Reformed Thinkers on Education: Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical

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.

I am returning again to my “Reformed Thinkers on Education” series-within-a-series to look at Douglas Wilson’s The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003). Before diving in, I always like to give a disclaimer about Wilson: I have some serious reservations about his theology and his church. I say this because he is so popular and oft-quoted, but I do not believe he should be read without a healthy degree of discernment. Having said which, there was little or nothing in this book that rang my heresy bells. I do not agree with Wilson’s approach to education, but I did not see much that smacked of Federal Vision Theology or Eternal Functional Submission.

If you want to know the trends in modern Christian education, you need to read Wilson. Not only is his own view very influential, he gives good critiques of some of the other approaches out there. I particularly found his categories for evaluating “classical” education helpful. So much so that they inspired my to write this post to clarify what exactly we mean by classical (spoiler: there is no one definition of modern classical).

One thing I like about Wilson’s book is that he very clearly lays out what he believes, both in the course of the book and in a summary chapter at the end entitled “A Pedagogic Creed.” Here he boils down his view to ten points. I am not going to address all of them but only touch on some of the most controversial.

Wilson is very, very — almost rabidly — opposed to any government role in the education of Christian children. I do not think you could go to his church and send your kids to public school without coming under discipline (p. 53). While I am not a huge fan of the public schools, I understand that there are times when parents have few choices and I do think there are ways one can make the best of a less-than-ideal situation (see this post). Wilson allows for homeschooling but expresses a clear preference for Christian schools. As has been the case with other writers we have looked at, I find his thinking on this point a bit disjointed. He clearly states that parents have the God-given responsibility to educate their children but he quickly turns to outsourcing that role to teachers who act in loco parentis (p. 230).

Wilson 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 classical.

What makes Wilson’s approach Christian is the idea of antithesis. Simply put, antithesis says that there is no subject or area which is outside God’s domain. There is no sacred versus secular. And because God is over it all, we must study it all from a God-oriented perspective.

This idea is not new or unique to Wilson. Van Til also takes quite an antithetical view and Rushdoony even more so. The idea is that there can be no harmony between Christianity and the world goes back to the early church to Tertullian who famously asked “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”

Though Van Til, on the basis of this idea, rejects classical education, Wilson manages to take a strongly antithetical view and yet to incorporate quite a lot of “Athens” (aka classical education) in his approach.  He does this not by rejecting classical methods and content but by baptizing them. That is, he essentially declares them Christian.

There are two main points which define classical education for Wilson: the Trivium and western culture. The Trivium is a three-fold division of education into chronological stages: the Grammar stage in the elementary years, the dialectic stage in the middle years, and the rhetoric stage in the upper years. It was delineated and popularized in modern times by Dorothy Sayers in her article “The Lost Tools of Learning” (see my review here). Wilson attempts to provide a biblical justification for this methodology. He equates each of the stages with a word for “knowledge” from the Bible. The Grammar stage he says corresponds to the word “knowledge,” the Dialectic stage to “understanding,” and the Rhetoric stage to “wisdom.”  Because analyzing the biblical words is a monumental task, I am going to save a detailed critique for another post. For now, let me just say that I do not buy this at all [1]. There may be subtle distinctions between the biblical words, but I am very, very skeptical that Wilson can make definitive connections here. Two quick examples for now:

  1. Wilson equates the root for “know” with the Grammar stage which is all about memorization and learning facts. Yet, as most of us have probably heard, to know in the Bible can be a very intimate thing. Abraham “knew” his wife and she conceived a son. Trust me, he didn’t just know facts about her.
  2. Wilson does not provide a lot of examples and evidence in this book (I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he may elsewhere; I know he is a prolific writer). One example he does cite is Proverbs 2:6: “For the LORD giveth wisdom; out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.” Wilson uses this verse to show that the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding are distinct, but the nature of the biblical device known as parallelism is such that it shows just the opposite: wisdom is used in parallel with knowledge and understanding, thus showing that they are essentially the same (again allowing for some subtle distinctions), not different.

There are other problems with Wilson’s adoption of Sayers’ Trivium as well. She simply did not have a solid basis for her theory that this is how children learn. She acknowledges that it is based largely on her own experience. She tries to place the Trivium in the Middle Ages to give it a historical basis but as Shawn Barnett [“Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019)] and others have shown, there is little if any evidence that this is how the terms were used in that era, particularly that there was any chronological progression corresponding to periods of child development.

Content-wise Wilson’s take on classical education focuses on western traditions and sources. His reasoning is that “the history of the kingdom of God and the history of Western civilization are intertwined” (p. 232). As an example, he argues that one cannot understand Christian history without studying Constantine and Charlemagne and the history of Europe, nor can one understand the history of Europe without knowing about Christianity. This is true as far as it goes, but Wilson seems to be pushing it too far. He does not say so explicitly but his assumption seems to be that God somehow endorsed western culture but allowing His Church to grow there. “The course of history,” he says, “was established by a sovereign God” (p. 137). He rejects “cultural egalitarianism” and says instead that “In the providence of God, the history of God and the history of Western civilization are intertwined” (p. 232). What I understand him to mean here is that all cultures are not equal (note the use of the word “egalitarianism”). Western culture is superior and this is evidenced by the fact that God chose to use it and no other as the medium in which to grow His Church. We see here a clear contrast with Van Til who, while also favoring antithesis, rejected classical western culture as being inherently pagan and therefore anti-Christian.

I agree with Wilson that we should study western culture and that we should study it more than other cultures because, firstly, it is our own and, secondly, it is indeed intertwined with Church history. I reject the idea that western culture is inherently superior to other cultures. If anything, one of the reasons we should study the Greeks and Romans is to see how their pagan assumptions have infiltrated Christian thinking so we can reject these elements or at least not feel bound by them if and when they are not innately biblical.

There are a few other things Wilson says which bother me. He is quite critical, often rightly so, of the ideals of democracy, but I cringe when I hear him say things like: “But the Christian faith teaches that God has established the world in hierarchal strata” (p. 73). The context makes clear that he is not talking about biblical authority — the fact that parents have charge over their children and elders over their congregants — but that he is speaking of relationships between children. Soon afterwards he says (quoting himself): “‘The modern child is told that he can be anything he wants to be. The medieval child would have been instructed on how to occupy his station.'” What he means by this I don’t know; he doesn’t explain it, but it does give me pause.

Though I have been quite critical of The Case for Classical Christian EducationI did find it quite a useful book for me to read. I would not give it to someone looking for a philosophy of education to follow, but if you are studying various Christian approaches it is quite helpful. Wilson gives clear categories for understanding other takes on “classical” education and valid critiques of other movement. In laying out his own approach, he is quite clear which I do really appreciate. In the end, his view is very antithetical, pitting Christianity against the world, but because he essentially Christianizes both the Trivium and western culture — both undeservedly in my opinion — he manages to forge a “Christian classical” approach. It is not an approach I can agree with but it has certainly been, and continues to be, influential.

Nebby

[1] I feel that I should add here, for those who don’t know me, that my field is biblical Hebrew. I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in it and was “all but dissertation” (ABD) in a Ph.D. program in Hebrew before I had my kids.

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