reason for smelling a rose is that it has a lovely fragrance, so the best reason for learning Latin is that Virgil's Aeneid is beautiful. Again, the template for this approach is creation itself.

Christian worldview education is in danger of being hijacked by pragmatists who think that non-utilitarian approaches somehow depart from the imperative to bring all things under Christ....
"The exclusively pragmatic approach does a particularly great disservice to the teaching of literature since it orients us to adopt a didactic and utilitarian approach to texts. We may start to think that the value of a text lies in the worldview lessons we are able to draw out of it and completely overlook the aesthetic considerations. Many, for instance, have the idea that the primary purpose of learning Shakespeare is to understand allusions and figures of speech, or that memorizing poems is mainly good as an exercise to develop memory skills, or that the value of learning Latin is to understand word origins, and so forth. The idea that learning Virgil in the original Latin has a value not tied to any practical benefit strikes them as odd.

When students are trained to think in strictly pragmatic ways, they will find it difficult to enjoy, say, a Shakespeare play if they can't derive a specific worldview lesson from it. They may become so over-active in finding worldview lessons that they discern some Shakespeare never intended. How much better it would be to get them to enjoy Shakespeare plays simply for their masterly use of language and compelling plots and characters. How much better for students to come to love things that are noble and praiseworthy even when they do not have a specific use. As Flannery O'Connor put it in Mystery and Manners, "The fact is, people don't know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as so many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something...."
"Being able to just be in the presence of beauty is central to coming to know God and to participate in the sacramental life. As students come to appreciate beauty for its own sake—independent of utilitarian goals—their souls are prepared to receive God at a deep, pre-cognitive level. As Oscar Wilde understood, sensitivity to the beauty of material things prepares one's soul to become sensitive to the beauty of spiritual things. To learn to be still and silent in the presence of great beauty prepares one to be still and silent in the presence of great holiness.
To read my entire article, click on the link below:

'More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts'

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