The Dilemma of Education 1

In this post, I just want to present the pamphlet written by Cornelius Van Til about The Dilemma of Education. He presents the two primary perspectives concerning philosophy of education. He briefly explained the basic components of the various versions of modern views of education such as:

  • The instrumentalist
  • The idealist
  • Some recent developments and
  • Two Christian (non-Reformed) views of education

He argues that all the enumerated views of education are not able to resolve the dilemma of education. This dilemma is expressed in various terms but the substance is the same. It is all about the tension between unity and diversity, continuity and discontinuity, and constancy and change. He concludes this paper in presenting the Reformed view of education, which he believes is the only alternative that provides the solution to this dilemma of education.

The Instrumentalist’s View of Education

The instrumentalist view of education owes its existence to the work of John Dewey. The educational theory of John Dewey possesses elements that are contrary to historic Christianity. This theory opposes primarily any idea of transcendence whether in the form of idealism or Christianity. Dewey believes that transcendence destroys the continuity of human experience because of the former’s static view of reality. Transcendence due to its “staticism” is indifferent towards human experience and “is essentially dualistic.”

Another element of Dewey’s educational philosophy is about man as “the final reference point in human experience.” The question of criterion comes into the picture. Dewey recognizes the difficulty about this question and yet affirms that such can only be found within man himself. In this matter of criterion, his dilemma is to provide a reliable norm to distinguish human growth from animal growth and also to distinguish educative experience from “miseducative” experience. Concerning miseducative experience, he claims that any negative experience leading “to callousness, to a lack of sensitivity, and responsiveness” can be qualified as such.

Still another element of Dewey’s theory is related to the development of an individual. This goal would only be attained if the educational agency would be perceived as performing the task of purifying the environment towards an ideal society. The filthy elements that must be removed are those influences that “bring ultimate separation between groups of men” and thereby detrimental to the realization of an ideal society. Examples of these influences are doctrines such as the self-existence of the God of Christianity, creation, fall into sin, election, and the like. This is equivalent to say that an ideal democratic society of the future cannot be reconciled with the absolute claims of Christianity. Therefore, Christianity has no place in this future society.

To conclude this section, one last thing to note about Dewey’s theory is its opposition to any form of revelation of God to man. Such revelation does not exist in Dewey’s philosophy for this will negate the idea that the standard in human experience is provided by man.

All the elements enumerated above tell us that as far as education is concern, Christianity has already been replaced by another form of religion, which is the religion of modern science. Denial of this fact is grounded on the belief about the myth of neutrality.

However, despite of the seeming attractiveness of Dewey’s theory, it is not without its own woes. In fact it is confronted by numerous difficulties. The necessity to explain “the idea of direction in human experience” is one example. The provision of “the purifying medium” is another. Still another is the emphasis on the continuity of experience raises the question of the profitability of past experiences. Many other similar examples can be cited, which remain unanswered.

The Idealist’s View of Education

Under this discussion, what Van Til did was to critic first the instrumentalist theory of education from the idealist point of view and then proceeded to present the assumption of the latter. After doing this, he utilized Dewey’s framework in return to critic the idealist school and concluded with critical evaluation of both schools.

The idealist charged the instrumentalist that it cannot offer unity to educational theory for its philosophical basis does not provide knowledge about the future of ideal society. The future ideal society cannot be subjected to experimentation and therefore will always remain “transcendent,” a concept that Dewey denies. In this sense there is no way that a teacher can relate the present experience of the learner for the development of society. Education has lost its sense of direction. Dewey is forced to return to the elements that he strongly opposed such as the restoration of life in fairyland and authoritarianism. Idealist even says that instrumentalist cannot appeal to the past for support for the instrumentalist’s perspective teaches, “the past is as dark as the future.” Only the present is real and valuable. In Dewey’s philosophy therefore, both an ideal goal for education and a valid criterion to distinguish between the educative and miseducative are missing.

The idealist’s view of education “presupposes the priority of the reflective mind…and an absolute mind.” This presupposition supplies the necessary ideals and standard in education. This is the view held by Plato. He believes that man “must look beyond the temporal to the eternal for that unity which human beings need.” The instrumentalist would reply to Plato’s idealism in this way. Plato’s appeal to an absolute mind in the eternal realm is wholly unknown and therefore meaningless when it comes to practice.

I discern in Van Til’s writing three primary objections against the two identified educational philosophies. One, he claims that both schools of educational philosophy suffer from internal contradiction. “Each has shown that the other cannot furnish any knowable principle of continuity[1] for human experience…. The apparent continuity that pragmatism has is borrowed from the idealism, which it rejects. Similarly the apparent applicability of the idealist’s principle of continuity is borrowed from the pragmatism, which it rejects. A consistent pragmatic theory would lead to pure indeterminism…. A pure theory of idealism would lead to determinism…” Two, both schools oppose “the tales of mythology and theology.” They are both “hostile to Christianity.” And finally, both of them share similar “assumption of human autonomy.”


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