Classical and Christian Education

(You can listen to the talk itself here.)

Christian Education

In his book Teacher in America, the French-American writer Jacques Barzun explains why he prefers to write about “teaching” rather than “education”:

The advantage of [the word] ‘teaching’ is that in using it you must recognize… that practical limits exist. You know by instinct that it is impossible to ‘teach’ democracy, or citizenship or a happily married life. I do not say that these virtues and benefits are not somehow connected with good teaching. They are, but they occur as by-products. They come, not from a course, but from a teacher; not from a curriculum, but from a human soul.

Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit someone who thinks that education is the solution to all the trouble in the world. This is true only if we hold to a certain definition of “education,” that is, one soul shaping another. Of course, we all need our souls to be shaped in the right way, and that would make the world a better place. The problem comes when we confuse “education” with what happens in schools between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. Barzun illustrates the difference by saying,

[Education] is a lifelong discipline of the individual by himself, encouraged by a reasonable opportunity to lead a good life. Education here is synonymous with civilization… [which] is a long slow process which cannot be ‘given’ in a short course. No one in his senses would affirm that Schooling is the hope of the world.

I want to use this discrimination between education and schooling to talk about Christian education. First, I’ll give three principles for Christian education, as Barzun defines it: “the lifelong discipline of the individual by himself.” Then I’ll talk a little about Christian education in the sense we normally use the phrase, which is what Barzun calls “schooling.”

The first principle of Christian education is that the parents are responsible for the education of their children — specifically, the father is responsible (Deut. 6, Eph. 6, the whole book of Proverbs). Parents must bring up their children in such a way that “lifelong self-discipline” becomes a possibility. Of course, parents can and should ask for help doing this difficult task. It would be a mistake to think that you could shape your child’s soul all by yourself. You are one of many shapers: teachers, mentors, friends, habits, practices, liturgies, entertainment, and self-reflection. You, the parent, are not the only one educating your child, but you, the parent, are the one who will be held responsible.

The second principle of Christian education is that a student will become like his master. Because knowledge is more than just information, teachers always communicate more than mere facts. They give a part of themselves to their students. The most influential ingredient in anyone’s education is the character of the person who educated them. You become like your teachers. Your children will become like their teachers (and, for kids, that includes more than just the person standing at the front of the classroom). When choosing a church, a school, a neighborhood, a city, ask yourself whether you want your children to become like the people there.

Lastly, the Bible teaches that Christ is at the center of all things. (Col. 1, John 1) If a comprehensive education means learning about the world, no education is complete without Christ. He is the keystone that allows the whole arch to stand.

Notice that there’s nothing here about content or methods. You have a responsibility to give your child a Christian education, and you can’t do that by sending them off to a Christian school. Going to school is just one part of education. You can’t give your child a Christian education by purchasing the right online curriculum. An online curriculum doesn’t shape a person’s soul.

I hope that you find relief in what I’m saying. You don’t need a Christian school to give your child a Christian education. It may help, but it’s not required. Hopefully, at a Christian school, you’d find men and women of good character, who will teach your child to become like them. Hopefully, at a Christian school, your child would learn to know Christ and His creation. But a Christian school is not required.

Classical Schools

If I had to guess, I’d say that many, if not most, of you think of “classical education” as the gold standard. I went to a classical high school. I teach at a classical school. I’m a big fan of classical education.

As a side note, it’s probably worth asking whether or not, since education is a life-long pursuit, someone can be “classically educated.” I would say, yes, but not at school. Thirteen years of old books and Latin can have a profound effect on you, but if a recent graduate believed himself to be “educated,” I’d say he didn’t learn anything. If a student, upon graduating, said to himself, “Man, I don’t know anything. I better learn,” that would be a success. The desire to learn and the skills to do so are a good indicator that the student has indeed been classically educated.

Classical education really just means studying the “classics,” which used to mean Greek and Roman literature, and now includes old books from all kinds of subjects. There are several benefits to classical education:

  1. The ancients and medievals tended to think of knowledge as a unified whole, so, by reading their works, students will assume the same.
  2. The same thinkers loved knowledge because they believed it brought them closer to virtue. Modern-day people aren’t accustomed to pursuing virtue.
  3. Reading old books brings Western history and civilization before the eyes of students. Modern people love to pretend that they invented everything. All problems are new problems, and therefore it’s up to us to come up with a solution. A few years of reading old books should be enough to demonstrate that not only are our problems not new, many of them already have solutions. We’ve just forgotten them. (Example?)
  4. Lastly, by its nature, classical education focuses on the things that have lasted. Age doesn’t automatically make a thing good, but good things tend to last, and the longer they last, the more respect we should pay them.

I do think that these benefits fit our definition of “education.” But a classical school can only point students in the direction of these things. A school cannot “educate” because it is not a person.

The brand of classical schooling that most of us are familiar with is the Dorothy Sayers model, which applies the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric to the stages of a child’s development. Young children memorize easily, so they are given the “grammar” of different subjects. Middle-schoolers like to argue, so they are placated with “dialectic” or logic. High schoolers like to express themselves, so they are given the tools of rhetoric. From what I can tell, it seems to work.

The thing that many people miss about Sayers’ model is that, when it comes to actual content, she is mostly agnostic. She makes some suggestions, but makes it clear they are suggestions. Her main point is that we should teach students to teach themselves, a goal which by nature must be content agnostic. Given that, and given the benefits of classical education I outlined above, here are some critiques of classical schools, as well as some suggestions. How can we make our classical schools more conducive to a Christian education?

Latin

In my experience, no subject in a classical school gives students as much trouble as Latin. It’s just soul-crushing. Learning a second language may be the most mind-opening experience you can have. That’s what makes it so valuable, but also what makes it so difficult. Teaching a student another language forces them to toy with the basis of their thought, which is always uncomfortable.

I love Latin. I wrote my college thesis on Latin. I’ve taught Latin. I take great pleasure in reading Latin. But I think it’s overemphasized in classical schools. (Sayers herself doesn’t say Latin is necessary, just that she prefers it.) Learning a second language is important, if only to introduce children to the idea of other languages, but you’re not going to get very far in Latin with second graders unless you have an exceptional teacher. Students regularly tell me things like, “I’ve taken eight years of Latin and don’t know it at all.”

Here’s my advice: save Latin for high school. It’s a crucial part of a classical education, but you can learn plenty of Latin in three years. In elementary school, I would start with Hebrew. Have the kids memorize the Psalms and the opening chapters of Genesis in Hebrew. Forget about grammar and teach pure memorization (reading and writing). Add a modern language (Spanish or French) if you want. In middle-school, teach Greek.

Music

The Greeks and Romans gave us plenty of good literature, but they have given us almost no good music. Music is part of our Christian heritage that we are woefully undereducated in. At some schools, music is not even offered, let alone required. At others, it’s an elective or a once-a-week activity. The reason given for this lack of emphasis is that some children just aren’t musical. That logic will get you nowhere with a math or science teacher, and ought to make a music teacher laugh in your face. God’s people sing. Get over it.

Young children pick up music easily. Puberty makes everyone self-conscious, especially boys whose voices are changing. But even when your voice is unreliable, your fingers still work. Choose an instrument. Learn to read music and add chords to melodies. Analyze a piece of music the same way you’d analyze a math problem or a poem. And, in the rhetoric stage, write your own.

Bible

Bible is almost always the Achilles heel of a Christian school. Christian schools (at least, evangelical ones) are expected to be non-denominational in practice, if not in name. Bible class is de-emphasized on the rationale that “the students are getting Bible during Sunday school.” If there is any kind of worship service at all, it is a chapel service with happy-clappy tunes and a boring talk.

Classical schools need to make the Bible the center of their curriculum. I don’t mean sprinkling a little Bible reading on their lesson plans. I mean a rigorous Bible class that asks students to read the Bible like they would any other text: with attention to details and poetic figures, allusions and patterns. That Bible class should be required every year, along with biblical liturgy woven throughout the school day.

Obviously, much of this needs to be fleshed out. And many people are already having conversations about these issues, which is very encouraging. A truly classical Christian model would be constantly seeking improvement.

Potato 5

Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.

Potato 1

Potato 2

Potato 3

Potato 4

Potato 4

A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.

Potato 2

If I didn’t already know what a potato was, I could easily mistake this object for a rock. On closer inspection, however, it becomes easier to tell that what I’m looking at is, or was, alive. One clue is that it has clearly grown: there are wrinkles in its surface, which you would not normally find on a rock this size. Next to those wrinkles are small divots, and, inside each divot, the light red color that covers the object in patches grows darker, suggesting that pigmentation is gathered in those spots. Again, this is not something you would see on a rock, rigidly structured. Even the brown color is not uniform. Small spots of green and yellow are scattered throughout. And, as I said yesterday, it has some give to it. When I squeeze, the skin bends, ever so slightly. I push my thumbnail through the surface. The skin splits with the sound of a boot stepping into wet grass.

Potato 1

Potato 1

Every day this week, my students will spend a few minutes in class describing the same… potato.

I decided it was only fair that I do the exercise along with them. So, Monday:

It sits in my palm like a baseball, but weighs slightly more. I can feel it tugging groundwards. Large for a red potato, it is covered with eyes, mostly on one half. On the very end, six eyes are arranged in a triangle pattern, like the tip of an arrow. I said it’s a red potato, but it’s more brown than red, whether with dirt or natural coloring, it’s hard to tell. The skin feels like the bottom of a foot, not rough so much as calloused. A tap on the skin tells me the interior is tight and full, not hollow nor squishy. Holding it to my nose, I smell old water, like what you might find in a tire swing. If I found this buried in the dirt somewhere, I wouldn’t immediately think, “Delicious!”

A Man is Easily Distracted

John Milton Gregory, discussing the “law of the learner,” describes two kinds of attention: active, “effortful” attention and what he calls secondary passive attention. You might think that he’d advocate the first kind. After all, students need to exert themselves if they’re going to learn, right? But, no, he says that the second kind, secondary passive attention, is what makes for the best kind of learning. To grasp this, you have to understand what exactly he’s describing.

Generally speaking we learn most easily and most economically when we are “absorbed” in our work, when the objects that we are trying to fix in mind and remember permanently really attract us in their own right, so to speak—when our learning is so fascinating that it simply “carries us with it.”

This secondary passive attention is powerful because it generates its own steam. The student who is attracted to and absorbed in the lesson is going to make the most progress in learning. Students can only sustain so much active attention; at some point, the teacher must take over the heavy lifting and “pull” the students along. That said, active attention does have its place:

Attention of this sort [secondary passive] frequently grows out of persistent effort—out of what we have just termed “active” attention. This attention resembles passive attention in that its object is always attractive in itself and demands little or not effort to be brought into the focus of consciousness; but it also grows out of active attention, out of effort and perseverance…

In other words, the student makes progress through hard work, but can only sustain hard work through something attractive—we might call this curiosity or inspiration or imagination. To guide the body, the head and the heart must work together. (If you’re thinking of The Abolition of Man, you’re not alone…)

A couple of practical applications spring to mind. First, if the student (reader, audience, etc.) is bored, it is at least partly the fault of the teacher (author, artist, etc.). Second, active attention is a skill that can be developed. So you might not like classical music, but if you do the hard work of listening to Beethoven, you may find that, at some point, you become absorbed in the music. But you have to actively listen to even have a chance of being absorbed. Third, so much of our computer technology is designed to eliminate that first step of active attention. The barrier to entry is so low it’s part of the floor. Without that active engagement, there’s no chance of secondary passive attention, only of passivity. Growing pains are good. Without them, technology becomes a crutch.