Is World View Neutral Education Possible and Desirable?

by Signe Sandsmark

Review by Clarence Joldersma

In this worthwhile book, Signe Sandsmark argues that it is neither possible nor desirable to teach neutrally. Her thesis is that all education, even that which thinks itself to be otherwise, is framed by and (tacitly) espouses a particular worldview. Her major sparring partner is what she calls liberal education, a view that believes that education can occur from ‘no standpoint’ because it can be taught from a religiously- or worldview-neutral perspective. But Sandsmark argues that no educator can avoid promoting a particular view of the world and the good life. All education is situated within a worldview, liberalism included. By focusing on specific theorists within the liberal tradition, Sandsmark carefully shows liberalism’s worldview presuppositions, including its emphasis on human-centredness, on the autonomy of the individual, and on the private and optional character of religion. Sandsmark argues that these are not neutral assumptions, but instead are contestable biases that form the very heart of the religious or worldview commitments constituting liberalism.

The book is divided into six chapters, each with multiple subheadings. The introductory chapter situates her work in two national educational contexts: England, where Sandsmark completed her graduate education, and Norway, where she currently lives and works. In Chapter Two she articulates the worldview out of which she works, namely, an evangelical Lutheran view of reality, human nature, and the meaning of life. She frames this with Luther’s ‘two governments’ framework: the role of the ‘secular government’ is to uphold the world and the role of the ‘spiritual government’ is to save people. For Sandsmark this means that Lutheran Christian education, as education, is naturally situated in the ‘secular government’ charged with the task of upholding society. The purpose of Lutheran education, as a result, is ‘for God’s service’ (p. 24), where ‘to do good to others means to serve God’ (p. 29). She clearly shows how the emphasis on service to others follows naturally out of a Lutheran worldview framed by the two governments.

This sets the stage for Chapters Three to Five, her argumentation against the neutrality of liberal education, including what is called liberal Christian (or religious) education. The purpose of liberal education, according to Sandsmark’s literature review, is ultimately to develop the student into self-serving, autonomous beings. Her argument is that, because this fundamentally clashes with the Lutheran idea of serving others, liberal education just cannot be viewed as neutral.

The final chapter is a discussion of the possible place for Christian education in government or state schools, given her conclusion that even those are non-neutral with respect to worldviews. She weaves a careful discussion here about the possibility of non-Christians teaching Christian values, the propriety of teaching a Christian worldview in a multi-perspective society. She ends up arguing that Christian education is better education that liberal education because it is ‘other’ rather than ‘self’ oriented and thus able to counteract more effectively the ‘negative forces of selfishness and materialism’ (p. 136) in society. She also suggests that Christian education is better for personal development, for citizenship, and for understanding human nature more realistically, all educational criteria. And finally, it is better because it doesn’t pretend to be religiously or worldview neutral.

As John Shortt says in his foreword to the book, Sandsmark gives a critique ‘with both precision and humility’. Sandsmark is a careful scholar who does not often overstate or make excessive claims. In language understandable by educational practitioners and non-specialists she presents an interesting attack on the neutrality of liberalism in education. Although her immediate context is England and Norway, certainly in other parts of Europe as well as in North America liberalism’s version of modernity still dominates much of educational theorizing and practice. The quest for autonomy and self-development, in its many guises, is still central in much of education. Thus Sandsmark’s contribution in this context is to present us with careful arguments showing us that liberalism is neither a neutral nor a desirable purpose for education. Her second significant contribution in the book is her argument that an education framed by a worldview of service to others, fundamentally different from a liberal approach, ultimately is better for both the individuals whose education it is and for the society in which such an education is embedded. Her careful way of articulating this makes the book interesting and worthwhile.

I also have some minor criticisms of the book as a book. Sandsmark’s preface makes it clear that this book is a revised version of her doctoral dissertation. As a dissertation, it reads very well as a book. But yet, at times, it shows is dissertation-like structure too much, distracting the reader from the overall message as a book. The book’s formal organization of section and subsection is too detailed, and some of the sections too short, detracting from the flow of ideas within a chapter. And structuring much of the detailed argumentation around particular theorists reflects the dissertation process as well and could have profitably been changed in the book. For example, there is a long section discussing the liberal views of John White, and another long section discussing the slightly different liberal views of Kenneth Strike. As a book, it would have been better to refocus these sections on particular issues within liberalism rather than particular theorists. In general, however, given the fact that the book is substantively her dissertation, Sandsmark has done a remarkable job making her scholarship accessible and relevant to an audience much larger than the six or seven people on a doctoral dissertation committee.

In fact, it seems to me than anyone interested in thinking about education from a Christian perspective ought to pick up this book. Sandsmark’s Lutheran perspective on Christian education is very interesting, in part because it shows that there is no generic Christian perspective, but that it is always situated within particular religious traditions. And putting this discussion in the context of a deep problem within modernity - i.e. liberalism’s lack of neutrality - her book is an important Christian contribution to the possible answers that might address this issue. I recommend her book warmly.

Clarence W Joldersma

(This review was first published in Journal of Education & Christian Belief 5:2 (Autumn 2001, pp. 160-161) and is reproduced here with permission.)