One of the problems of the debates around modern schooling is that in the tussle between the modernist, future-looking view of the knowledge curriculum (as expounded by innumerable technophiles and those who see digital technology as a fundamental means through which learning will occur) and the conserving, conservative approach (Michael Oakeshott might be an example here, but there are plenty of others, including Anthony Esolen and Neil Postman) to which I naturally lean, there is no real agreed understanding of the nature of knowledge itself. The epistemology of learning is no longer really taught and debated, and we have reduced the idea of the curriculum (since the enlightenment, and certainly since John Dewey) to a triad of knowledge, skills and understanding. The debate often centres around which of these three is the most important; understanding is apparently the most “valued.” I remember Sir John Jones speaking to a collection of North Shropshire teachers and TAs in Shrewsbury Town FC in 2010 and asking us which of the three was most important; the pressure not to put your hand up when he called out “knowledge” was huge. Nobody did. We had all swallowed the lie. Knowledge, in the teacher world, is less important than understanding, apparently.

Those writers, such as ED Hirsch (popularly) who argue for a reappraisal of the historic knowledge content of the curriculum are roundly criticised by many in the educational world because of the perceived inadequacy in the relevance of the historic knowledge content to the lives of learners. This is not the place for a defence of Hirsch’s ideas, though as those of you who know me will attest, I am minded to support the teaching of a rigorous content in all aspects of the curriculum. The fact that we don’t esteem curricular rigour has more to do with the poor education levels of the teacher workforce in this country and less to do with any philosophy of education. My cousin, a retired secondary teacher of English in Surrey, often used to make the case that Shakespeare has no relevance to the lives of teenagers today, so why teach it? My answer is: if teachers had a better mastery of the curriculum content and requirements, then I daresay they would have greater confidence to teach it to their children. This has been driven, over two generations, by an unwillingness of those who do have that strong intellectual background to enter teaching as a profession, and the growth of a within-school, generally unintellectual teacher education culture that simply has not the resources to teach new teachers all they need to know. Don’t get me started on the gross inadequacies of teacher training in the UK. Suffice it to say that we need cultural leaders in our schools teaching our children, and at the moment we do not have enough of them. When Shakespeare is taught well and with excitement, skill and purposeful intent, our testimony at Christ the Sower is that children lap it up, understand it and see the relevance immediately to their lives.

I digress. Since the enlightenment, the liberal-progressive view of learning has tended to dominate education, and insights into the nature of knowledge that have come from Christian teaching have not made their way into the learning culture of the UK. There are many reasons for this – some good ones among them; a lot of religious teaching about the nature of truth is fairly dire – but it is problematic that Christian teachers, and there are a lot of them, do not have a firm grasp of a biblical understanding of the nature and purpose of knowledge. This has to do with what is taught in churches, I suspect, but it is a critical lack. It means that a cognitive dissonance creeps into the thinking and planning of teachers. They look at the curriculum as enlightenment-informed teachers and not as biblically-informed and biblically-versatile Christians for whom teaching is part of their vocation and discipleship. Is it too much to ask? In a little Grove book that is in press (I hope), I include the nature of knowledge as one of 7 streams of theological thought that Christians in education need to be consciously working within if they are to be truer to their God-given vocation as teachers. There I argue, firstly, that knowledge is a function of God’s existence, and our knowledge of anything only full once it is seen through that prism; secondly, I contend, with Dallas Willard, that Jesus is the smartest person who ever lived and that if we have any lack of understanding in any discipline, he will know more about it than we do. What else could it mean when Paul says that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge?

The most useful framework for a biblical understanding of knowledge is that posited by Tom Wright in his essay How the Bible reads the modern world. For a start, the title is brilliant, and absolutely puts God in his proper place – as the arbiter and interpreter, on his own terms, of what we call knowledge.  It presupposes, this title, that nothing can be truly known until we know Him. Jeremiah states: Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom….but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises faithfulness, righteousness and justice upon the earth, for in these I delight (Jer 9:23-24)

Wright argues four things:

  • That knowledge is always for something – it is both relational and responsible to that which is known.
  • That knowledge is part of bringing the creation to order and flourishing.
  • Knowledge is rooted in God’s wisdom and therefore the knower stands not outside that knowledge (imagine a scientist looking at an experiment) but within it, as part of a wider world of interlocking relationships.
  • Knowledge is always communal, open to new insights, never held in isolation.

Each of these requires some exploration: even if they eventually lead us to similar or parallel practice to that which we may have gained through the enlightenment model, the route into understanding and the root down into wisdom will be different. Underpinning Wright’s argument is a concept of a continuum of knowledge – he contrasts the knowledge that a scientist might gain by repeated experimentation, with that of a philosopher or a literary critic, whose claim to knowledge rests on different presuppositions than repeated experimentation. This continuum is not a vertically valued one (“my knowledge is more secure than yours, because I have done the experiments”), but a horizontal one, where the mode of knowing varies depending on the discipline.

Knowledge is for something. Wright contends that

‘In the Bible, we find a vocation to human knowing that is always relational…. responsible….. fully attentive to the person or thing that is known, and yet always bringing it to the larger world of narrative, imagination, metaphor and art that enables us to know things more fully than merely as a list of facts or a string of formulas.’ (p.147)

This is generally uncontentious from an Enlightenment perspective, as the purpose of knowledge has always, in that world-view, been to put it to use for human progress. Where we might have to swim upstream on this is in defining the sort of progress to which that knowledge is put and the detachment that that self-same knowledge has from that which is most fundamentally in need of knowledge, namely, the Creator and Redeemer God. In other words, all our knowledge is at root, a knowledge of God and his creation and purposes. What it is for is the second point of Wright’s…

Knowledge helps to bring the creation to order and fruition. Elsewhere I have expounded Miroslav Wolf’s understanding of human flourishing. It is a vision of community over selfishness; it points away, Volf contends, from individual experiential satisfaction towards rich fellowship with our neighbour; from human self-improvement towards compassion for the weak; from a concern for living well personally, to concern for the welfare of our society. Knowledge that is useful and valid to progress in, must I believe, take these three apexes of the flourishing triangle and lead to a deeper relational knowledge of our history, geography, belief systems, sociology, linguistic heritage, scientific achievements and other cultural acquisitions so that:

  • all can share them, the poorest especially
  • we create a more just society, in anticipation of the return of the (knowledge-bearing) King
  • the quality of our self-understanding and our identity is rooted in a true view of community.

Wright points out that the knowing subject is made in the image of the creator and thus:

the subject is called to reflect the creator’s wisdom and care into the world, and to reflect the praises of creation back to the creator. Because…the knowing subject has a vocation in relation to the known…knowing about the world is supposed to be part of the work of bringing the creator’s wise ordering into the world.

Knowledge is rooted in God’s wisdom. Far from being outside the known, the knower in the biblical sense is linked to the known by wisdom and the huge range of interlocking relationships that mean that my knowledge of the known has far more ramifications that just making notes to myself (or writing a blog!).

The knowing that goes with wisdom in the biblical sense sees the object of study not as an isolated entity to be manipulated or exploited but as part of a much larger world of interlocking connections and mutual relationships. (p.148).

Knowledge is communal. Learners, as Vygotsky said long ago, and in Russian, is a social thing. We learn together and from each other. Our relationships are what keep us humble in our knowledge and understanding. We remain open to other insights.

These foundations of a biblical understanding of knowledge are truly a basis for a proper church school curriculum, or in fact ANY school curriculum. None of what is written above debases knowledge, but expands both its efficacy and its relevance. If a scientist knows the creation without a knowledge of its Creator, how complete and useful is her knowledge?

This understanding of knowledge, unsurprisingly, can be summed up simply as love – as God’s rich affection for his beloved creation and all who live in it. His knowledge of us from of old, sacrificial, generous, grace-filled, over the top and highly personal – David says in Psalm 18 that “he stoops down to make me great” – this is the source of all our knowledge and understanding, the link between the personal, the faithful and the theological come together in the fact that Jesus, the man, knows us.

That is a basis for a life curriculum.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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  1. […] is a short follow-up to a post from the end of July, where I argued for an epistemology for Christian teachers that differs in intent from that argued […]

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