Classical Education: A Godly Foundation by Chris Finnegan
As homeschoolers, we live in a blessed time. The Lord has provided freedom, abundant curriculum choices, and many avenues of support for our endeavors: this is a far cry from the days many remember of fighting for basic rights. But even in a time of such blessing, homeschooling is an intense job, requiring parents to work hard and tirelessly in order to provide the best possible Christian education for their children. Why in the world would an already harried homeschool parent consider a teaching method as teacher-intensive as “classical education”? And, more importantly, why would a Christian, who understands our most important job is to equip our children to glorify God and enjoy Him forever[i], choose such a method?
First, let’s begin with a definition of “classical education”. Indeed, defining just what “classical education” is presents a challenge in itself. It is a methodology and movement that has grown, changed and altered over the centuries. It continues to be adapted today as many of us seek to reclaim the “lost tools of learning”[ii]. It is all too easy to caricature instead of accurately representing this educational method. Classical Christian education, according to Andrew Kerns,[iii] is “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the liberal arts so that, in Christ, the student is better able to know and enjoy God.” Classical education is that method of instruction which is the legacy of the Christian middle ages, Christian Europe, and early America. Its roots lie in both the Greco-Roman and Hebrew cultures. It is word-centered, rigorous, and has as its goal the practice of Christian virtue--not just the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.[iv] The mentoring of the pupil by the instruction and example of the teacher is its characteristic ingredient, and together, teacher and pupil move towards study of the “queen of the sciences”, theology.
Classical education is occasionally characterized as the emulation of pagan authors and philosophies. While study of all of history is important, “classical” education, in its broader historical sense does not necessarily imply that we admire and revere Roman or Greek or pagan theology. While classical education may include some careful study of the ancient period, it would be inaccurate to characterize it as focused on pagan beliefs.
Many compelling reasons exist to pursue a classical Christian education.
1. For Christians, the basis of all knowledge in life and godliness is the Word: either God’s general, creative word written in nature, His specific word written in Scripture, or His Incarnate Word written in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Classical education is also based upon the written word. The sciences and arts of language and logic are tools given by God to communicate Himself to His creation and to endow man with the dignity of communicating with his Creator. Therefore, a method of instruction that emphasizes the written word-- understanding it, analyzing it, and creating with it-- seems uniquely fitting for Christians. It gives man the capacity to think some of God’s thoughts after Him.
2. Classical education is about the pursuit of truth, not just the pursuit of knowledge. The idea of objective truth is a basic component of classical Christian education. As such, it is uniquely suited to help students understand that all truth is God’s truth, and to train students not only to identify what is true as measured by God’s plumb line, but to embrace truth wherever it is found and reject error. Classical education thus provides the perfect training ground for the defense of the Faith. The early Church Fathers were schooled in the classical tradition that, built on Paul’s example, met heresy with well thought out, logical and concise canons, creeds and arguments. These documents have helped the Church to navigate rough waters over many centuries as it seeks to defend the faith against the world. And such training will prove invaluable to our children as they navigate the waters of a lost and fallen world.
3. Classical education begins with the premise that there is such a thing as virtue against which vice can be seen clearly. Its goal is not only head-knowledge of such virtue, but practical, experiential virtue in action. As Christians, we know that Christ is the embodiment of godly virtue-- and that the end of all education ought to be greater knowledge of Christ, greater conformity to Christ, and greater appreciation of Him. This motivates us to work vigorously and thoroughly to attain these goals in increasing measure, both as individuals and as teachers who bear responsibility for our students. Classical education provides an avenue by which we can diligently add virtue to faith, and continue adding knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.[v] This goal of virtue in classical education moves our learning from “head knowledge” to “heart action”.
4. Classical education is built on the model of imitation. It assumes there is a body of knowledge and wisdom that ought to be passed on from one generation to the next. Classical education assumes some are teachers and some are learners. In assuming that certain skills and certain persons are worth imitating, classical education provides the perfect vehicle for the discipleship of students by their teachers, and resonates with the models of imitation found in Scripture. [vi]
5. Classical education is grounded in the idea that the world is an orderly, logical place and that it can be understood. The laws of logic and principles of right reasoning are foundational to all instruction. Early Christians understood that the orderly nature of the universe and the rational nature of thought reflected the mind of the Maker. While God is certainly much more than a merely rational being, right reasoning and logical principles flow from His very nature. Thinking is not an option for Christian: it is simply a question of whether we will think rightly or wrongly.[vii] Logis is putting our thoughts in order, and thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Accordingly, understanding the rules of clear and correct reasoning is more than an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline whether we classically educate or not. It is also the legacy of the Christian West through the means of classical Christian education.
6. As Christians, we believe that all of history is, indeed, His Story; the details of God at work in time and space. Classical education, with its emphasis on the study of history, gives us a framework from which to study the Great Conversation of human history—both its man-to-man dialogue about the nature of God and man and its God-to-man component found in divine revelation. It prepares our students to enter this great conversation by giving them its context. A sweeping understanding of man’s quest for God, his lostness without God, God’s divine moving in time and space, and the ideas that have shaped the men and women and cultures around us, are all integral components necessary for Christians to impact their culture effectively for Christ. The pursuit of truth provides a “safe” way to view the world through the lenses of the Scriptures. If we can embrace what is true, wherever it is found, sifting it through the Scriptures, and placing it in historical context, we are prepared to meet a dark and broken world. It gives us the confidence to attack what is wrong and stand by what is right.
7. Historically, classical education is the legacy of the Christian West to the world. It was the Christians of the Middle Ages who viewed the Greco-Roman world as providentially brought into being at the right moment in time to cross paths with Christ. It was they who took the truth found around them as God’s truth, filtered it through the worldview of the Scriptures, and laid a firm foundation of how to educate in a way consistent with the Scriptures. In this sense, classical education is Christian education.
8. Pragmatically, classical education has produced the best and brightest minds of every age where it has existed. Even in its pre-Christian incarnation, its method of careful, logical thought and training produced the minds that led to Western Civilization, and paved the way for Christ (even though they were unaware of their divinely ordained role.) In the Middle Ages, it produced the great patriarchs of the early church, and preserved the Word even through Barbarian incursion and plague and disaster. In Europe it educated the men who would be led by God to search His Word and spark the fire that became the Reformation. In England and America, it produced the Founding Fathers of this nation. Any method of education used by God to accomplish so much should not be easily dismissed.
Classical education provides a methodology that is not only compatible with Christianity, but has been blessed by God in this capacity in the past. If this is so, why have Christians failed to embrace it in our time? The answer to this is the ignorance of our current age. For the last century, our nation has built with the lumber left over from our classical, Christian worldview and heritage. But it has been so undermined in the public education system that we have lost our foundation and our way. Since the classical model was in place through the entire history of Christianity (until the last 100-150 years), and succeeded in raising up the great saints of the Church in the past, the burden of proof that it is insufficient actually rests with those who make that claim.
[i] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
[ii] Wislon, Douglas. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.
[iii] Andrew Kerns is author of Classical Education: Towards a Revival of American Schooling and director of Circe Ministries.
[iv] “True learning is revealed in character; it is not a matter of courses or degrees or preparation for a job...True learning makes affirmation and acknowledges limitation; it begets honesty and humility, compassion towards man and reverence towards God... True learning knows what is good, serves it above self, reproduces it, and recognizes that in knowledge lies responsibility.” From Norms and Nobility: A treatise on Education” by Hicks, David. New York: University of America Press, 1999.
[v] II Peter 1:5-7
[vi] I Thessalonians 3:7-9, 1 Peter 2:21
[vii] For more on the place of logic in the life of the Christian, see Hawkins, Craig S. “The Nature and Necessity of Logic”, Apologetics Information Ministry, http://aplogeticsinfo.org/papers/naturenecessity.html
A select bibliography on classical education
Bauer, Susan Wise and Jesse Wise. The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. New York: Norton and Company, Inc., 1999.
Hicks, David. Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education. New York: University of Marica Press, 1999.
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. and Andrew Kern. Classical Education: Towards a Revival of American Schooling. Capitol Research Center, 1997.
Wilson, Doug. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991.
Websites on Classical Education: