A couple of weeks ago, after the Society For Classical Learning conference, I posted something called “The Problem With Worldview Education” — this, based on some comments in a conference speech by the classical educator Joshua Gibbs. They caused a big stir among worldview educators. I want to clarify that I don’t know enough about worldview education to make a definitive judgment on it. The things Gibbs said made sense to me, but if you’ll look back at my post, I invited critical comments from worldview education supporters.

I received a couple of things separately by two prominent people in the field. I post them here with their permission — and again, I invite critical (but constructive) commentary.

Here’s the first, from Dr. Jeff Myers, head of Summit Ministries, whose “worldview quiz” I criticized in the entry. I should point out again that I spoke at Summit some years back, and had a great time there. Whatever theological, pedagogical, other disagreements we might have, they’re really good people, and I want to emphasize that. Here’s what Dr. Myers wrote to me:

Rod, I’m the head of Summit Ministries—the organization that designed the worldview survey you took. I’m hoping that by writing to you personally I can enter into the dialogue and then send a version of this correspondence by email, along with a link to your article, to the folks on our Summit mailing list. Please feel free to publish this letter if you think it advances the conversation.

Let me say upfront that you are well-loved and respected here at Summit. Your book Crunchy Cons describes how many of my colleagues and I see our lives in our little hippie town, Manitou Springs, Colorado.

So about the survey. We created it to spark a dialogue about worldviews. I think it is working. Of course, the danger is that respondents would think that we’re passing judgement on their faith commitment. That’s why we put a disclaimer statement at the beginning of the survey stating that it in no way suggests whether someone is a good or bad Christian. The purpose is dialogue and spiritual growth.

The questions in the survey come from the writings of prominent advocates of each of the worldviews we’re considering. No survey is perfect, but I think these questions are holding up pretty well relative to previous studies conducted across various denominations, age groups, and regions of the country.

I think we both agree that ideas flow in patterns, and that they have consequences when lived out. We may disagree on some aspects of a Christian worldview, but neither of us would conclude that therefore no Christian worldview exists.

In the survey, we tried to reflect this kind of thoughtful flexibility. We did not score 7-day creationism as the default (as one your respondents asserted). We did not assume that capitalism is the biblical response—we just tested levels of agreement with representative Marxist statements. We did score responses higher that agree with assurance of salvation.

I respect that you and I view this differently, and I’m among those concerned about the evangelical reliance on formulaic prayers that “guarantee” salvation. Still, I don’t think it is faithful to the biblical witness to say that we can have no assurance of salvation.

About the comments of the classical school teacher, Joshua Gibbs. I think his definition of worldview education is a straw man. I don’t know about all worldview education programs, but the way Joshua defines it is exactly the opposite of the way we teach it in our Summit programs and curricula. Here’s how we see it.

Worldview education done well:

• Enables students to understand the patterns that emerge as ideas flow through history, recognizing that ideas have consequences

• Prepares students to contemplate reasonable, biblically-faithful answers to life’s big questions

• Opens up a more mature dialogue with those who reject the biblical witness as well as fellow believers who disagree on various points

Worldview education done poorly:

• Leads students to be cynical rather than curious

• Narrows students’ range of thought rather than broadening it

• Encourages students to become conceited rather than compassionate in their response to others

A good worldview education is about the approach as well as the content. In the courses we have designed for Christian schools, we “flip” the classroom so that it is nearly 100% dialogue. In our summer programs, our 65 instructors and our 140 twenty-something mentors see truth and relationship as two strands of the DNA of influence. Our goal is to put rungs in the ladder between truth and relationship for the students we interact with.

No approach is a miracle cure. I am among those who believe in the kind of classical education Joshua advocates—two of my children were trained in classical schools. But classical education—even of the Christian variety—isn’t a cure-all. Many of the thousands of students I work with have received such an education. Two weeks ago, one of them told me, “Look, my classmates know exactly how to give our teachers the impression that we’re all wonderful thinkers, but inside they’re going, ‘It’s all bullcrap’— and they live like it.”

When it comes to getting students to honestly wrestle with ideas, I’d like to see the range of options broadened rather than narrowed. At Summit we use dialogue, conversation, small groups, open forums, Q & A, lectures, mentoring, curriculum, webinars—you name it. As one of our graduates, David Eaton, phrases it, we want students to find answers to their unanswered questions and to ask questions that challenge their unquestioned answers.

In your article you express concern that worldview education leads to an unthinking dismissal of works like those of Marx and Nietzsche. The courses we’ve designed for Christian schools don’t ignore these thinkers. In fact, they’re required reading, along with Plato, Bertrand Russell, Michael Shermer, John Hick, Bart Ehrman, Richard Dawkins, Darwin, Freud, the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Humanist Manifesto, and others. We have our students read widely because we want them to truly understand other worldviews: their founders, their histories, their arguments, and their implications.

But in doing this, we never want to give our students the impression that the dominant worldviews of our day are morally equivalent. We take pains to point out interesting insights of non-Christian worldviews, but we also invite students to question whether Karl Marx is truly Christian-like in his concern for the poor. If students don’t grasp Marx’s larger body of work, which includes atheism and the abolition of religion as necessary conditions for the good life, we don’t think they’ve been well educated.

That’s a great and gracious response, and I’m grateful to Dr. Myers for it. If you, reader, have a critical response to Dr. Myers’s words, please make sure it’s constructive.

Here’s something I received from my pal John Stonestreet, head of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

The problem with classical education is that it fosters an intellectual arrogance in students which becomes a sort of reverse “chronological snobbery.” Rather than, as C.S. Lewis used the term, referring to the modern impulse that “anything newer is necessarily better,” the classical version creates in students an impulse that everything older was somehow better, as if there were a time in literature, language, logic, and learning that certain folks (though only those from “Western civilization”) were somehow not impacted in their thinking and writing by the Fall. The many classically educated students that I come across who have caught this attitude of superiority show that it is a deeply flawed model, and fails to prepare them to deal with tangible realities of contemporary culture.

Now, as someone whose children are currently educated in a classically modeled educational hybrid program that I love, I don’t believe what I just wrote. Still, the temptation to caricature that movement, one that I think is not only educating them well but educating them better than the alternatives, was irresistible after reading Joshua Gibbs’ caricature of worldview education, worldview “analysis,” and the concept of worldview itself.

First, though the word “worldview” came originally from German idealism, David Naugle among others has aptly demonstrated that the concept can be found in Scripture, not to mention Augustine and other early Christian writers as they dealt with the cultures in which they lived. See Worldview: The History of a Concept. 

Second, the more modern movement didn’t start with Focus on the Family or Summit Ministries or even Chuck Colson, but two turn-of-the-century theologians, James Orr and Abraham Kuyper, who were attempting to respond to not only ideas of modernism, but the realities of modernity. They both understood that Christianity was more than a set of beliefs in “bits and pieces,” as Schaffer would later put it, but a holistic vision of reality that was being challenged in their time by another holistic vision of reality. It shouldn’t surprise us that the new challenge of secularism broadly applied to the institutions and structures of culture would generate a new way of articulating an old belief. When classical educators accuse worldview educators of embracing some sort of new innovation, one might think that their real complaint is that it just isn’t old enough for their tastes.

Third, I will quote my colleague Shane Morris: “…what I find most often gives students a sense of ‘unearned authority’ isn’t worldview instruction (at least not if it’s done right), but the unshakable and naïve belief that they are the first Christian young person to ever read Nietzsche (or more often Peter Enns or Bart Ehrman) and that there are no good answers to these men’s attacks on their parents’ and neighbors’ faith. It’s unbelievably common. One thing worldview instruction at its best does is create in middle and high school students an awareness that they’re not the first Christians to encounter these alternative worldviews, and that there are good answers to their claims and challenges. In other words, it fosters a kind of intellectual humility, and keeps freshmen from coming home for Christmas to beat their grandparents over the heads with JEDP theory.”  Hear, hear.

Fourth, I know there’s going to be some pushback on “if done right.” That’s the get-out-of-jail-free card, I suppose. But it does really apply if what one is complaining about is an anomaly, not typical of worldview education. I think that is the case here: taking one product (a quiz on a website) or one quote from a website and hammer the entire movement.

Finally, the complaint Rod and others have leveled against worldview “quizzes” has merit. There have been various versions of “test your worldview” through the years, and I’ve yet to be comfortable with any of them. Part of this confusion is that worldview has been defined in at least three ways. Some have defined worldview as “a framework for viewing reality” (as Kuyper did), others as “a set of presuppositions” (as Orr did), and — much more recently — others as “a theory of everything” (as Norm Geisler and some popular teachers, most with a particular axe to grind, have). The “theory of everything” approach is obviously problematic since a fundamental Christian belief is that though truth exists, the human mind is fallen in its ability to grasp truth. Most of the worldview quizzes I see lean towards that use of worldview, even if not intentionally.

Even so, throughout history the church has been willing to say, “that’s not a Christian idea” or “that belief is wrong.” So, worldview educators (and quizzes) rightly can and should say that an idea like “human nature can be perfected through genetic engineering” is not true (or Christian), though one cannot find an explicit condemnation of eugenics in the Bible anywhere. Where then do we draw the line?

All of this is why the framework way of defining and using worldview is preferable. I’d say a mindless process of natural selection is outside the boundaries of the Christian framework which begins with God’s sovereignty over and immanence in the world He created. A guided evolutionary process is not necessarily outside that framework, except if more broadly applied in ways that would contradict what God has revealed (since revealed truth is also part of the framework).

Back to the classical critique of worldview: helping students understand the great works of antiquity and discover the true, good, and beautiful in the world is in no way antithetical to worldview education. It is the Biblical framework unlocked by a fundamental assumption of the Christian worldview about who humans are that explains both historic brilliance and our capacity to grasp that brilliance. Teaching them that Christianity can explain that while nihilism cannot, in no way impedes on entering the worlds created by a great story or wrestling with the truth and goodness unlocked by a pagan thinker. Or, as Dustin Messer write at the Kuyperian Commentary: “…worldview education begins with the humble premise that we aren’t approaching the world “from above.” As the poet Anne Carson put it, “There is no objective place.” We are creatures, bound by space and time. We don’t offer some supposed “neutral” interpretation of a given book, painting, data point, or fact. Rather, conscious or not of our myriad prejudices, we encounter the world Christianly. Likewise, every other reader, connoisseur, or scientist comes to the world form their own particular angle.”

The classical educators I know would want to claim such an insight for their own, too.

There is no need for the false dichotomies offered by Gibbs’ critique of worldview or in the dozens of responses since. Another writer (a friend of mine) said, “We do not study literature to refine our Christian worldview. We study it to become more human.” Wouldn’t refining our vision of reality make us more human? Where did the idea that we should be more human, as opposed to less human or other than human (both of which are real visions of humanity offered by real people in real articles and books and blogs both) even come from?

Just because worldview educators may not always do worldview education well doesn’t disqualify it any more than classical education is disqualified when poorly done by classical educators. And, for the record, I’ve worked with Summit Ministries for over a decade. I’m not a fan of the quiz, but I’m a huge fan of what they do. The simple process of challenging students for two straight weeks to think about ideas and their victims has been a catalytic force for thousands — yes thousands — of young people. The product hasn’t been universally arrogant kids waiting to put people in categories, as the critique suggests. It’s been young adults realizing that truth matters and committing to finding how God might be leading them to point people to truth.

That’s why the caricature of worldview education bothered me so much. What was being described was far more the exception than the rule. Not to mention that camps like Summit Ministries also handle a population that classical educators don’t: the student already thoroughly educated not to think but to regurgitate secular answers to the wrong questions in order to jump through hoops toward a degree. We might all agree that the system is broken and should be discarded, but between now and then, it will be worldview educators getting their hands dirty trying to help the victims.

And for the record, I would defend classical education and educators from the sort of caricature I wrote in the opening paragraph, too.

Thanks, John.

I invite classical educators in particular to share their own reactions to these two pieces. I think both authors make good points, though at this stage, I’m reticent to add anything because I am not well versed enough in the differences between the two approaches (or their similarities) to offer an informed comment.

And let me say clearly to all readers that if you just want to take potshots are Christian education (worldview, classical, whatever), save your ammunition, because I’m not going to publish your comment. I am pretty much an outsider to the philosophical and pedagogical arguments in play here, and am learning from this exchange.

UPDATE: Again, I remind readers that I’m NOT GOING TO PUBLISH potshots. Either make a serious, substantive, constructive comment on this discussion, or don’t bother.

Now, I’ve just seen that Joshua Gibbs has posted, on his great CiRCE Institute blog, twice since the SCL conference regarding the Worldview Education topic. Here’s a link to his June 28 piece, “Dogma Or Worldview: What Makes A Man Tick?”. It begins like this:

A chasm separates “worldview” and what is commonly meant by “worldview analysis.” I have no issue with a class wherein different worldviews are taught, insofar as “worldview” refers to a series of related presuppositions. I am more than content that worldviews exist (like gravity, the number four, and dogs exist). On occasion, I refer to “worldviews” while teaching and I have seen various benefits which come from students reading books about competing worldviews.

That said, the word “worldview” is frequently conflated with the practice of worldview analysis, and worldview analysis often involves reducing a complex and humane novel into a series of abstract propositions, then showing those propositions to be consistent (or, if you are reading great literature, inconsistent) with a few passages of Scripture. When I say that worldview analysis is often reductionist, I mean that worldview analysis tends to:

1. Misunderstand creativity. Great books are written in a state of wonder. Worldview analysis is not conducted in a state of wonder, but prizes efficiency, justice, and reason. That which is created in a state of wonder cannot be properly received in a spirit of efficiency and reason. Wonder transcends reasons.

2. Only work in limited circumstances. Worldview analysis is worthless in determining which of two wines is better. Worldview analysis cannot really explain why one perfume smells like a sorority girl and another smells like a matriarch. While reason and argument are within the province of worldview analysis, I often find worldview analysts loathe to tackle the fine nuances of Beauty. Put simply, while a 16 year old boy trained to analyze worldviews could tell me which of two philosophical statements was true, I would more readily trust Christopher Hitchens or Ian McEwan to tell me which of two Gewürztraminers was better.

3. Conceive of man in Enlightened terms. Worldview analysis typically involves “processing” a book in much the same way that a large piece of industrial machinery processes milk or corn. When a machine is working properly, it is unaffected by that which it processes. In fact, machines have to be cleaned from time to time in order to remove the substances they process, for the substances can ruin the machine.

These objections are rather standard, though, and I would like to offer up a few comments on worldviews— even while I believe worldviews are real, and that everyone has one, and that referring to worldviews (on occasion) in class is a fine thing to do.

I find his “few comments” distinguishing “worldview” from “dogma” to be challenging and provocative, and urge you to read the whole thing.

Gibbs’s second blog post about the topic, titled “The Joshua Gibbs Christian Worldview Exam”, expands on his point about dogma, made in the previous posting. Excerpt:

The Joshua Gibbs Christian Worldview Exam

1. If you took the “Dharma Initiative Christian Worldview Exam” online, answered forty multiple choice questions about piety and religion and history and art and wine, and received a score back indicating your worldview was only 17% Christian, you would…

A. Become quite anxious and wonder if you were attending a truly Biblical church; schedule a meeting with your elders; compose a list of questions to ask your elders which might help you determine if you have properly understood their teachings.

B. Say, “Yeah, right. Who wrote this thing, anyway?”

While there are many other questions which might be somewhat interesting to ask, this is the entirety of the Joshua Gibbs Worldview Exam, for after answering this single question, every other question has become more or less superfluous. If you are the kind of person who breaks out in a cold sweat when nameless, faceless strangers on the internet tell you that your worldview is not Christian, there is very little chance you actually take online worldview exams. You are too busy helping out Nigerian princes who have personally contacted you by email and are in need of financial aid.

Read the whole thing. Gibbs’s point seems to be that there is a difference between dogma (what must be believed to be a Christian) and doctrine. Various “Christian Worldview” tests presuppose dogmatic unity with the author and his Christian tradition — and these tests inevitably confuse dogma with doctrine.