David Hicks and Christian Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Last time we began to look at David V. Hicks’ book, Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999). In this volume Hicks describes classical education — not the modern version but the philosophy of the Greeks themselves — and gives his own version of it for the contemporary Christian school.

That ancient philosophy, which we looked at last time, can be summed up as follows:

  • What is the nature of Man? Man embodies material, rational, and spiritual elements. There is a hierarchy to these parts such that the physical is the lowest and the spiritual the highest. Evil comes from within man, not from his environment, but virtue is teachable.
  • What is the goal of man’s life? There is an Ideal Type which men have been able through the centuries to discern and describe with increasingly accuracy. The goal  of life is to conform to this Ideal which embodies goodness, beauty, and truth. There is an active element as one must not just know Truth but act on it. It is acknowledged that no one will do this perfectly and that people will achieve the Ideal to greater or lesser extents.
  • What is knowledge? Knowledge does not seem to refer to a body of truths. There is more emphasis on the process. There is a unity to knowledge but it is also in flux like a flowing stream. Knowledge has been planted in man by the divine.
  • How do we know? To know is to uncover what has been planted in man. We know through a process called dialectic which involves starting with a position, a dogma, and going through a process of questioning and answering. These are not static, catechism-style questions but there is a real dialogue between teacher and student. The personal element is important as the teacher teaches himself more than a body of knowledge. Imagination plays a large role.

Given that this philosophy comes from a pagan culture, I find it quite impressive. There is a lot of truth here which men managed to discern without a knowledge of the one true God. But the fact is that we, as Christians, believe that there is one God and that He has revealed Himself to us and provided us with answers to these very questions. So the question before us today is how Christianity affects the classical philosophy of education. I’d like to begin by looking at what Hicks says and then move into some responses and additional thoughts.

 In Norms and Nobility Hicks spends seven chapters delineating what classical education is and one chapter discussing the impact of Christianity on it (and then a few chpaters on practical aspects of education which we will not get into). This distribution alone tells us something. Hicks largely accepts the classical model but sees some flaws in it which need to be corrected by our Christian understanding. 

Hicks’ main cricitcism of the classical education of the Greeks is that is simply proved ineffective. It presents an Ideal Type to which one should conform but really gives no reason why one should do so. It places man at the center of things which tends to exalt him and leads ultimately to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. Though the ancients believed that virtue could be taught, in practice there was nothing that truly empowered man to do good. They themselves saw this and an attitude of futility developed. The inherent optimisim of the educational philosophy was countered by a kind of fatalism which saw that man could not escape his own tragic fate. 

Christianity provides a lot of answers to these problems. It gives us a reason to pursue the Ideal because it is not man-centered but God-centered. The task is no longer futile because it is not done alone; the Spirit of God gives one understanding.

The goal, the Ideal, is also affected. Hicks’ view is that in Christianity the goal is no longer perfection but holiness.  The Ideal Type which the Greeks believed was constantly being refined is, according to Hicks, seen most perfectly in Christ. This is its climax and those examples, Hicks calls them saints, who come after Christ do not add to but imitate the Ideal.

For the ancients, there was a dogma, a unifying pattern which tied all knowledge together. His discussion of the classical philosophy does not indicate if there was ever any agreement on or even any clear statement of what this dogma was. In a Christian context, Hicks identifies it as love, the Greek eros. Love requires an object outside itself and that object is Christ whom he calls “the spirit of eros incarnate, the expressor of the divine will, and the truly divine object that self-transcending love requires” (p. 95).

Hicks’ corrections to the classical philosophy are good as far as they go. My primary problem with them is that they simply begin in the wrong place. The questions which underlie this, or any, philosophy of education are very fundamental, very theological questions which the Bible directly addresses. Yet Hicks, though a Christian, chooses to begin not with what we can know about the nature of man and about knowledge from God’s Word but with with this ancient, pagan philosophy. The corrections he makes to it are good in the sense that they correct some of its flaws, but this doesn’t make up for the basic error of starting in the wrong place.

Hicks seems to assume that the Greek and Roman view of man is the same as the Judeo-Christian one. He says that:

“The first premise of classical education is that the Ideal Type’s ancient, prescriptive pattern of truth — which served Christian and Jew, Roman and Greek — remains the most durable and the most comprehensive.” (p. 8)

The myth of the Ideal Type is that it is a universal model of goodness, truth, and beauty. Because it is found within man himself, it is universal, independent of time and place. While there do seem to be some common standards which all, or almost all, human cultures have had, there is also enough variation that we cannot say there is one Ideal common to all. Hicks hismelf as much as admits this when he quotes Bertrand Russell:

“‘Dr. Arnold wanted “humbleness of mind,” a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s “magnanimous man.” Nietzsche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.’” (p. 39)

If then, as Russell says, our view of the goal, the Ideal, will affect our approach to education, then we, as Christians, must begin with what God tells us of that goal.

Beyond the conception of the Ideal, I would take issue with some other aspects of the ancient view of the nature of man. While we would agree that man contains different facets which we may call the physical, mental, and spiritual, in biblical thought there is no hierarchy to these elements. We think of them separately but man hismelf is a unifed whole and no one aspect is exalted over the other. Donald Oppewal specifically rejects the Platonic view which, following Wolterstorff, he calls “‘an anti-Biblical conception'” (Oppewal, A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education, Grand Rapids: ChapBook Press, 2001, p. 135):

“. . . the Bible reflects a view of man which opposes all dualisms, particularly when such dualisms identify higher and lower elements . . .” (Oppewal, p. 134)

Much heresy has come from dividing  the elements of man’s nature or emphasizing one over another. The most common way to do so is to do just what the Greeks did — to diminish the importance of the physical world. Hicks does not address this issue. I am struck, however, by his use of the word “Christ.” He says, for instance, that Christ was the spirit of eros incarnate and again calls Christ the new Ideal. But he does not use the name Jesus (that I recall). Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I sense a sacrificing of the real, physical, historical “Jesus” for the sake of a more spiritual “Christ.”

The ancients, unlike modern secular scholars, were correct in placing the evil in men’s lives within themselves rather than attributing it to external forces.  They thought that this evil came from ignorance and could be combated through education. Their own fatalism shows that on some level they saw this was not true. Hicks brings God into the picture, saying that:

“For whether he conceived of grace as the joint effort of man and the Spirit of God or as the unique work of the Spirit, the Christian acknowledged the essential power of his faith to enlarge his understanding of the world and of his meaning and purposes in it” (pp. 101-02).

Leaving aside the fact that we as reformed people do not believe that grace can be a joint effort, there is still something off in this approach.  I do believe that wisdom and understanding are gifts of God given to us through the agency of the  Holy Spirit, but to say that He enlarges our understanding is not to take quite the right tack. What we fallen people need is not an enlarging but an utter transformation. Hicks’ view of the evil in man seems to not fit this reformed understanding:

“Sin is a condition for which man is responsible as a result of failing to act in accordance with what he knows. Man is cupable in the eyes of God and of his fellows not because he is fundamentally bad, but because he refuses to live as the good law written into his nature tells him he ought to live.” (p. 96)

I would say quite the opposite — man, since the Fall, is inherently bad and it is not so much that he fails to live according to the law but that he is utterly incapable of doing so.

The basic state of man, then, is quite different from the depiction the ancient Greeks gave us.  This alone should be enough to show us that we need to begin on a different basis. There is not enough common ground here that we can take the classical philosophy and tweak it to make it a Christian philosophy of education. Because our fundamental views of human nature and of the problem of evil are so different,  we need to begin, not with the philosophy of a pagan culutre, but on a biblical basis that starts with the biblical view of man.

The subject of knowledge too is one on which the Scriptures have quite a lot to say. The Greeks understood something mdoern peope have forgottten, that there is an underlying unity to knowledge. (As Christains we would say this unity comes from the origin of all wisdom in God Himself.) They don’t seem, however, to have a sense of absolute truth. Knowledge for them was in a state of flux, and this is why they spurned epxerimentation. Though modern science has rejected its roots,  they were christian roots, arising from a belief in the inherent knowableness and reasonableness of the universe. The Greek view was of knowledge planted by the divine within man to be discovered. The Christian view is of Truth which stands outside of man, in God Himself, and is therefore absolute and unchangeable.

Hicks spends a lot of time arguing against the modern, scientific view and its implications for eduaction. Most of his criticisms of it are good, for there is a lot to criticize there. But he talks as if these are the only two possible positions to take (and if that were the case, the classical is certainly preferable). But the fact is these are not the only possible views and the questions which underlie any philosophy of education are essentially theological ones to which we already have good answers. We need to start there rather than to take a pagan philosophy which does not even get the nature of man right and to try to adapt it.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cindi Dennis on August 24, 2019 at 3:38 pm

    Thanks for this review. Sometime ago, probably a couple years or so, I purchased this rather expensive little book and started it but never got very far. Your review has prompted me to take it up again, even if I only read a couple pages at a time.


  2. […] See my posts on Hicks’ Norms and Noblity and Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge for modern critiques of the tendency to apply the scientific […]


  3. […] University Press of America, 1999). I have reviewed Hicks’s book extensively in this post and this one. Though Wilson identifies his own approach as “Christian classical,” Hicks would also […]


  4. […] calls his approach to education Christian classical. Though others who call themselves classical (Hicks, for instance) would also adopt that title, it is clear that Wilson thinks his is THE way to do Christian […]


  5. […] values. As David Hicks explains so well in his book Norms and Nobility (again, see this post and this one) there is some vision of the Ideal. The goal is conformity to this Ideal, while acknowledging that […]


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