Veith and Kern on 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.

Recently we talked about the variety that exists with the modern classical education movement. Today we add one more piece to that puzzle.

In  Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington, D.C.: Capital Research Center, 2015) Dr. Gene Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern give an overview of the movement. I know of Andrew Kern from the Circe Institute and I had wanted to include  Circe that earlier post. I could not find one concise statement of their take on classical online. I picked up this book in the hopes of getting a clearer idea of their view. I do not know that this book presents the view of the Circe Institute, but at least we can say that it is the work of Kern who also heads up the Circe Institute (along with Veith, of course).

Classical Education is not primarily written to promote a particular view of classical education but as a polemic in favor of neo-classical education and an overview of its major branches. The authors’ views do come through to some extent, however, and it is these I would like to focus on.

Veith and Kern are accepting of all forms of modern classical education. They do not analyze presuppositions and they do not judge which school of thought is best or most true to its classical roots. Though their book shows that there is a lot of variety within modern classical education, they tend to gloss over differences, choosing instead to emphasize commonalities. In order to do so, they provide a list of what they consider the salient features of classical education. For Veith and Kern the distinguishing features of classical education are (pp. 13ff):

  • Classical education includes a high view of man. Included in this is the goal of classical education: to cultivate virtue (p. 14).
  • It is logocentric. That is, it believes there is a unifying principle and that truth can be known. For Christians, the unifying principle is Christ, the Logos (pp. 14-15).
  • It prioritizes western tradition. Veith and Kern are concerned to make clear that they do not idealize western culture. Yet they just as clearly see the West as the culture that “can sustain the political ideals of liberty and human rights” (pp. 15-16; see below).
  • It has a pedagogy that sustains these commitments. This pedagogy is connected with the Trivium, a three-fold hierarchy of learning popularized in modern times by Dorothy Sayers in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” (see my review here).

I’d like to look at each of these in turn.

A High View of Man. To have a “high view of man” means three things:

  1. Man is more than an animal and more than material. The components of his nature may be delineated in various ways but it all boils down to: there is a spiritual element.
  2. We must take man as a whole, recognizing and addressing all the components of his nature.
  3. Man is able to interact with and to know things which are themselves of a higher nature — the good, true, and beautiful.

My over-riding goal is to propose a biblical philosophy of education. To some extent, at least, all three of these propositions are biblical. I think we need to be careful in how we apply them, however, especially the last one. I also think we need to address not just the nature of the man but also of the child.

In a boots on the ground, practical way, every philosophy of education must deal with the fact that things don’t always go well. People don’t always appreciate the wonderful things we put before them and they don’t always learn the lessons we want them to learn. In our Christian understanding, the root of the problem boils down to sin. Man is alienated from God and on his own he cannot do or choose or be good. As Christian educators, we need to ask how we can educate sinful and unregenerate people. But even as we do so, we recognize that the primary problem and therefore the primary solution is not educational. Sin is a problem only God can solve.

Every non-Christian philosophy of education sees education as in some way salvific. That is, education solves man’s problems.  Most equate wrong with ignorance; if we only knew enough or knew the right stuff or understood it in the right way, we would be and do good. Some, like Rousseau, see traditional, formal education as the problem rather than the solution. But either way, education is wrapped up in salvation.

As David Hicks shows in his Norms and Nobility (see my review here), the classical education of the Greeks starts with this assumption: that education can solve our fundamental problem. I don’t want to caricaturize classical education, but it is a bit like a machine. The expectation is that if we have the right input, the machine will spit out the right output. The problem is that the machine does not work the way we expect it to because it is not a machine but a sinful person. Like the famous joke about the physicist who assumes a spherical cow, we assume a perfect person who is able to react appropriately to all the good stuff we give him. If the desired results aren’t produced, we change the input — the content and the methods — and hope for a better output. But ultimately we fail because it is the machine that is faulty (which is not to say that content and methods don’t matter).

As far as I have yet seen (and I have read a fair amount I think) Christian classical does nothing differently. It either, like its non-Christian counterpart, assumes the best, or it chooses to use only those “machines” which will give it good output. Which is to say, it educates the children of believers but ignores the unsaved.

All of which is a very long way to say that classical education — Christian or secular — assumes the ability of human beings to appreciate and receive the good and true and beautiful.

The Nature of the Child.  While classical education assumes too much about the man’s ability, it assumes too little about the child. Though it has a high view of man, classical education often seems to have quite a low view of children. This is something I first noticed in reading Sayers’ infamous article (again see that review here). For the youngest children in particular, the assumption is that they are memorizing machines but that they are not inherently creative, thoughtful beings.

I have looked at what the Bible has to say about children and my conclusion is that they are fully human. They have body and soul, mind and heart. They are capable of sin and they are capable (by the grace of God) of having a relationship with their Creator. They are not blank slates to be written on or lumps of clay to be molded by us. They are, in short, human, and I agree with Charlotte Mason that in intellectual matters we need to give them a varied, nutritious, human diet.

Sayers’ main argument for the confining young children to the grammar stage with its emphasis on imbibing facts was her own experience (see below) so I too will appeal to my experience — I have four kids (now all teens) and I have been teaching two- to six-year-olds in Sunday school for a few years now. My observation is that even the youngest children are quite capable of grasping ideas, of employing well-reasoned arguments, of understanding more than mere facts.

The Purpose of Education. For classical educators, the end goal is to inculcate 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 this will be an ongoing process. On the surface, this sounds Christian. The problem is that our goal as Christians is not ultimately to be moral. Yes, we are called to live moral lives, but the Christian ideal is something more than virtue or even holiness. It is union with Christ. It’s more about relationship and less about morality. Education that aims for morality may achieve it, but it also may not go beyond morality to that something more.

A Unifying Principle. I may have more to say on this topic as I am currently reading another book which touches on the question of unifying principles. For now, I am going to concede the point that a unifying principle to all of knowledge is a good thing. My problem is that there is no one unifying principle across classical education. Can we say that all these approaches — from the ancient to all the modern variants — are truly the same if they have different unifying principles?

Western Tradition. One thing that unites the various classical approaches is a common foundation in Western civilization (by which is meant ancient Greek and Latin writers and thinkers and everyone in Europe and the west who comes after). For Douglas Wilson (INSERT LINK) all but baptizes Western civilization, saying in essence that, as God allowed His Church to grow in the soil of western culture, it is superior to other cultures.

The take of Veith and Kern is a little different. They acknowledge that there is no golden age of Western civilization. Rather, we stand in a stream which continues to flow. We must know what came before us but we also adapt what comes out of us. The phrase “Great Conversation” is used to indicate that this is an ongoing communication in which we also participate.

There is a level, however, on which Veith and Kern do unquestioningly accept the values of western civilization and thereby idealize it. Specifically, they hold a liberal ideal which exalts political freedom above all else. “Truth alone,” they tell us, “can sustain the political ideals of liberty and human rights” (pp. 15-16). There is here an exaltation of individual liberty (human rights) and of political liberty which is very western. I am not at all opposed to liberty but we must be careful that we do not read the ideals of our own civilization back into our theology.

Eastern cultures, for example, tend to value the community above the individual. Douglas Wilson would argue that Christianity grew up in the West because its ideals matched those of western culture. But this is not necessarily the case. There is also a lot about the community in the Bible. We all fell in Adam and all believers are raised in Christ. The Church is called both a building and a body. Conversions and baptisms in the early church seemed to have been done on the household rather than the individual level.  There is here a very good argument for studying other cultures; perhaps there is something in there understanding which we are missing because we are so bound by our own western ideals.

Veith and Kern find their ideal of political liberty in the Bible — but they do so with some bad exegesis. “Christ,” they say, “formulated the essential political doctrine of the West: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free'” (p. 15). The problem is that this verse is not about political freedom. They are quoting John 8:32. In the next verse, the Jews — like Veith and Kern — misunderstand Jesus; they think He is talking about slavery. But Jesus goes on to make clear on verse 34 that they are not free because they are slaves to sin. The freedom He offers is freedom from sin. It has nothing to do with whether they are slaves and it has nothing to do with political freedom.

The Trivium. Veith and Kern claim that all classical education is united by a pedagogy which they equate with the Trivium as Dorothy Sayers presented it. There are a few problems with this. The first is that not all the approaches they discuss do rely on the Trivium. As far as I can tell (and I have read both their books) neither David Hicks nor James S. Taylor (author of Poetic Knowledge) makes uses of the Trivium.

A second issue is that the Trivium itself, as conceived by Sayers, has been largely discredited. In an article published by the Circe Institute (Kern’s organization), Shawn Barnett argues that Sayers largely made up the modern understanding of the Trivium [1]. The term itself is older, going back to the Middle Ages, but Sayers particular interpretation, which equates each element — grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric — with a stage of child development is her innovation. Though Doug Wilson tries to make a biblical defense of this three-fold division (which I will address in another post), the main argument for this three-stage Trivium is observational. Sayers admits that it is based on her perception of her own personal development.

Though they tout Sayers’ Trivium as the classical pedagogy, when initially describing the Trivium Veith and Kern give a much more, well, classical description.  Theirs is actually one of the best descriptions I have read of the Trivium. As they describe it, it is not about developmental stages but more about how we understand a subject, particularly language or any language-based subject. (Likewise, their explanation of the quadrivium, which is about mathematical knowledge, makes a lot of sense, though it is less filled out.) Having once given this description, however, they seem to forget it and favor a much more rigid, again developmentally-based understanding of the Trivium when it comes to the nitty-gritty of pedagogy and how we educate.

Conclusions

My short take on Classical Education is that it is a useful little book for some things. It begins a quick fly-over of education in America, its history and its flaws. The bulk of the book provides an introduction to the many varieties of modern classical education.  If what you are looking for is a survey of what is out there, this is a very handy little book.

For my purposes, I find Veith and Kern’s take on classical education too broad. They gloss over differences and tend to remain on the surface, describing approaches but not delving into presuppositions. Where the authors’ own ideas come through, they exhibit a somewhat surprising degree of attachment to Sayers’ Trivium and an uncritical adoption of western traditions.

Nebby

[1] Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

 

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