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Learning for the Common Good by Byron Borger

Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective Paul Spears & Steven Loomis (IVP Academic; 2010) $22.00

In the last two years, InterVarsity Press has invited serious reflection on how a reasonable Christian worldview would effect the foundations of various academic disciplines, from business to philosophy to communications. IVP has released a series of books with uniform covers, plainly designed, but laden with explosive insights. This recent release in the “Christian Worldview Integration” series is remarkable for several reasons and deserves to be widely discussed. Firstly, education is perhaps one of the most commonly experienced aspects of life in the Western world: we all have been educated, and anyone who is a parent simply must attend to the complexities, joys and frustrations of helping their children learn (in one manner or another.) Oddly, there have been few serious books written to think deeply about the nature of schooling and what education is for; even fewer bring an integrated Christian frame of reference to the project of pondering these very real concerns. So this is a strategic, necessary resource.

It is written by two professors of educational philosophy—one from Biola University, the other from Wheaton College—who make the case that education is a foundation for the flourishing of people within any society. If we offer a failing vision, it hurts not only the students of our public schools but all of society. In the context of a typically pluralistic public school setting, what might people of Christian faith have to offer? How might our view of human nature, especially, influence our understanding of the point and nature of education, and how might we offer that Godly insight within the broader conversations about the public good? Admittedly, this is a serious read, not a simple set of inspiring devotions to help nervous parents. Rather, it is a robust and decidedly intellectual Christian set of convictions about our information economy, the needs of 21st century students, the teaching of social ethics, and how a critical reconsideration of the deepest influences from the history of education might help us offer new visions for educational policy and practice. It includes ongoing conversations with classics in the field, from Aristotle or C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, to John Dewey or the latest documentation on the difficulties of contemporary schools. One reviewer says that “Spears and Loomis have crafted an erudite, refreshingly honest and comprehensive critique of our educational system.” It is a rare book, serious and important.

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The End of Education; Redefining the Value of School Neil Postman (Random House; 1995) $15.00

Although this book is not even two decades old, it seems to have come from a place a long time ago. Indeed, Mr. Postman, the late and greatly esteemed professor of media at NYU, once wrote a book about “building a bridge to the 18th century” suggesting that there may be great wisdom in learning about an earlier era. Postman was a jolly and good man although his writing was appreciated not for its levity but for its gravity. He was a cultural critic par excellence—learned, thoughtful, provocative, and wise about the (deformed) ways of the world. His first book, written in the heady days of the 1960’s, suggested that the act of good teaching was “subversive.” Here, in this splendid, readable call to sustainable values in schooling, based on significant aims, he tells us why. First, Postman exposes that which we must subvert—the pointlessness of shallow education. It is based on an American educational myth that suggests that knowing a lot of random stuff matters in life. Or that education comprises mostly of passing the right sorts of tests to enable one to get to the right kind of college whereby one can (of course) be done with learning and enter a lucrative career.

This “end”—the Greek word he employs is telos—of education is surely the beginning of the end of meaningful education since that goal is patently bankrupt. It is not that in this bad economy, education for a well-paying job and entrance to the well-heeled set is unlikely, it is that Postman maintains, with the authority of a Hebrew prophet, that this is simply not a good enough end. We need a better, more human, and more lasting telos. And herein lies the essence of the book: Postman reminds us of the need for an overarching vision, a reason for having kids go to school, and he suggest that this end simply must be better than the current options animating most educational reforms. If we don’t have the right “end”, he insists, we will soon reach the “end” of meaningful education. This wise, feisty book is a must read for parents, educators, school leaders and college students, anyone grappling with the well ordered goals, anyone wanting to learn deeply, for reasons more potent than that a good education will help you fit in to the American dream of upward mobility. This is not an overtly religious book but for those of us eager to allow our faith convictions to shape our lives—even our views about learning, education, and schooling, and the very reason for education—Postman’s wisdom about a plausible and coherent telos is wisdom we simply must take to heart. This is a not-too-ancient classic with old wisdom that we need for today.

You can order both of these books at Hearts and Minds Books. Mention Q Ideas when you order and receive 20% off.