Educating for Life and Educating for Shalom

by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Reviews by John Shortt

Nick Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, is one of the world’s foremost philosophers. His many books include Art in ActionDivine DiscourseReason within the Bounds of Religion andUntil Justice and Peace Embrace. Throughout his career as a teacher of philosophy, he has also spoken and written frequently on educational themes. His one book on education up to recently was the ground-breaking Educating for Responsible Action but, thanks to the efforts of Gloria Stronks and Clarence Joldersma as editors, two more have now appeared, both of them containing selections from his speeches and published articles on education through more than three decades.

The essays selected for Educating for Life (published by Baker, Grand Rapids, USA) are focused mainly on school education rather than on higher education. Many of them were originally delivered as speeches at conferences of Christian school educators in the USA and Canada.

One particularly helpful chapter brings together four lectures delivered at a Christian schools conference in Australia in 1984 under the title of ‘Teaching for Tomorrow Today’.

The essays are grouped together in a four-part division of the book as a whole. The first part (which makes up about a half of the book) contains seven essays on the nature of Christian education. Part 2 contains three essays on challenges and objections to Christian education. Part 3 contains three essays on Christian education in a pluralistic society. The three essays in the final part are concerned with what Wolterstorff terms ‘educating for shalom’.

Education for life is, for Wolterstorff, not simply education for students’ future lives but also for their present lives, and not simply for the lives of their rational, moral souls but for their full lives as whole persons in their communities and in the midst of ordinary human society. Christian education is for Christian life in God’s world.

As the essays proceed in chronological order in each of the four parts of the book, there is evident progression in Wolterstorff’s thinking about what this means. Under the impact of being confronted by the suffering of Palestinian and South African people, he comes to argue that education should be for shalom grounded in justice. Shalom is not merely the absence of hostility for, as he memorably puts it, ‘to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy living with oneself’ (p. 101).

He comes to argue that it is not enough to see Christian education as the development of Christian minds. That is a form of Christian humanism but students are whole persons, not mere brains-on-legs. We are made for right relationships so education for shalom is education for justice. This is a vision of education for human flourishing in a particular Christian way-of-being in the world.

Along the way, Wolterstorff wrestles with curriculum issues, aims and goals, praxis-orientation, aesthetic education, selection of books for literature courses, the tension between isolation from the world and accommodation to it and many other practical educational issues. An essay on religion in schools is a typically carefully argued piece in which he develops a case for what he terms the ‘affirmative impartiality’ of the state (chap. 11).

I found his arguments for Christian schooling much more persuasive than most I have read from other writers but they still left me with a distinct feeling that he was generally underestimating the educational influence of home and church and overestimating the influence of formal schooling. Interestingly, in this regard, the only early influences on Wolterstorff’s own spiritual formation detailed in the Preface (pp. 10-12) are those of the informal educators of members of his extended family and local community in rural Minnesota, not those of school-teachers!      

The nineteen essays selected for the second book, Educating for Shalom (published by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, USA) are all focused on higher education and most of them were speeches in college and university settings (including Wolterstorff’s inaugural address at the Free University of Amsterdam, ‘The Project of a Christian University in a Postmodern Culture’) or papers published in academic journals (including one published in this journal).

In spite of the educational context being different, this collection reveals the same progression from the development of Christian minds to education for justice and shalom as is found in the first book. Wolterstorff calls for a move in Christian education beyond what he terms ‘Stage 1’ (with a focus on evangelism and separation from the world) and ‘Stage 2’ (with a focus on a cultural mandate) to ‘Stage 3’ (with a focus on society and social practices).

Subjects dealt with in these essays include: the mission of Christian colleges and universities, the nature of Christian scholarship, the social context for education for justice and shalom, and the mission of Christian academics in the wider society.

Of particular value in this book are Clarence Joldersma’s ‘Introduction’ which gives a very helpful overview of the main strands of Wolterstorff’s thinking and Wolterstorff’s own ‘Afterword’. In this latter, he reiterates his pilgrimage from the ‘Christian humanist model’ through the ‘Christian academic-discipline model’ to education for justice and human flourishing. He says that he has come to think that there is no cultural mandate at all in Genesis chapter one. Instead, he says, ‘God is blessing humankind … the sense of the words is, May you be fruitful and multiply …’ (p. 296). For him, college education is no longer ‘for enabling us to engage our heritage of high culture, or for enabling us to appropriate the results of the academic disciplines and engage in their practices’ but, instead, it ‘can and should serve to promote human flourishing’ (p. 297).

Wolterstorff surely ranks among the foremost Christian education thinkers in the world today. His thinking is deserving of the attention of anybody concerned to develop a Christian perspective on education and I know of no better way to access it than through these two books (and his earlier Educating for Responsible Action).

I close with three of the many gems in the treasure chests of these two books. In  Educating for Life (p. 249), Wolterstorff writes, ‘The United States has been an Enlightenment experiment’. In  Educating for Shalom (p. 209), he writes, ‘Kuyper was a postmodernist born out of season’. Again, in that book (p. 278), he writes, ‘The Reformed tradition is a three city tradition’ (he adds the ‘city of our common humanity’ to Augustine’s ‘city of God’ and ‘city of the world’).

John Shortt

(These reviews were first published in Journal of Education & Christian Belief 8:2 (Autumn 2004, pp. 146-147) and are reproduced here with permission.)