Why Not Christian Classical?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I explore a reformed Christian philosophy of education. Thus far, we are still on the whys. Last time I looked at the Charlotte Mason approach to education. Today I’d like to look at Christian classical. My goal in these couple of posts is to show you why we need something overtly reformed and can’t just take what is out there and spiff it up a bit.

I am much better versed in Charlotte Mason’s method than I am in classical so my approach this time will be a little different. I am going to ask questions and perhaps express concerns more than I am going to make definitive statements.

One difficulty in discussing Christian classical is that there is more than one interpretation of it. I will try to address some of the bigger proponents but what I say may not be true of all sources. My subject today is Christian classical and it is (oxymoron of the day:) modern Christian classical. As homeschoolers, parents, and teachers, this is what is on the table before us so it will be my focus.

Foundations: The Article and The Book

wtm spine

The modern fascination with classical education began in the 1930s. Amajor inspiration was a fairly brief article by Dorothy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” (LTL; originally published in 1948).  I have previously discussed this article in greater detail here. Sayers, as with most educational reformers, was reacting to the problems she saw in her own day. Her solution was to return to the Middle Ages for inspiration. The key to her approach is the Trivium (followed in later years by the Quadrivium) which divides  learning into three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. These stages are sequential. In the first, Grammar, the child learns much through rote memorization. The second, Dialectic, “is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums.” Rhetoric, the third stage, “is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others” (Kindle Loc. 169). To me, these are harsh words (and there are more besides which I quote in that earlier post). As I read her article, my impression of Sayers was that she was not someone who liked children very much. Beyond this, I am uncomfortable with saying, for example, that all tweens are argumentative. Such statements take what is basically a sinful behavior and turn it into a stage which tends to excuse and allow the behavior. In addition, I find Sayers too academically minded in her goals and approach. She relies heavily on fallen human reason, and her approach does not encompass the whole person.

Though Sayers is perhaps the modern impetus, she is not the whole of the movement. The handbook of classical Christian homeschoolers is The Well-Trained Mind (WTM) by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (originally published 1999; I have not reviewed this book at length but do discuss it in this post on classical education). While Sayers’ article was quite slim, this is a hefty book with lots of practical details. It uses the same Trivium approach which is typical of modern classical education.  The title — The Well-Trained Mind— gives us some clue as to the authors’ goals. The intellect– the mind — is in view and the method of education is one of training (in contrast to unschooling or Charlotte Mason which see education as self-education). Specifically, the mind is trained how to think.  The Well-Trained Mind does not have as clear a statement of purpose as I would like (at least not that I found). But I did find this:

“Remember, classical education teaches a child how to learn. The child who knows how to learn will grow into a well-rounded –and well-equipped –adult . . . ”  (p. 55)

The purpose of education is one area with which WTM rubs me the wrong way. Another is in its view of the child. The authors say that:

“The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument. The critical and logical faculty simply doesn’t develop until later on . . . Children like  lists at this age. They like rattling off rote information, even if they don’t understand it . . . Don’t make K-4 students dig for information. ”  (p. 54)

The view of the child here seems to be that, at least for younger children, they are less than adults. Now, we will look at what the Bible has to say about children in another post so this point is still open to question. But I think we need to ask: How are children different than adults? Are they, or their faculties, lacking in some way that needs to be developed? [I will note that I teach the littlest kids Sabbath School class, ages 2-6, and my observation is that they can and do make some very good, even theological, points at times.]

So How to We Make it Christian?

My concerns about the modern Christian version of classical education fall under two headings: goals and methods.

The Christian adoption of the classical model is characterized as a re-adoption. The various Christian classical sources often point not back to Greece (and later Rome) but to the Middle Ages as the precedent for their version of modern classical education:

“Historically, the Christian church assumed the mantle of classical education, modified it, calibrated it to serve the Christian gospel and then greatly extended it. Thus a great deal of what we know as ‘classical education’ has been ‘Christian’ as well.” (Christopher Perrin, “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014)

This merely shifts the burden of proof; rather than asking why do we now use classical methods, we must ask why did the church in the Middle Ages adopt classical methods?

Concerning the very beginnings of Christian education, Christopher Dawson says:

“The new Christian culture was therefore built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption . . . But alongside of — and above — all this, there was now a specifically Christian learning which was biblical and theological and which produced its own prolific literature.” (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, pp. 7-8)

This synthesis of the classical model with Christian thought and literature persisted through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.** As Dawson, a Catholic, tells it the biggest threat to this mode of learning was the German Reformation under Martin Luther with his crazy emphasis on sola scriptura:

“This revolutionary change [i.e., that of the German Reformation] was even more serious than we can realize today, owing to its destructive effects on the minds of the masses and the education of the common people. In the Middle Ages that education had never been a matter of book learning. The main channels of Christian culture were, liturgical and artistic. The life of the community centered in the Church, in the performance of the liturgy and the cult of the Saints.” (Dawson, pp. 27-28)

Despite what Dawson sees as Luther’s destructive influence, later reformers, including Calvin, continued to incorporate classical learning, at least to some degree:

“Calvin himself fully appreciated the importance of education and study. Wherever the Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not only the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of the classics.” (p. 29)

What is not clear to me — the first question I would like to see answered– is: Why the classical model at all? Its adoption seems to have been initially a matter of convenience and familiarity. Its lifespan has no doubt been long but that alone is not an adequate justification.  Some modern proponents do argue that this way of educating is God-given:

“The best reason for choosing a classical style of schooling is simply because this is the natural model and method for education – which God wrote into reality. So what if the Greeks and Romans used it to serve their ungodly purposes? We simply take it back, clean it up, and use it to serve God in the way which He originally designed. The classical style of education has been successful for thousands of years because it conforms to the created order of things. It works well because it matches reality. If we ever learned anything, then we learned it by the Trivium method – whether we knew it or not.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

However, I have yet to see a good, coherent argument for why it is biblical, or, if not biblical per se, in line with biblical thought and principles (by the way, see this post on how we decide what is good and acceptable). A related set of questions I would like to see addressed: What would the Old Testament/Hebrew/Jewish model of education be, how does it compare to the classical model, and, to the extent that they may differ, why then prefer the classical?

But method is only half the battle; goals are also important. I said above that I was not enamored of the goal of classical education as defined by LTL and WTM. The modern Christian versions of classical do much to rectify this situation. Though their statements of the goal of education vary somewhat, there is no denying that they sound very orthodox. A sampling:

“Classical Christian education’s objective, then, is to shape the virtues and reason so that they will be in line with God’s will. In other words, our objective is to cultivate a Christian paideia in students.” (“What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?”)

“The goal of education is to fully prepare a child for adult life. . . A complete education should prepare a child for mature adult life. All elements of education should work toward preparing sons to make a livelihood and to be husbands and fathers, and toward preparing daughters to be wives and mothers and to manage their households. True education will build a genuine family-oriented culture upon the foundation of God’s word. . . . The ultimate goal of education is holiness – to teach separation to God in order to serve Him.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

“Classical Christian education is not designed to fit the student for our times. It is designed to transform the student to God’s times (Romans 12:2). It is designed to produce an student with the mental discipline and ability to read an in-depth book (even one with more than one hundred pages), write discerning, thoughtful essays on the book, present lectures or debates on the contents of the book, and evaluate its contents in light of the Christian worldview . . . It can and has produced workmen who can rightly divide the Word of God and who do not need to be ashamed to confront and unmask the idols of our age.” (Ben House, “Classical Christian Education,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics)

“The purpose of Classical Education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom. The classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’ The ultimate end of Classical Christian education is to enable the student (disciple) to better know, glorify, and enjoy God. Since we are able to know things with which we have a common nature, the more we are like God the better we can know Him. A student gives glory to God when he is like Him. Our enjoyment of God is derived from our ability to see Him and to see His handiwork.” (“Principles of Classical Education,” from The Circe Institute)

While these goals all sound pretty good, they are not identical. What I would like to see is a goal that starts with the Scriptures, asks how they define education, and works from there.

I also have some concerns about how the method and the goal work together. Christian classical — whether in medieval times or modern — seems to accept the method of the Greeks and to add to it Christian goals like holiness and glorifying God without ever asking if this method can be used to achieve these ends. Perhaps we will find in the end that the methods and the goals are not intimately connected but I think it is at least worth asking how the two work together (or don’t).

So Why Not Classical?

Ironically, my main complaint against the Charlotte Mason method was that it follows too closely on its (faulty) principles whereas Christian classical does not tie its principles to its method enough. In truth, I want something that is like the Charlotte Mason method in that the practical details flow from the initial assumptions. But the modern version of Christian classical — and in truth its early Christian version as well– does not begin with Christian principles but takes a non-Christian method of education and adds Christian purposes on top of them without questioning the methods themselves or their suitability to their goals. It is my conviction that in order to build a truly biblical and reformed philosophy of education that we must begin with goals. We must first decide what the purpose of education is and then ask how we are to go about achieving those ends.

This post wraps up the whys of this enterprise. In the coming weeks, we must begin to look at the evidence and to answer the questions.

Nebby

**Note: Looking for more? I have posts coming out soon reviewing books by Dawson and Van Til; both will revisit this issue. I also recently ran across a podcast from Charlotte Mason Poetry in which Art Middlekauff mentions that the Christian tradition was not as unified as it is often portrayed. I have not had a chance (yet) to listen to it myself. You can find the podcast and related video here.

Bibliography

Association of Classical Christian Schools. “What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?” from Classical Christian.org. Moscow, ID: ACCS.

Bauer, Susan Wise and Jessie Wise. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. ??: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Bluedorn, Harvey and Laurie. “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit, 2001.

Circe Institute. “Principles of Classical Education,” from Circe Institute. org.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010 (originally published 1961).

House, Ben. “Classical Christian Education: A Look at Some History,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.

Perrin, Christopher. “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014.

Sayers, Dorothy. The Lost Tools of Learning. Amazon Digital Services, 2011 (originally published 1947).

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971.

 

 

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] we already have good enough (see these posts on public schooling, the Charlotte Mason method, and Christian classical education)? We have also discussed the how, i.e. How will we know what God has to say about education (this […]

    Reply

  2. […] touches again on a topic I have discussed once and will probably keep circling around to — why not classical Christian education? Van Til is quite clear that Greek culture, because is was not Christian, is no less fallen than any […]

    Reply

  3. […] a harder slog. If you are a devotee of classical Christian education and have not been convinced by my feeble arguments, listen to what Middlekauff has to say. He does a particularly good job of showing how a […]

    Reply

  4. […] fully formed or as lacking certain faculties is going to tend to result in short-term thinking. Modern classical education fits into this category. While it may embody some longer-term goals, it also defines stages along […]

    Reply

  5. […] we can educate anyone into being virtuous. If we make virtue our goal — and it is the goal of classical education —  we will go astray. To the extent that education may restrain evil in the non-elect it is […]

    Reply

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