A funny thing happened as the 20th century came to a close. A number of Christians began to form what were being called “classical and Christian” schools. Believers who would have been (or were) involved in their local traditional Christian school or public school were suddenly making the case for Latin, reading the great books of the Western intellectual tradition, and talking about the traditional liberal arts—the trivium and the quadrivium.
Many in this growing movement of Christian and classical schools in recent decades would cite as inspiration a book by Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (Crossway, 1989). Wilson’s thesis was fairly straightforward: Christian parents have a biblical mandate to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Traditional Christian schools have done many good things, but a more classical approach relying on the “tools of learning” has better potential to train up children in ways consistent with Scripture. Wilson relied on a seminal essay by Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning” (a lecture originally given in 1947). Sayers argued that the best way to recover true education in our day was by “turning back the clock” and adopting a form of the medieval syllabus. Sayers attended more to the trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) than the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy), but she affirmed the legitimacy of both.
Not only have many new schools adopted this approach, but I also believe parents with children in other schools or even Christians on their own can benefit from the classical movement’s chief insight about learning and spiritual formation.
While there are healthy debates within the classical and Christian school world about the true nature of classical education, several general traits can be identified.
First, classical and Christian schools are generally committed to some sort of word-based or word-centered education. One of the tragedies of much of contemporary education is a failure to retain the importance of language. Classical schools are trying to recover the centrality of the trivium (the language arts) as essential to true education.
Second, classical and Christian schools are almost always committed to recovering the great books of the Western intellectual tradition and attending to the past more generally. To be educated is to grounded in the texts of one’s own tradition, and for those of us in the United States, this means the central texts and ideas of the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and of course the development of the Western intellectual tradition from the first century to the present.
Third, classical schools are committed—to some degree—to the importance of the classical languages. This usually means that students at classical schools will take several years of Latin, and possibly some Greek as well. Latin and Greek are the languages of Western Christendom, and historically to be educated was to have at least some knowledge of these two languages.
Fourth, classical schools, in various ways, are also trying to recover the second and third components of the trivium—dialectic and rhetoric. Dialectic is the practice of trying to deepen one’s understanding of truth through back-and-forth conversation and debate. Rhetoric is perhaps best defined as the art of fitting communication (whether in the written or spoken word). You will find students at classical schools studying logic (a component of dialectic), engaging in debate, learning via the Socratic method, and honing their skills through repeated opportunities to communicate both through writing and speaking.
Fifth, classical education affirms that there is an overarching telos or “goal” at the center of true education. This actually gets at the heart of what makes classical and Christian schools unique. Classical schools—at their best—hold that education is ultimately about the formation of a certain kind of person. While different schools may disagree on this or that pedagogical theory, or this or that curriculum choice, virtually any classical school desires to reach back and recover the notion that education is about human formation and transformation.
This is where a classical approach to education can be—rightly!—very attractive to Christian families. When I helped found Augustine School (where my children currently attend), I served as head of school for a few years. I would recommend to virtually any parent asking one simple question to the person heading their children’s school: “What is your goal for my children when they graduate from this school?”
The best of Christian thinking has always recognized we are pilgrims traveling to the city of God. While we have many joys and duties in this life, we understand present existence against the backdrop of our ultimate destiny as believers—to see God one day. Keeping one eye on heaven, or the vision of God, need not diminish the importance of life in the world. On the contrary, knowledge that life in the world is part of a larger and grander story—which culminates in the vision and city of God—can be a constant reminder that life in the here and now is important, meaningful, and weighty.
The best Christian education sees this task as a transformative endeavor that prepares students for (1) a meaningful, faithful, wise, virtuous life in the present, and also for (2) our ultimate destiny—to one day see God face-to-face and know him fully. Once we begin to grasp that true education is best construed as a person-forming endeavor, we are able to see more clearly the link between the gospel and education.
Some readers do not have access to this kind of education (at least in a formal way or setting), or do not have school-age children. Nonetheless the classical vision of education is worthy of attention. Its most important insight can be applied broadly: education is about the formation and transformation of a boy or girl into the man or woman—under God—they ought to be. This should be parents’ goal, no matter what school their children attend. Many homeschooling families are able easily to “convert” their homeschooling efforts in a classical direction, using a book like The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.
Any parents can create space for this flourishing simply by turning off the television (or closing the computer screen), starting a fire, and sitting as a family reading a good book. I share precious memories reading with my children C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Douglas Bond’s Crown and Covenant or Faith and Freedom series.
Parents can also begin—when appropriate—to let children join certain adult conversations about theology, politics, and other topics. My children enjoy the sharing of ideas, and they are learning how to think and discuss themselves by watching daddy and his friends engage in meaningful conversation.
Even if you’re not raising children, you can still reap the benefits of a classical-type education. Read, read, read. There are many lists of “great books”—one might start with the appendix to Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and Leland Ryken’s Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective. If accountability would help, why not start a reading group that meets monthly? Or consider scheduling your next vacation or trip around a key conference or educational experience that inspires your reading and learning.
As I have argued in The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life, we are ultimately shaped and transformed by the gospel itself—which is the only means and way by which we will ever see God face-to-face and become whom God has intended. Within that theological framework, a classical education can be a helpful tool by which we are shaped over time. Classical education—at its best—can be a gospel-fueled tool or resource used to shape and transform God’s people, so that God’s people might be prepared for their ultimate destiny—being presented to Christ as a spotless bride without blemish, and to see God face-to-face.