In early 2016 there were an estimated 2.3 million homeschooled students in the United States, and this amount appears to be growing. The reason why more and more families choose this educational option are many, but one of the primary reasons is the failure of our modern educational system. Not only is academic performance declining, but our schools are becoming less safe for our students, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Some studies rank the United States 30th in math, 19th in science, and 38th overall in academics among 71 industrialized nations. Character training and issues of the heart are no longer part of the curriculum. The alarming violence and immorality so rampant on school campuses today show the results of this void.
The Industrial Model of Education
With lectures, rules and ringing bells, we continue to use an industrial model of education designed to churn out factory workers. Students learn how to agree with the masses, but not how to think for themselves. Subjects are taught in isolation, resulting in students who fail to understand how all knowledge is interrelated.
Our current system undermines the ability of parents to direct the moral formation of their children. Fathers and mothers are denied a voice regarding the values being taught in our schools. Many school districts have the attitude that once a child enters the doors of the schools, the parents no longer have jurisdiction.
A close examination of modern education reveals that it is not education at all. Our current system bears at least three fundamental flaws: the incorrect focus on right knowing instead of right being, the lack of instruction in how to discern truth and communicate it winsomely, and the disintegration of subjects, not teaching how all things fit together and are stamped with the fingerprint of the Creator.
It’s All About the Heart
In order to know what constitutes a quality education, we must first understand what education is according to Scripture. Is education simply the accumulation of knowledge?
Educators must focus not only on the mind, but also on character so that knowledge can be rightly used. In the Old Testament, the idea of education flowed out of the heart. Education was inseparably tied to God: knowing His commandments, obeying them, and teaching them to the next generation.
Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you—‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Throughout the Old Testament we see that in order to enjoy life and contribute effectively in the world, one must first be in right relationship to the Creator. Any discovery of truth or pursuit of knowledge must flow from this foundation.
Modern secular education (and even some Christian education) prioritizes filling a student’s mind with facts, neglecting character training and the fear of God. As a homeschooling parent who spent many years in traditional schools, I occasionally find myself focused on filling my children’s minds at the expense of cultivating their relationship with the Lord. This ought not to be. The training of the heart in character and virtue is fundamental to all true learning. True education must begin in the right place with a focus on reaching our students’ hearts.
A Return to a Focus on Language and Logic
Today’s schools are preoccupied with crossing items items off an academic to-do list. Teachers spoon feed their students, telling them what to think instead of inspiring them to pursue truth themselves. Unfortunately, children “educated” in this method graduate without the tools needed for lifelong learning. Handicapped both intellectually and spiritually, they are vulnerable to the deception so pervasive in our culture today.
Dorothy Sayers in her famous essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning” claims that the necessary tools of learning are no longer taught. She states:
“Is not the great defect of our education today–a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned–that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.
How much do you remember from your education as a young person? I can’t say I remember much. Sayers points out that young people leave school, forgetting most of what they have learned. They don’t even have the tools to tackle a new subject. They grow into adults who don’t know how to distinguish a quality, scholarly written work from one that is not sound.
Sayers argues that modern educators should reach back in time to the Middle Ages when learning was accomplished through the use of the trivium. The trivium was an educational discipline composed of three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Students did not learn subjects. Rather, they learned how to learn. The intent of the trivium was to teach the proper tools of learning before applying these tools to a specific area of study.
First, in the grammar (ages 5-12) stage students learned language. Then in the dialectic stage (ages 12-14) students practiced how to use that language to make accurate statements, construct arguments, and detect fallacies. Finally, during the rhetoric stage (ages 14-18) students learned to express themselves eloquently and persuasively. Once this progression was complete, a student composed a thesis, spoke on it intelligently, and defended it against criticism. Now the student had acquired the tools by which he could master any subject for the rest of his life.
Education should not simply be focused on subjects. Instructing our students on the essentials of language and how to use it effectively is of utmost importance. Students must learn research and reasoning skills such as discernment, refutation, and debate. They must also study how to speak directly to an argument without inserting irrelevant matter. True education should focus on the mastery of language and logic so that our students can become seekers and communicators of truth.
The Fruit of Educating with the Trivium
For years I have organized our homeschool curriculum according to the trivium with an intentional focus on language and logic. It’s amazing to see the fruit of this approach!
Last year our state legislature introduced a bill that my 17- year old son opposed on moral grounds. As part of the legislative process, a committee scheduled a public hearing on the bill. My son learned about the hearing with just a few days to prepare and decided to attend and give testimony opposing the bill.
He spent the next few days writing a speech on the issue. For several hours, we listened to testimony, waiting for his turn to speak. When his name was finally called, he politely thanked the committee for the chance to be heard and proceeded to deliver his prepared remarks.
His speech was well-researched, logical, backed up by evidence, and full of passion. When he finished his presentation, the chairman of the committee asked him, “How old did you say you were again?” He seemed surprised that a young person was able to express himself so articulately. The chairman graciously offered praise and encouraged my son to stay engaged in the political process.
Sadly, nowadays it is noteworthy for a young person to speak with authority and composure. Because my son had studied research, critical thinking, persuasive writing, and public speaking, he could argue an issue of grave importance. When the opportunity presented itself, he rose to the challenge.
I’m happy to report that the bill never made it out of committee. I watched my son in wonder at the state house that day, thankful that somehow God was using my imperfect attempts to shape and prepare him. I was thrilled to see how a solid education in language and logic had served him.
The Integration of All Things
Modern education approaches each subject separately, taught in separate classrooms by separate teachers. Individual subjects are islands unto themselves. Students receive little training in how language relates to math or how thoughtful study of science is connected with morality.
Furthermore, modern education fails to teach how God is at the central, unifying reality of all knowledge. Any truth that exists belongs to God. With Him at the center there is rationality, unity, order, and beauty. When our students are not taught to recognize relationships within the created order, the essence of knowledge is lost. True education does not present subjects in seclusion. It teaches our students to look for and recognize important connections they can use to inform the future.
Reclaiming education in our society is essential if we are to turn out godly thinkers. We need men and women of conviction who rightly know how to recognize truth, speak truth, and defend truth. We must employ the tools of learning to accomplish the sacred task of educating the current generation and those to come. The future of our nation, of our world depends on it!