Pragmatism and the Curriculum

~ from email ~

Pragmatism destroys the curriculum. If we allow pragmatic concerns to drive education, then the curriculum would become very narrow, since our lives are narrow relative to all the skills and subjects that are possible for us to learn. Under a pragmatic philosophy, there is no justification for including into the curriculum anything that the students will not need. The student who complains that he will never need calculus is most likely correct. It is true that he might not know what vocation he will select in the future, so that he cannot know if he will need calculus. But then the only pragmatic reason for him to learn it is the mere possibility that he will need it in the future. This reason is weak, because the possibility is remote.

It is not worth the time and money to learn so many things that will turn out to be useless. Many people will not need physics, or biology, or the classics, or foreign languages, or most of the things that they learn in school. Almost no one will need all of them at the same time. Given a pragmatic philosophy, a student should skip most of the materials in high school and college, and go straight to a specialized vocational school where he is taught only what he needs to know.

Only the Christian faith can save education. However, not all Christians operate under Christian principles. This is the point that I raised against the “learning for doing” model proposed by Jay Adams. Like many others, he was deceived by the popular assumption that biblical “wisdom” is mainly practical and concrete rather than intellectual and abstract. This is false. Biblical wisdom deals with both the intellectual and the practical, the abstract and the concrete, but those who hold to the popular theory are blinded to the abstract aspect of it. It is everywhere in Scripture, but they do not see it because they do not want to see it. They are trapped by the notion that Hebrew (biblical) thinking is practical, and Greek (pagan) thinking is theoretical. This simplistic distinction is false, and just stupid.

There is also an underlying conflict between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. Even those who are known for fighting anti-intellectualism often commit this error, that is, to argue from a pragmatic perspective, or to think that biblical wisdom is mainly practical. On the other hand, we cannot reject the pragmatic theory just so we can justify a wider curriculum. If we do that, we would still be driven by pragmatism, only that we have changed the purpose of education from professional need to intellectual breadth. Here we also notice that the philosophy of pragmatism does not tell us which goal to select. The theory cannot choose the correct purpose of education. It is chosen either arbitrarily or by some other standard that is not pragmatic. Thus even the pragmatist cannot make pragmatism the basis for the curriculum. He has some other standard, some other agenda.

The Christian worldview is the only valid basis for education. A biblical model is driven by the intrinsic value of knowledge, and not by pragmatic concerns. There is value in learning itself, in knowing itself. The most important application of this principle pertains to theological and biblical knowledge. Knowledge about God is valuable in itself, a treasure that he offers only to his chosen ones (John 15:15), whom he calls his friends. And of course his friends would do what he says, putting into practice what he has disclosed to them. On the other hand, the pragmatic philosophy that has infected so much of Christian thinking regards God’s revelation as something that is only for practice and obedience — something to be used — and not a priceless treasure in and of itself. This is demeaning to God, to Scripture, and to knowledge and education.

Therefore, I oppose the cliche that we should never study “theology for theology’s sake.” Of course we must study theology for theology’s sake! Theology is a systematic and coherent understanding of God’s self-revelation, so that to deny its inherent value is to spit in God’s face. His thoughts are wonderful, intriguing, and mesmerizing. The pragmatic perspective has rejected the inherent beauty of divine revelation and of knowledge. Of course we must implement this revelation in our lives, and we must obey his commands — I assert this stronger than the pragmatic scholars. The error is in thinking that just because something is meant to be put into practice, it is therefore something that has no inherent value, or that its value is only in its intended effects.