Classical education has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in both Christian and secular schools. The Association of Classical Christian Schools is just over 20 years old and has members around the world. Secular educators have noted the success of the classical method, and now classical charter schools are popping up all over the country. The principles of grammar, logic, and rhetoric are fundamentally at odds with Common Core and the educational methods of the last generation; but they work, and in our pragmatist country, those are marching orders.
However, with popularity comes confusion about the terms we are using. What does “classical” refer to? Is classical education a pagan Greek tradition, or a medieval Christian one? Should classical students know a particular body of work, or is the term purely pedagogical? Is it possible to have a classical education that is not Christian?
Classical educators often point to Greek philosophers as the root of their educational system. Many of education’s classical foundations come from Plato’s Republic, where he formulates an ideal educational system. In Book VII he writes,
“The business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all—they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good.”
Here many Christian writers have seen the foundations of modern socialism. Plato continues to say, “happiness was to be in the whole State, and [the legislator] held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State.”
Frederic Bastiat, the 19th century writer of The Law, a treatise on economic freedom, critiqued socialism by asserting,
“[i]t is no wonder that the writers of the nineteenth century look upon society as an artificial creation of the legislator’s genius. This idea —the fruit of classical education—has taken possession of all the intellectuals and famous writers of our country.”
He follows up this discussion by alluding to Plato and stating that the benevolent government is the “child of classical education,” which he calls “the mother of socialism.” This assumption was made 20 years ago at the beginning of the classical education movement when Rousas Rushdoony stated, “Classical education in all its forms, Greco-Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern, is essentially and radically humanistic.”
Does that mean classical education is at war with Christianity? Where does this leave classical, Christian schools?
Eight years ago I became a founding member of a classical, Christian school. During this time the school has grown from 9 students to nearly 150 students with a preschool-12th grade program. I have seen first-hand how discipleship in our school grows families, educates students, and brings faithful maturity to the entire Christian community, and I have no intentions of abandoning it. However, the fruit of the school is distinctively Christian. Learning from those who have gone before us, and especially from their mistakes, is essential. If classical education had worked nearly 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be trying to revive it now.
Every teacher, classical or not, knows that a variety of methods must be used to teach a lesson. No grammar student could sit through a class where only rote memorization is done. No logic student could sit through formal logic lessons in every subject, and no rhetoric student could handle a full day of lecture. A combination of body movements, recitations, physical activity, and listening skills is the complete lesson plan, which is what the church engages in each Sunday. A liturgical worship service is one of the most perfect lesson plans ever devised. Worship involves standing and singing and chanting, kneeling and praying, sitting and listening, and eating the Lord’s Supper. Taken together, no better education system has been devised. We come to know God through the liturgy of worship. We come to know God’s world by applying those principles to each subject.
As classical Christian educators, it is vital to remember that our teleology is opposed to the Greeks. Proverbs 9:10 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” The soul of any education is not grammar, logic, and rhetoric, but Christian humility. Just like the rest of creation, classical education must be born again.
We are educating our students to prepare them for a hostile world. Their classical, Christian education will prepare them for a world where they may be leaders, but very likely martyrs. A classical education in the classical sense is one that will puff a student up; fill them with knowledge to know more than the world. On the contrary, a classically educated Christian student is ready to kneel in humility, only to be raised with praise on his lips. They will recite God’s Word and love the creeds of His people. This will prepare them to enjoy the feast of knowledge in the world, laid out before them.
“…Of making books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:12b-13
Bastiat, Frederic (1850). The Law.
Kreeft, Peter(April 19, 2009). “What is Classical Education?” Memoria Press.
Plato. The Republic.
Rushdoony, RJ (September 1, 1997) “Classical Education?” Chalcedon Foundation.