Written by Dr. John Seel, this article was first published in The Classical Teacher, Winter 2006. Reproduced here with permission.
Parenting is first and foremost a responsibility of discipleship. Discipleship is not about activities and programs, but the transformation of the heart. The transformation of the heart begins with the framing of beliefs–what we assume to be true about others, the world, and ourselves. “Education,” said Sister Mariam Joseph, “is the highest of arts in the sense that it imposes forms not on matter, as do the other arts, but on minds.”
The Two Tasks of Discipleship
This transformation involves relativizing the assumptions our culture takes for granted and orienting them according to what is good, true, and beautiful. Dallas Willard makes the same point: “Christian spiritual formation is inescapably a matter of recognizing in ourselves the idea systems of evil that govern the present age and the respective culture that constitutes life away from God.”
There is both a negative and a positive aspect of this transformation. The negative task involves a critique of culture, and the positive task involves the setting forth of truth. The task of Christian education, then, is to understand God’s good creation and the ways sin has distorted it. As God’s image bearers, we may exercise responsible authority in cultivating the creation, to the end that all people and all things may joyfully acknowledge and serve their Creator and true King.
The primary question before us is: Why classical education? In the 2nd century, early church father Tertullian pondered, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Why study the classical pagans in order to equip a Biblical mind? Why is the study of dead languages valuable? Why is it necessary to go back before going forward?
The Christian Use of the Pagans
There is a clear Biblical precedent for using classical authors in the service of communicating the Gospel. Paul on Mars Hill quoted from memory the works of Greek Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian apologist, once urged the freshman class at Princeton:
The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity…. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It must all be brought into some relation to the Gospel. It must be studied either in order to be demonstrated as false, or else in order to be made useful in advancing the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom must be advanced not merely extensively, but also intensively. The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ but also the whole of man.
So, an acceptance of the classical educational tradition does not mean an uncritical acceptance of the worlds of Greece and Rome. It involves taking the unique insights of the ancients in order to gain perspective on–and better prepare for an engagement with–our own culture.
What is Classical Education?
Classical Christian education is traditional education that began in the late middle ages and is sometimes associated with the Christian humanist movement that emerged in the Northern Renaissance with men such as John Colet and Diserderius Erasmus. It is an education that places an emphasis on the mastery of core content through the study of the trivium–grammar (the study of the basic facts of a discipline), logic (the study of the relationships of these facts with other facts), and rhetoric (the study of the persuasive written and oral communication of these facts to others). Classical education places a priority on words as the foundation of thought. The mastery of words is gained through the careful study of highly inflected languages, such as Greek and Latin. It embraces the triple contribution of Jews, Greeks, and Romans as synthesized through the Christian Church to the rise of our modern world. Not only has this Western Civilization shaped our identity, it has been one of the greatest intellectual and cultural achievements in history. In his book, Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray writes:
The Greeks laid the foundation for Western achievement in the arts and sciences. But it was the transmutation of that intellectual foundation by Christianity that gave modern Europe its impetus and that pushed European accomplishment so far ahead of all other cultures around the world.
This rigorous study of the past relies on engaging the student through relentless questioning–a model of instruction still used routinely in the finest law schools in the nation–termed the Socratic Method.
Classical education is the way education was done until the late 1880s in Europe and America. During these years, C.S. Lewis argues that, intellectually and spiritually, Western civilization crossed a Great Divide: “Whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it has fallen into three – the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may be reasonably called the post-Christian.”
The problem with most modern Christian education is that it is no different in its core educational philosophy from secular education. What we know as liberalism in the church is called progressivism in education. Classical education is a return to the educational philosophy that dominated for centuries before the “God is dead” philosophy of Nietzsche found its voice in the “Truth is dead” musings of John Dewey. One can legitimately ask whether Christian education is truly Christian if it is not also classical. Chapel services and Scripture memory does not a Christian educational philosophy make. Classical Christian education is decidedly against the stream of the educational establishment. It is an expression of what ought to be and what used to be, not another example of what is.
Classical education is a cure for what ails our culture–a secular, relativistic world-view. This post-modern youth culture that our children face is a very different world from that in which we were raised. The goal of classical Christian education is to equip our students with a pre-modern intellect of truth and knowledge, so they can engage a post-modern, relativistic culture.
Classical education is also the most powerful education tool available for shaping a Biblical mind. It is the heart of a liberal education. As Tracy Simmons has put it:
A classical education is more than a discipline of the mind. It’s a transformation of mind. A classical education is, as Livingstone called it long ago, “a training in insight and sympathy,” a training forever changing one’s map of the cosmos; the world becomes a more multi-layered terrain in sharper relief.
Sixteenth century Christian humanist Erasmus wrote in his Handbook for the Militant Christian:
I might also add that a sensible reading of the pagan poets and philosophers is a good preparation for the Christian life…. These readings mature us and constitute a wonderful preparation for an understanding of the Scriptures. I feel this is quite important, because to break in upon these sacred writings without this preparation is almost sacrilegious.
The greatest minds of the Christian church as well as the founders of the American republic had this form of education. C.S. Lewis, for example, did not come out of nowhere. He writes:
To lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb. Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek.
When Thomas Jefferson was planning the University of Virginia in 1819, he wrote:
It should be scrupulously insisted on that no youth can be admitted to the university unless he can read with facility Virgil, Horace, Xenophon, and Homer: unless he is able to convert a page of English at sight into Latin: unless he can demonstrate any proposition at sight in the first six books of Euclid, and show an acquaintance with cubic and quadratic equations. Anything less would make the place a mere grammar school.
One senses immediately how far education standards have slipped. Our secondary education no longer prepares men and women to have the intellectual background or mental discipline of our founders or our early church fathers. Classical Christian education is not a fad, but one of the most profound educational reform movements in America today.
Do we want to promote an education that accepts the status quo or an education that equips our children to be powerful agents of change in an increasingly post-Christian culture? The promise of classical Christian education is the latter.
John Seel, Ph.D. is a co-founder of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability and President of nCore Media, a visual supercomputing company in Los Angeles, California. John’s career combines business, education, theology, and cultural sociology. He is a contributing editor to Critique magazine as well as The Journal, a publication of the Society for Classical Learning and the author of several books, including Parenting Without Perfection: Being a Kingdom Influence in a Toxic World. His most recent book, Special Forces in Kingdom Service: The Calling of Prophetic Schools will be published by Canon Press.