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Volume 15, Issue 2: Tohu

Against Subjects

Jared Miller

The classical and Christian reformation of education is thriving. What is next? Once biblical worldview thinking and the trivium are more or less understood and applied, is there no more room for curricular improvement?

I suggest, not a novel improvement, but a more thorough and profound recognition of the implications of the adjective Christian. Many (in these pages and elsewhere) have emphasized the importance of knowledge that is highly integrated, balancing analysis with synthesis. We ought to begin thinking seriously about applying these insights to the integration of curricula.
Some programs tout integration on an entirely theological level. "Christ is the arche, so all our school subjects cohere in Him." This is a neat and biblical answer which has the virtue of ending discussion without often motivating tangible action. True, each subject might be taught "from a Christian worldview perspective," which essentially means that everything is salted with Christian thought—in history we speak of sin, redemption, the role of the church, the blessing and judgments of God; in science we talk of natural revelation and creation-evolution debates; and so on. All this instruction is useful and right, but at its worst, the method accepts the categorization of "subjects," including theology, which then need to be "reconciled" or connected somehow. The curriculum is integrated in principle, but fails to be so in practice. This conditions students to think of knowledge in terms of subjects, which actually limits understanding of individual subjects. Literature, history, art, science, theology, and language all relate in complex ways. Learning their relationships is part of learning them individually, yet many curricula fail to take advantage of this.
I propose three principles of integration. The first is, of course, an expanded version of the theological integration that most programs already offer. Scriptural understanding should permeate every subject and not just lightly salt it. This means deep engagement with the fundamental assumptions and issues of mathematics, science, aesthetics, history, and civics. All knowledge is a means to knowing and loving God and neighbor better. Since this principle is widely recognized, it need not be our focus here.
The second principle might be called a narrative-based approach. The curriculum uses history extensively to tie the teaching of subjects together in as many ways as possible. Stories, including histories, have the virtue of being memorable and of deftly uniting the disparate elements (people, ideas, technologies, movements, discoveries) of which they tell. They are a prime means to knowledge—to know the (hi)story of a discipline in depth is to understand the discipline. In this scheme the student, by accessing each branch of knowledge through history, essentially recapitulates in himself the gradual education of the human race. Learning is jumping into the middle of a conversation at ten o'clock when it started at seven; to understand what is happening you need what we normally call "background" in our deprecating manner, but which is actually the heart of the issue: not only the issue but the conversation which produced it. This narrative or historical approach is perhaps the most convenient and all-embracing way of integrating our current subjects. Studying the Greeks, for example, would involve the whole connected development of their language, literature, art, architecture, geography, sciences, philosophy, and religion. Studying the contemporary Hebrew, Chinese, and other cultures at the same time opens constant possibilities for comparative studies. Like a skillful plot of a complex novel, the story of knowledge would move in and out of different threads with relative ease.
Integration could occur on a topical level as well. Thus astronomy could be coordinated with portrayals of stars and planets in literature and poetry, their use in navigation and the cultural consequences of early exploration, and their description in Genesis. Of course, certain subjects don't lend themselves well (at least now) to narrative or topical approaches: reading, writing, mathematics, and science often lend themselves to more systematized approaches. On the other hand, reading and writing assignments quite easily adapt to a narrative-oriented cultural study and to just about any individual topic; sciences, while focusing on modern science, can easily tie into history or a specific topic, as in the above example. Mathematics should include its history at all levels, and geometry, for example, would be an admirable companion to classical studies.
The classical Christian education movement is growing, and like all growing causes, its popularization immediately puts it in danger of being simplified and misapplied. If its theory and practice, losing nuances each time it is duplicated, were finally reduced to the five points of "Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Latin, Bible" (a pity it doesn't spell anything), its founders would be horrified. The real world often defies categorization, and children happen to be unusually real in this respect. An education that lurches, not only between subjects but between the stages of the Trivium, ends up imposing a rarified theory on child development instead of "cutting with the grain," with poor results. Radical integration of curricula is the next step in the reformation of education. It may take decades or even centuries, but that should motivate the next generation of Christian educators even more to begin tackling it today.

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