Posts Tagged ‘classical education’

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Alfred North Whitehead Follow-Up

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 recently gave my take on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education as presented in his Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Though Whitehead is not Christian and has as his basis a rather modern and godless philosophy, along the way he manages to say some insightful things and so I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the ideas I gleaned from his book.

As we saw last time, Whitehead, though often cited by classical educators, made classical education (or some derivative thereof) just a part of his approach to education. He added to this “literary education” both scientific and technical education (p. 48). It is the latter I particularly want to look at.

In the many books on education which I have read, there have been various ways of incorporating hands-on elements. Christian writers are quick to point out that man consists of both body and spirit and that our approach to education should somehow recognize and accommodate this fact. For my own part, I have tended to define education as the intellectual and to leave aside the physical, hands-on aspects. I am convicted by Whitehead that this is perhaps not quite the right tack.

Part of what had led me to this intellectually-based approach to education was a discomfort with the various ways in which the physical seemed to be artificially tacked on to education.  Whitehead also recognizes that a lot of what passes for the physical in education may be physical but is not really education:

” . . . in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies. This is exactly the mistake of the post-renaissance Platonic curriculum. But nature can be kept at bay by no pitchfork . . . being expelled from the classroom, she returned with a cap and bellsin the form of all-conquering athleticism.” (p. 50)

In other words, medieval classical education did not include or acknowledge the physical side of man which nonetheless refused to be excluded. People need to be kept active and so sports — what we now call physical education — came to take the place of something equally physical but more educative.

What should real “physical education” look like? Whitehead calls it technical education which perhaps gets a little closer to the idea though it also conjures up some false ideas based on the modern use of the term. For Whitehead, technical education, while hands-on is by no means un-intellectual. Though the hands may be engaged, the mind is still very involved. A technical education such as Whitehead proposes is more akin to what we would call craftsmanship. It is the sort of education which can produce master carpenters and plumbers, those who not only know how to cut a board and fix a leak but who can trouble shoot, who understand, almost on an intuitive level, the materials of their trade and can use and apply them, who can plan and execute complex projects.

If this technical education is excluded, Whitehead tells us, the intellectual will suffer as well:

“The disuse of hand-craft is a contributory cause to the brain-lethargy of aristocracies . . .  Great readers, who exclude other activities, are not distinguished by subtlety of brain.”(p. 51)

Though the two are spoken of as separate categories, “[t]here can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical” (p. 48).

Whitehead has a high view of work which, though he abandoned his Christian upbringing, seems quite biblical. It is at least in part from this view that his advocacy of technical education arises. He also, again quite biblically, recognizes that since the Fall man’s work is not always as easy or delightful as it should be (p. 44). One of my big criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy which has led me to try to devise my own approach to education is her underestimating the effects of the Fall. Here in a non-Christian author, I find some hint of what needs to be added to our approach to account for those effects. It is simply this: Kids aren’t always going to enjoy learning and they aren’t always going to be good at it. By God’s grace, there will be times when their little eyes light up with joy and understanding, but we must not be surprised when they struggle and when they resist us.

This is one of the biggest questions I hear in my local Charlotte Mason discussion group when moms actually get together and talk about the nitty-gritty of how we do this: Why doesn’t my child love the good books I am putting before him? Why isn’t this all clicking like Miss Mason said it should? There is a reason we are not unschoolers. Unschooling says that children will gravitate towards that they need to know, that they by nature will recognize and acquire what is best for them. It assumes a very positive view of human nature. Charlotte Mason does not go quite so far but she also does not do enough to account for the fallenness of man. Education is a lot like sharing one’s faith. We do so in the hope that God will act but we must also not be surprised when what we offer is rejected. That rejection also does not mean that we don’t try again the next day with the same enthusiasm.

These are the two big ideas I got from Whitehead’s work. There are a number of smaller ideas to be gleaned as well. In the interest of time, I will present them as bullet points:

  • “The curves of history are more vivid and more informing than the dry catalogues of names and dates . . .  ” (p. 8)
  • “But mankind is naturally specialist . . . I am certain that in education whenever you exclude specialism you destroy life” (p. 10).  Whitehead, like Mason, argues for a fairly broad education and for not allowing children to specialize (i.e. to concentrate almost exclusively on one subject area) until a fairly late age, and yet he makes this statement. We have all known those kids who are obsessed with one area or idea. It may end up being a life long obsession or they may move in and out of various obsessions. This quote makes me think that we may need to do more to accommodate these passions which still requiring that broad education.
  • We must not postpone harder subjects. The hardest things kids have to learn they learn first in life — understanding language and talking (p. 16).
  • Like Charlotte Mason, Whitehead argues that the thing most analogous to education is eating. To educate is nto to shove things in like packing a suitcase.  Education is like food which must be assimilated by the organism. “When you put your boots in a trunk, they will stay there until you take them out again; but this is not at all the case if you feed a child with the wrong food” (p. 33).
  • “The great English Universities, under whose direct authority school-children are examined in plays of Shakespeare, to the destruction of their enjoyment, should be prosecuted for soul murder.” (p. 57)

And finally this: “education is a difficult problem, to be solved by no one simple formula” (p. 36).

Nebby

 

Alfred North Whitehead and Classical Education

Dear Reader,

In my quest for a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I have read a lot of books. One I had seen cited by others a number of times was Alfred North Whitehead’s Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Since he seemed so influential, I figured I had to read his book eventually and the time finally came during this lovely quarantine.

As its name implies, Aims of Education is a compilation of essays, most but not all of which are on education (a few later in the book are on science which I suppose is not a wholly unrelated subject).  There are a number of stimulating ideas I got from this slim volume which we will get to in a follow-up post. Today I’d like to look at Whitehead’s take on classical education and his influence on later classical educators. Specifically, I would like to ask these later educators, particularly the Christian ones: Why on earth are you quoting this guy?!

It’s not that Whitehead doesn’t have some good ideas. And it’s not that his own philosophy does not appeal to classical education. But Whitehead himself is not Christian. He is in fact fairly anti-religious and is an adherent of process philosophy (we’ll get to what that is in a minute). His use of classical sources and methods is as part of a larger philosophy of education and my impression is that he uses them in a very utilitarian way (which will appeal to some modern classical people but not others). Finally, the one most famous line from Whitehead, which I have seen cited multiple times, is, I think, taken out of context and used to mean something very different from what he meant.

I’ve made a lot of accusations so let’s begin to unpack this a bit. With Whitehead’s work, more even than others we have looked at, the ideas behind the philosophy of education are pivotal. These ideas come from the mind of a man and so it is with the man that we will begin.

The Man and His Ideas

Alfred North Whitehead was first and foremost a mathematician. He was British but worked in the US for some time at Harvard University. He lived in the early 1900s and the volume I am reviewing seems to have been written during his time at Harvard after WWI. We have seen in the past that so many philosophies of education arose in the wake of the Great War. [1] It really affected people on a profound level and the answer for many was to say, “How can education help us ensure that this never happens again?” Whitehead’s father was an Anglican minister [2], and he seems to be knowledgeable about the Bible. He is, as Frank Gaebelein said in another book I read recently, immersed in the world of the Bible though he does not subscribe to it. [3]

In terms of his intellectual context, Whitehead was a follower of John Dewey and the teacher of Bertrand Russell, with whom he wrote his most famous work, Principia Mathematica. Russell is perhaps best-known for his 1957 volume Why I am Not a Christian. Dewey is known as the father of the modern American school system. I have reviewed his ideas previously in this post and this one. One of the things we noted when we looked at Dewey was that his ideas come very much from an evolutionary mindset. They are materialistic in that they consider the material world and discount a spiritual element, and they are evolution-based in that they see life and education as a process of adapting to one’s environment. Dewey himself was influenced by William James, a psychologist known for his radical empiricism which says that “the world and experience can never be halted for an entirely objective analysis; the mind of the observer and the act of observation affect any empirical approach to truth.” [4]

In the final chapters of Aims of Education, those which deal with science, we can see the influence of the materialism and evolutionary mindset of Dewey and the pragmatism of James most clearly. Here Whitehead lays out his views of what science does. I will admit upfront that a fair degree of this went over my head. My quick synopsis would be as follows: What we know we know through our senses. We perceive the world not in instants but in small chunks of time. The fodder of science, what it has to act upon, is these “sense-objects,” which is to say objects as we perceive them. Whitehead recognizes that mankind cannot agree about science if it does not agree about “what really is” (p. 122). He recognizes as well that science should be related to metaphysics or ontology. It is the “determination of the nature of what truly exists” (p. 121). In practice, however, he sees that there are many factors which affect our “sense-presentation.” Memory affects us. Our presuppositions affect us. The time and space in which we encounter a given object affect how we perceive it. [5] The miracle is actually that we have any common ground with one another. Thus while there may be a reality behind it all, we can know it only through our senses which are affected by many external and internal factors.

Whitehead gives many examples. My favorite is that of a cat (pp. 125-26). We say that we see a particular cat but in reality in a few years it may contain a completely new set of molecules. Yet we still somehow know that this is Fluffy and not Patches. We may determine that Fluffy is glad to see us, but all we can perceive is mewing and leg-rubbing. Our minds fill in and give meaning to these sensations. In the dark we may just hear the mewing but again we say that we perceive a cat.

When I say that I perceive something like a chair and speak of it, I assume that you have roughly the same experience of this “chair.” “[T] he vision of a chair” occurs “for some definite person at some definite time . . . It is his vision, though each of us guesses that it must be uncommonly like our vision under analogous circumstances” (p. 135). What we perceive are certain molecules and waves of light as they play upon our sense organs, but we say “chair” and we assume that the other person perceives things in roughly the same way.

Both the chair and the cat, for Whitehead, are intellectual constructions (p. 136), “hypothetical thought-objects of perception” (p. 133). That is, we have certain perceptions and we make conclusions about cats and chairs. “The material universe,” says Whitehead, “is largely a concept of the imagination which rests on a slender basis of direct sense-presentation. But none the less it is a fact; for it is a fact that actually we imagine it. Thus it is actual in our consciousness just as sense-presentation is actual there” (p. 133).

And what of human beings? For Whitehead, what we are is a product of our self-determination. We cannot control our circumstances but we can control how we take them. Though sensation and perception are important, we are not entirely controlled by them. We can determine how we feel. [6]

Whitehead does not deny that there is something absolute out there, but in practice, we cannot know anything absolute. What exists exists in our minds because that is all we can know. Everything, for us, is ultimately experiential. [7] He acknowledges that there is an “infinitude” we are trying to grasp but at the same time says that “All truths are half-truths.” [8] Elsewhere he does speak of God. Whitehead’s God is the source of novelty and change and gives value and beauty to the world [9], but He is not a personal God — either in the sense of having a relationship with man or of being Himself a Person.

Speaking of religion, Whitehead says that it is “‘the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within'” yet he seems to believe that though men strive they are never able to know this thing that gives it all meaning. [10] Religion may be used for good or evil or be morally neutral. It has been “‘the main instrument for progress'” but also has done quite a lot of ill. [11]

This is my very primitive understanding of Whitehead’s personal philosophy. The question before us next is what his philosophy of education is and how it reflects his views.

Whitehead on Education

Education for Whitehead is the acquiring of ideas which are then to be utilized. He warns against “‘inert ideas'” which “are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (p. 1). This need to apply ideas is not entirely utilitarian. Whitehead does value understanding for its own sake (p. 2). “By utilising an idea,” he says, “I mean relating it to that stream compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires, and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life” (p. 3).

Because he seeks to imbue children with active and not inert ideas, Whitehead eschews those methods which tend to make education more of a dead thing. He is against standardizing the curriculum or standardized examinations (pp. 5, 9, 13). His ideal is a small class whose curriculum is determined by the teacher as being best able to tailor it to his particular students (p. 9). It is always possible to “pump into the minds of a class a certain quantity of inert knowledge” (p. 5), but this is not the goal. His goal for education is not facts but an understanding of broad trends such as “the curves of history” (p. 8).

We have seen in many (if not all) the approaches to education that we have looked at, certain underlying assumptions about the nature of children. Though Whitehead sees ages 16 through 30 as the major time of self-development and speaks of birth through age 12 as a time of training (p. 1), yet he also seems to see children as having minds as capable as those of adults. The mind, he says, is always active. It does not need to be honed before it is used, though there does seem to be honing which goes on (p. 6).

Whitehead also stresses the interconnectedness of all subjects. “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations” (pp. 6-7). Though man naturally tends to specialize, this should be discouraged until later years (pp. 10-11).

Getting more to specifics, Whitehead says that “Life is essentially periodic” (p. 17). His approach to education is also periodic on a few different levels. Each subject has a trajectory from romance to precision to generalisation (p. 17). Not all subjects will be in these stages at the same time, however. One begins with subjects like history and science comes later so that one may be in the precision stage in one subject and the romance stage in another. There is a rhythm as well of freedom and discipline that the student again moves in and out of in the various subjects (pp. 29-31). Education, for Whitehead, is very cyclical, with these patterns repeating themselves (p. 19).

What we often think of as education — the learning of facts, the grammar stage of classical education — is the second stage, that of precision (p. 18). But it must always be preceded by the romance stage, that which captures the imagination (this is akin to the poetic knowledge of which James K. Taylor speaks). The final stage, generalisation, is that of fruition or synthesis (p. 19). In the end one aims not to know facts but to grasp principles so that the facts may even be forgotten when the whole is grasped (pp. 26, 37). As the student moves through the various stages and phases of education, there is a strong emphasis on imagination. The initial romance stage of any subject is to capture the imagination and in the final generalisation stage one returns to it. [Whitehead spends a chapter discussing the importance of imagination at the university level (pp. 91ff).]

Though the role of the teacher is at times important, especially in the stages of precision and discipline (p. 35), the goal is for the student to be self-disciplined and to develop as an individual (p. 39). The role of the teacher is to “elicit enthusiasm by resonance” and to create an environment which makes knowledge and purpose desirable (pp. 39-40).

The curriculum itself has three sides: literary, scientific, and technical (p. 48). Whitehead spends some time arguing for the necessity of the technical which tends to be either neglected or misunderstood. He is thinking here os something hands-on but not intellectual. Technical education produces workmen who know and love their field. The image is of the expert woodworker or plumber who is able not just to build according to specifications but to innovate and to troubleshoot. Literary education has to do with all those subjects which involve language and is most akin to classical education. Thus we see that classical (which we will return to below) is one part of education for Whitehead, but not the whole. Scientific education has to do with natural phenomena. It should largely involve first-hand knowledge. No education could possibly hope to be complete and a given individual will tend to emphasize one of these three over the others, but all should have some of each in their education.

For a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, many of the words Whitehead uses sound good — imagination and ideas particularly. Yet we need to be careful to understand these words in the way Whitehead himself does and to view them in the light of his broader philosophy (while at the same time acknowledging that his philosophy of education may not always match his overall philosophy — we humans can be inconsistent). When Whitehead talks of ideas and imagination, it is because these for him are reality. At least, they are all of reality we can know. What we know is not what is but our perception of what is. We have some control over this perception and so our reaction to our environment is very important as well. Facts are less important and can even be forgotten at higher levels because they are not ultimately what is true for us. Thus the goal of education is to develop the individual’s imagination because it is in his imagination that his reality exists.

Whitehead and Classical Education

Whitehead is often cited by later proponents of the neo-classical movement and he does indeed spend some time discussing classical education, but I think it is a bit of a jump to say that he himself is classical. As we have seen, what might be thought of as traditional classical education forms one part of education for Whitehead. It roughly corresponds to his literary curriculum.

Because classical is a very broad term, I recently did a post on the characteristics of classical education. I think it would be helpful to look at Whitehead’s approach in terms of this list to see where he does and does not line up with classical. Note that one does not need to meet each of these criteria to be considered classical. There is no solid line between classical and not-classical but having all or most of these characteristics certainly makes one classical and having a few  only probably means one is not classical.

The characteristics are:

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

Starting at the top, we find that while Whitehead discusses some of the ancients (#s 1 & 2 above), he does not trace his overall philosophy of education to them.  He uses some ancient sources but also advocates the use of more modern sources for certain subjects. He does not, as many more modern writers do, place Greek and Roman authors on a pedestal, saying instead that “the ancients can boast over us no superiority” (p. 29). He finds the traditional western, classical cannon too narrow and recommends more modern authors as well, naming Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin. Looking beyond western civilization, he also says, “I have my doubts of a selection which includes Xenophon and omits Confucius” (p. 47). Though he advocates the learning of Latin and the reading of Roman authors for their disciplinary and historical value, he is quite critical of them: “One of the merits of Roman literature is its comparative lack of outstanding genius . . . Very little Roman literature will find its way into the kingdom of heaven . . .” (pp. 67-68).

Whitehead is critical of classical methods as well:

” . . . [the ancients] erred sadly. To put the matter simply, their popular practice assumed that wisdom could be imparted to the young by procuring philosophers to spout at them.” (p. 30)

Yet Whitehead is not entirely negative on classical education. He says that the “Platonic Ideal has rendered imperishable services to European civilisation” (p. 46). Yet it is not the be-all and end-all of education for him. A classic liberal arts education, he says, is a very good education for certain people (p. 46).

Regarding virtue (#3&4), Whitehead again has some reference to virtue and his philosophy allows for the idea of a higher ideal out there somewhere but I would not say that he makes virtue the main goal in the way classical educators do. The development of the imagination, more than virtue, is the goal for Whitehead and, as we have seen, imagination has more to do with one’s concept of reality than with virtue. (This is a topic we will return to below as well when we discuss Whitehead’s most oft-quoted sentence.) To the extent that he has higher values, it is not virtues like godliness or honesty of patience or bravery that Whitehead extols. His highest good seems to be the aesthetic sense, the appreciation of beauty (pp. 12, 40).

Whitehead does have a fairly prominent role for the teacher (#5&6), especially at certain stages, though this role is meant to diminish over time (an idea not unfamiliar to other adherents of classical). His approach is at times disciplinary (#7) in that certain subjects are learned for their shaping or molding value. This is especially true of those elements of classical which he includes. That is to say, he incorporates classical bits like the learning of Greek and Latin for their disciplinary value. They are not valued so much for their own sake, as pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but as “subsidiary means for the furtherance of this ulterior object” (p. 63). Thus Latin stimulates mental expansion (p. 65) but it does not even matter in the long run if one forgets one’s Latin so long as one retains the skills learned.

Numbers 8 through 12 all have to do with what stands outside of man, with absolutes. Again, Whitehead has some belief in absolutes, especially with regard to beauty, but he also does not believe that man can ultimately know these truths (#12). This is a significant departure from classical thought. To some extent the truths which may be out there are irrelevant to Whitehead’s philosophy because we cannot truly know them.

The end of the list, numbers 14 through 21, have to do mostly with more practical specifics. We will run through these fairly quickly — Whitehead makes no reference to dialectic (#14) or to a hierarchy of knowledge (#21). Nor can I find that he particularly uses or addresses rhetoric (#15) and argumentation (#17). He does include the learning of classical languages (#16), albeit for purposes of training the mind more than for their own sake. While I would not say that Whitehead rejects purely scientific knowledge (#18), his approach to education and philosophy is quite modern and scientific in that he begins with man’s senses and what he can know and works from there. Modern science is a part and not the whole of his education, but scientific presuppositions underlie it all. Yet there is some understanding of what might be called poetic or non-scientific knowledge (#19) that shows up particularly in the first and third stages of his educational cycle, romance and generalisation. In each of these it is the love of knowledge which is the focus. There is, as we have seen, a kind of staging of education here (#20) but it is not at all like Sayers’ three-stage view of education. For one thing, it is cyclical so that one may be in all three stages at once, albeit in different subjects.

In discussing the place of classical education in the modern world (which for him was the early 1900s), Whitehead extols the past virtues of the approach but at the same time says that “Humpty Dumpty was a good egg so long as he was on top of the wall, but you can never set him up again” (p. 61). Thus, to sum up Whitehead’s take on classical and his use of it we must say that while he acknowledges its benefits, especially its past benefits to society, and takes from it some elements, he does not identify himself as classical and does not see a classical education as a complete education or one appropriate to the modern world.

“The Habitual Vision of Greatness”

There remains one topic for us to delve into and that is to parse out that most-oft quoted line of Whitehead’s:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” (p. 69)

This quote is taken to mean that we must give students an ideal — a vision of greatness– which is placed before them regularly (habitually) in order for them to develop virtue (moral education). Thus the classics are used as these “visions of greatness.” The present an ideal. Some Christian authors will note that this is an ideal we can never reach on this life and even perhaps that there are models beyond the classical to which we should look, but the idea is the same: that we use classical sources with their emphasis on virtue in order to present an inspiring ideal. [12]

In this understanding the greatness spoken of is something external to the individual which inspires him to do and be more. But this does not seem to be quite what Whitehead is saying. First of all, we must notice that he looks primarily to Roman and not Greek sources, though he sees the former as the arbiter of the latter. Secondly, he is honest about the failings of these sources. We have seen that he does not view them as great literature. Though not himself a Christian, he notes that it is Rome which is condemned by the Book of Revelation as the harlot and the Great Babylon (p. 68). Her vices, he says, are as great as her virtues (p. 69). It is in this context that Whitehead then makes his famous statement. Here is the full context:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue. Now the sense of greatness is an immediate intuition and not the conclusion of an argument. It is permissible for youth in the agonies of religious conversion to entertain the feeling of being a worm and no man, so long as there remains the conviction of greatness sufficient to justify the eternal wrath of God. The sense of greatness is the groundwork of morals.” (p. 69)

Greatness here is not a goal to which one aspires. It is the foundation. It must come first. The Christian conviction of sin and of humility before God is at best a brief stage and even in the midst of it one must feel some sense of self-importance, enough at least to merit the wrath of God. Whitehead says here, as I understand him, not that we should be good because we look to an Ideal but that we should be good because we are great. Now it is possible that this is how some secular or non-Christian proponents of classical would understand the thing, but this is a distinctly un-Christian idea and it is usually taken, as often as I have seen it quoted, out of context.

Wrapping Up

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education has its feet in two worlds. He stands at the end of a tradition of classical education which to some extent he still acknowledges and incorporates to a degree that more modern educators do not. Yet in his personal philosophy is so very, very modern in the sense of being scientific and relying on the presuppositions of modern science and not on faith, religion, or even morality. There are some good ideas in his book (which again I will return to in another post) and there is certainly a lot to make one think. But in the end, everything he says must be taken with quite a large grain of salt recognizing that his beliefs and presuppositions are very different from our own. At times the words he uses may sound familiar and right but we must be careful to read them in light of the ideas behind them. Though he is often referred to and quoted by advocates of modern classical education, he is not a classical educator and does not identify himself as one but distinctly rejects classical education.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] Other educational thinkers from this period include Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf Method). Charlotte Mason worked in this period as well though her work began in the late 1800s.

[2] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[3] Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomal Press 1985) p. 190.

[4] “William James,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

[5] Whitehead also met Abert Einstein and was very much interested in his theory of relativity (“Alfred . . . ” in Stanford). We can perhaps see traces of this idea here — our perception, and therefore our reality, is affected by the time and space in which we perceive it.

[6] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smitha, p. 2.

[9] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Frank Gaelebein, one of my favorite writers, is among those who quote this line. He is also one who looks not primarily to classical but to biblical ideals:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead lets us down as he points to the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome as ‘the habitual vision of greatness.’ Certainly for the Christian writer, ‘the habitual vision of greatness’  is not classical history and literature but the Bible, the Word of the living God.” (Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth ,p. 189)

I had it in my head that Clark and Jain in The Liberal Arts Tradition also quote this particulat line though I cannot find the passage now. For more on the classical ideal see this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility

Bibliography

Alfred North Whitehead,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (revised 9/4/2018).

“Alfred North Whitehead,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

Smitha, Frank E. “Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead,” Macrohistory: World History (accessed 5/7/2020).

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Johann Sturm

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 Johann Sturm. Sturm is an older writer — about as old as you can get and merit the label reformed! — a contemporary of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. I have just read a few essays from Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning [ed. Lewis Spitz and Barbara Sher Tinsley (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995)], but I think they are enough to give me a pretty good idea of his approach and philosophy. Though he is an older writer and in many ways what he has to say may not seem applicable to today’s world, his influence on later educators, both Protestant and Catholic (p. 12), has been great so it is well worth our time to see just what Sturm was all about.

Sturm’s philosophy of education is very definitively classical (see this recent post on the characteristics of classical ed). Like much of classical education, morality was the goal of education, and an education based in literature (p. 57) was seen as the way to produce good morals (p.71).

“For there is nothing in the nature of the universe that cultivates morality as does the study of letters.” (p. 72)

Sturm acknowledged the place of nature and experience but argued for the role of learning in further shaping character (p. 73). This learning, of course, might not be available to all but was a powerful force in the lives of those suited to it. [Sturm’s educational program was not universal. He did advocate for the inclusion of select poorer boys but girls were left out entirely (p. 16) as were those deemed “slow” (p. 78).]

Though definitively Christian and reformed — he “represented a Calvinist element within the church” (p. 350) — Sturm valued classical authors, seeing them as “a harbinger of rather than a challenge to Christian morality” (p. 45).  In practice, classical authors were exalted even above Christian ones. They were assumed to give the proper moral base and distinctly Christian subjects like dogmatics were left out of the core curriculum (p. 50).  Despite this lack of Christian sources, the teacher was expected to be a Christian and to provide the right mindset and perspective through which to view the materials studied (p. 54). And education was said to be useless if not “imbued with sound Christian values” (p. 347).

As is common in the classical tradition, Sturm placed a high value on being able to speak well, saying that “eloquence without knowledge was as dangerous as knowledge without eloquence” (p, 49). This indeed seems to have been the motivating factor in Sturm’s approach to education and his return to classical sources — he saw in his own day a lack of learning which paled beside the vision he had of the ancients and turned to classical sources and oratory as a way to recover learning (p. 119). The early years in particular were given over to the development of morality and proper speech (p. 74) so that these habits, ingrained early, might form a proper basis for the later years. The end goal was a “wise and eloquent piety” (p.85), combing the three goals of morality, knowledge, and eloquence.

Sturm advocated for a large role for parents in the early years (p. 19), but ideally expected qualifying boys to enter school around age 6 (p. 86). At that time they would go to centralized schools. Sturm preferred a very centralized education, both in terms of geography and curriculum. Thus boys would be expected to go to the big city (wherever that might be) and the curriculum was standardized. Large classes were the ideal (p. 84). This was not interest-led learning. Even individual teachers did not make decisions about what was to be taught, but everything was standardized across the school so that all students would learn the same material.

In “The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters (1538)” Sturm presents his program, year by year, outlining which books of Cicero, for example, were to be studied in which year. The first nine years, to age 15 or so, would be for general “boyhood education” and then five more for advanced education (p. 85). In terms of methodology, Sturm was very modern in that he threw everything he had at students. Many different approaches were tried so that if one didn’t work with a particular student, another might (p. 51). He advocated strongly for the use of rewards and prizes as motivations to learning (pp. 51, 88), playing upon students’ innate desires for validation and victory in competition (p. 65).

Though there is a strong emphasis on competition as a motivating factor for the boys, yet Sturm seems to have valued cooperation above all in his teachers. The students’ ambition was used against them (or for them, depending on your perspective) to urge them on in their studies. Yet, for his faculty, Sturm says “nothing corrupts religion more than ambition . . .  When men are contorted by envy and tossed by ambition, there is no loyalty in them, and nothing perfect” (p. 116). The theory in the younger years seems to have been that competition breeds friendship among boys (p. 117). I am not a male so perhaps this is lost on me, but this seems like a very fine line to tread, using a quality you ultimately don’t want to inculcate.

Though he was not opposed to corporal punishment, above all his goal seems to have been to make learning enjoyable for students, to keep their motivation up. To aid in this, lessons were to be kept short and varied (p. 92). Yet too much variation in one day was also to be avoided; Sturm advocated no more than three subjects per day (p. 93). In all this, there was a large role for the teacher in keeping up students’ motivation and appropriately varying the curriculum (yet without varying it too much).

Latin and Latin authors were the backbone of the curriculum. One began with Cicero in grade 9 (which was the youngest grade; Sturm counted from grade 9 up to grade 1; p. 89). Sturm made much use of memorization (p. 55) and in the early years one goal was to train the faculty of memory (p. 91). Greek and Greek authors would be introduced in fifth grade (p. 95). In the last years (grades 2 and 1 for him), the emphasis was particularly on “ornate speech” (p. 102), defined as speech which is “literary, embellished by learning, worth of a free man, and appropriate to the occasion and the person” (p. 103). Subjects like math and astronomy would also come up in these last years.

Though, as we have said, “Christian” subjects were not part of the main curriculum, they were included in some ways. Festival days were for “sacred lectures” and boys were expected to know “the entire history of Christ and the apostles” (p. 104). When this was supposed to happen is not clear, but there was apparently a good amount of reading expected to be done apart from school hours. In all subjects original sources were preferred to later commentaries (p. 48) and this was true of the Scriptures as well (p. 106). In the last years of schooling, the catechism would be explained and Hebrew grammar taught (p. 104).

Sturm believed all subjects were inter-related and warned against over-specialization especially in those first nine years of education. As we have seen, the curriculum was very much a top-down, standardized affair so that there would be few if any options for boys.  Older students, those in the five years of advanced education, were at the age of specialization but were also encouraged to attend lectures in fields outside their main interest (p. 49).

There is no doubt Sturm has been influential, on both classical and non-classical educators, Protestants and Catholics. He lived at a time when the reformed church, brand new itself, had a new situation to deal with. Education had been the work of the Roman Catholic Church and Luther and others sought to break it free (see this post on the history of education during the Reformation). The Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures led to a desire for not just an educated clergy but an educated laity as well, yet in an environment in which few structures were already in place.  Sturm was called in to build a school system essentially from scratch, a rare opportunity.

As he began to do so, Sturm looked around and saw an appalling lack of education in his own day, especially in comparison with the educational level of the past (or at least the perceived level). At a time when the gospel was once again begin preached and spread abroad, it is no wonder he felt very much the need for not just Christian morality but eloquence. The great orators of Greece and Rome seemed to provide just the model he needed and so it was to them that he turned, developing an approach to education which was almost the definition of neo-classical.

I have not made a secret of the fact that I am not a big fan of classical education. As we evaluate Sturm’s work we need to keep in mind the environment in which he lived and the resources available to him. What he created was of incredible value for the church and the society of the time. But we must also realize that we live in a different situation. We have many more centuries of thought about education behind us. We have different needs, different ways of communicating, even different bodies of knowledge, and many, many more resources. We can appreciate Sturm’s work, and take from it what might still be useful to us, but it would be foolish to try to recreate his system today. My critique of much of modern classical education (see this recent post in Clark and Jain’s work) is that it assumes a classical foundation and builds up from there without asking if this is the proper foundation. Sturm does this as well. In his case, I think it was much more excusable; he was in a unique situation and had little else to turn to. We don’t have the same excuses.

Nebby

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 3)

Dear Reader,

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

This is the third and final part in my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

IMG_2415

In part 1, we looked at what Clark and Jain have to contribute to classical education and where they stand in relation to previous writers. Last time we looked at how their philosophy would answer a series of questions including:

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

Today I’d like to look at a few issues that I have yet to address in detail and to give my overall thoughts and conclusions on The Liberal Arts Tradition.

Schooling

The subject of formal schooling, public or private, versus homeschooling is one I have addressed in many previous posts [1]. Clark and Jain’s book is an argument for a certain approach to education. Though they do not address homeschooling directly [2], their ideal seems to be Christian schooling. I will deal with the “Christian” part of that phrase below when looking at Christian culture.

For now I’d like to look at the argument for schooling as opposed to home education. As I said, Clark and Jain do not make this argument directly, but their approach does seem to push one towards a traditional school setting. This is due largely to the prominent role of the teacher. As we saw inpart 2, their method relies upon imitation and discipleship. The course of study is largely set by the interests and abilities of the teacher.

One problem with giving the teacher such a large role is that it inevitably diminishes the role of the child’s God-given instructors, his parents. Clark and Jain, like most other Christian educators I have read, acknowledge that God gives parents the responsibility to educate their children. The teachers operate in loco parentis (pp. 217, 247). The problem I have with this is that the parent cannot give away their responsibility to educate and train their children. They can, of course, delegate that responsibility to others for certain times. We all do this and I don’t want to be unrealistic about that. But in my mind there is a big difference between hiring a babysitter for a night, sending your child to Sunday school, or using online classes and sending your child to a school for 6+ hours a day and allowing that school and its employees to make vital decisions about how education will occur and what resources will be used. Because humans are complex individuals, composed of body and soul; heart, mind, spirit, and strength, education, however well-intended, tends to suck in more and more areas of life. It is impossible for it not to. [3]

I realize there are some issues that my pro-family stance raises. There are pros and cons to each approach to education. One is that not all families are well equipped to educate their own children. Clark and Jain allude to this. It is not abundantly clear if they believe all families are incapable of the task or only some. They seem to imply that while piety (a bottom-level subject) can be taught at home that moral philosophy is beyond families (p. 161). This I would not agree with, though our disagreement would largely stem from my rejection of their hierarchal view of the subjects one learns (discussed in part 1 of this mini-series). I am not sure that the best solution to the problem of incapable parents is formal schooling all around. I do think parents need to be equipped and helped and I do think the Christian community needs to think more creatively about how this can be done.

Which brings me to another possible objection — I do think that the larger Christian community, which is to say the Church, has some interest in making sure its children are educated (p. 178). The parents are not meant to stand or fall on their own. In my denomination the congregation also makes vows at a child’s baptism to support and encourage the parents. These are vows we need to think more about in terms of practical application. If we do so, I believe we can devise novel solutions which will help without undercutting the parents’ God-given responsibility.

Christian Culture

Clark and Jain advocate not just schooling but Christian schooling. Which is to say, education with specifically with Christian curricula taught by Christian teachers and aimed at Christian students.

While I do not share their view of the role of the teacher, yet I can see there are good reasons to desire Christian teachers for our children. I am not as convinced that our schools (if we have them) should cater exclusively to Christian students. Like many others, Clark and Jain gear their educational approach to covenant children, those being raised in Christian homes (pp. 211, 228). Such a philosophy has little to say to or about those outside the covenant community. It is not an approach to education for all people, but only for some.  In my own search for a philosophy of education, my goal has been to find an approach which applies to all children. If (as I have argued) in education we put before children the things of God, then we must also ask if this has any meaning or effect for those who are not yet redeemed and may never be redeemed. This is a theoretical concern, but also a practical one. Most of us who spend time with children will at one time or another have children who are not from good Christian families under our care. (I hope that we will even seek out such opportunities!) How are we to address these children? Must we preach to them first and see them saved before we can begin to educate them?  These are questions our philosophy of education needs to answer and so it also needs to think about education more broadly, as something that does not just influence the Church but as something that goes beyond it to the world.

The question of the curriculum is actually quite a similar one. Just as we must ask what education can do for non-believers so we must also ask what they can contribute to education. Clark and Jain don’t go deep into specifics in this book, but they argue that the main thing to be taught is “Christian culture” (pp. 231ff). Here I will admit a fair degree of ignorance: I am just not sure what they mean by this phrase. I am not sure if they are referring to a particular body of knowledge or if they are referring to something more akin to a worldview or mindset (as I discussed here). Though there is certainly some aspect of the latter in their philosophy, they seem to be thinking of the former as well. That is, that one should study Christian thinkers and writers and historians and scientists. The question one must always answer, then, is: What of the works coming out of non-Christians? Is there a place for their study? Not surprisingly, as they rely heavily on ancient pagan sources themselves, Clark and Jain acknowledge that we can “respect and appropriate the learning of the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures” (p. 239). Though I am nor sure they use the phrase “common grace,” they do subscribe to the belief that, as God is the author of Truth and as He has given gifts to all men, that there are good and true things which we can learn from non-Christians (p. 240). How we do so remains a bit of an open question and brings us to the final topic of the day . . .

Western Civilization and Culture

Closely tied up with questions of Christian culture are those of Western civilization and culture. Here I am indebted as well to a podcast interview with Ravi Jain on Forma [4]. In this interview he goes a bit further than the book in explaining how their approach may apply to other, non-western cultures. The key phrase here seems to be “appropriating” or “redeeming” culture. That is, one must use discernment in evaluating non-Christian cultures — whether ancient Greek or Chinese — and deciding what can be used and what must be rejected. While I was slightly uncomfortable with the degree of acceptance given to western culture in the book, the podcast did assuage some of my concerns. And Jain has said, I think this is still a topic which needs further thought. I am not a fan of the view advanced by Wilson and others that Greek and Roman culture was somehow uniquely suited to the Christian message. I do think that God had prepared a time and place for the incarnation and work of Christ, but I think many go too far in assuming that that means that Greek and Roman culture are somehow exalted above others. The pax romana certainly aided the spread of the gospel, but so too did persecution. One could make an argument that it was the vast sinfulness of Roman culture which made the work of the Church stand out.

The flip-side of this is the lack of consideration of Hebraic culture. If there was any people and culture God was preparing for the advent of His Son, it was the nation of Israel (and they rejected Him). Clark and Jain (like so many others) spend very little time on what that culture has to contribute to the field of education. [5] They do tie piety (again, an early age part of education) to Hebrew culture (p. 17). They note the use of stories in the Old Testment (p. 223), and they argue for the learning of Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek (p. 275). Overall, however, in a book of some 300 pages, one or two paragraphs worth are spent on Hebraic culture.

Conclusions

This observation brings me to the conclusion to this series and my main overarching problem with The Liberal Arts Tradition. Let me emphasize again that there is a lot to like here. If you read one book on classical education, it should be this one. Clark and Jain have given me a lot to think about and expanded my thought on education in a number of ways. But my lingering issue has to do with where they start. They assume a classical foundation. They start with what the Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Church, have said and work from there. The points where I end up disagreeing most with them are just those points which still line up with classical education. These include a hierarchy of subjects, a developmental view of the child that reserves some subjects for later years, and the prominent role of the teacher. One wonders if Clark and Jain had started elsewhere rather from a classical foundation if they would have ended up in just the same spot.

Nebby

[1] See: Implementing a Christian Education; Church, State . . . and School?;  Lockerbie on Schools; also: History of Education: Biblical Times; History of Reformed Education; History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation; Public Education in America

[2] As far as I can tell, the only direct reference to homeschooling is in a footnote on p. 244.

[3] I discussed the expansive nature of education briefly in this post.

[4] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[5] For some posts on what 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 Education.

Characteristics of Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

I may be reinventing the wheel here, but I wanted to talk a little about the characteristics of classical education. The term is used very broadly to refer to education movements and styles from antiquity, the middle ages, and modern times. In each of these eras there can by any number of classical educators, each with their own unique take (even the ancient world was not uniform; see this post for some background on the varieties of classical ed). If we pick any two at random we may find little that seems to unite them. Many fruitless conversations happen in online forums, discussing whether such-and-such a person is classical because we have no one good definition.

What I’d like to propose today is a list of criteria. If the curriculum you are looking at has all of the following characteristics, it is classical. If it has none, it is not. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. I am inspired in this approach by a book I read recently about some scientists researching near-death experiences. They talk in the book about typical elements, some of which are quite common (seeing a light, being in a tunnel, seeing loved ones) and some of which are less so. The IRS’s list of criteria for what makes one a small business versus a hobby is similar — it is a list to use in evaluating the issue but there is no clear line drawn. Still another way to think of this might be as: “You might be a classical educator if . . . ”

So, without further ado, here is my list of

Characteristics of Classical Education

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

A Test Case: Is Charlotte Mason Classical?

Though it is really not my sole purpose in putting together this list, the oft-disputed online question of whether Charlotte Mason’s (CM) philosophy of education is classical serves as a nice test case to show how we might use these criteria.

Let’s start with what is CM on this list. She does use classical sources (#2). Plutarch stands forth quite notably. Though I would venture to say that she might use fewer than some others. She also believed in the learning of ancient languages (#16). She also believed that there is a body of knowledge outside of man (#8) and that truth can be known (#12). She very definitely had a high view of man (#13).

Next let’s look at those characteristics which are distinctly not present in CM. She does not primarily quote classical sources as the foundation of her philosophy (#1). While it is quite possible she knows these sources and is relying on them, she points to the gospels as the source of her ideas. She does not use the term virtue overly often (#3, 4). There is some element of developing virtue in her philosophy; it is not that she in unconcerned about virtue, but she does not speak of it as classical educators usually do and does not frame it as the goal of her approach. The role of the teacher is distinctly different than in classical education (#5, 6). The teacher provides material, as one spreads a feast, and then largely steps back. While there is some common body of knowledge (#9) and, given her own cultural situation, she relies largely on western civilization (#10), she does not expect every child to glean the same things. So one might say in her philosophy there is a common body of knowledge but not every child will take in the same parts of it. She does not particularly emphasize or make use of questioning (#14), rhetoric (#15), or logic (#17). While she seems open to modern science, because of her time period, it is not an issue she addresses head-on (#18, 19). If I had to guess I would say she might reject the modern reliance on scientific knowledge alone. She rejects a staged approach to education (#20) and does not present a hierarchical or pyramidal view of the fields of knowledge (#21).

Overall then, I would say that Charlotte Mason really does not fall in the classical camp as I define it. I don’t have any illusions that this will end the debate, and it is not that there aren’t points of overlap, but if I were to quantify it, I would say she is not more than 25% classical. In contrast, many of the other authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these criteria.

Nebby

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

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

As promised, this is part 2 of my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). In part 1, I tried to look at the big issues — what Clark and Jain have to contribute to the discussion and where they stand in relation to previous writers on classical education. My short take on all that is that while I have generally been critical of classical education, Clark and Jain do a lot to win me over to their side. I am not fully convinced and I do have some questions and concerns, but I like how they frame the purpose of education and I like how they relate the various subjects one studies.

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Last time was for the biggest issues, today I’d like to look at some of the other points I liked as well as those I had questions about. In the past, when looking at various approaches to education, I have asked a series of questions so I’d like to follow that model today. The questions we will be asking are (this is a somewhat modified version of the list I used in this post):

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?

One of the fundamental beliefs underlying this whole blog is that every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the nature of man and, as a subset of that, the nature of children. Some philosophies do so explicitly and some need to be ferreted out, but all do so. Though Clark and Jain do not lay their assumptions about human nature out in one place, they seem to have some pretty clear beliefs on the subject. I would add that I find them to be quite biblical. Because it is easiest, I’ll give these as bullet points:

  • Humans are “unities of body and soul” (p.5; cf. p. 29). At one point they speak of the heart as a “middle element” between the two (p. 33). I have my own ideas about the relationship of the heart and mind in the biblical conception, but I don’t think the distinction is worth quibbling about. The implication of man’s composite nature (physical and spiritual) for education is, as many other Christian educators have argued, that we need a “holistic” approach to education which addresses and takes into account both aspects (p. 254). As something of a side note, Clark and Jain also make an argument for spiritual disciplines which I am a little less comfortable with as it seems to tend towards a kind of Gnosticism, implying that the soul is benefited when the body is deprived (pp. 222f).
  • Language is essential to human nature. Citing Aristotle, language more than reason here is called the defining human trait. Making a connection to the Word of God (in the manifold meanings of that phrase), language is able “to change reality, to exercise authority, and to lead men’s souls” (p. 46). There are clear implications for education here — we would expect to be very language-based and developing communication skills becomes a major goal.
  • Man is made for relationship, with his Creator and with his fellow man (pp. 161-62). The implication for education: “All learning occurs within the network of relationships” (p. 283).
  • Man is rational, but fallen (p. 161). His reason was never meant to operate in isolation and must be informed by revelation (p. 207).
  • “Man also possesses a will, or volition . . . which allows man to act and create” reflecting “God’s creative ability” (p. 163).  I think we need to be a little careful how we state this lest our will seem to be completely free, unbounded by our own fallenness, but I agree with the basic point and I am intrigued by the connection between will and creativity.

Some philosophies have different conclusions for the child vis-a-vis the adult. For the most part, this does not seem to be the case for Clark and Jain. They have a covenantal view of children (pp. 211, 228) which tends to emphasize their personhood. They also make clear that all human faculties are innate to the child (pp. 29, 47, 67). They need to be developed and trained but not taught or inculcated. As we shall see in the next section, however, there does seem to be a transition point from child-who-needs-educated to educated adult.

Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?

While The Liberal Arts Tradition does not have the strict stages found in some other versions of classical education (particularly “neo-classical versions), there is a progression here. The youngest children are in the gymnastics/piety/music stage. At this age imitation (see below) and the filling of the memory (though not rote memorization) are immediate goals (p. 25). Afterward comes the Trivium/Quadrivium stage which gives one the necessary skills to move on to the philosophies and ultimately metaphysics and theology. I am not entirely sure how all this plays out for Clark and Jain practically speaking. As discussed in part 1, they do speak of the earliest years as a time to fill the imagination (though not through rote memorization as some would have it), and they also speak as if there is an end to education and a time when the child is fully outfitted, so to speak.

What do they believe is the goal of education?

We discussed the goal of education in part 1, so I will not dwell on it again here. Suffice it to say that for Clark and Jain there are some subsidiary goals but the end goal of education is to transmit the culture of the Church, to train the child’s innate human abilities, and to cultivate virtue while acknowledging that this cannot be done apart from union with Christ.

How do they believe education works?

There are a couple of levels on which we can answer this question. On a big picture, theoretical kind of level, Clark and Jain say, quoting Anselm and the book of Proverbs, that faith must proceed understanding (pp. 148, 218), and therefore, one would assume, there is little true understanding for those without faith. (It’s looking like there will be a “part 3” so I will address this more fully next time.)

Charlotte Mason called the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Clark and Jain are not so explicit but they do say that “Christian education cannot be accomplished merely by human effort” (p. 220). I take this as a book of Esther-like allusion [1] to the role of God in education. And, as we have seen, Clark and Jain acknowledge that virtue, which is a goal of education, is impossible without union with Christ.

The place of God in education can also be seen in the assertion that “all human knowledge finds fulfillment in the knowledge of God” (p. 209). This is a bit of a heady concept. As far as I can discern, the idea is that all truth, beauty, and goodness (the transcendentals) reside with God and originate with Him. To know these things is both to possess them and to be mastered by them. Our knowledge, of course, is always finite. “We know reality truly but only analogously to the way God knows it” (p. 118).

Without minimizing the role of God, there is also a transformative power to what one learns. This is particularly true of those “musical” subjects which young children are exposed to  — poetry and stories and music tune the soul and make one “receptive to truth and goodness” (pp. 32, 223).

On a much more mundane level, we can look at the methods of education. Narrative is seen to be central to human understanding, a position which is founded in the Scriptures themselves (pp. 209, 223). It is used even in subjects which may appear non-narrative. For example, science and math include the history of those disciplines (p. 125).

There is a hands-on element as well as students are encouraged to work through experiments for themselves and to keep sketchbooks.

Imitation is a word which Clark and Jain use frequently. Education as imitation happens on a couple of levels. Very literally, children are encouraged at a young age to copy good things, whether art or music or writing (p. 25). Imitation is seen as a precursor to creativity (p. 40).

Even at a later age, imitation still plays a large role. We imitate nature (pp. 110-11) and we imitate other people. There is an element of submission to our imitation of nature. There is a level on which I understand this. As our knowledge follows God’s and as what we learn is His truth, submission seems appropriate. On a very literal level, we can see that much science and technology derives from nature (as when a new technology is based upon a characteristic seen in animals). On another level, I do have some concerns. There can be a false elevation of nature. We are told not to submit to Creation but to master it. Biblically, it is nature that should submit to man. I am particularly concerned about statements like “societal patterns should be fitted rightly to nature” (pp. 151-52). I have no evidence that Clark and Jain take this idea too far but I have read other educators who clearly do. [2]

One can also imitate other people. This is true both of people long gone and of those who stand in front of us every day. Clark and Jain advocate putting students in touch with great thinkers of the past through their writings so that they can “emulate genius” (p. 128). Perhaps even more important, however, is the imitation of our contemporaries which brings us to . . .

What is the role of the teacher?

As with much of classical education, the role of the teacher is key.  Based on the time they spend on it, I would say that for Clark and Jain the imitation of the teacher looms larger than the emulation of those more archaic minds. Education, they would say, is discipleship. Ultimately, the goal is not to make the student the disciple of his teacher but of Christ (pp. 215-16, 243; and here they are on firmer ground at least than many classical educators). Still the teacher is key. They say, for instance, that there is no one curriculum which suits all schools or all classrooms (a point I like) because the individuality is largely determined by the teacher and his interests (p. 245).

Where does this idea of imitation come from? With narrative, we saw that a link is made to God and the nature of His revelation to man. With imitation, the biblical basis is less clear (though certainly discipleship is a biblical idea). Education for Clark and Jain is largely the passing on of a culture, the end of goal of which is the development of virtue. This emphasis on culture seems to lead them to the emphasis on imitation. That is, the culture is a thing which must be passed from (living) person to person so there is an intimate, relational element. [And, they say, “One cannot develop virtue in isolation” (p. 161; why this is, I am not sure).]

When we looked at the work of Bruce Lockerbie, I briefly outlined two views of the teacher. In Lockerbie’s view the teacher is essential and therefore his personal character is as essential as his knowledge if not more so. In contrast, for Charlotte Mason the teacher’s role is largely to step back.  Ideas, for Mason, are communicated from mind to mind, but the minds from which we get our ideas are largely those we find in our books (or art or music). Clark and Jain tend more toward Lockerbie’s side of things. Though there is a place for the teacher to put the student in touch with other minds through the medium of books, the role of the teacher is still fairly large and so his character is also important (p. 216). Charlotte Mason would say that the teacher spreads a feast of ideas for the students and what they take in is up to God. For Clark and Jain, “[t]he teacher’s job is then to mediate that Great Conversation” (p. 128; emphasis added). This seems a much more hands-on, involved role. It is the teacher’s interests that drive the curriculum (pp. 244-45). Though there is an overarching focus on Christ, the teacher is in some sense the immediate master to whom the child is discipled. Mason would agree that “[a]ll learning occurs within a network of relationships” (p. 283)  but would argue that the relationship is with the material and the minds behind it, not necessarily with the teacher.

A consequence of this view of the teacher as mediator and discipler is that his role in his students’ lives is a profoundly influential and important one, a fact which we will discuss further in part 3.

What does this approach say about God and His nature?

In Clark and Jain’s version of classical education, there are transcendentals — being, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity (p. 196) — which give shape to all of Creation and which find their meaning in God Himself. God is good. He is knowable. His attributes, particularly His ability to know and His creativity, are reflected in man. As noted above, man’s knowledge is a poorer and imperfect reflection of God’s. Nonetheless, it shares to some degree the character of God’s knowledge.

These transcendentals are knowable (p. 104), and as they appear in Creation they reflect God’s character: “a perfect God had woven mathematical harmonies into the world that reflected the truth of reality” (p. 96).

Conclusions

There are many ways in which Clark and Jain’s philosophy as presented in The Liberal Arts Tradition is profoundly biblical and Christian. There are also ways in which it shows its classical roots. For myself, there is much I agree with and a few things I would take some issue with. Next time in part 3, we will look at a few remaining issues and make some more conclusive comments.

Nebby

[1] The biblical book of Esther is the only one not to mention God explicitly. However, in Esther 4:14, Mordecai tells Esther that if she will not help her people, salvation will come to them “from another place” (ESV). This is traditionally taken as a reference to God.

[2] John Dewey comes to mind. His ideas about education were based on his evolutionary views. What was believed to be true of plants and animals was assumed also be true of humans.

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

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

Classical education is not a term which is easy to define. It is used of ancient and medieval and modern movements. It may be pagan or Christian or secular. I have tried to the past to make sense of some of the variety of what is out there. Today I have one more take on classical to add to that list: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

Of all I have read on classical education, this volume is the most likely to make me veer in that direction. (That is actually high praise as I have been fairly critical of other classical sources I have reviewed.) There is a lot in this book so I will likely spread it out over a few posts. Today I’d like to try to introduce Clark ans Jain’s philosophy to you and to focus on what makes it classical, what makes it Christian, and where it stands in the broader field of classical ed. 

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Purposes and Intellectual Context

The authors offer two justifications for their book. They argue that “the seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own” and that “the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.” (p. 2). The first of these refers to how the various fields of knowledge relate to one another. The second alludes to the goals of education.

The bulk of The Liberal Arts Tradition addresses the first goal — providing a paradigm for how all fields of knowledge relate to one another. Many of the term used are familiar from other (neo-)classical sources, but Clark and Jain provide a new understanding which often uses the same words in different ways. They give them their own spin to words like grammar and dialectic and rhetoric, trivium and quadrivium. This actually made the book a bit hard to read; it is hard to see a word you think you know the meaning of and to remember that it now has a different lexical range than what you are used to. This is not meant to be a criticism, however. Overall I much prefer what Clark and Jain have to say, but it is a warning that one may need to put in a little more effort here to keep definitions straight. 

It is in the realm of goals that Clark and Jain do the most towards taking classical traditions and putting them in a Christian context. Though the purposes of their approach to education are stated in various ways through the course fo the book, in the introduction they give perhaps the fullest definition:

“This full-orbed education aims at cultivating fully integrated human beings, whose bodies, hearts, and minds are formed respectively by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts; whose relationships with God, neighbor and community are marked by piety; whose knowledge of the world, man, and God fit harmoniously within a distinctly Christian philosophy; and whose lives are informed and governed by a theology forged from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus . . . ” (p. 3)

Each of these could take quite some time to unpack. Before diving into specifics, I’d like to try and place Clark and Jain within the field of classical and Christian classical education. Though they are very polite about it and never openly criticize anyone else’s work, it is clear that Clark and Jain reject some key aspects of what may be called modern classical education, that which began with Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning.” At least in practice, modern classical can become a very stiff, rote thing with lots of memorization and strict stages of learning. There is little of that here. Though the same terms are used, new meaning is given to them. From the authors’ perspective, they would say that the terms so typical of modern classical — grammar and trivium, for instance — have been misunderstood and therefore misapplied.

Clark and Jain look back instead to the ancient Greek classical roots and to medieval Christian ones. They speak of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, though they also acknowledge that we must see their contributions through the lens of Christianity which they did not have. Among Christian sources, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are heavily cited. So, for example, the authors cite Plato when giving reasons for the study of mathematics (p. 66), but the Trivium and Quadrivium are rooted in medieval sources (p. 44).  I will add here that Clark and Jain themselves seem to be fairly solid evangelical and even reformed Christians (the end of book bios tell me both attended Reformed Theological Seminary). 

Knowledge in The Liberal Arts Tradition

One of the major contributions of this volume, relative to other modern works on classical education, is to provide a fresh paradigm for how we understand knowledge. Clark and Jain have a few pictures on their book of trees or concentric circles with words like trivium and musical knowledge and the like arranged in them. As I read the book I also found myself making little charts to illustrate what they were saying. Here is the picture I made (think of it as my narration):

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The liberal arts are the subject of education. The top line shows that they are interdependent with common arts and fine arts. (Common arts are those things that have a practical end — blacksmithing or plumbing for example. Fine arts are those which produce beauty.)

The pyramidal shape below “liberal arts” shows its constituent parts. Theology is the top of the pyramid, the highest of the liberal arts. At the bottom are those subjects which the youngest children begin with. Gymnastics refers very broadly to “the entire physical conditioning of a child” (p. 25). Gymnastics, like all education, trains abilities humans already have (p. 29). Musical education is likewise a very broad subject and the term music is perhaps misleading to us. It refers to all those things which the Greek muses covered — poetry and art and music but also history and astronomy (p.26). At this age (though specific ages are not given) the learning is all “musical.” It is what James Taylor termed “Poetic Knowledge” in his book of that name. The focus at this stage is very much on the imagination and on wonder (p. 33). Clark and Jain call it “soulcraft” (p. 32). Piety has to do with knowing one’s place in the order of things. It encompasses a proper attitude towards God, one’s parents and society (pp. 15ff). These three form the foundation of all later learning.

As the child moves into more traditionally academic subjects, the Trivium and Quadrivium are not as much subjects as tools or ways of learning. They are what gives one entrance into the higher subjects. This represents a fundamental difference with other modern classical approaches. Broadly speaking the Trivium is how one learns language-based subjects while the Quadrivium is for math-based subjects though there is much overlap.

The Trivium has three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These are not, as in Sayers’ approach, three chronological stages though there is an escalation to them. The three together give all the tools one needs to understand a text. Grammar gives the basic tools — vocabulary and semantics and also things like the historical context (p 50). Dialectic looks at language itself and teaches one which questions to ask of the text and brings one in the Great Conversation of western civilization (p. 59). Rhetoric is about using persuasive, public language (p. 60). I am reminded of Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor which talks about all the background knowledge one needs to truly understand a piece of literature. If you have ever reread a book from your younger years and been surprised how much more you were able to get out of it with some experience and knowledge under your belt, you have a sense of what this is all about. Appreciating a text is about more than just knowing the meaning of the words and the Trivium provides all the tools needed.

What the Trivium does for language-based learning, the Quadrivium does for numbers-based learning. As its name suggests is contains four stages: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Each of these is a fairly misleading name. Arithmetic has to do with discrete numbers and in addition to the basic functions we think of (adding, multiplying, etc.) includes things like sequences and series (p. 70). The emphasis again is on wonder, not on rote memorization. If arithmetic is discrete, geometry is continuous. Everything one needs to know about geometry was known by Euclid (p. 75). Geometry teaches one to think about numbers in something akin to the way dialectic teaches one to think about text. Astronomy takes mathematical data and observations and places them in a system (p. 85). Music addresses how systems work together. It assumes that all of reality is related in proportional, mathematical relationships (pp. 89-90).

Once these tools are in place, one moves higher in the pyramid. Towards the top are three broad fields of knowledge. Natural philosophy encompasses what we would call natural science but is more than that. Much of the difference is one of attitude. Natural philosophy focuses not on mastering nature but on submitting to it. The emphasis is on imitation and wonder which lead to worship (p. 110). In the younger years especially, there is a hands-on element. The common arts are combined with natural history which seeks to observe and classify the diversity of nature (p. 112). The use of sketchbooks is encouraged (p. 284). Tracing the history of scientific discovery is also emphasized and as much as possible the student should recreate important scientific milestones.  As the student ages, there is an emphasis on the hows and whys (what Aristotle called final and efficient causes; p. 119).

Moral Philosophy encompasses all those subjects which today we term the social sciences. Again there is much more that comes into play under the heading moral philosophy and the main difference is one of outlook or attitude. Moral philosophy looks at not just what humans do but what they are and what they should be (p. 191). It seeks to shape as much as to describe. In order to proceed all these “social” subjects — subjects like psychology and economics — must have a goal in mind (p. 148). To begin with moral philosophy, then, we must have some idea of what man’s end is. The authors discuss various definitions of happiness and various ways this ultimate goal has been formulated (quoting the likes of C.S. Lewis and Augustine). We will return to the questions of man’s nature and purpose later. On a practical level, Clark and Jain argue for a “narrative formulation” (p. 193). History, surely an anchor subject, would be studied not just for what it tells us about the past but as an impetus to moral contemplation (p. 193). Many of these subjects — history, geography, economics, literature, and the like — might also be combined (p. 194).

On a somewhat higher plane is divine philosophy, aka metaphysics. This subject looks at universals, those things which are transcendent. Among them are goodness, truth, beauty, and unity (p. 196). For the Christian, a central question of metaphysics is how God relates to His creation (p. 199). What of His nature is reflected in it and how does God’s causality relate to our own?

For the ancients, divine philosophy was as high as they could go, but for the Christian, there is another layer: theology. Theology is both the apex of the pyramid (p. 206) and what informs all the lower layers (p. 207). It says that there is something behind and above even the transcendentals of divine philosophy. There is meaning behind the goodness, truth, and beauty.  It is from the Scriptures, God’s special revelation, that we learn theology (p. 207). Theology provides a framework for everything else that is studied. It gives shape and justification to everything else. For Clark and Jain, our knowledge is in some sense a reflection of or a derivative of God’s knowledge (p. 209).

Purpose and Goals

With the exception of the top layer of theology, much if not all of what Jain and Clark have laid out can be found to some degree in classical, non-Christian sources. But their philosophy of education is inherently Christian and it is at the level of purpose or goals that this becomes most apparent. Though they give a statement of purpose early on (quoted above), on first reading I found it a little hard to discern what they would say the goal of education is. On further examination, I realized that this is because they speak of purpose at very levels. That is, studying language has one goal, moral philosophy another, and the whole enterprise one overarching goal. These are not radically different or contradictory goals. One might say they are layered, as their view of knowledge is layered. Thus the goal of rhetoric is to cultivate innate human potential so that men may lead souls through language (p. 62) whereas “the goal of moral philosophy is the cultivation of virtue for human flourishing” (p. 133). Elsewhere they speak of “the love of wisdom” (which is the literal meaning of philosophy) as “the common aim of both Christian and ancient education” (p. 202). They quote C.S. Lewis who says that one should pursue wisdom to “‘conform his soul to reality'” and Augustine who says that virtue “ordered loves” (p. 140). Considerable time is spent in the section on moral philosophy discussing how happiness has been identified. The authors seem to agree with Martin Seligman whom they quote at length that the highest and best form of happiness is to find meaning in attachment to something bigger than oneself (p. 160).

I have argued myself that the purpose of education is found in the purpose of man’s life. INSERT LINK There is no one clear statement in Christian thought of that purpose (though the Westminster Catechism — “to know God and enjoy Him forever” — is oft-quoted) so perhaps we should not be too hard on Clark and Jain if they do not offer one clear definition. Having read their book and listened to Jain on a podcast or two [1], I would sum up their goal as follows: Education transmits the culture of the Church which is itself formative in that it trains innate human abilities. Virtues are cultivated but these virtues themselves flow out of the foundation of piety (right relationship to God and man) apart from which they would be impossible (p. 230). There are also practical outcomes as one’s knowledge becomes wisdom which in turn leads one to serve God and neighbor (p. 7).

What I Liked

While I was a bit confused on first reading [2], I have to say I am quite enamored of the purpose of education as Clark and Jain lay it forth. It is actually quite similar to what I have been saying — the education serves a role in sanctification and that knowledge is itself transformative. LINK I particularly like the use of the phrase “fully integrated human beings” in the first quote above. We have seen this idea of integration as the goal of education from a number of other Christian writers on education (for example, Lockerbie and Gaebelein). My favorite definition of what this integration is comes from Henry Schultze who connects it with the biblical idea of being whole-hearted, that is, having an undivided heart which is unified and in line with the will of God. While Clark and Jain may not use the same words, I think we are all trying to get at essentially the same thing.

The bulk of the book, as we have seen, outlines the authors’ view on how all the fields of knowledge relate to one another. I found this discussion quite helpful. One problem any Christian philosophy of education faces is how to get from the theoretical to the practical. What does it mean, for instance, to say that we want to teach math or history or economics in a Christian way? Jain and Clark go a long way towards answering these questions. For the most part, they don’t get quite down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what I am going to teach my kids today, but they provide a framework to help us understand these subjects (and most others one could think of besides) and it is thinking about these subjects in a Christian way that we really need, not Bible verses appended to a page of math problems. (I do hear that there are various curricula coming out from Jain and others that will help with the even-more-practical questions.)

What I Have Questions About

There is a lot in The Liberal Arts Tradition and I think I will do at least one more post on it in which I deal with the minutia. For today I’d like to concentrate on the big issues. The two major goals Clark and Jain laid out in the introduction to their book had to do with the relationships between the fields of knowledge and the purpose of education. On both of these, I have a significant amount of agreement with them. So while what follows may be more critical, it should be taken with the understanding that there is quite a lot here which is good and thought-provoking.

My own view is that education is a life-long enterprise. This is a natural outflow of the place I give it as a subset of sanctification. In this life we are never perfectly sanctified and so we will never reach the end of our education. Youth is a time in which education is particularly concentrated, but it is not confined to one’s youth. Clark and Jain never explicitly say that education has an end but in a number of places they do speak as if there is an endpoint at which the student could be said to be educated and would then enter into a new stage of life. They say, for instance:

“When the students have fully learned and assimilated this curriculum, then  . . . they would be ‘bachelors of arts’ . . .” (p. 255)

And again:

“Once the students have been discipled unto Christ, received the culture of the Church, and been brought into the fellowship of friends who love the truth and can celebrate a feast, then, they are ready to become teachers; they are ready to be imitated.” (p. 256)

Discipleship, like sanctification, is a lifelong process. That statement looks not only forward but backward. That is to say, even while I am being discipled and I can and will disciple others. I am reminded of my 2- to 6-year-old Sunday school class. Those 2-year-olds are watching and copying everything the 6-year-olds do. Whether they are aware of it or not, the 6-year-olds are discipling others, sometimes into bad things, occasionally into good ones. I don’t believe there is a point at which imitation starts or a point at which we can say, “Now I know the culture of the church. Now I know the truth.” Our knowledge is always partial. Hopefully it will increase but there is no clear line I see between “educated” and “uneducated.”

This may seem like a minor point (and I suspect if I could talk with the authors that our positions would not really be terribly far apart), but there is also a deeper principle at stake. It has to do with the nature of the child and his standing before God. As Clark and Jain have phrased things, it sounds as if there is a point when children are grown and can begin discipling others and therefore can enter fully into the life of the Church.I would argue that covenant children are always a full part of the Church. They have a relationship to their Creator and a standing before Him. They are held accountable for sin and are capable of faith (by grace, of course). God is working in their lives as much as He works in the lives of their elders and they are just as able to serve Him. I don’t think Clark and Jain mean to do this, but there are those who almost make children a separate species (though not Christian, the Waldorf method is the most egregious example of this). We need to be careful not to do so. Children are fully human. There is no point at which they become ready to serve God; they should already be doing so.

To somewhat counterbalance what I have just said, I will add that I do like that Clark and Jain speak of education as developing children’s innate abilities. One does not need to produce these certain faculties in children but to direct what is already there (p. 29). This does seem to respect the personhood of the child and his completeness.

Though The Liberal Arts Tradition does not use a Sayers-like staged approach to the Trivium, there is a progression up the pyramid from one kind of learning to another. The youngest children learn piety, music, and gymnastics. At one point Jain and Clark speak of filling up the imagination of younger children (p. 55) as a precursor to later learning. While this may not be the rote learning of those who follow Sayers, it still seems to present a kind of “grammar” stage which is for learning facts before more advanced learning can begin. I tend to follow Charlotte Mason on this subject and to say that ideas are always the food of the mind, even for the youngest children.

In the middle comes a stage in which the Trivium and Quadrivium are the focus and then later the various philosophies — natural, moral, and eventually divine philosophy and finally theology.  The role of theology in particular is a bit confusing to me. While it is at the apex of the pyramid, it also is said to be foundational. I am not grasping what this means practically speaking. I am reserving judgment at this point, but I am wary of such a staged approach. I would not, for instance, say that young children should be spared from theology. There is, of course, some progression in what people can understand, but, in that what we present to children in their education are the things of God, I tend to favor giving them a rich diet which does not shy away from real, meaty issues. I would not say theology is reserved for higher ages.

Having touched upon what are some of the largest issues, I think I will leave things here for now. In part 2, I will look at some more secondary concerns.

Until then,

Nebby

[1] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[2] In his interview on the Forma podcast Jain speaks of having been thrown the classical use of the word virtue and it is this word that has also often put me off of classical formulations. It is nice to hear that I am not the only one who has been put off by the term and also to hear Jain speak of the relationship of virtue to faith and sanctification. He clearly states that one can only begin to achieve virtue through union with Christ.

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 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).

 

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.