What is education and what is its end goal? Throughout the centuries different cultures gave different answers. However, there is one culture that has been the repository of divine revelation. The Hebrew people were chosen by God and given the oracles of God that were meant to be a light to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3; Isa. 49:6). Unfortunately, the light God gave through his Word has not been embraced as God intended – even to this day God’s people struggle to teach their children in a way that results in a life-long commitment to God. The result is that people sit in darkness (Isa. 9:2). For that darkness to be dispelled a people must come to know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Ultimately, the light of God came to full expression in Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ – the promised Messiah. However, early in their history God revealed how a people (and individuals) come to know him. God gave a command, known as the Shema, that became central to the Hebrew identity. This paper will argue that the Shema reveals both the methodology and the end goal of education as defined by God. Specifically, God has revealed that parents are the means God uses to educate children through a relational model of learning. When followed as God directs, the Shema fulfills the true purpose of education, which to know, love, value, and obey God.
The Purpose of Education
However, unlike the Hebrews, for most societies’ education was about teaching children to become responsible citizens who could contribute to civic life. The Greeks, for example, believed that “an educated individual was one who could assume responsible living and hold a contributing role in greater society” (Anthony and Benson, 2011, p. 53). In contemporary America John Dewey developed what has been called the theory of Progressive Education. His philosophy of education is based on pragmatism and encouraged an experiential approach to education that also sought to prepare students to become effective citizens in a democracy (Moghal, n.d.). However, unlike the Greeks (whose educational emphasis revolved around tradition), for Dewey, the purpose of education was to enable students to navigate life through their own experiences (Chambliss, 2003, p. 2). His education philosophy was based on the idea that truth is defined by the individual not the larger community he/she is a part of. Their experience of life, when reconstituted towards the larger good of society, can contribute to society’s progress, but for Dewey, the goal was the individual’s progress. The ancient Hebrews also wanted to develop responsible citizens, but with an entirely different goal than the Greeks or our own contemporary society. The goal of education for the Hebrews was to lead citizens to be faithful to God. An individual’s contribution to society was proportional to their faithfulness in walking with and obeying God; and faithfulness to God ensured blessings for the community as a whole (Walter, 1997).
The Goal of Education
In all three societies the method of education was defined by its goal. For the Greeks, and one can argue our own society, the goal of producing productive citizens that contribute to the polis demand a professional class of educators that deliver specialized knowledge. Greeks focused on the outcome for the community, while Americans focus on the outcome for the individual. For the Hebrews, however, the goal of producing a person of faith that walked with God demanded an entirely different process of education. Hence, the Hebrews believed that education was the responsibility of the family (Guterman & Neuman, 2017). And while the Hebrews also wanted a productive citizen, their definition of a productive citizen varied greatly from the Greeks or contemporary America. Where the Greeks wanted citizens who could contribute to, and promote the civic life of the community, the Hebrews wanted a citizen who would uphold the cultic life of the community. For the Greeks, the goal was integration into society for the sake of society. For Americans the goal is integration into society for the sake of the individual. But for the Hebrews, the goal was personal responsibility before God. Any integration into society was proportional to their personal commitment to YHWH. Hence, the Greeks promoted the good of the polis, contemporary America promotes the good of the individual, but the Hebrews promoted the glory of God (cf. Gen. 12:1-2; Hab. 2:14; Mal. 1:11).
The Process of Education
Further, the processes are as varied as are the respective societies’ understanding of metaphysical reality. For the Greeks, life was defined by the gods. Appeasing the gods was necessary, but the gods were not an integral part of personal life (Grant, 1989, p. 73). In other words, people did not interact with the gods on a personal basis. In contemporary America, metaphysics is defined by naturalism (Reinert, 1939). The prevailing ideology posits that life is a product of what can be seen. Hence, there is no personal dimension to metaphysical reality. Like Greek culture, American education seeks what can be known, and the process of education, based on pragmatism, reflects that belief. Professionals transmit knowledge that will benefit either the community (the Greeks) or the individual (contemporary American culture), but the transmission of knowledge is what is important.
However, for the Hebrews, reality is defined by a personal God that seeks to walk in fellowship with individual people. Therefore, because metaphysical reality is defined by a personal God, the educational process of the Hebrews was defined by personal relationships that reflected what is metaphysically real. Instead of professionals teaching what was useful, the Hebrews used parents to teach was what relational. In other words, to understand the nature of reality, it was necessary that their educational process reflect that reality. According to the Hebrews, the nature of reality is defined by a personal God that can be known through love (Anthony and Benson, 2011). While knowledge is important, true knowledge is not obtained until one learns to love God. All knowledge must be filtered through the lens of that relationship. Hence, foundational for the Hebrew mind was learning that knowledge is relational in nature. Therefore, knowledge was transmitted through a love relationship that could approximate the relationship God desired for his people – through the family (Gal 4:6-7). God loves his people as a mother and father love their son or daughter. To experience the knowledge of God, then, the student must first learn what relational knowledge looks like in the context of family. Hence parents, not professionals, were to teach and reflect the nature of God in their daily interactions (Anthony and Benson, 2011, p. 23).
For the Christian community to effectively teach their children, this distinction must be understood. American culture is ultimately an heir of Greek culture (Pearcey, 2004). But Christian culture (based on biblical revelation) is the heir of Hebrew culture. Unfortunately, the American educational system is taken for granted in Christian circles, and even in Christian churches. The impersonal nature of knowledge and its transmission may impart useful, pragmatic knowledge, but it cannot impart relational knowledge that is foundational to understanding both God and his Word. Further, the method utilized to teach communicates something about metaphysical reality. In other words, pedagogy can influence one’s worldview (Lindemann, 2016). If knowledge is grounded in pragmatism and utilitarianism (or even naturalism) then one’s worldview will not rise above the cold indifferent view that knowledge is defined by what is useful and/or beneficial (Dreher, 2016, p. 149). In this view, knowledge is to be discovered and manipulated to change or enhance one’s environment, so Dewey. However, if knowledge is grounded in a metaphysical reality that is relational then one’s worldview will rise above what is seen and embrace a holistic view of life that understands that knowledge is not about what can be used as a first priority, but about who is there. This is not to suggest that all knowledge is only relational. Indeed, scripture clearly teaches that knowledge is both personal and propositional (Wright, 1996, p. 95). However, as defined by scripture, knowledge begins by seeing the Other(s) before it sees things (Deut. 6:4; John 13:35; 1 Cor. 13:1; Rev. 2:4). The nature of love demands this. In God’s eyes, love comes first. Therefore, relational knowledge precedes propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge is encompassed within relational knowledge and is used to define one’s proper response and way of life before God (see Psalm 119). Therefore, to properly see the Other(s) and walk in faith before God, one best learns about God relationally (Matt. 22:35-40; Romans 13:8-10).
The Educational Imperative
It is for this reason that the greatest commandment given to the Hebrew people, called the Shema, is about learning to love God. It reads,
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 (Deuteronomy 6:4, NKJV).
This text is perhaps the most important text in all of Hebrew scripture (Bromiley, 1988, p. 470). Everything else that was written was in some way related to this command to love God (cf. Matt. 22:36-40).
The ultimate purpose of this command was to teach people how to respond to God. They were to love God expressed through obedience. Elsewhere the Bible says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Note the relationship between the knowledge of God, i.e. relational knowledge, and understanding (wisdom), which is the goal of education. In the Shema, the fear of the Lord translates into a life of worship and obedience to God. John Sailhamer (1992) writes, “Ironically, the fear of God which produces obedience is here called ‘love’… It is thus clear that the ‘fear of the Lord’ that Moses has in mind is not that which flees from his presence, but that which longs to do his will” (Sailhamer, 1992, p. 439). When properly understood and taught, life becomes an act of worship before God. Hence, the Shema’s command to love God “is a gathering of terms to indicate the totality of a person’s commitment of self in the purest and noblest intentions of trust and obedience toward God” (Kalland, 1992, p. 64). Therefore, it becomes “a distinctive expression for the totality of right and devout relationship to God” (Kalland, 1992. p. 64). And a right relationship with God was foundational for the educational pursuits of the Hebrew mind.
Further, it should be noted that this command has roots in the very first command God gave to mankind. After God created the first man, scripture informs us that God put Adam in the garden to “tend and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Sailhamer (1992) notes that a preferred translation is “worship and obey.” He writes, “The man is put in the Garden to worship God and obey him. The man’s life in the Garden was to be characterized by worship and obedience; he was to be a priest, not merely a worker and keeper of the Garden” (Sailhamer, 1992, p. 101). This has profound significance as it reveals God’s purpose in creating mankind. Man was created to worship God, and in his act(s) of worship he is to follow God’s will. Therefore, life is an act of worship before God. This was Paul’s understanding of life (cf. Rom. 12:1-2). Thus, education, and all of its pursuits, must begin with the understanding that truth is relational and is lived out as an act of worship before God.
A Living Truth
To say that truth is relational is to recognize that God can be known (John 17:3). God reveals himself to those who seek him. Since all knowledge finds it source in him, and he can be known, it then becomes evident that the root of knowledge is found in the person of God, not an abstraction. Connecting the idea of truth with his person, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The person of God and truth cannot be separated. Again, this is not to suggest that truth cannot be expressed propositionally, but that fundamentally, to best understand truth one must first learn truth relationally. It is for this reason that in conjunction with the command to love God, parents are commanded to teach their children about God. Parents are the means God has ordained and commanded to educate children to learn to love, follow, and obey God. From God’s perspective, this is the starting point for all educational endeavors.
Using parents to teach about God as a first principle of learning is in keeping with the very nature of God as a Trinity. God has revealed himself as three in one. God is perfect unity in oneness. Sailhamer (1992) wrote that, “God is relationship in perfect harmony.” Indeed, the word translated “one” in the above scriptural quote, “The LORD your God … is one,” comes from the Hebrew אֶחָד (echad). The word communicates a plurality of oneness and literally means “to be united” (Sailhamer, n.d.). This word must be seen in contrast with the numeric word יָחִיד (yachiyd). This word communicates solitary oneness, as in one and only, and is never used as a modifier for God. The Holy Spirit has chosen that only the word אֶחָד accurately describes the nature (oneness) of God. Hence, the process of education is rooted in the relational nature of God. For education to be most effective then, this process (as commanded by God) must be followed.
A Path Forward
Earlier the observation was made that Christian education often overlooks the reality that the American education system is rooted in a Greek methodology of learning. Because of Greek influence, American education is grounded in a didactic method of teaching (Augustsson & Boström, 2016). So too the church has adopted the same educational format as its surrounding culture. Students, whether children or adults, sit under a professional who gives propositional instruction. It is expected that the student learns the required lesson and seeks to implement what has been learned (Aagaard, n.d.). Contrast that method with how Jesus taught the twelve disciples. His method of educating them was relational, not didactic. It followed the same format God gave parents in Deuteronomy. His students lived with him for three years. It was in the context of that relationship that truth was communicated and lived out. This teaching method was so effective that after his ascension, his disciples were recognized as wise men who were intellectually capable as well as courageous. In the book of Acts Peter and John were arrested and, during the subsequent interrogation, it was observed: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
If parents are to effectively utilize the relational method to teach their children, there are two alternatives churches and families can adopt. The first is for churches to intentionally equip parents to disciple their children as followers of Christ. While being a part of the church body is both commanded and necessary, it is ultimately the responsibility of parents, not children’s ministers or youth pastors, to teach, lead, and demonstrate to their children what loving, following, and obeying God looks like. Parents must be taught themselves and then use the relational model to intentionally teach their children at home. The second alternative is to expand on the first and choose to home-school the children. In our current culture that emphasizes the necessity of the professional, this is often seen as out of reach for parents. But, consider that “this is not a new practice; in fact, throughout most of human history, parents bore the responsibility for their children’s education” (Neuman & Guterman, 2017, p. 148). But home-schooling has an added advantage in that it expands the discipleship journey into the entire educational process. And while this may seem daunting for some, a few factors must be taken into consideration.
The first addresses matters of faith. Will the God who commands parents to teach their children abandon them when they chose to follow God’s will? The same God who made provision for our sins through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son can also make provision for parents to successfully navigate this journey. Second, homeschooling has proven to not only be a viable educational alternative, but an effective one as well. Homeschooled children have consistently been top achievers in metrics such as GPA, ACT and SAT scores, as well as college admissions (Gloeckner & Jones, 2013, p. 310). Further, studies have shown that the success of the children does not rely on the educational merits of the parents (Lubienski, Puckett, & Brewer, 2013, p. 379). In other words, kids can be effectively educated without the professional class that society has come to depend on.
Further, given the biblical data, homeschooling not only gives parents the flexibility to raise them to know, love value, and obey God, but it is also a recognition that raising children to know God is a God given right (Kunzman, 2010, p. 18-19). God desires that “the little children come” to him (Matt. 19:14); and it is the parent’s responsibility to make that happen. While professionals can teach propositional knowledge that will enable kids to be contributing members of society, they cannot teach them to know, love, value, and obey God; and without the true relational knowledge of God, their education will be eternally incomplete.
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