Susan C. Anthony

What's Your Philosophy? Transcript


This is Susan C. Anthony speaking, and this workshop on philosophy is my foundational workshop for Christian home schoolers.  Philosophy is a big word with a simple meaning.  Don’t be intimidated.  Most people are completely confused by philosophy and my intent is to clear up the confusion for you.

About Me

SusanFirst a little about me, so you know get a sense of who’s talking.

I was born in Colorado, grew up in a rural area of the Rocky Mountains, graduated with a B.A. in Elementary Education and moved to Alaska in 1979.  After ten years with the Anchorage School District, I resigned so I could spend more time with my retired husband and tend my little book business. I later served on the board of a home school charter school and traveled around the country presenting to home school support groups and at conventions.

Now we mainly travel for fun.  The photo above was taken in Antigua, Guatemala, in 2012.  I took my mom, who still lives in Colorado, on a cruise through the Panama Canal. It was some of the best money I ever spent.  We had a wonderful time together and it was a perfect way to thank her for all she’s done for me.


My goal is for you to leave:

  • In touch with a vision for your home school that will keep you inspired through good days and bad.
  • Having begun to contemplate the big picture, the context for what you're doing.
  • On your way toward establishing a firm foundation for everything you do in your home school.


A handout can be downloaded from my web site: There is a lot in the handout that I won’t take time to talk about in detail during this session, so I’d encourage you to print out and at least scan through it.

On the first page is a list of the five basic philosophical questions, the five basic philosophies of education, and the five questions that need to be answered in a philosophy of education.  The second page contrasts answers to the five basic philosophical questions from a humanistic and a Christian perspective.  The third page contrasts answers to the five philosophical questions in education from the perspective of progressivism and essentialism, two of the most popular educational philosophies.  Don’t worry, you’ll learn what I mean by that.  The fourth page has a sample mission statement and a sample vision statement. Feel free to copy any parts of these you like as you write your own statements.  On the bottom of page 4 are lists of some home school curriculums that line up with the most common educational philosophies.  The last page has a sample philosophy statement for a home school.  This can help you get started as you work to clarify and verbalize your own philosophy.

Why Philosophy?

So, why a workshop on philosophy?  The fact is that you have a philosophy of education whether you realize it or not.  Most Americans aren’t consciously aware of their philosophy.  It’s unconscious, unclear and unexamined.  Yet it’s foundational and affects every choice you make.

The foundation of a house is below ground, often invisible, yet critical to the integrity of the structure.  Any flaws in the foundation are likely to cause problems later that will be hard to fix without digging up the whole foundation and starting over.  By contrast, if a foundation is straight and true, the building almost falls into place and is much easier to construct.  My brother is a builder.  He fusses when a foundation is even slightly imperfect.  He knows how much trouble that can cause later in the building process.

You wouldn’t build a triangular building on a rectangular foundation.  The foundation directs what is built upon it.  In the same way, once you are clear about your philosophy, it becomes a lot easier to choose materials and set priorities concerning how you use your time, energy and money.

I love Calvin.  It’s clear why his mom chose not to homeschool.

Calvin's teacher:  If there are no questions, we'll move on to the next chapter.
Calvin: I have a question.
Teacher: Certainly, Calvin, what is it?
Calvin: What's the point of human existence?
Teacher:  I meant any questions about the subject at hand.
Calvin: Oh. (musing) Frankly, I'd like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this.

Most kids Calvin’s age don’t contemplate the meaning of human existence, at least not consciously, but all the “Why” questions with which kids pester you trace back to the fundamental questions.  The biggest question you have to answer for your kids is, “Why should I do this if I don’t want to?” 

The answer “Because I said so” works to a point, but you should know why you’re saying so, even if you don’t explain all the details to your child.

One mom wrote this to me, and it's a reason I prepared this workshop:

I have homeschooled for five years and have been doing it aimlessly, hoping I have covered some core areas “good enough.”  I know I need more direction.

Seneca, a Roman Statesman who was alive at the time of Christ, wrote:

Our plans miscarry because we have no aim.  When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

Socrates said:  The unexamined life is not worth living.

Americans are generally much more comfortable with DOING than with examining why they do what they do.  Ours is a very action-oriented culture, but the age-old questions are still trouble us, even if clouded in a whirl of activity.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who came to America in the 1830s.  He believed that democracy was the wave of the future for France and for the world, and he wanted to try to figure out how America had made democracy work.  He wrote: 

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States….  Yet it is easy to perceive that almost all the inhabitants of the United States conduct their understanding in the same manner, and govern it by the same rules; that is to say, without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules, they have a philosophical method common to the whole people.

This unconscious agreement he refers to, the “philosophical method common to the whole people” is, I think, what might be termed the “Christian consensus.”  Because Christians and others pretty much took it for granted and didn’t pay it much attention, it degraded over time.  With some exceptions, it no longer exists.  There are echoes of it.  For example, Americans admire people who help the poor, even if they don’t do so themselves.  Americans in general believe that helping the poor is a good thing.  That’s not the case in every culture.  In some cultures, helping the poor is viewed as stupid or even evil.  If someone deserves to be poor because they sinned in a previous life, for example, it’s not a laudable thing to interfere.

What Is Philosophy?

I told you earlier that philosophy is a big word with a simple meaning.  Here’s the meaning.

Philo means love and soph means wisdom.  So Philosophy means love of wisdom.  It’s traditionally defined as the love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth.  Philadelphia is from the Greek word philo and means “City of Brotherly Love.”

The word philosophy is mentioned only once in the Bible, in Colossians 2:8, where it says: See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

The words “wisdom” and “truth”, however, are mentioned frequently in the Bible.  Jesus is called wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:30:  By His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God.  Christ Himself claimed to be truth in John 14:6:  I am the way, the truth and the life.

Christianity is called a religion rather than a philosophy because religion, it is said, assumes the existence of god, whereas philosophy makes no assumptions. 

Because some Christians in the past rejected reason, the charge has been leveled ever since that all Christians believe blindly and don’t really care whether what they believe is true or false.  That’s not true for every Christian, but a lot of people assume it’s true.

Five Foundational Questions

There are five and only five, basic philosophical questions. 

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where did I come from?
  3. Why am I here?
  4. Where am I going?
  5. How, then, shall I live?

All comprehensive philosophies or worldviews must answer all five questions.  A good philosophy must be consistent, comprehensive, based on adequate evidence, and free from contradictions or absurdities.

Christians, and everyone else, really, should think clearly, critically, correctly and comprehensively as they evaluate truth claims and competing ideas.  Anyone can make a truth claim.  How can we know what’s really TRUE?

Who Am I?  Let’s look at the first question.  Are human beings naturally good or naturally flawed?

Jeans-Jacques Rousseau shocked the traditional establishment in the 1700s by asserting that people are naturally good.  He wrote:

Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart.

You might have heard it said that there are just two religions:  works and grace.

If man is good by nature, he can, by his own efforts, be good enough.  If man is sinful by nature, he has no hope without grace.  According to the Bible, people inherit a sin nature and are sinful because of who they are more than because of what they do.  King David wrote in Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful at birth; sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

The nature of man is a foundational issue.  Almost everything else will flow from your answer to this question.

According to Rousseau and many philosophers, people are born perfect, with no sin nature.  They sin because their environment has damaged them.  Frankenstein’s monster, in the novel by Mary Shelley, was rejected by society because of his looks.  He became evil as a result of that rejection. 

Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded.  I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.  Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

"Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."  If we make people happy, will they become virtuous?  Most people these days believe that.

In the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll attempted to separate from himself all that was bad, to become purely good.  The result was that he ended up with two personalities, one spotlessly good and one purely evil.

All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

The Bible says human beings are sinful by nature, that we cannot, by our own efforts, achieve perfection. It says we are sinful in our thoughts even more than in our deeds, that sinful deeds flow from sinful thoughts.  People, according to this view, are naturally selfish, greedy, judgmental, and lustful, to varying measures. 

Horace Mann, called the father of American public education, had boundless faith in the perfectibility of human beings.  He thought public schools could serve as weapons against evil, as a great equalizer.  He believed that 75 years after universal public schooling began, there would be no poverty, crime, or sickness.  Well, here we are, more than 150 years later, still plagued by poverty, crime and sickness.

Where Did I Come From?  Am I here by accident? (evolution)  Am I here on purpose?  (creation)

Carl Sagan said we're here by accident, as a way for the cosmos to know itself:

The cosmos is also within us.  We’re made of star-stuff.  We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Sagan would say man created God rather than the other way around.  If man created God, man can, of course, uncreate Him at will.  He’s just imaginary anyway.  Atheists say freedom begins with the death of God.  Man is the measure of all things.  Man is his own authority.  Man can create his own utopia on earth.  Every day in every way things are getting better and better.  Things always evolve in an upward direction.  Scientists, not theologians, hold the key to truth.

If God is really real, it means we’re here on purpose.  Freedom begins with the fear of God, according to the Bible, not with the death of god.  Morality is objective, not subjective.  We will answer for our every thought and deed.  God is our authority, whether we like it or not.  Our hope is in God, not in our own abilities.  In this view, life has objective meaning and purpose. 

These two world views are utterly opposite.  A result is that Christians often try to stamp out the fruits of humanism and secularism, such as abortion and homosexuality,  without addressing its roots, while secularists and atheists aim straight for the foundation of Christianity.

Some of you might remember Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who befriended boys and then killed them.  In his last interview with Stone Phillips on ABC’s 20/20, his dad sat next to him.  His dad had given him books about creation, which he read in prison while serving 15 life sentences. He accepted Jesus as his savior and in the interview reflected back on the foundational ideas that made his crimes seem justifiable at the time he committed them.

If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?  That’s how I thought anyway.  I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime.

Dahmer was murdered by a fellow inmate the day before this interview aired on TV.

Why Am I Here?  The third basic philosophical question is Why Am I Here?  What is my purpose?

Without purpose, people default to either pride (looking good) or pleasure (feeling good).  Having a clear sense of purpose makes a huge difference in a student’s motivation to study and learn.  Remember what Calvin said after asking, “What’s the Point of Human Existence?”  He said, looking at his textbook, “Frankly, I’d like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this!”

John Dewey, who began the progressive education movement that we’ll talk about in a bit, believed our purpose was self-fulfillment.

Nothing but the best, the richest and fullest experience possible, is good enough for man.

Where Am I Going?  How, Then, Shall I Live?  The answers to these two questions flow from the answers to the first three questions.  If God exists and the Bible is true, my destiny is heaven or hell, depending on my choice.  If there is no God, I am going to die and that will be the end of it.

The answer to the question How, then, shall I live? depends entirely on whether there is truly a God with authority to set standards, or whether man is truly the measure of all things and has the authority to set his own standards.

If God exists, truth is absolute whether or not we like it or agree with it.

If God does not exist, there is a possibility that there is no objective truth, that truth is relative and we can individually choose what we believe to be true.

So again, the five basic questions of philosophy are:  Who am I, Where did I come from, Why am I here, Where am I going, and how, then, shall I live.

Now to educational philosophy.  There are five, just five, basic schools of educational philosophy. 

Five Schools of Educational Philosophy

  1. Perennialism
  2. Essentialism
  3. Progressivism
  4. Reconstructionism
  5. Existentialism

The first two are more traditional and conservative.  The last three are more progressive.

I’ll talk about each of these in turn.  As I do, be thinking about which best reflects your personal philosophy.

Perennialism began with Plato in about 400 B.C.  Plato was an idealist who believed that the physical world we perceive is only a shadow of reality. His philosophy might be called idealism. Perennial means lasting for a long or apparently infinite time, enduring or continually recurring.  You might have perennial plants in your garden.  Plato wrote: 

Men should concern themselves primarily with the search for truth.  Since truth is both perfect and eternal, it cannot therefore be found in the world of matter that is both imperfect and constantly changing.

According to the educational philosophy of perennialism, the world we perceive is only a shadow of reality.  Truth is universal, constant, and unchanging.  Knowledge already exists in our minds and needs only be brought to consciousness, or "educed."  There is no need to memorize facts.  Facts change.  Plato preferred general liberal education rather than practical or vocational education.  Most great books programs are based on the philosophy of perennialism.  What might be called “classical” education programs tend to be perennialist.

Essentialism.  The essentialist school of educational philosophy began with Aristotle, Plato’s student.  Aristotle is often called the Father of Science.  His philosophy is rooted in realism.  He thought the world we perceive is real, not just a shadow of reality as Plato believed. 

E.D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, expressed Aristotle’s philosophy well when he wrote: 

In anthropological perspective, the basic goal of education in a human community is acculturation, the transition to children of the specific information shared by adults of the group.

School of Athens: Plato and AristotleE.D. Hirsch actually compiled a comprehensive list of the core knowledge that every educated American adult should know. 

Essentialists believe that the world we perceive is real and can be known through observation and experimentation.  There is a core of essential knowledge that every educated adult should know.  The purpose of education is to transmit culture.

This is detail from the painting “School of Athens” by Rafael.

Notice that Plato, on the left, is pointing UP toward the ideal. Aristotle is pointing to the real world in which we live.

This painting illustrates the fundamental difference between the two philosophers.

Progressivism began in the late 1800s and is now mainstream in public schools.  It is based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy that man is good by nature.  Rousseau believed that education should be child-centered and activity oriented.  The roots of evil, he believed, could be traced to corrupt society rather than the innate depravity of man.  He believed that primitive cultures were made up of sinless people who lived at peace and in harmony with nature.

John Dewey, a progressive educator, wrote

The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without.

Progressives most certainly wouldn’t want to pressure children from without! 

John Dewey is known as the “father of American education” as well as the “greatest humanist of the 20th century,” a title he shares with Karl Marx.  He was the one who asserted that one of the main purposes for school is, you’ve probably heard this word,  socialization. 

Progressivism began in the late 1800s. Based on the philosophy of Jeans-Jacques Rousseau, it asserts that there is no original sin.  Evil exists because society corrupts man.  Progressivism is relativistic, eschewing the idea that there could be such a thing as objective truth or absolute moral standards.  It is pragmatic, claiming that what’s right or wrong should be determined by results.  It was John Dewey who popularized the term “socialization”.  He believed children need groups in order to become human.  They are not human at birth.  They become human through social interaction.

Progressivism is closely tied to the theory of evolution.  It is forward-looking and optimistic.  That’s part of its appeal.  Everything is evolving in an upward direction, right?  What’s new is inherently better than what’s old.  Kids are smarter than their old-fashioned parents and should therefore incessantly question authority.

To quote E.D. Hirsch, an essentialist:  “Half truths, because of their plausibility, are frequently more dangerous than outright mistakes.”

Is it TRUE that children are born perfect beings?  Is it TRUE that they need socialization to become human?  Is it TRUE that discipline and punishment are harmful?  How you answer these questions will reveal your philosophy.

Reconstructionism was a 1930s spinoff of Progressivism.  It is utopian and futuristic.  Reconstructionists believed that schools are necessary agents to change the world, to create a new world order, to eradicate racism, poverty and war.

George S. Counts, a reconstructionist, wrote:

We hold within our hands the power to usher in an age of plenty, to make secure the lives of all, and to banish poverty forever from the land.

The ultimate goal of reconstructionism is one-world government. 

Not only Horace Mann, the father of public school education in America, but Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx believed the purpose of education was to raise student consciousness about social, economic and political problems, and to give them tools to solve those problems.

Reconstruction never gained much traction in the United States because it denigrated the opinions and religions of parents.

Existentialism is the final basic philosophy we’ll examine.  It began in the 1800s.  Nietzsche, one of the originators of existentialism and the philosopher who claimed “God is dead”, wrote:

The superman does not allow himself to be fettered by conventional morality.  He is beyond the categories of good and evil.  Life is a meaningless void:  there is no God, no purpose or plan; nature and the universe are indifferent to man.

If it is true that there is no God, no purpose or plan, existentialism might be true. The question of whether there truly is a God is critically important.  If there is no god, why fetter yourself with conventional morality and categories of good and evil?  Remember what Jeffrey Dahmer said:  "If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?"

A song that best expresses existentialism is “Dust in the Wind” by Kerry Livgren.  It’s a beautiful melody, concluding with the words “all we are is dust in the wind.”  One home school mom told me that her son had heard the words once on the radio when they were in the car.  He asked her about that song.  It was from her that I learned the writer’s spiritual quest continued.  He is now a Christian!

One of my 6th grade students wrote the following poem, which beautifully expresses the philosophy of existentialism.

A book of wasted lives collects dust on a lonely shelf.
Painful memories turn pages in the chapter of my life.
The chapter of lost love, disappointment and sorry.
Paragraphs of nothing fill my mind with emptiness, just to be ended with a period.

I couldn’t believe a sixth grader would have this depth of thought, but she wrote it right in class so I know she didn’t copy it.  I often wonder how she’s doing now, 30 years later.

Existentialism began in the 1800s.  The existentialist credo is a lonely, alienated individual caught up in a meaningless and absurd world.  Man, according to the existentialists, is condemned to be utterly free and utterly responsible.  Objective, certain knowledge is unattainable.  We should therefore abandon reason and accept groundless belief by taking a "leap of faith."

The idea of a blind leap of faith is an existentialist idea attributed to the first existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard.  The most commonly  understood meaning is the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence. Empirical evidence means evidence acquired by observation or experimentation rather than taken on authority.  The Bible doesn’t ask people to abandon reason and accept groundless belief.  On the contrary, Isaiah 1:18 says, “Come, let us reason together.”  If God exists and gave us the power to reason, he doesn’t expect us to toss it to the wind.

Five Educational Questions

Now we’ll talk about five questions that have to be answered in any philosophy of education.

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. What is the role of the teacher v. the child?
  3. What should be the standards and objectives?
  4. What methods should be used?
  5. How should progress be evaluated?

Purpose of Education.  The first question is what is the purpose of education?  Here’s a list of possibilities, with the most conservative ideas on the top and the most progressive ideas on the bottom:  traditions, habits, values, knowledge, thinking skills, socialization, happiness, self-esteem.

What do you think is the purpose of education?  

The transmission of good habits is a basically essentialist purpose.  Here are some thoughts by different philosophers on the topic of habits.

The only habit the child should be allowed to contract is that of having no habits.  —Jeans-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778

A culture than neglects to cultivate good habits will soon find itself the prisoner of bad habits.  —Aristotle, 384 – 332 B.C.

It takes a long time to build up a tradition of shared ideals and civilized habits, but it can be torn down in a surprisingly short time.  —William Kirkpatrick in the book Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong

Role of Teacher and Student.  The second question is, What should be the role of the teacher and of the student?  Who should lead and direct?  What are the responsiblities of each?  Does the teacher "let things out" of students, or "put things in" to students?

The Jews had a different model for education than did the Greeks.  The Jewish model was based on Deuteronomy 6:6-7: These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Think of how Jesus taught.  He lived life with his disciples, teaching them lessons in the context of everyday life.

The Greek model, by contrast, was more of a classroom lecture style.  The teacher talked, students listened and took notes, were tested, and moved on.  Paul used this model at times, as did Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Both models have their place.

Standards and Objectives.  The third question has to do with standards and objectives.  Should there be objective or subjective standards?  High or low standards?  Should the focus be on content or on process?  Do high standards frustrate and discourage children, or challenge them to do their best?  Is what they learn more important than how they learn or vice versa?

Your philosophy needs to answer such questions.

Keep in mind that most people have one predominant philosophy, yet incorporate teaching methods common to different philosophies.  Your philosophy will determine your priorities, but it doesn’t necessarily restrict the methods you use.

Methods.  The fourth question has to do with what methods should be used.  Which is best, individual or group instruction?  Cooperation or competition?  Experience or book-learning?  Inductive or deductive study? 

Inductive learning infers general laws from particular instances, whereas deductive learning infers particular instances from general laws.  Essentialism (think Aristotle) tends to be more inductive.  Perennialism (think Plato) tends to be more deductive.

Should you require students to memorize?  Some people claim memorization stifles creativity and prevents children from thinking outside the box.  Here is a quote by Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu, a Japanese inventor who is alive today and who has more patents than Thomas Edison, including patents for components of the digital watch and many other things we use every day.  He answered an interviewer’s question this way:

What are the methods used to prepare Japanese children for the strong competition they face?  And how does this affect creativity?

One method is memorization.  We teach our kids to memorize until the age of 20, for we have discovered that the human brain needs memorization up to that point.  Then young people can begin free-associating, putting everything together.  That’s how geniuses are formed.

He thinks memorization, especially at a young age, enhances creativity.  As an essentialist, I tend to agree!

 Evaluation.  The last question you need to think about as you consider your philosophy of education is, How should progress be evaluated?  What is the purpose of evaluation?  Should evaluation be subjective or objective, external or internal?  Which is better:  a paper test or a performance test?

Unfortunately, grades or some measure of accomplishment may be necessary when a child applies to college.  You might choose to make some concessions and evaluate a bit differently than you’d prefer.

One advantage of formal testing is that kids themselves know that they know that they know something.  That gives them confidence.  God himself gives tests.  He knows in advance how people will do, but they don’t know.  Abraham was asked to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  It was a test.  God knew the result beforehand but Abraham didn’t.  That test proved two things, that Abraham trusted God utterly, and that God was trustworthy.  Earlier in his life, Abraham struggled with doubt.  That was no longer the case.  He passed the test.

Mission and Vision Statements

In the handout is a sample vision statement, a sample mission statement, and a sample philosophy of education.  I’ll just share the shortest here, the sample mission statement, based on Titus 2:10:

Our mission in home schooling is to teach our children about God, His Word and His world.  We desire that they choose salvation and develop into wise, mature, respectful and well-educated adults whose lives glorify God and make attractive the Gospel of Christ to unbelievers.

Feel free to any of the statements in the handout and change them to match what is true for you. 

Remember, my goal for this workshop is for you to leave:

  • In touch with a vision for your home school that will keep you inspired through good days and bad.
  • Having begun to contemplate the big picture, the context for what you're doing.
  • On your way toward establishing a firm foundation for everything you do in your home school.

I’d encourage you to go home and open a discussion with your spouse about why you are home schooling.  What is your mission and your vision for your children’s future?  Take time to get in touch with your dreams and write them down so you can refer to them in the heat of daily life and refocus on WHY you’re doing what you’re doing.  Find words that lift you above the daily grind and make your heart sing.

Remember, the word philosophy means “love of wisdom.”  As Christians, we should be lovers of truth and wisdom.  Proverbs 4:7 says:  Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.  Though it cost all you have, get understanding.

Wisdom is supremely valuable. Pray daily for God to grant you wisdom so you can successfully nurture and educate your beloved children, day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out, whether they’re in home school, private school or public school. 

Source:, ©Susan C. Anthony