Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 9-12

3 min read

What is the source of knowledge?

Jun 6, 2019 12:23 PM

Epistemology is a big word that simply describes the currency with which schools operate. A school’s and culture’s epistemology is its theory of knowledge; namely, what knowledge is and how it is acquired. And the truth is, our culture and our schools have been experiencing a significant epistemological crisis that is having tremendous consequences in our schools, our culture, and even our churches.

Although there are complex reasons behind this crisis, a primary one has to do with our culture’s, and by extension our schools’, acceptance of something called logical positivism; that is, that knowledge can only be acquired through the senses and empirical study. As a result, hard sciences and technology have come to be regarded as verifiably true knowledge, but anything outside of that realm has been relegated to values. To a positivist, a biology or physics class deals in facts, but a philosophy or theology class deals in opinions.

American Christian theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer noted the early signs of this several decades ago when he warned of the “fact/value split” that was occurring in epistemology. He saw the danger of a culture and its schools concluding that only scientific ideas should be accepted as fact (and therefore knowledge) while metaphysical ideas should only be opinion (and therefore not knowledge).  Our country’s schools are steeped in this thinking today.

We have this crisis that is borne out of a split between facts and values. The crisis is showing itself in a number of ways in today’s schools:

  1. There is nothing on which to ground any consensus on ethics, morality or meaning.The great Christian and Western tradition of a life grounded in a theistic understanding has been abandoned, and there is nothing to replace it except one’s individual and sensory experiences. There are no “facts” in these studies – nothing that can be put forth as an absolute—so ethics are arbitrary and simply opinion. Traditional virtues such as honesty, honor, duty, civility, and purity are up for grabs. Even if they are taught—and some still do since nearly everyone subconsciously recognizes their value—it is often done so hesitatingly or in couched terms because the virtues cannot be grounded in anything certain.
  2. There is limited consensus on what knowledge is worthy of being taught. An explosion of new fields has cropped up that is largely based on identitarianism. In other words, if there is no grounding for what is worth knowing outside the facts of hard sciences, then things must only be studied within those identity groups which agree among themselves. What follows is a breakdown of a shared canon of knowledge into group identity studies.
  3. Since ideas on the value side of the split are highly individual, there has been a rejection of authority as a source of knowledge. If “value” ideas cannot be grounded in something transcendent, then no such ideas can claim authority over another. This has deep implications for Christian students and why we see so many of them appealing to their personal feelings over against the authority of scripture.

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Christian schools have the opportunity to be counter-cultural, rejecting this fact/value split as unnecessary, inaccurate and unbiblical. Christian educators can operate out of the reality that God is the source of all things, including all knowledge. Anything true—including that which is truly good or beautiful—that is to be found in the world is a reflection of his nature, since all truth is God’s truth.

Troy McIntosh
Written by Troy McIntosh

Currently serving as Executive Director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, Troy has been in education for over 25 years as an elementary teacher, elementary/middle school principal, and as Head of School at Worthington Christian School. He and his wife Julie have three adult daughters. Troy loves spending time with students, especially when it is centered around asking and answering big questions. He is passionate about watching students grow and mature by learning new ideas and how they relate to their world.