Posts Tagged ‘classical education’

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.


[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.

Sorting Out 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.

I don’t mean to keep posting on classical education, but I don’t feel like I have presented it very clearly. I blame classical education itself, or at least how the term is used. “Classical” can refer to so many things. Chronologically, it can refer to what was done in ancient Greece and Rome, or in the Middle Ages, or it can refer to the modern classical education movement (pardon my oxymoron). To top it off, within each of these periods, there was a lot of variety. There is not just one model we get from ancient Greece. The Middle Ages was a long span of time and education changed throughout it. And in the modern era, there are at least three major schools of thought which term themselves “classical.”

I am not going to dwell too much today on the ancient and medieval variants, but I can point you to some resources and some earlier posts on them– Herman Bavinck in his Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) discusses some of the variety within Greek education (see this post). William Barclay’s Train Up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) is also useful on this topic as it shows the differences between education in Athens and that in Rome, not to mention Sparta (see my review here). My own observation would be that modern proponents of classical education tend to write as if the ancient world were uniform, lumping Rome and Athens together, forgetting that Greece was more than the Athens of Plato and Aristotle, and neglecting to notice or mention that even among Athenians there were divergent opinions. A quick comparison of two books I have reviewed recently (and will mention below) shows this: both David Hicks and James S. Taylor look back to classical Greek education to find a model for their own proposals. Both extensively cite ancient sources. Yet Hicks champions dialectic knowledge while Taylor largely ignores dialectic and advocates for what he calls poetic knowledge. 

As we move into the medieval period, one is usually told that this was a time in which the Church rediscovered and began again to implement classical education. Bavinck shows that this period was not as uniform as it is often portrayed to be. It was a long period and there were changes within it. The scholars of the Middle Ages were also influenced by different ancient traditions, many of which they knew only indirectly. There were, as an example, periods when Aristotle was revered and periods in which he was in disfavor. Because their knowledge was frequently second-hand, they did not often know whom they were modeling themselves after (again see this post).

Last but not least, we come to the modern era. I have recently been reading Douglas Wilson’s The Case for Classical Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003). Wilson’s main object is to present his own view, but along the way he interacts with the other major modern views which has helped me sort them out a bit in my own mind.  Quoting Andrew Kern and Gene Veith, he distinguishes three varieties of classical education: democratic classicism, moralistic classicism, and Christian classicism (p.82).

Before jumping into these three, mention should be made of Dorothy Sayers’ article “The Lost Tools of Learning” (see my review here),  a fairly brief article which is said to have jump-started the modern classical movement. The key features of Sayers’ proposal were an emphasis on teaching students how to think and a three-fold division known as the Trivium. The Trivium rests on a certain view of child-development which 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. Sayers acknowledges that these stages are based on her own experience and observation. I would add that they are based on a particular view of the child and of man’s reason (see that review I linked above). [1]

Democratic classicism (see this earlier post) is that of Mortimer Adler and the Great Books movement. It is the secular variety of classical education as delineated by books like the What Your … Grader Needs to Know series by E.D. Hirsch. It is democratic in that it seeks to provide education for all. The emphasis is on a common body of knowledge which both reflects and builds a common cultural heritage. Like the Athenians of old, democratic classicism sees education as essentially salvific.  It elevates man’s reason above his emotions. If the passions can be controlled, then man by his reason will be able to live rightly. Education teaches one to think so that he may act according to reason and thereby do good and not evil (Wilson, p. 47). The problem, they would say, with the modern progressive methods of Dewey and the like are that they have cut us off from the great conversation of the past. If we return to classical sources and again participate in that conversation, we can recover virtue. The assumption is that there is a common, human culture that functions as a standard by which we can judge what is good and true and beautiful (p. 100).

Moralistic Classicism is that exemplified by David V. Hicks in his book Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999). I have reviewed Hicks’s book extensively in this post and this one. Though Wilson identifies his own approach as “Christian classical,” Hicks would also claim the title. As I showed in that earlier review, however, he is very accepting of Greek, which is to say pagan, categories and presuppositions and there is much that is not Christian and certainly not reformed about his approach. If there is a defining characteristic of Hicks’ version of classical education, it is dialectic, a process of questioning through which one uncovers knowledge. 

Though Wilson does not mention it, I feel I should also include here James S. Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998; see my review here).  Taylor, like Hicks, presents a detailed view of what Greek classical education was, but while Hicks then comes down in favor of dialectic as the defining characteristic, Taylor rejects dialectic as primary and favors what he calls “poetic knowledge,” which is, briefly put, an intuitive, non-scientific way of knowing. 

The third and final group which Wilson identifies is his own. I will do a more thorough review of Wilson’s book soon. In describing what makes his approach to education classical, Wilson singles two characteristics: an adherence to the Trivium and an emphasis on Western culture. He defends the Trivium as biblical, an argument I will tackle in another post. Preference is given to western culture because it is “intertwined” with Christianity and Church history (pp. 84-85).

Though they all bear the name classical, there is little that all these approaches have in common. Perhaps the most defining commonality is a rejection of Dewey’s Progressive Approach to education with its emphasis on the scientific method as the be-all and end-all of knowledge.  There is little else that can be said to be true of all of them. Though Sayers is often said to be the well-spring of the classical movement, Taylor and Hicks go back to the Greeks to find their models and do not mention Sayers and her Trivium [2]. For both Hicks and Taylor, classical is defined by a certain epistemology, a theory of knowing, though again they do not have the same epistemology. For Adler and others in the Great Books school, the content is key. It is about using the right materials. Content is also important for Wilson but he adds to this Sayers’ Trivium.

I have spent some time on the blog in countering classical education and arguing why it is not enough. I realize that I have not always done so in the most clear manner. You may read a given post and say, “Well, I use classical education and that is not what I believe.” This post is an attempt to sort it all out and clear up any confusion. If you were to come to me now and ask “Why not classical education?” my answer would be first to ask what you mean by classical education. There may be more schools of thought out there that I haven’t covered, but I have done posts now on the major modern ones discussed here. For your convenience, here again are the posts where I have discussed each of them:

Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning”

Adler and Hirsch and the Great Books Movement, aka democratic classicism (this is, admittedly, an older, briefer post)

James S. Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge

David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, aka moralistic classicism

Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical

Veith and Kern (added 2/7/2020)

If you know of others you’d like to see reviewed, please do let me know.


[1] For a critique of Sayers’ take on the Trivium and her sources for it, see Shawn Barnett’s “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] I have heard rumors that this movement away from Sayers’ work as the foundation of classical education is trending.

Bavinck on the History of Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

I have done a couple of posts already on topics from Herman Bavinck’s Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008; see here and here). Today it is time to get to my main topic: Bavinck on education. 

The biggest contribution of “Classical Education” is to show just how widely this term has been applied. Bavinck shows that “classical” can refer not only to practices in the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds, each with their own distinctives, but that even in the ancient world, there was not just one model of what classical was. Some of this is material we have covered previously. I am going to try to focus on what Bavinck adds that we have not already seen in other works.

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

The fall of Rome brought chaos to Europe. Classical learning was preserved in monasteries which copied texts. Under Charlemagne (c. 800 AD), empire once again meant peace and that learning could begin again. The goal was an educated clergy and the seven liberal arts, divided onto the trivium and quadrivium, were taught as precursors to theology (p. 213).

Another stage began around the year 1000 AD with the rise of Scholasticism. Aristotle, as transmitted through Boethius, was a major influence. The process known as dialectic was rediscovered (see this post for more on dialectic). As John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in spiritual matters, so Aristotle was said to have done so in natural matters. It is important to note, however, that few people read Greek. What was known was known through commentaries and translations. What was learned was learned through books, not through experimentation or first-hand study (pp. 214-15).

Scholasticism was rigid and it was perhaps inevitable that there was a rebellion against it. This came in the Renaissance through the rise of humanism with its emphasis on the individual (see also this earlier post). When people began to actually look at Aristotle for themselves, they were disappointed. Dialectic as a rigid system was abandoned. The beauty of ancient culture was re-discovered and it was held up as an ideal (pp. 215-17).

This was followed by a period of realism which turned its back on the past (p. 218). But as the pendulum swings one way, so it swings back the other. Around 1750, Rationalism was replaced by Romanticism and neo-humanism, which elevated Roman and Greek culture respectively. Antiquity was elevated to such a degree that Jewish culture, and Christianity which arose from it, were expected to fade into oblivion.  It was the ancient, classical cultures which embodied the purest form of humanity (pp. 218-21). At the same time, classics became a field of study in its own right and related fields like archaeology and philology took off. As a result of these developments, people discovered that the ancient world was more far-ranging and less uniform that they had imagined (pp. 225-27).

At this point we enter the modern era with its emphasis on science as the way to know. Two Bacons played a role: Roger Bacon said that we know through observation and experience. Francis Bacon said that we must reject preconceived notions. Learning was no longer done primarily through books but through experimentation and experience. More practical goals were also put forward; learning was valued for what it could do to advance the condition of humanity. Our sights were turned from the past to the future (pp. 231-32).

Bavinck goes on at this point to address a practical educational issue of his own day in the Netherlands. The specifics of the battle he was fighting do not concern us. He does, however, close with his own estimation of the value of classical learning which I will leave you with as well:

“Classical antiquity is no longer the ideal of education for us, and it will never again be that . . .But the great cultural and historical value of that antiquity has never been realized as well as today. The influence of Israel and also of Hellas and Latium on our culture is much more clear to us now than in previous centuries; these are and will remain our spiritual forbears.” (pp. 241-42)




Two Views of Knowing

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.

In Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) James S. Taylor presents two ways of knowing which may be called poetic knowledge and scientific knowledge. Taylor’s object is to define and argue for the former, which has been largely forgotten in modern society, so his presentation is not unbaised. I found the contrast between the two quite helpful, however, so I would like to present both here for your consideration.


It is important to understand before we begin that while these are different models of knowing, they are not mutually exclusive. Taylor argues for a return to poetic knowledge but he acknowledges a place for other kinds of knowing as well, including scientific knowledge.

Ultimately, my goal is to present a biblical epistemology (theory of knowing). My purpose today is to present these two views so that we can begin to define the questions we need to ask in constructing our epistemology. I am not advocating for one or the other nor do I think either is the ideal.

Two Approaches to Knowing

Taylor traces the kind of knowing which he calls poetic knowledge back to the ancient Greeks (and indeed finds it in ancient China as well; p. 17) and through the Middle Ages. The beginning of the end for this theory of knowing is the age of the Renaissance and Reformation. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is a feature of the modern age, so much so that it has become the only acceptable way of knowing in our day and age. It is a method which we apply to every area of knowledge, whether it is well-suited to that area or not.

For Taylor, poetic knowledge is foundational. It is used by young children and must always come first. While scientific knowledge is rational and analytical, poetic knowledge is pre-rational (p. 26) and non-analytical (p. 5).

A poetic theory of knowing says that we can know about things which are outside of us through our senses and emotions. In this statement alone there are a couple of assumptions which we may take for granted but which are worth highlighting: Poetic knowledge assumes there is something outside us to know and it assumes that we can accurately know about those things through the medium of our senses and emotions.

Poetic knowledge is emotional in two senses. On one hand, it says that we can know a thing through our emotions. On the other, it requires a degree of intimacy with the thing that is known. Taylor alludes frequently to an incident from Charles Dickens’ book Hard Times in which the young girl who has grown up with horses is chastised by her teacher for not knowing the taxonomic facts about them (see pp. 7ff). Her classmate can recite these facts but it is the girl who truly knows horses. It is a knowledge which started perhaps with one horse but through intimacy with that creature, she has built a knowledge which is intuitive. The boy who knows the facts need not ever have seen a horse. His knowledge is all in his head but he has no feeling for the horse.

If the object of our knowing is not so close at hand, we may still have a sympathetic knowledge of it. Taylor also uses the word connatural for this (p. 64). It is a knowing which takes us inside a thing (p. 9). Because poetic knowledge always begins with an interest, it is enjoyable, passive and leisurely (p. 10) and never laborious.

Poetic knowledge is natural to the child. His play shows a kind of poetic knowing in which he enters into a thing, whether it be a cowboy or a princess. This kind of learning through imitation which the the child does naturally produces poetic knowledges which may also be said to be a playful kind of knowing (pp. 15, 41). Poetic knowledge is thus imaginative. It is driven by images (p. 53) and not by words (p. 134). Even at higher levels, books are few (p. 178).

Unity is a major theme in the theory of poetic knowledge. The thing known is unified rather than being broken down into its parts. All aspects of the man are involved; he uses not just his mind but his senses which correspond to his physical body, his emotions, and his will (pp. 41, 166). And there is a uniting of the two, the knower and the known, as one enters into the object of his knowledge (p. 63). For Thomas Aquinas to know something is to have possession of it; for Augustine to know a thing is to love it (p. 62).

The goal of poetic knowledge may be expressed in various ways. Thomas Aquinas spoke of “disinterested pleasure” by which be meant that the end is enjoyment of the thing known for its own sake without utilitarian ends (pp. 40-41). For Aristotle and Socrates, the goal of education was virtue or good character which came from the love of beauty and goodness itself (pp. 19, 21). For Augustine the end is to see the greater beauty and perfection that the object of our knowing points to and ultimately the contemplation of God (p. 28). The common ground here is perhaps that beauty and goodness when known in one area awaken and teach so that they are recognized in other areas as well (pp. 38, 106). Henri Charlier, a French writer whose main emphasis is on education through craftsmanship, “sees, in the craft of, say, carpentry, a self-perfecting of the student” (p. 127). Robert Carlson, onetime profesor at the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas (the subject of chapter 6), speaks of the goal as humanizing the student through the development of the powers within him: his senses, memory, and imagination (p. 145).  Taylor himself speaks frequently of love as the goal and of friendship between the teacher and student (p. 180).

Scientific knowledge is knowledge about things (p. 6). It does not take us inside the thing. Its tendency is to take the thing apart. It deconstructs and dissects. It is not leisurely but involves work (pp. 14, 72). It is active (p. 20). Poetic knowledge discovers but scientific knowledge proves (p. 64). Indeed, what it means to know is a major issue for scientific knowledge which demands an absolute certainty. It begins from a place of doubt which questions everything (p. 72). An interest in the subject matter is at best an unnecessary add-on and is certainly not essential to the process.

The scientific approach traces its roots to Descartes and his questioning of all that came before. He assumes nothing which is not proven to a mathematical certainty. One’s emotions and even one’s senses are left aside. Deduction and reason are the only tools to be used (p. 89). Proof is demanded for everything, whether it needs proof or not (p. 96).

Whereas the poetic approach assumed a world outside ourselves which can be known, the scientific approach does not even assume this. Descartes famously assumed only his own mind (“I think therefore I am”; pp. 92, 94).

John Dewey, who followed in Descartes’ intellectual footsteps, has been the major influence on American education since 1900. Dewey sees all reality as being in a state of flux, of constant change. Everything is subject to its environment and all learning is through experimentation (p. 98). Dewey takes what was for Descartes a method and turns it into a process, a process which is used in all areas of learning (p. 102). In Taylor’s words:

“What links Descartes and Dewey is their trust in scientific methods of thought, shortcuts really, and that they both, in different ways, either call into question where thought begins (for Descartes, in the mind alone), or that the objects of thought are constructed by the mind only as a result of inquiry, as with Dewey.” (p. 101)

The goal of education in the scientific system is harder to discern. Descartes sets out to prove what can be proved, while assuming nothing. For Dewey the end seems to be to serve the ever-changing process and to fit the child to his evolving environment. I use the world “evolving” very deliberately here as there is clearly a mindset shaped by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The ends are not clear, for in truth there is no end point to be reached, but a loosely-defined “progress” is the goal.

The Analysis

Taylor does a lot of the work of critiquing the scientific mode for us, and many of the charges are easy to make — It reduces man to an intellect and discounts his emotional and physical nature. It assumes nothing outside of itself. It demands proof of things which are inherently unprovable. Its foundation is doubt.  It tends to break down what is known and provides no big picture for understanding the world. It deconstructs the known and disintegrates the knower. It dehumanizes. It has no absolute good and no definitive goal.

But inspite of all this we must recognize that the scientific approach to knowing arose out of some very real critiques of what came before. The modern scientific approach, like the Reformation, was a reaction to the medieval world. It questioned what it was told and it said that man, even an individual layman, was able to use his intellect to arrive at truth, to experiment and to know the world outside himself. Clearly Descartes and those after him went too far, denying any absolute truth outside themselves. But the instinct to experiment was a good, even a Christian one, built upon the assumption that our world is rational and knowable. Taylor is dismissive of the scientific means, but as any child who takes apart a clock knows, sometimes looking inside a thing and seeing how it works gives us a greater appreciation of it and increases our sense of wonder.

If the scientific assumes too little, the poetic tends to accept too much. Poetic knowledge breeds subjectivity. Though Taylor says grand things about the whole person the truth is that poetic knowledge is, as he admits, pre-rational. One’s intellect is at best subsidiary in the process. Poetic knowledge assumes a fixed reality outside of us, but that reality is known through very subjective and fallible means — our senses and emotions. If my poetic knowledge tells me one thing and yours tells you the opposite, there is no way to adjudicate between them.

Taylor does address the charge of subjectivity. He does this primarily by defining subjectivity — Truth is subjective if it has meaning to its observer (the subject).  Objective truth is objective because it is the same for everyone, or indeed the same whether it is observed or not. Quoting Andrew Louth, he says that objective truth has no meaning because there is no engagement with it and no one would lay down his life for it. (pp. 72-73). This to my mind does not answer the issue which Taylor himself raises when he says that “at this level of [poetic] knowledge we could be mistaken about the goodness or badness of the thing known” (p. 68). There is no way to say poetic knowledge is right or wrong “whether the knower be a bright poet or a small child, the scholar or the learning disabled person” (p. 68).

From a Christian viewpoint, we would say that Taylor’s poetic knowledge does not take into account the fallenness of man. It assumes that what we get through our senses and emotions is true and good (p. 49). On the flip side, the scientific approach does the same thing with our rational abilities — it assumes they will always lead us to truth.

The emphasis on images over words also adds to the subjectivity. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the fact is that words are able to convey meaning a lot more precisely than pictures are. When God chose to reveal Himself to men, He very deliberately did not use an image and His enduring message to us is His written Word.

While I do not know Taylor’s religious beliefs, he clearly does not come from a reformed tradition but seems rather to be anti-reformed. He says that the “narrow and harsh aspects of Calvinism” (and a Calvinism-like movement within Catholicism known as Jansenism) led to a suspicion of “the transcendentals of beauty and goodness” and a “denial of  the human being’s powers to naturally, freely know and love God” (p. 108). The latter part of this sentence I think is fairly accurate — I will say as a Calvinist that I do disbelieve man’s natural ability to know and love God on his own apart from saving grace. But I think Taylor misunderstands and misrepresents Calvin if he sees in him a denial of transcendant truth and beauty. [1]

If we accept that there is a world outside of ourselves to be known, we must ask how we are to relate to that world. For Taylor, the answer is: passively. He sees the world as a things to be known but not manipulated by us. Scientific knowledge, he charges, seeks to dominate but poetic knowledge only to enjoy.  Poetry (quoting John Henry Newman) “‘demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet . . . ‘” (p. 36). Reality for Taylor is a companion and it is arrogance to seek to dominate it (p. 105; cf. p. 169). I need not tell you that this is not the biblical view of man’s relationship to and responsibility for Creation. To have mastery over the created world is not at odds with loving it or the Creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-30 would make no sense to us as Christians.

To believe in a truth outside of ourselves is ultimately a religious position. We must account in some way for what it out there. Poetic knowledge assumes that there is not just something out there but that that something has positive qualities like goodness and beauty (p. 57). It goes beyond that even and assumes that there is meaning and power and a kind of unity to the good and the beautiful. Taylor speaks often of transcendence (p. 13). For some, like Augustine, these beliefs are put within a system which believes in God and points to God and there is a coherence to them (pp. 28ff). But without some sort of overarching religious belief, there are a lot of loose ends here. There is nothing that defines goodness. Goodness is assumed but there is no mention of its opposite — If good is out there, is evil there too? And if so, how do we discern between them? How do we know that what we know is the good? Are there things that are evil and shouldn’t be known? And above all, where does the meaning to it all come from? Why is there transcendence? I do think one could hold to a kind of Christian poetic knowledge (as Augustine does) but the view presented here by Taylor is not given a specific religious basis and this leaves it adrift. There are no answers to the big questions.

The Questions

I hope that it has been helpful to look at these two ideas of knowing to see what issues they address and how they do so. My goal is not for us to adopt one or the other of these but to go back to the Scriptures and to develop a biblical epistemology.   I’d like to close today by listing some of the questions which any theory of knowing must answer:

  • Where does truth reside? Is there something outside of us which is knowable or do we begin inside and work outward?
  • Is there absolute objective truth apart from the subjective knower? Is there one truth for all people?
  • How do we know what we know? What parts of us are involved in that process — our senses, emotions, intellect? Can we trust the evidence these give us? How do the various aspects of our nature relate to one another?  If they come into conflict, how do we decide what to believe? Can they be wrong? From a Christian perspective, what is the impact of man’s fallenness on his ability to know?
  • How does knowledge come to us? Do we trust the knowledge of previous generations? Can we learn from other people? Does knowledge require direct and/or intimate contact with the thing known? Is it hands-on? What is the value of words versus images? Are there better and worse modes of knowing?
  • What does it mean to know something? Is knowledge absolute certainty? Is it just a preponderance of the evidence? Can we know something “intuitively”?
  • Is knowledge knowing about or is it more than that? Does knowledge require intimacy, relationship, love?
  • What is the purpose of knowledge? Do we have utilitarian ends? Relational ends? Is knowledge in and of itself valuable?
  • Are there things we shouldn’t know?


[1] Later, disparaging Puritans and Jansenists, Taylor also presents a skewed view of what biblical love is that shows he does not understand the Christian message (p. 173).


David Hicks and Christian Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Hicks on Classical 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.

After having taken a brief hiatus to discuss the history of Christian thought on education, we are now returning to our mini-series on Reformed Thinkers on Education. I don’t honestly know the denominational affiliation of today’s thinker. I rather suspect he is not reformed. David V. Hicks is a graduate of the Stony Brook School in New York. (We have previously looked at two other thinkers from this school: its founder, Frank Gaebelein, and and teacher, D. Bruce Lockerbie.) He himself is president of the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. I had long heard of his book, Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999), but had not taken the plunge to buy and read it. When I heard of his connection to Stony Brook, I was intrigued and knew I had to finally take the plunge (at $50+ for the book this is not a step to take lightly). 

 Norms and Nobility presents to us classical education, not the modern version of Dorothy Sayers and the Well-Trained Mind, but truly classical classical education going back to the Greeks. Though this is a somewhat dense, albeit not overly long, book, Hicks’ explanation of the Greeks and what they believed is very well done and I feel after reading it that I finally understand this somewhat complex philosophy.

Hicks spends seven chapters explaining the Greek approach, one chapter on what Christianity has to contribute, and then four chapters giving his own practical proposals for education. I am going to largely ignore the last four chapters. Hicks has some interesting ideas and if you run a Christian school, even one that is not classical, they are worth reading, but they do not fit my particular interests. The rest of the book I am going to divide into two posts. Today we will look at what classical education is, that is, what the ancient Greeks believed. Next time we will deal with how Christianity impancts the classical philoosphy and what Hicks’ views are. 

Hicks begins with an assertion that I whole-heartedly support:

“Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes.” (p. 3)

Because education is so tied up in the nature of man and his purpose, we must begin by asking what this nature is. For the Greeks, Hicks tells us, the nature of man was defined not descriptively but prescriptively. That is, one does not look at man as he is and simply describe what he sees. Instead, there is an ideal that is presented, a vision of what man should be. This is what Hicks calls the Ideal Type.

This Ideal Type is a universal, not bound by time or place. Philosophers like Plato saw virtue as inherent in man’s nature, placed there by God. Gradually over time people have seen what is morally good and true and beautiful and made stories about it. Though the image of the Ideal is being refined over time, it is essentially unchanging and is the same for all peoples. 

Ideals aside, any view of man must account for the presence of evil. Modern education tends to assume that evil is external to man. It therefore educates so that men may learn to transform their environments. The ancients believed that evil is within man. Because the root of the problem is internal, the effects of education are also internal. The goal is to change the man. Plato believed that man would not choose evil if he were thinking. Education teaches man to think, or to think better, and therefore enables him to turn from evil.

While modernism is materialistic and denies the spiritual, the ancients acknowledged both material and spiritual dimensions to man. Man was seen to be a microcosm, a universe in miniature. Like the universe, he contains both physical and spiritual aspects. There is a hierarchy to these levels. The material or physical is the lowest. Next comes man’s rational nature. At the highest level is the spiritual (p. 55).

Ultimately the goal of education is action, that the man should act according to what he knows. Aristotle spoke of the theoretic life:

“Indeed, the theoretic life is the life of virtue, so long as we mean by virtue all that the Greek arete expresses: the life that knows and reveres, speculates and acts upon the Good, that loves and re-produces the Beautiful, and that pursues exellence and moderation in all things.” (p. 21)

Alternatively, we may think again of that Ideal Type, the prescriptive vision of what man should be. While acknowledging that no one ever perfectly achieves this ideal and that people will only get there in varying degrees, the goal is nonetheless to conform to that Ideal. An assumption behind this which all of the ancients held to is that virtue can be taught. If this were not the case, education as they envisioned it would be futile.

In educating children, there is another presupposition as well. As Isokrates observed and in contrast to some modern views, children are not to be preserved as children but transformed into adults. Childhood was not seen as a golden age to be preserved but a stage toward a better end, mature adulthood (p. 38).

To the questions of man’s nature and purpose, we must add another: What is knowledge and how do we get it? For Plato knowledge was not a body of knowledge so much as an activity of learning (p. 20). Though there is an underlying unity to knowledge, our knowledge is never complete and there is a constant flux to it. Hicks compares it to “the parable of the river that ever changes yet always remains the same” (p. 68).   

Classical education, Hicks tells us, is not tied to a time or place but is a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction. There are three attributes of this inquiry: general curiosity, imaginative hypotheses, and a method of testing them. While the basic process sounds similar to the modern scientific method, there are some important distinctions. The classical method is at all stages more broad. “The field is open to all sorts of questions,” the hypotheses are imaginative, and the methods go beyond mere experimentation (p. 18).

Because they did not believe in a static but a changing world, the ancients devalued experimentation and preferred a process called dialectic. In this process, we uncover buried truths through a process of challenging ourselves and finding answers. This process is natural to man but he is often not conscious of it. The teacher brings it to the fore so the student is aware and can use it as a more effective tool. The conversation is then not just in the head of one person but becomes a dialogue between student and teacher. The teacher’s main task is not to give answers but to ask questions. Not suprisingly given the central role of the teacher, oral teaching is valued over the written because it is freer and allows the flow of questions and answers. Especially as the student advances, there is a mutual learning that takes place as both teacher and student advance. 

For dialectic to work effectively, one must begin with an opinion, what Hicks calls dogma, rather than from neutral ground. The teacher’s life is governed by some dogma, some overarching pattern. The student initially assume this dogma and then through the dialectical process, through questions and answers, comes to either accept or reject this dogma. [We have seen a similar idea in Gaebelein and Lockerbie. For both the teacher is paramount and to some extent teaches himself.] 

Imagination also plays a large role in classical education. The Ideal, you will remember, is prescriptive and is embodied in myths (“myth” here denotes a kind of story rather than a truth value). Myth tells external and internal realities through imagination. It is like a map in the wilderness which communicates values which transcend civilization. The goal is to fill the child’s head with voices concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent so that he can conform to that Ideal. 

This in a nutshell is classical learning. Next time we will look at Hicks’ own views more closely and particularly how Christianity adapts classical education. I will leave you with this summary of the big questions any philosophy of education must ask and of how classical education answered them:

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


Book Review: Train up a Child

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

Israelite and Jewish Education

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

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

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

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

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

Spartan Education

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

Athenian Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Education

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

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

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

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

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

Early Christian Education

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

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

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

Pulling It All Together

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

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

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

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

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



Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education

Dear Reader,

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

I dealt with this issue when I reviewed Art Middlekauff’s talk on Syriac versus Hellenistic education (see that review here), but I feel the need to revisit it. I have recently begun listening to the Schole Sisters podcast and while there are some of their broadcasts which I would heartily endorse, there is one, entitled “Paideia is all Greek to me,” which I found quite disturbing.

In this broadcast the Sisters discuss a book they have begun reading, Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. I have not read the book myself and will admit that the concept of Paideia is new to me. What I want to discuss today is a part about midway through when the ladies begin to discuss the relative merits of Greek and Hebrew culture, particularly as it relates to education. Though I am going to use their comments as a springboard for my argument, I want to be clear that they are not alone in what they say here. I think the issue is worth addressing because there are some fairly common ideas, especially in Christian classical education circles, that come out.

I’d like to present the issue this way: We have before us two models of education and culture, that which is inherited from the Greeks (through the Romans) and that which comes from Hebraic culture which we know through the Old Testament and to some extent the New. If our object is to form an approach to education, we can use these two traditions in a number of ways:

  1. We can reject both.
  2. We can accept the one and reject the other.
  3. We can blend the two in roughly equal proportions
  4. We can include both to some degree but favor one over the other.

Among the various authors I have read thus far no one actually does #1 and rejects both. Some reject the classical model which comes from the Greeks and look to the Bible alone. Because we are talking about Christian authors, no one goes so far as to say that the Bible should not provide us with a model but some come pretty close to it in their emphasis on the classical.

Before turning to the Schole Sisters again, I feel I need to give a disclaimer — it is hard to review something that it oral. While my desire is to accurately represent their positions, what I am really giving you is what I heard which may not be identical to what they meant to say. 

In the podcast, the Sisters argue for the value of the Greek educational tradition. They did not explicitly say that this tradition is to be preferred over the Hebraic one but they argue fairly strenuously for the merits of the Greek and denigrate the Hebrew to the degree that I at least felt that they prefer the Greek over the Hebrew (option #4 above). Among other things they say that:

  • We should not reject the Greek tradition for being pagan because the Hebrew was also pagan.
  • God was preparing the Greeks for the gospel just as He prepared the Israelites/Jews.
  • There is something unique for the world in the Greek tradition (as opposed to Chinese or Indian or other traditions).
  • The New Testament uses the Greek language and Greek ideas. These ideas are necessary to convey the New Testament message.

There is a lot to discuss here, but I think we can boil it down into two main ideas: the latter two points tell us that the Greek culture was special and the first two tell us that Hebrew culture was not (or at least not that special). I am going to deal with the claims about Greek culture first and then turn to those about Hebrew culture.

Greek Culture: Is it unique?

Is Greek culture in some way superior to or more suited to the gospel than other pagan cultures? The short answer is I just don’t know. The Schole Sisters say essentially the same thing. There are no doubt people who are competent to do so, but neither they nor I have the kind of knowledge of, for example, ancient Chinese thought to be able to make a determination. From their discussion I gather that Jaeger in the book they were reading does make such a claim.

One author I have reviewed recently, Christopher Dawson, comes very close to making this claim as well. Dawson views the Greeks as having been prepared for Christianity:

“The Greeks and Romans had been prepared for Christianity by centuries of ethical teaching and discussion. Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius had familiarized men with the ideas of man’s spiritual nature, the immortality of the soul, divine providence and human responsibility. But the Barbarians knew none of this.” Christopher Dawson, Crisis of Western Education (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010; originally published 1961) p. 9

But note that the comparison here is between Greeks and Barbarians. It is not clear from his writing whether Dawson sees the Greek culture as inherently superior to other more developed cultures. He elsewhere praises the longevity and scholarship of the Chinese tradition (p. 4).  He lists as the Greek contribution three things: its ethics, the idea that man has a spiritual nature, and the concept of immortality.  But are these unique ideas?  I suspect we would be hard-pressed to find an ancient culture that didn’t have a moral code and didn’t believe that man embodies an immortal spiritual element. Certainly the Egyptians believed these things as did the Babylonians (known, by the way, for the Code of Hammurabi). Nor am I convinced that Greek morality was superior to that of other cultures (and, I will argue below, it was inferior to the Hebrew law).

It is an interesting question what would have happened if Christianity came to the world in a different time and/or place. Ultimately, it is not a question we can ever answer as it is completely hypothetical. But we can ask if God chose this time and place for a reason.

Because I believe God’s plan is perfect, I believe that Christ came and the gospel spread just as it was supposed to. God certainly could have built His church first in China or India but He chose to do so in a certain time and place. The Schole Sisters imply that the reason was, at least in part, the Greek cultural atmosphere, that is, its world of ideas. I am not convinced that that is so.

The Schole Sisters as much as say that the New Testament use of Greek language legitimizes Greek culture. The choice of Greek for the New Testament was no doubt a practical consideration. The Hebrew of (the majority of) the Old Testament had already become a literary and not an everyday language (the average Jew would have spoken Aramaic, a close kin of Hebrew, but not the same language). The gospel message was to go out to the world, to the Gentiles and not just the Jews, and therefore using the lingua franca of the day made sense.

But I do think that there is a bit more to the choice of Greek than this. I have heard it said that English is uniquely suited to the modern world. Because it is such a hodge-podge it lends itself well to technological enterprises. Hebrew is a language well suited to narrative. Greek is a language well-suited to philosophy and to more complex theology. As big a fan as I am of biblical Hebrew, it would be hard to convey all the messages of the New Testament in that language (sometimes I think it is hard in English!).

But this is still an argument about language. The Schole Sisters go further and argue that Greek ideas were essential. They point in particular the concept of logos in John 1 (logos the Greek word for “word”; thus it is used when John says that Jesus was the Word).  

The question, it seems to me, boils down to this: Do the New Testament writers use Greek culture because it is essential to make their point? Are there essential ideas derived from Greek culture which the Hebrew culture did not provide? Oa, alternatively, do they use Greek cultural references simply because they are appealing to a Greek (or Greek-influenced) audience?

This could be a huge question and it is probably beyond me to answer it fully. I will share my own observations and inclinations, but I suspect there is a lot more than can be said (and probably has been).

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1 Cor. 9:20-21; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

The apostle Paul here gives us a clue as to his own use of culture — he will use whatever he needs to to win people to Christ.  We see this played out in Acts 17 when he preaches about the unknown god. Paul takes something his audience is familiar with. He finds one point of connection and uses it to preach a sermon that they will understand. Though he refers to their poets, again making a connection with what they know, the language he uses of God seems straight from the Old Testament.

But what of the logos?  I am not convinced that there is an essential Greek concept here that John could not have done without. Hebrew has a very similar idea — that of Wisdom. Personified Wisdom is found in both the Old Testament (Prov. 8-9) and in Jewish works from the Intertestamental period (the Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sirah, both of which are included in the Catholic version of the Old Testament). While the concept may not be identical, there is certainly something here that John could have worked with. I don’t think it is clear that he had to appeal to the Greek concept of logos. I find it more likely that John, like Paul, was using a Greek idea to draw in his Greek audience. John raises the Greek idea of the logos, which was an impersonal force, and identified it with a Person, namely God the Son, in order to draw in his Greek audience. [1]

When we think about why the gospel came into the world when and where it did, we also need to recognize that Christianity did not come into the Greek world as such. It came into the Roman world. Now, as I am sure we all learned in our own schooling, the Romans took over a lot of Greek things as their own (including the widespread use of the Greek language), but they also made their own contributions. When we ask why God chose this time and this place, a large part of the answer has to be Roman roads and Roman government. Simply put, the gospel could spread because people could travel relatively easily over a very large and mostly peaceful empire.

One final thought before we move on to the Hebrew culture: If we are going to argue that Greek ideas were somehow essential to the gospel, then we need to evaluate what this means for modern missions. When we bring the gospel message to very different places, from Africa to East Asia, we need to decide how much of the cultural stuff surrounding our message is essential and how much is, well, cultural. What can be adapted to the local culture and what cannot? If we begin with the presupposition that Greek ideas were essential, then we are likely going  to end up keeping a lot more of the trappings of western civilization as well. I do not know if this is bad or good but I do think it is an issue we need to consider.

My provisional conclusion on Greek culture is this: I believe God chose the time and place for the gospel message to come into the world and I believe He chose for the New Testament to be written in Greek. I think the Greek language lends itself well to more nuanced concepts. I have not yet seen any Greek ideas which seem to be essential to the gospel. What I see is what the Apostle Paul describes — that the New Testament writers appealed to Greek ideas to draw in their audiences. The Greek ideas (the logos, the unknown god) are a hook to grab the audience but then there is always something of a bait-and-switch as the apostle (John or Paul) uses the familiar concept as a means of making his point. I will say, however, that I have by no means done an analysis of all the ideas in the New Testament. I am open to other evidence on this point if anyone has any to present.

Defending Hebrew Culture

The flip side of the argument is that Hebrew culture is not special or different. The Schole Sisters call Hebrew culture pagan because the Israelites worshipped idols and (they note this particularly) did not keep the Passover. I would not use the word pagan in this way, but they are absolutely right that the Israelites did these things. They imitated their neighbors and worshipped false gods, and they did not do the things their God told them to. But — and this is a big BUT — the sins of the people and their failure to keep God’s law do not invalidate the law (Rom. 9:6).

We need to be clear that what the Israelites had, what the Old Testament presents to us, is not their law so much as it is God’s Law (big “L”). Other peoples, the Greeks included, had only a shadow of the law, derived from general revelation only (Rom. 2:14), while Israel had God’s revealed Law.

The Scriptures never say look what we are giving you is good and the proof is how great the Israelites were and how well everything worked out for them. They make it quite clear that these were rotten sinful people who couldn’t remember 10 minutes after He did it that it was the LORD who brought them out of Egypt. The law never made anyone good; it shows us our sin (Rom. 3:20).

No people or culture has ever been outside of God’s plan or control (Ps. 47:8). Did God work in Greek culture? I am sure He did. But the Scriptures also make it quite clear that He chose one nation: Israel (Deut. 14:2) and that He gave them something He did not give  any other culture: the Law (Rom. 9:4-5) and that He sent salvation for all peoples in the form of His Son through Israel and not through any other culture (Matt. 2:6). Even when this salvation spreads throughout the world to all cultures it is not because their cultures are deserving in any way but because they become engrafted into the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:17ff).

In His perfect plan, God chose a particular time and a particular place to send salvation. But He also chose a particular people through which to send salvation. They were a people prepared for two millennia — a people chosen in Abraham, instructed in the law by Moses, defined by the exodus from Egypt, and cured from their idolatry (but by no means sinless) by the Babylonian exile.

Because the Schole Sisters single it out, I’d like to focus in on the Passover for a moment. Their claim is that Hebrew culture is no better than pagan culture because the Hebrews did not actually keep the Passover (at least until the time of Josiah; 2 Kgs. 23:22-23). While this is true, the idea of the Passover still comes to us through Hebrew culture. And  there is more necessary, beautiful, and awe-inspiring truth in it than in all of Greek thought put together. Both in what the Passover remembers (the exodus from Egypt) and it what it points toward (Jesus’ work of salvation) the story and the celebration associated with it are a beautiful picture that tell us much about God and about ourselves. One might argue that this is only religious knowledge and that there is much more that we can and should know in this life. I would counter that we cannot truly understand science or history or art unless we understand the world from a godly perspective. None of those things make sense unless we first understand the Creator (as I argued in this post). So in giving us the story of salvation encapsulated in the Passover, the Hebrew culture  — whether the Israelites themselves appreciated it and kept it or not — gives us more truth and beauty than all of Greek culture.


A Little Historical Perspective

I have not taken a historical approach to this question. I am not generally find arguments that begin “the early church said . . . ” conclusive (knowing that God’s people can go astray so quickly), but I wanted to include the two quotes below to give some idea of the   scope of thought in the earliest Church. Both are from William Barclay’s book Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (I expect to review this book soon so stay tuned). Barclay gives very thorough analyses of different ancient educational traditions. These quotes are from his chapter on the early Church and their use of the classical authors. Barclay himself is quoting early church writers —

“‘Avoid all books of the heathen. For what hast thou to do with strange sayings or laws or lying prophecies which also turn away from the faith them that are young? What is lacking to thee in the word of God, that thou shouldst cast thyself on these fables of the heathen? If thou wouldst read historical narratives thou hast The Book of Kings; if philosophers and wise men, thou hast the prophets, wherein thou shalt find wisdom and understanding more than that of the wise men and philosophers. And if thou wish for songs, thou hast the Psalms of David; if thou wouldst read of the beginning of the world, thou hast Genesis of the great Moses; and, if laws and commandments, thou hast the glorious Law of the Lord God. All strange writings therefore which are contrary to these wholly eschew.'” William Barclay, Train up a Child (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) p. 230

“‘If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our use from those who have no lawful possession of it . . . In the same way all branches of heathen learning, have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, wen we go under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths even in regard to the worship of God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence, which are everywhere scattered abroad . . .'” Barclay, pp. 231-32

Two different views are represented here. They amount essentially to “no Greeks, no way” and “use what is good in the Greeks but prefer the biblical tradition.” They show, on the one hand, that even in early days there was no clear consensus on how to approach the classical material. But, on the other, it is not a free-for-all. The more open position still takes the biblical tradition as the measuring rod and is selective about what it accepts from the Greek sources.

Summary and Implications for Education

There is a lot here and I feel I have just scratched the surface. What I feel confident in saying is that God revealed Himself to Israel in a way He did not, and still has not, to any other people. Christ’s work does not undo this special relationship; it just expands it. Israel is redefined (with some branches put out and others grafted in) but the special relationship still exists. The culture and traditions of the Old Testament come from God; those of the Greeks (or Chinese or Romans or any other society) come from man. This is not to say that there is not some truth which comes to us through those pagan cultures but that nothing they have to offer can even begin to rival what God gives us in His Law, in the story of His dealings with His people, in the beautiful poetry of the Psalms, in the wisdom of Proverbs and the other wisdom books.

I began by positing four options for incorporating Greek and Hebrew culture. The Schole Sisters, as I understand them, would include both cultures but give preference to the Greek. Though I did not go into this series with a clear opinion on the matter, as I reread my own writing, especially posts like this one, I am sure it sounds like I at least give preference to the Hebrew culture. To some extent, this is true though I would phrase it in a slightly more nuanced way — The things we learn through the Scriptures are true in a way nothing else can be. Yet there is very little they tell us about very many areas of knowledge. What they do give us is the theological and intellectual framework by which to understand every fact that comes our way. I do think we can receive truth from other traditions, but what we receive from them must be selective and must be filtered through the lens we get from the Hebrew tradition. The Hebrew tradition, then, is the only essential one and the basis for evaluating what is good in the others.

Comparing the Greek culture to other pagan cultures (again, the Chinese or the Indian or any other), I have yet to see a strong reason to prefer the Greek or to hold it in higher esteem. It is, of course, largely the foundation of western civilization of which we are part and as such we should learn about it, but I am not convinced that it is in any way superior to other pagan cultures (though I am still willing to be convinced if anyone has evidence to present on that issue). But whatever we may take from those cultures, we need to do so with discernment. It is not going to be a matter of take all of Greek culture and reject all of Chinese culture or vice-versa. All things should be held up to the standard we are given in Scripture (1 Thess. 5:21).


[1]  For a very brief introduction to the logos, I will refer you to this article on Logos from Ligonier Ministries.

Why Not Christian Classical?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I explore a reformed Christian philosophy of education. Thus far, we are still on the whys. Last time I looked at the Charlotte Mason approach to education. Today I’d like to look at Christian classical. My goal in these couple of posts is to show you why we need something overtly reformed and can’t just take what is out there and spiff it up a bit.

I am much better versed in Charlotte Mason’s method than I am in classical so my approach this time will be a little different. I am going to ask questions and perhaps express concerns more than I am going to make definitive statements.

One difficulty in discussing Christian classical is that there is more than one interpretation of it. I will try to address some of the bigger proponents but what I say may not be true of all sources. My subject today is Christian classical and it is (oxymoron of the day:) modern Christian classical. As homeschoolers, parents, and teachers, this is what is on the table before us so it will be my focus.

Foundations: The Article and The Book

wtm spine

The modern fascination with classical education began in the 1930s. Amajor inspiration was a fairly brief article by Dorothy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” (LTL; originally published in 1948).  I have previously discussed this article in greater detail here. Sayers, as with most educational reformers, was reacting to the problems she saw in her own day. Her solution was to return to the Middle Ages for inspiration. The key to her approach is the Trivium (followed in later years by the Quadrivium) which divides  learning into three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. These stages are sequential. In the first, Grammar, the child learns much through rote memorization. The second, Dialectic, “is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums.” Rhetoric, the third stage, “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” (Kindle Loc. 169). To me, these are harsh words (and there are more besides which I quote in that earlier post). As I read her article, my impression of Sayers was that she was not someone who liked children very much. Beyond this, I am uncomfortable with saying, for example, that all tweens are argumentative. Such statements take what is basically a sinful behavior and turn it into a stage which tends to excuse and allow the behavior. In addition, I find Sayers too academically minded in her goals and approach. She relies heavily on fallen human reason, and her approach does not encompass the whole person.

Though Sayers is perhaps the modern impetus, she is not the whole of the movement. The handbook of classical Christian homeschoolers is The Well-Trained Mind (WTM) by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (originally published 1999; I have not reviewed this book at length but do discuss it in this post on classical education). While Sayers’ article was quite slim, this is a hefty book with lots of practical details. It uses the same Trivium approach which is typical of modern classical education.  The title — The Well-Trained Mind— gives us some clue as to the authors’ goals. The intellect– the mind — is in view and the method of education is one of training (in contrast to unschooling or Charlotte Mason which see education as self-education). Specifically, the mind is trained how to think.  The Well-Trained Mind does not have as clear a statement of purpose as I would like (at least not that I found). But I did find this:

“Remember, classical education teaches a child how to learn. The child who knows how to learn will grow into a well-rounded –and well-equipped –adult . . . ”  (p. 55)

The purpose of education is one area with which WTM rubs me the wrong way. Another is in its view of the child. The authors say that:

“The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument. The critical and logical faculty simply doesn’t develop until later on . . . Children like  lists at this age. They like rattling off rote information, even if they don’t understand it . . . Don’t make K-4 students dig for information. ”  (p. 54)

The view of the child here seems to be that, at least for younger children, they are less than adults. Now, we will look at what the Bible has to say about children in another post so this point is still open to question. But I think we need to ask: How are children different than adults? Are they, or their faculties, lacking in some way that needs to be developed? [I will note that I teach the littlest kids Sabbath School class, ages 2-6, and my observation is that they can and do make some very good, even theological, points at times.]

So How to We Make it Christian?

My concerns about the modern Christian version of classical education fall under two headings: goals and methods.

The Christian adoption of the classical model is characterized as a re-adoption. The various Christian classical sources often point not back to Greece (and later Rome) but to the Middle Ages as the precedent for their version of modern classical education:

“Historically, the Christian church assumed the mantle of classical education, modified it, calibrated it to serve the Christian gospel and then greatly extended it. Thus a great deal of what we know as ‘classical education’ has been ‘Christian’ as well.” (Christopher Perrin, “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014)

This merely shifts the burden of proof; rather than asking why do we now use classical methods, we must ask why did the church in the Middle Ages adopt classical methods?

Concerning the very beginnings of Christian education, Christopher Dawson says:

“The new Christian culture was therefore built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption . . . But alongside of — and above — all this, there was now a specifically Christian learning which was biblical and theological and which produced its own prolific literature.” (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, pp. 7-8)

This synthesis of the classical model with Christian thought and literature persisted through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.** As Dawson, a Catholic, tells it the biggest threat to this mode of learning was the German Reformation under Martin Luther with his crazy emphasis on sola scriptura:

“This revolutionary change [i.e., that of the German Reformation] was even more serious than we can realize today, owing to its destructive effects on the minds of the masses and the education of the common people. In the Middle Ages that education had never been a matter of book learning. The main channels of Christian culture were, liturgical and artistic. The life of the community centered in the Church, in the performance of the liturgy and the cult of the Saints.” (Dawson, pp. 27-28)

Despite what Dawson sees as Luther’s destructive influence, later reformers, including Calvin, continued to incorporate classical learning, at least to some degree:

“Calvin himself fully appreciated the importance of education and study. Wherever the Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not only the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of the classics.” (p. 29)

What is not clear to me — the first question I would like to see answered– is: Why the classical model at all? Its adoption seems to have been initially a matter of convenience and familiarity. Its lifespan has no doubt been long but that alone is not an adequate justification.  Some modern proponents do argue that this way of educating is God-given:

“The best reason for choosing a classical style of schooling is simply because this is the natural model and method for education – which God wrote into reality. So what if the Greeks and Romans used it to serve their ungodly purposes? We simply take it back, clean it up, and use it to serve God in the way which He originally designed. The classical style of education has been successful for thousands of years because it conforms to the created order of things. It works well because it matches reality. If we ever learned anything, then we learned it by the Trivium method – whether we knew it or not.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

However, I have yet to see a good, coherent argument for why it is biblical, or, if not biblical per se, in line with biblical thought and principles (by the way, see this post on how we decide what is good and acceptable). A related set of questions I would like to see addressed: What would the Old Testament/Hebrew/Jewish model of education be, how does it compare to the classical model, and, to the extent that they may differ, why then prefer the classical?

But method is only half the battle; goals are also important. I said above that I was not enamored of the goal of classical education as defined by LTL and WTM. The modern Christian versions of classical do much to rectify this situation. Though their statements of the goal of education vary somewhat, there is no denying that they sound very orthodox. A sampling:

“Classical Christian education’s objective, then, is to shape the virtues and reason so that they will be in line with God’s will. In other words, our objective is to cultivate a Christian paideia in students.” (“What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?”)

“The goal of education is to fully prepare a child for adult life. . . A complete education should prepare a child for mature adult life. All elements of education should work toward preparing sons to make a livelihood and to be husbands and fathers, and toward preparing daughters to be wives and mothers and to manage their households. True education will build a genuine family-oriented culture upon the foundation of God’s word. . . . The ultimate goal of education is holiness – to teach separation to God in order to serve Him.” (Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit)

“Classical Christian education is not designed to fit the student for our times. It is designed to transform the student to God’s times (Romans 12:2). It is designed to produce an student with the mental discipline and ability to read an in-depth book (even one with more than one hundred pages), write discerning, thoughtful essays on the book, present lectures or debates on the contents of the book, and evaluate its contents in light of the Christian worldview . . . It can and has produced workmen who can rightly divide the Word of God and who do not need to be ashamed to confront and unmask the idols of our age.” (Ben House, “Classical Christian Education,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics)

“The purpose of Classical Education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom. The classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’ The ultimate end of Classical Christian education is to enable the student (disciple) to better know, glorify, and enjoy God. Since we are able to know things with which we have a common nature, the more we are like God the better we can know Him. A student gives glory to God when he is like Him. Our enjoyment of God is derived from our ability to see Him and to see His handiwork.” (“Principles of Classical Education,” from The Circe Institute)

While these goals all sound pretty good, they are not identical. What I would like to see is a goal that starts with the Scriptures, asks how they define education, and works from there.

I also have some concerns about how the method and the goal work together. Christian classical — whether in medieval times or modern — seems to accept the method of the Greeks and to add to it Christian goals like holiness and glorifying God without ever asking if this method can be used to achieve these ends. Perhaps we will find in the end that the methods and the goals are not intimately connected but I think it is at least worth asking how the two work together (or don’t).

So Why Not Classical?

Ironically, my main complaint against the Charlotte Mason method was that it follows too closely on its (faulty) principles whereas Christian classical does not tie its principles to its method enough. In truth, I want something that is like the Charlotte Mason method in that the practical details flow from the initial assumptions. But the modern version of Christian classical — and in truth its early Christian version as well– does not begin with Christian principles but takes a non-Christian method of education and adds Christian purposes on top of them without questioning the methods themselves or their suitability to their goals. It is my conviction that in order to build a truly biblical and reformed philosophy of education that we must begin with goals. We must first decide what the purpose of education is and then ask how we are to go about achieving those ends.

This post wraps up the whys of this enterprise. In the coming weeks, we must begin to look at the evidence and to answer the questions.


**Note: Looking for more? I have posts coming out soon reviewing books by Dawson and Van Til; both will revisit this issue. I also recently ran across a podcast from Charlotte Mason Poetry in which Art Middlekauff mentions that the Christian tradition was not as unified as it is often portrayed. I have not had a chance (yet) to listen to it myself. You can find the podcast and related video here.


Association of Classical Christian Schools. “What Does It Mean to be a ‘Classical Christian’ School in the ACCS?” from Classical Moscow, ID: ACCS.

Bauer, Susan Wise and Jessie Wise. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. ??: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Bluedorn, Harvey and Laurie. “The Transformation of Classical Education,” from Trivium Pursuit, 2001.

Circe Institute. “Principles of Classical Education,” from Circe Institute. org.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010 (originally published 1961).

House, Ben. “Classical Christian Education: A Look at Some History,” from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.

Perrin, Christopher. “Classical Education: Christian and Secular,” from Inside Classical Education, Sept. 9, 2014.

Sayers, Dorothy. The Lost Tools of Learning. Amazon Digital Services, 2011 (originally published 1947).

Van Til, Cornelius. Essays on Christian Education. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971.



Resources by Approach

If you have taken my quiz to find your homeschooling style, you are now wondering what to do with that information. Where do you begin? Well, simply put, you read, read anything and everything you can find about any approaches that seem to be a good fit for you or which just intrigue you. To help you in that endeavor, I am providing below a resource list for each approach to get you started.

Homeschooling Resources, by Approach

Robinson Curriculum

The Robinson Curriculum was designed by one man, Dr. Art Robinson, in the 1990s. As such, there is pretty much one place to find out about it, his website:

Moore Method Homeschooling

The Moore Method was developed by Raymond and Dorothy Moore, also, I believe, in the 90s. (It is not to be confused with another Moore Method used in universities and developed by Robert Lee Moore.) The Bible (if you’ll pardon the expression) for this method is their book:

The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook by Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore

You can also find them online at: (seems to be identical to

Ruth Beechick’s Approach to Homeschooling

Ruth Beechick has been writing about education since at least the early 1980s and has many books including You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, The Three R’s and A Biblical Home Education.

Advocates of her approach can be found online at:

“Ruth Beechick 101” by Sarah MacKenzie at

Unit Studies

Unit Studies is more of a way to do schooling that can be combined with other approaches, notably Ruth Beechick’s and the Moore Method. I do think it has its own presuppositions, though, so I include it among my list of approaches. If you Google “unit studies,” you will get a long list of sites with unit studies prepared for you. If you want to read more about the how and why of unit studies, try these:

“The Joy and Ease of Learning Through Child-Led Unit Studies” by Kandi Chong at

You can read my thoughts in unit studies here and here.


Maria Montessori was an educator in the very early 1900s. You will still find many Montessori schools today, particularly for the elementary years. She wrote a couple of books: Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, The Montessori Method,  and The Absorbent Mind.

Other books on her approach include Teach Me to Do It Myself by Pat Thomas and How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way by Tim Seldin.

Some of the resources I made use of when learning about the Montessori approach are:

Montessori Education” from Wikipedia

Montessori FAQ’s” from

Montessori Homeschooling” from

You can also read my post on Montessori education here.


Waldorf education was created in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner. Christopherus Homeschooling identifies itself as “Waldorf-inspired” and Oak Meadow, another curriculum which can be used independently or as a distance learning option, also has some roots in the Waldorf approach.

Books on Waldorf include:

Understanding Waldorf Education by Jack Petrash

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa Ross

The Waldorf Homeschool Handbook by Donna Ashton


“Oak Meadow and Waldorf” from

An Introduction to Waldorf Homeschooling” by Donna Simmons from


Enki is an offshoot of Waldorf, with some Montessori elements as well, which was developed by Beth Sutton in 1989.

It can be found at:

Enki Education” from

Classical/Great Books

When we speak of “classical” education, we are really talking abut the modern classical movement (how’s that for an oxymoron?). Based upon the  classical education on the Middle Ages, it was resurrected by Dorothy Sayers in 1948 in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” The main expositions of it (in its secular form) are the Core Knowledge Foundation created by E. D. Hirsch and the “Great Books” movement of Mortimer Adler.

Books and articles on classical education:

The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy L. Sayers (and my review here)

The False Promise of Classical Education” by Lisa VanDamme at

Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus by Mortimer Adler, as well as many other books

The very-popular-among-homeschoolers series What Your …. Grader Needs to Know is actually put out by E.D. Hirsch of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Hirsch also has other books including The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.


My post on modern classical education can be found here.

Christian Classical

The go-to book for the modern Christian classical movement, which also finds its origins in Sayers’ article, is The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.

Other books:

The Case for Christian Classical Education by Douglas Wilson

The Liberal Arts Tradition by Ravi Jain and Kevin Clark


My article on Christian classical is here.

Charlotte Mason

If you want to truly understand Charlotte Mason’s approach, you need to read her 6 volume series on Home Education. It can be found online here.

Having said which, Charlotte’s writing can be a little hard to comprhened initially if you are not sued to reading her more dense late-19th century style. I recommend beginnign with one or more of the following books:

A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levinson

For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola

After getting this introduction, try one of Charlotte’s books. Many recommend starting with the sixth volume. I disagree. I think that Charlotte has reached a different point by her 6th volume. It is written after WWI and her sense of urgency has increased. I recommend reading volumes 1, 2 and 3 in order. Volume 4 is a wonderful, wonderful book all people should read, but it is not inherently about educating children. It is more like an owner’s manual for your mind. Volume 5 is a collection of different sorts of essays, with a more practical twist than most of her books, and can also be left by the wayside initially.

Websites: – free curriculum guides, discussion forums, articles and more – also a free curriculum guide, Ambleside is a little more intense than SCM

and, of course, this blog 🙂

Thomas Jefferson Education

TJEd is the brain-child of Oliver DeMille, created in the 1990s. He has a number of books including A Thomas Jefferson Education and A Thomas Jefferson Education Home Companion.

George Wyeth University uses the principles of TJEd; their website is


My post on TJEd is here.

Biblical Principle Approach

The Principle Approach, or Biblical Principle Approach (BPA), is the work of the Foundation for American Christian Education. Their curriculum is called the Noah Plan.


The Principle Approach” from

Find my initial post on BPA here.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia is an approach which developed in Italy after WWII.


Working in the Reggio Way by Julianne Wurm and Celia Genishi

The Hundred Languages of Children by Carolyn Edwards and Lella Gandini

Bringing Reggio Emilia Home by Louise Boyd Cadwell and Lella Gandini


Accelerated Learning

AL is an approach was is used for adults in business and other areas but has also been applied to homeschooling.


Accelerated Learning Techniques for Students by Joe McCullough

The Accelerated Learning  Handbook by David Meier



John Holt is the original guru of unschooling. His books include How Children Learn and Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling.

Other Books:

The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith

Big Book of Unschooling by Sandra Dodd

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (and my reactions to it here and here)


“What is Unschooling?” by Earl Stevens at

My post on Unschooling is here.