Christian Schools, Creativity, and
“Learning How to Think”

Jerry H. Combee, Ph.D., author of The History of the World in Christian Perspective

Standing foursquare for traditional education, the Christian educator may expect to be charged with favoring memorization over “learning how to think” and esteeming mastery of received knowledge to the point of stunting the growth of originality and creativity. But the Christian traditional educator knows that whatever creativity man is capable of is due to the fact that he is a creature made in the image of God by the Creator of the universe.

God’s creativity is essentially different from man’s, and whether even the same word should be used is questionable. God created the universe out of nothing; He had only to speak for the universe to come into being. Man’s “creativity” always requires some sort of pre-existing material God has made. Furthermore, when measured against what other men are capable of, the works of given individuals may appear original, but when compared to what God has done, all human creativity is essentially imitative. If creative endeavors are to glorify God and be meaningful to other men, they must to some extent reflect the real world as God created it. And the real world has design and order to it. Much today that goes under the label of educational creativity is “every teacher or student doing his own thing,” which is often full of confusion, disorder, and rebellion.

The kind of creativity and originality favored by the public education establishment, of course, omits God from the picture. But without God, human creativity loses touch with objective reality. It is valued not for the works it produces but for the occasion it affords for subjective self-expression. Inevitably, when self-expression becomes the standard, in practice that means no standard. As mere products of self-expression, then, the child’s crude finger-painting ranks with the finest Rembrandt.

In fact, the education establishment’s rhetoric of creativity, originality, and “learning how to think” is a cover-up for mediocrity and superficiality. In the first place, thinking is a highly disciplined, rule-governed activity. Without the rules of grammar, for example—not to mention the laws of logic—thinking becomes gibberish, at best semi-intelligible to the thinker himself but utterly lacking what the theorists of knowledge call “inter-subjective transmissibility.” Furthermore, we never simply think; we always think about something. Thinking always has an object. Thinking always has a subject matter. We learn how to think scientifically by studying science. “Learning how to think” is a by-product of learning subject matters, and that means mastery of a received body of knowledge.

The greatest thinkers of Western civilization have all been products of what some educators would sneer at as traditional education. Yes, all the original, creative geniuses of the West—without exception their contributions have been the result of their mastery of a received body of knowledge. Aristotle became a genius in his own right because he humbled himself to study and master the genius of Plato. Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, to be sure, became the founders of modern physics by rejecting all previous theories. But they did not reject what they were ignorant of. To the contrary, they were able to develop truly original principles of physics because they so well understood the thought of the past.

For the best examples of genius, however, we need look no further than the Bible. The Christian educator’s goal is preparation of students for God’s will in their lives. Could Christian schools hope to turn out better products for God’s use than a Moses or a Paul? Moses was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and… mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22). Paul was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers” (Acts 22:3). Whatever else might be said of the education of Moses and Paul, “traditional” rather than “progressive” would certainly be the apt descriptive adjective. Each mastered a received body of knowledge—long hard hours of reading, memorization, recitation, imitation—as God worked in their lives for a very special purpose. From the court of Pharaoh to Mars Hill, God used the products of such education as His instruments to contend with the wisest men of the day, and He inspired them to write, between them, more than one-fourth of the Bible.

It is interesting to note that the Scriptures mention the human education of both men; of course each man was also schooled in God’s special training program, which gave him the unction for God’s service.