Hebraic Versus Hellenistic Education

Dear Reader,

For a change of pace I have not a book but a video review. I recently finished watching Art Middlekauff’s talk “Charlotte Mason and the Educational Tradition” at Charlotte Mason Poetry (Feb. 6, 2018). Let me start by saying that this is an excellent lecture and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. I am going to summarize some of what Middlekauff said so you can understand what follows but I am by no means presenting all his content. My main purpose today is not to recap what he has said but to discuss one or two points about the traditions themselves.

First, a matter of terminology — Middlekauff speaks of two ancient approaches to education which he terms the Syriac and the Hellenic. I am using the word Hebraic for Syriac. This may be my idiosyncrasy, but I studied the Syriac language, which is a later form of Aramaic, in grad school (and even almost wrote a dissertation on Syriac interpretation) and to me it seems a misnomer for something that dates back to Old Testament times. Semitic would be a better term if we mean to refer to the educational traditions of the Ancient Near East (as it is called; today the same area is the Middle East) but Hebraic seems even better as it is really the traditions of God’s people, the Hebrews, that we are speaking of.

Middlekauff begins by showing that there were two ancient educational traditions, not just the classical, Greek model but also the Hebraic one, and that these two were different in some very fundamental ways. Showing these differences takes a good chunk of the lecture, and then he moves on to what is really the main point he is arguing, that Charlotte Mason looks back to not the Hellenic but the Hebraic model.  This is a controversial point in “CM” circles as many would place her within the classical tradition.

In his discussion of the two traditions, Middlekauff shows quite clearly that the classical Greek educational tradition is based on a humanistic foundation, humanistic in that it sees no higher than man and can have no ultimate truth. In contrast, what we need is a tradition like the Hebraic one which sees God as the beginning of all knowledge and the ultimate standard by which all is judged.  Cornelius Van Til (my review of his book on education is here) has made very similar arguments though his book is a bit of 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 virtue-based system of education founded on the classical model is really not Christian.

The second half of Middlekauff’s lecture is about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. His presentation of her ideas is good and my quibble is not primarily with what he has to say but with the ideas themselves. I agree with Middlekauff that Charlotte Mason stands much more in the Hebraic tradition and that she clearly intended to go back and start something new founded upon the gospels and not upon classical sources. I have some issues with what she deems “the gospel principles of education”  which I have discussed in this post.

A point which Middlekauff spends some time on is the view of the child. He shows that in Hellenic education the child was seen as little more than an animal (on the level with women and slaves who were also not valued). In the Hebraic model the child is a gift of God (I have my own post on the child in Scripture here). When discussing the two traditions, Middlekauff also makes the comment that the child was the center of life and festivals in the Hebraic tradition. I am uncomfortable with how this is phrased. To some extent, it is true in that Hebrew festivals, as he says, often called for the father to explain the works of God to his children (though I tend to think that these explanations were almost as much for the adults). I would not go so far as to say that the child was the center of life and I would want to see more biblical support for this assertion.

This might be a minor point if it were not for how Charlotte Mason fits into the picture. I agree with Middlekauff’s assessment that Mason places a very high value on the child. In my opinion it is too high a value. The child according to Charlotte Mason belongs to a higher estate than we do. He sees this as a return to the Hebraic view of the child; I see it as going too far. I am fine with saying that the child is “a born person” (as Charlotte does in her first principle). I am fine with putting him on the same level as his elders in terms of his worth, his ability to know his Creator, his capacity for both faith and sin. But Charlotte, I believe, and I have said before (here, here, and here), goes beyond this and presents something of an idealized child with a capacity for good that is not just intellectual but also moral. This I cannot accept.

My lecture review is this: highly recommended (and I plan to return to a couple of specific points I liked in future posts). I am in complete agreement that we need an approach to education that is not based upon the classical, which is not and cannot be at its root Christian, and that we have at least the beginnings of a better model for us in the Hebraic tradition. But I have moved away from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy specifically because of the idea Middlekauff points out — that Charlotte holds the child to a higher estimate. This I do not believe to be biblical.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Nicole on April 24, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    This looks like a fantastic discussion and I will check it out for sure- thank you. And I already know I agree with your likes and dislikes of the presentation, because I too would agree that it is GOD who is the centre of all of the Hebrew festivals, not the child, and that to say that children should be the center of our lives or rejecting their sinful nature goes too far. But thank you again for the great resource. 🙂


  2. […] I reviewed Art Middlekauff’s talk on Syriac versus Hellenistic education (see that review here), but I feel the need to revisit it. I have recently begun listening to the Schole Sisters podcast […]


  3. […] error. All should be approached with discernment, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. (Hebraic vs. Hellenistic Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of […]


  4. […] it had to contribute see: Book Review: History of Jewish Education; Book Review: Train Up a Child; Hebraic vs Hellenistic Education and Revisiting Hebraic vs Greek […]


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