Australia's education system: crisis or opportunity?

A higher calling for education and life

Questions like “What should education look like?” and “What is education for?” are more important than ever.

A recent article about the declining academic performance of Australian students in the Australian Financial Review begins, “It’s a national crisis, and one that isn’t getting fixed despite the billions of extra dollars that get thrown at it. Australia’s schoolchildren are sliding down international tests that measure their academic performance and are static, at best, on national tests on literacy and numeracy.”

Of course, the pandemic hasn’t helped by creating more fatigue and online distractions for students, along with less peer and teacher interaction.

But the increase in online learning options has also opened a door for us to reimagine education and its delivery.

Into this atmosphere comes John Gore’s new book Issues in Education: A Christian Perspective, published by the Teachers’ Christian Fellowship of NSW.

“… a considered philosophy might answer the question on the mind of every teacher – ‘Why am I doing this?’” – John Gore

The book applies timeless wisdom to contemporary education issues, beginning with its inspiration, ‘The Relevance of a Christian Philosophy of Education‘. This insightful essay was authored in 1962 by Anna Hogg, the founding editor of the Journal of Christian Education.

The starting point is the contention that the gospel implies a philosophy of education with unique resources for educational problems. Many teachers understandably spend relatively little time philosophising about the nature of education (as do most plumbers and accountants about their disciplines). As Gore puts it, “Even for Christian teachers, teaching is sometimes viewed as a job and not a calling, but a considered philosophy might answer the question on the mind of every teacher [I might add every person] – ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Gore’s book is the outworking of the principles Hogg outlines about the implications of the Christian story for the value and dignity of people, their destiny and ultimate good, and the weight and potential of education. Gore applies these principles to issues like advantage and disadvantage, assessment and reporting, LGBTQIA+ students and sex education, education for girls, religion in schools and much more. For his thoughts, you’ll have to read the book.

Let’s focus instead on Gore’s inspiration: Anna Hogg’s philosophy of education. Her investigation began when she was challenged by “Christianity’s claim that its beliefs affected the whole of life.”

Even apart from the fact that everyone is, in a sense, an educator, Hogg’s essay has much to offer each of us. It is a brilliantly clear portrayal of the implications of Christian faith for education and beyond, with captivating and wide-reaching principles.

What defines ‘Christian’ education?

“In a Christian Philosophy of Education changing people is the goal, for this was the purpose of the events on which Christianity is based,” writes Hogg. “The change which is to be brought about in persons is to bring them to full maturity.”

The development of the student’s “total personality” is prioritised instead of intellect and achievement, according to this philosophy. Education should be adapted to benefit the child, not to maximise productivity.

Hogg warns that, “The value which Christian belief sets on the human person is such that many of the common goals of education either are seen to be secondary or have to be ruled out altogether.”

Of course, evaluating and prioritising what is most important in education is a complicated task. But this should be done, Hogg argues, whether at the level of government or the level of a parent with their child, acknowledging the dignity of the student and aiming to bring about growth to full maturity.

A crucial question lurks: What does this full maturity – this development of the total personality – look like? Here Hogg paints a beautiful picture of the role education plays in creating a flourishing person.

The goal of Christian education

The proper goal of education, Hogg says, is recognition of God.

“The goal concerns man’s relationship with God, a relationship which should be one of fellowship-full allegiance, a love which involves the whole personality and which Bishop Gore has described as a ‘settled disposition of the will’… The educator’s function is first to make God known”.

This might seem a little out of touch. But before we cringe, let’s hear her out.

Hogg asserts that God is known not only through the Bible, but also through nature and history, the Arts and language, and every other means of pursuing and communicating truth. The Christian is motivated to pursue truth, not primarily for achievement or power or reputation, but to know God himself. In the Christian view, “Truth is associated with deity: God is called a God of Truth; Christ calls himself ‘the Truth’; the Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of Truth’.”

Here lies a great strength of Hogg’s educational vision. For in this view intellect “could hardly be prized more highly”, playing a part in apprehending God himself, and at the same time it “is not more important or valuable than other aspects of personality.”

Nor is any one discipline prized more highly than the rest. Each subject is viewed as a seed that could yield invaluable fruit. Science is the study of nature, which reveals God’s character in immeasurable ways (Romans 1). History is the study of the past, which reveals God’s character as his purposes are worked out in human affairs and moral principles are demonstrated (Acts 17:26-28).

Good education is constantly bearing witness to God.

The witness of a Christian educator extends far beyond explicit reference to the Bible. It extends far beyond pastoral moments of care and encouragement. Good education is constantly bearing witness to God, because the world about which students are taught is constantly bearing witness to God.

Hogg’s vision of education is a grand one: “Christian education … is as wide as truth itself.” Accordingly, “To do indifferent work at school or university is to miss, and indeed to repudiate, the whole idea of education on a Christian basis, and it is no less reprehensible when it is so contrived to allow more time for ‘specifically Christian activities’ (a concept foreign to the New Testament).”

There is much value in this conclusion for each of us. To do any ‘education’, formal or not, indifferently is to miss a chance to promote the knowledge of God in the student, however indirectly.

American writer and Christian thinker Andy Crouch was once asked, “Does my career matter to God?” His response stuck with me: “For Christians, everything matters.”

With education, and with the rest of life, everything matters. To be indifferent about our work or our family life or our neighbours is to miss the point of our faith. The Christian vision recognises that education, like every other sphere of life, is a means for people to know and enjoy God more fully. That’s something to get us out of bed in the morning.

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Issues in Education: A Christian Perspective

John Gore

Available from Teachers' Christian Fellowship of NSW

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