Book Review: Train up a Child

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

In my quest to define what reformed Christian education should be, William Barclay’s Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) has been an absolutely invaluable resource. It provides something I was sorely lacking: historical background. Barclay goes through the educational systems of five different societies in great detail. He is not an unbiased author (who is?) but he clearly has put much effort into his research and quotes primary sources extensively making his book a must-read if this is a topic you, like I, want to tackle seriously (but if you are content to settle for my digested form, read on).

The societies Barclay addresses are: Israelite/Jewish, Sparta, Greek, Roman, and early Christian. For each he begins with broad brushstrokes and theories and then narrows in and discusses specifics of when and how they educated. I am not going to, and could not possibly, recap everything he has to say but I will give you the big bullet points on each so that we can then return to our main topic and discuss how we as reformed Christians should educate and what we can take from each of these traditions.

Israelite and Jewish Education

Barclay lumps Israelite and Jewish education in one chapter and though he makes clear where he is historically as he writes, I think it could be easy for a reader, especially one with less historical knowledge, to miss that this is not all about what God’s people did in Old Testament times. In fact, most of what he has to say is about Jewish education after the time of Christ.

The truth is there is not much in the way of formal education in Old Testament times, i.e. before the Babylonian exile of 586 BC. Barclay’s main flaw is that when he has little to go on, he speculates. With regard to Israelite education, he says:

“Long before there was any formal education lads and young men must have been trained in the simple processes on which food and life depend; and in that training they could not help, perhaps half-unconsciously, perhaps by the process of soaking them in rather than of learning them, acquiring these beliefs in their hearts. For the Jew to work on the land must have been to be educated continuously in the ways of God.” (p. 19)

Note the use of the words “must have been” and “perhaps.” Barclay is assuming here and while his assumptions may be logical, they are nonetheless assumptions. The truth is, we know little about education in the pre-exilic period. (You can read my own post on teaching and education in the Old Testament here.) I agree with him that what happened most likely happened not in formal schools and through ordinary life in the family but the fact is we really don’t have much to go on.

In later Judaism, the synagogue became the center of learning. It was not so much a place of worship as of instruction (p. 24). Schools as such do not seem to have existed until 70 AD or later (p. 32). Because of the importance of the Scripures, literacy was highly valued. Though education was highly valued, it was also limited: it was for boys only (p. 37) and the only textbook was the Scriptures (p. 38). In fact, children were forbidden from studying Greek (which would have been the lingua franca of the day) (p. 38). Teaching was oral and education amounted largely to memorization through repetition (pp. 39-40). Knowledge was intended to be practical in that the Law should not just be known but lived (p. 39, 47). A common definition we have run across is that education enculturates and this was very deliberately true for the Jewish people; they educated to preserve their unique culture and to distinguish themselves from their neighbors (p. 47).

Spartan Education

I am going to breeze over Spartan education fairly quickly. Nobody seems to use Sparta as an example, for good reason. Suffice it to say the Spartan system would make a good basis for a modern dystopian novel for teens. I will make this one point: Ancient Greece was not one unified culture. Those who trumpet “classical” and “Greek” education as the high point of learning would do better to specify “Athenian.”

Athenian Education

Which brings is to our next society: Athens. Here we find what has become the root of “classical” education (I use the quotes because classical can and has been defined in many ways). The Athenian Greeks, through their influence on the Romans (see below), have been perceived as the high point of philosophical thought and of education.

So what was education in ancient Athens really like? Though education was highly valued, it was very much an intellectual enterprise. Education was a head thing and practical skill learning was despised (though exceptions were made in some fields such as medicine and architecture) (pp. 78-83).

The goal of education was to form an ideal person. Valor and wisdom above all were valued (p. 84). This was character education designed to suit the boy to an ideal life which was a life of leisure.

Homer served as a kind of Bible for Greek education. His writings above all were the textbook of education (p. 109). Though this involved a lot of memory work, it was done through games and play and as such was no doubt not unpleasant (pp. 106, 114, 122-23). Poetry was highly valued and was taught before prose (pp. 117-18).

As in Jewish culture, education was a male affair. Though the home was  important in education, most mothers were not equipped to participate in any way. Nor were girls educated (pp. 91, 95, 141).

Because of the emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the despising of practical skills, Athenian education produced an educated but largely useless elite. Barclay goes so far as to call it a system based on slavery (p. 141). “[T]he fault of Greek education,” he says “was that it remembered culture but forgot duty” (p. 142).

Roman Education

Roman education can really be divided into two stages, before and after Greek influence.

In its early days, Roman education was not systematized but centered around the home. It was a kind of populist ground-up affair which embodied peasant values and placed the child and family before all (pp. 144-47). Notably in the ancient world, the mother was involved (p. 150). Education was largely through imitation and perpetuated a way of life built on family values and family gods. This lasted until about 240 BC.

When Rome became an empire, and thereby encountered other cultures, education changed. Schools were introduced. Because the Romans had little culture of their own, they taught Greek culture and like the Athenians, emphasized poetry (pp. 180-81).

But the methods and goals of education were different. Play and games were not the backbone of Roman education. Elementary education, Barclay tells us, was characterized by boredom and fear (p. 166). Severe punishments were used (p. 164). There was a practical turn to Roman education. Mathematics was learned only insofar as it was useful (p. 168). Music too was utilitarian, not aesthetic (p. 188). The goal of Roman education, the ideal product, was to produce a skilled orator (pp. 190-91).

Despite the harsh methods of Imperial Roman education, it is from this period that we get the three-stage approach so characteristic of modern classical education. In Rome, they were defined by the litterator, the grammaticus, and the rhetor (p. 160). The first stage, that of the litterator, was defined by the elements of knowledge, the three R’s taught through “senseless repletion” (p. 160). Most would have only had this first stage of education. Those who did go on would be taught right speaking and poetry by the Grammaticus (pp. 178, 183). [Barclay does not describe the third and final stage, that of the rhetor.]

Early Christian Education

The issue for the early Church was how to respond to all of this, what to accept and what to reject. And, possibly, what to replace it with. As Barclay paints the picture, there were two competing trends in Christianity. On one hand, there was an anti-intellectualism which tended to reject learning because it was so often built on pagan writings (pp. 198-99). On the other hand, many Christian apologists were themselves quite educated and were not opposed to using the pagan philosophers as it suited their purpose (pp. 205, 209-10). They were willing to acknowledge some level of truth in the philosophers and to use what was good while rejecting the bad.

Though Christian parents were held responsible for training their children, the early Church was never in a position to establish schools and did not attempt to do so (p. 238). The result was that children were sent to pagan schools as a necessity (p. 240). The schools themselves, which still based education on Homer and other pagan writings, were often pawns in the various persecutions against Christians. Their attitude essentially boiled down to: use the schools for what they can teach but it is the parent who shapes the child (pp. 258, 261). In other words, the pagan schools were a tool but the real influence was still the Christian parent.

Lastly, I will note that there is some evidence that Christian girls were taught as well (p. 254).

Pulling It All Together

There is a wealth of material in Barclay’s book. My goal in reading it and in presenting it here is to circle back around to the purpose of this whole blog series and to ask what knowledge we can glean that will aid us in constructing a reformed Christina approach to education.

It is hard having read this book not to revisit the topic of Christian classical education (and, frankly, I am not resisting very hard). The picture I have always been given is this: education was at its height in ancient Greece (read: Athens); the Romans took over the Greek approach and then the early Church did as well. This is still the best approach to education and is the ideal for us which we should adopt, albeit perhaps with some Christina tweakings. Barclay shows is that there was not just one model for education in the ancient world and that each approach had its flaws as well as its merits. This is true of the Athenian model as much as, if not more than, many of the others.

The other big point I think we should take from this book is that all our struggles regarding education are not new. The early Church faced many of the same dilemmas. They too were faced with schools that were taught (often) by pagan teachers and used pagan materials. They were not above using these schools but they never ceded all control to them.

I have tried in this series not to wade to far into the public school vs. Christian school vs. homeschool battles.  The one thing I will say clearly is that however we choose to educate our children, we as Christian parents must always view ourselves as ultimately in control of their education and training. Perhaps we, like the early Church, can use the pagan schools (I say perhaps because I do not know if we can and maybe the answer will vary by location) but we must never turn them over to the schools to the point that we abandon our children to them and cede our God-given parental authority to a pagan institution.

I would like to have read in this book that there was some other good model on which we can base education, something we can return to as we seek to rebuild. Sadly, I haven’t found one model that stands out above the others. Little is known of Israelite education and, in truth, there probably was little education. Jewish education was scriptural but did not extend beyond this and gives us no model for how to incorporate other learning, nor, with its emphasis on rote memorization, is it particularly appealing. Sparta is, if anything, a model of how not to do anything. The Athenians valued knowledge in its own right, but too much so — there is no practicality here and the end result is not a functional member of society. They also give the lowest role and place the least importance on the mother. Roman education before the empire actually has quite a bit to recommend it. It is family-based, religious, and practical (albeit based on pagan religion). It does not, however, value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Some Christians seem content with such an approach (see this book review); I could not be. Finally, when we look at the early Church we find people who faced much the same problems as we do. Their solution is compromise and perhaps we will end up in much the same place. I do think we have resources they did not, however, and I think we can at least aspire to something more ideal.

Nebby

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] of Tertullian, “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (p. 28). As we saw when we looked at William Barclay’s Train Up a Child, the early church struggled with whether to accept the schools and learning of the day which made […]

    Reply

  2. […] As we saw when we looked at Barclay’s Train Up a Child, the early Church struggled with how to respond to the educational system of the day with some like Tertullian arguing for a complete separation between Athens and Jerusalem and others like Origen and Clement seeking a unity. The long-story-short version is that a compromise, middle position became the default, with the Church acknowledging and making use of the “natural gifts” of art and science while still considering them of a lower level than the supernatural subjects (pp. 211-12). […]

    Reply

  3. […] the differences between education in Athens and that in Rome, not to mention Sparta (see my review here). My own observation would be that modern proponents of classical education tend to write as if the […]

    Reply

  4. […] Hebraic education was and what 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 […]

    Reply

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