The Case for Classical Christian Education, by Aaron Ames

Let’s get right to the point: a shared view of many Christians throughout history is the idea that God is the fundamental source of all truth, be it religious or academic.  But what are we to make of the student who has spent fifteen to twenty years studying all the veritable fields of academics without ever considering God’s relationship to these fields of knowledge?  Does this kind of education not actually imply that God is not the source of all knowledge and truth?  It should really be no wonder that students so quickly abandon the faith after a year or two of university schooling.  God has been left out of every meaningful field of knowledge by the end of high school that it does not take much more prodding to discover that God never really fit in to such a worldview in the first place.

In the 1963 court case, Abington School District vs. Schempp, the Supreme Court eventually ruled, 8-1, in favor of a father who objected to his son being required to read the Bible in a Pennsylvania public school.  This marked the beginning of numerous cases that created a clear precedent for removing elements of religion from schools. Yet, what is often left unstated is that the majority opinion conceded, “that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.” (374 U.S. 225).  

In other words, while arguing that it was unconstitutional for schools to require student participation in religious exercises, it was equally erroneous to deny any discussion of religion in public education.  This, as the majority wrote, would constitute “hostility” toward religion and indirectly prefer secular value-judgments. The one dissenting justice went further writing that to exclude religion from education is to give “preferential treatment” to those opposed to religion and will contribute to establishing “a religion of secularism” (374 U.S. 313).

Following this court case, a federal study was commissioned to investigate this discussion on religion and education.  They concluded that “A curriculum which ignored religion…would appear to deny that religion has been and is important in man's history.”  The point is clear:  until recently, no one considered “value-neutral” education was even possible.  Yet, today, we seem to insist that it is. And perhaps many of us have been equally convinced that the study of the material world (science) has very little to do with the study of God (theology).  Yet, I wonder where we received such ideas?

A Brief History

The early church father Tertullian once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  The Academy with the Church?” In other words, what does Greek philosophy have to do with the Revelation of Christ?  And so, in 362 AD the Roman Emperor Julian, tested this theory.

As Julian assumed Christianity to pose an eminent threat to the strength of the Roman Empire, he issued an edict forbidding Christianity to be taught in any schools while also instituting devotion to the pagan gods for all students.  Both Julian and Christians agreed that all education ultimately aimed to shape the student’s mind and heart regarding good and evil. The only problem was that Christianity and paganism were fundamentally at odds regarding some important ideals of good and evil.  Thus, the battleground for education was the very battle ground for truth. That is, whoever controlled education, controlled culture.

So, while Christians were barred from teaching in schools, students who were Christians were openly accepted, especially with the hopes that they might be converted to paganism. As these schools were the primary means by which an individual could achieve elite status and become a part of the noble, political, or ruling class, Julian assumed his edict would eventually be the demise of Christianity.

But what Julian had underestimated was the role that the Christian church and home played in religious and educational training.  Consider, for instance, the educational requirements, called catechesis, for a new believer before they would be baptized.  Often lasting three years, these catechumens would typically hear orations and interpretations of the entirety of Scripture, be taught all of Christian doctrine and retain it through memorization of the early church Creeds, while also being held accountable for moral and spiritual formation.  Additionally, much of this process was overseen by the churches most educated bishops and priests, Augustine being one example of a notable leader who spent considerable time teaching these courses.

Indeed, Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, immediately following Julian’s edict, wrote an Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, which, as it was heavily circulated throughout the church, became the lasting foundation for classical Christian education for centuries to come.  In this, Basil encouraged Christians to continue their studies in the Greek academy, but to simply “turn a deaf ear” to the devotion to pagan idols. He suggested that much of Greek literature was quite compatible with Christian teaching, only incomplete without Divine Revelation, for both have as their ultimate concern the virtuous life.  Because Greek studies offered literary and philosophical training, Basil suggested it worthy of “riches to be plundered”. He compared it to bees’ gathering of nectar, learning to pluck from the flower what is worthy and leave behind the rest.

Greek education in general provided a very welcome instruction in language, logic, and truth that prepares the student for the much more difficult task of reading and interpreting Scripture.  Yes, Basil assumed that reading Homer was preliminary preparation for reading Scripture. Or, to put it more bluntly, reading Scripture was more difficult than reading Homer. And why should it not be? For Homer is only partial truth, that which is finite. But what comparison is that with the infinite Truth of the Eternal God?

Now, there was one other significant aid to being trained in the Greek academy, which was learning the careful work of discerning that which is true from that which only has the initial appearance of truth.  Today, we might ask how one can sift through what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “morass of propaganda”, which targets us with every glimpse of the screen. It is for this reason that Basil suggested sifting through what is true and what is false in Greek literature was “preliminary training for the eye of the soul.”  Of course, Basil would not have been confident that the students could sift through such had he not been convinced that the rigorous religious instruction and formation in the church would provide the necessary theological vision.

The question today, then, is whether we are sending our kids out into the world without properly equipping them with sufficient theological training?  That is, do our children have the tools to actually identify the “nectar”, as it were, when so much of the American church does so little theological training, all of this in a society overwhelmed with disinformation?  Indeed, one wonders whether the American church could do any serious study when our students are being mentally drained 40-50 hours a week by a secular institution. As the dissenting Justice Stewart put it in Abington vs. Schempp: “…a compulsory state educational system so structures a child's life that if religious exercises are held to be an impermissible activity in schools, religion is placed at an artificial and state-created disadvantage” (374 U.S. 313).  The point is that the state has ensured that the church gets the leftovers, or, perhaps more accurately, the crumbs. Thus, the youth pastor who longs to teach serious theology gets a group of students who are already mentally drained.

On First Principles

In his revolutionary text The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Iain McGilchrist suggests that the popular notions of the right and left hemisphere, which suggest that one controls language and logic and another controls creativity and imagination are not quite accurate.  Rather, both hemispheres are involved in everything, yet, they simply see the world through two different lenses: the left, through a hyper-focused, narrow lens that gazes upon the parts in objectified isolation; the right, through a broad lens that gazes upon the whole in imaginative integration.

One of the primary examples McGilchrist offers is the two ways in which a person can know another person.  In simplest terms, one can know a person’s height, weight, eye color, physical features, etc.  Yet, this appears a rather mercenary way to know a person, especially when speaking of an intimate friend or spouse.  Rather, when a person knows another in this second manner, it is a mysterious synthesis of all of the material and immaterial parts, the body and the soul, that somehow give that individual what we might like to call their “personality”.  So, the left hemisphere is trying to look at the isolated, physical parts, but the right hemisphere is trying to take the parts and weave them together into some kind of whole.

At the very foundation of classical education is this right-hemispheric quest for synthesis and unity.  Indeed, when Socrates discusses the nature of the soul in The Republic, he refers to it as “the many-in-one”, or the tripartite soul.  That is, the three parts of the soul - the intellectual, the moral, the emotional - all come together to form one whole.  

It should be no wonder, then, that so many of the early church fathers found much to appreciate regarding Greek philosophy.  This very concept of many-in-one, or, more specifically, three-in-one, is at the very heart of understanding the Triune God. From the Old to the New testament we find frequent discussion of this concept of many-in-one and diversity-in-unity, even preferring to call the Church universal “many parts but one body” (1 Cor. 12:12).    

Thus, a fundamental difference between modern public education and classical Christian education is simply this:  While public education remains agnostic as to the unity of the soul and the unity of knowledge, classical education embraces this as its first principle.    

To capture this concept, imagine the academic disciplines as pieces in the puzzle of Truth. Each legitimate discipline is one piece of the puzzle.  It is quite difficult to get a very good idea of what image a puzzle is portraying with only one piece or with even a few disconnected pieces. And, so, it is fair to ask: Who is putting the pieces together?

The first question for the modern student is: “How is this relevant to me?” In other words, how is any particular subject “useful” for practical skills. But the classical student, who is trained to think across disciplines, asks, “What piece of the puzzle is this?” To be sure, classical education is, indeed, very concerned about studying the “parts” or the various “disciplines”, but as McGilchrist says, “Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance—second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole.”

The Purpose of Education

I recall my most revered professor, the late Dr. J. Rufus Fears provoking his students to thought with the question: “What are each of you going to do with your lives?”  As he would point to each student and ask them this question, the responses were typical. One says, “I am going to be a lawyer.” Another, “I am going to medical school.”  Others chimed in stating their final goal of where their career would take them. After each had taken their turn, Dr. Fears then returned to examine our fundamental assumptions regarding his original inquiry: “Why did each of you assume that I was asking you what career path you would choose when I simply asked what you were going to do with your life?  What does making money have to do with living?” Of course, Dr. Fears would go on to inform us that making money was a necessary skill in order to sustain life, but that it should always be subordinated to the very aim of life itself.

Both classical philosophy and Christianity agree that the purpose of education is to prepare one to live the good life, but that such living requires robust preparation.  Thus, all the legitimate fields of study come together as a whole to outfit an individual with the required tools and, especially, habits in order to live a virtuous life, serve their community, and honor God.  The love of wisdom, or, as Greek cognate “philo” is used to describe the love between friends, we might say “friendship with wisdom” is the goal of education. And wisdom is not mere intelligence but a life well lived, where appetite, action, and attitude are harmoniously unified.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see” (An Experiment in Criticism).  As Christians, we must train the eye of the soul, to see what often goes unseen.  Yet, our own eyes are never enough to see all the various parts that make up the whole.  But thankfully, others have seen, and offered their eyes to us. It is the humanities, so appropriately named, that offer a special insight into the nature of our own existence.  

This is what many educators have long since called the Great Books of the Western Canon. A serious classical Christian education considers that virtue cannot be attained without an appeal to the knowledge of humanity.  For this reason, the classically-trained student is nurtured in the habit of reading literary works that have passed the test of time and so offer a universal insight into the nature of mankind.  

Contrast this with today’s version of public education which is not only increasingly distancing itself from the humanities and great literature, but it is also ambivalent if not hostile toward the cultivation of virtue as the end goal of education.  Or, if it does prefer a morality, it emphasizes one pseudo-virtue that is waging battle against all traditional morality: the cult of tolerance.

As my late revered professor warned, “I fear that we live in an ahistorical age in which we believe that we are so wise that we no longer need the lessons of the past, perhaps most disturbingly of all that technology has put us beyond the lessons of the past” (J. Rufus Fears, Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life).  The point is that those with the greatest foresight are equally skilled in the study of hindsight.

The Transcendentals as the Foundation of True Education

The renowned mathematician and philosopher, and noted atheist, Bertrand Russell once described his initial encounter with the beauty of math, “At the age of eleven, I began Euclid, with my brother as my tutor. This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love. I had not imagined that there was anything so delicious in the world” (Autobiography).  It would not seem too far-fetched to suggest that the typical, modern student is rarely incited to such delightful marvel in their own encounter with geometry, much less any other discipline.  And, yet, for the classicist and the Christian, Russell’s own sentiment summarily defines the very goal of education and true belief, which is, properly speaking, not an increase of information but an increase of imagination.  

Instead, today’s student (and presumably teacher) probably relates far better to the detached and anesthetized paradigm of Dickens’ “enlightened” superintendent in Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

This is, of course, the necessary outcome of dividing the academic disciplines from their transcendental parents of truth, goodness, and beauty.  What we are left with is none other than cold, passionless, uninteresting facts. And these facts supervene on reality, but they have no ability to tell us anything beyond themselves.  So, 1 + 1 = 2. That’s it. There’s nothing more.

But, what If math is not simply an isolated world of abstract laws but a wonderful scheme of universal order emanating from the very essence of God’s own being?  Then, 1+1=2 is not merely a fact to be understood as reliable but a truth to “hold dear”. Because this is not directed at some abstract object, but rather directed at the very Subject of all of creation.

It is for this reason that C.S. Lewis, among many other classical proponents, have suggested that the pinnacle of classical education is to set our gaze on that which is ordered, harmonious, and ultimately beautiful, precisely because it prepares us for that final Beatific Vision of the Triune God.  Perhaps, then, one of the greatest litmus tests for determining the impact that schooling has had on students is to see, by graduation, whether they still retain that childlike capacity for wonder and awe. This is where the public school is desperately failing and the classical school is thriving. As Chesterton quipped in his Tremendous Trifles, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”  The loss of wonder and beauty is one of the greatest tragedies in our modern climate of education.  

The towering theologian of aesthetics Balthasar warned, “We no longer dare to believe in beauty…and she will not allow herself to separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance” (Glory of the Lord, vol 1).  Perhaps the most damning case against public education is that it neither teaches nor believes in the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, the very pillars of classical education that built the western world.  Consider that rejecting these ideals is the rejection of what all people in all times and in all places have known: that beauty and goodness are universally-shared experiences. If we were created in the image of God, then surely the moral law was inscribed on our hearts, even if the Fall has scribbled over parts of it.   The consequences are of urgent consequence. Classical schools are producing students that are deeply attuned to these objective realities, while public schools are producing students whose spiritual vision is dimmed to anything objective at all.

In his treatise The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition, Dr. E. Christian Kopff contends that, “A society without educated citizens will collapse in times of crisis and will wither away in times of ease and prosperity.  Simply put, a civilization without educated citizens will cease to be civilized.” With the decline of education has come the decline of civic engagement, the decline of political thoughtfulness, the decline of true tolerance, and all of this is undergirded by the decline of language itself, as genuine communication seems to have capitulated to vague but emotionally-charged words.  

Os Guinness’ reply to our predicament is that, “we Christians must show again that we are both people of the Word and people who believe in words” (Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion).  The current pandemonium in public education and the public square offers the church the opportunity to actual lead the way.  Because classical education does not merely differ in content of information, but especially in intent of formation, it has far more to do with virtue than vocation, as its ultimate aim is to leisure in the infinite rather than toil in the finite. And it is this model of education which has quietly labored in the background of many of the church’s most venerated theologians, from Augustine to C.S. Lewis.   Classical education is not the only method to arrive at this end, but it is a tested and proven one in times of cultural chaos, offering a robust education from a Christian worldview, whereby our best and brightest will be prepared, confident, and capable of bearing witness to the Gospel in the marketplace of idol gods.