Classical Christian Education: A Path Forward to American Renewal

Saint Thomas Aquinas by Luis Muñoz Lafuente, Image: Wikipedia

I anticipate that many readers of this article would agree that the quality of education in America has been in a steady state of decline for decades.  The causes of this downslope categorically range between political, cultural, anthropological and economic, and the case could be made that none of these are mutually exclusive.  In blazing a path forward to renewal, the rest of this article will be centered in the anthropological roots upon which the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Sts. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, et. al., have focused over many centuries, in blending a deep understanding of the human condition with a roadmap to high earthly civilization, and ultimately heaven, via education.

As a springboard to this path, I’d like to identify two prominent errors in our current thinking about who we are as humans which permeate modern western educational philosophy: (1) that humans are inherently “good”, and are taught to be “bad”, and (2) that enrichment of the mind is the sole objective of formal education in a civilized society.  To the extent that there is even general agreement amongst the members of a collection of humans on what constitutes something “good” vs. “bad” can the former premise (or its converse) asserted; the latter is largely predicated on the confluence of the “I think, therefore I am” philosophy of Rene’ Descartes and the increasingly pure reliance on scientific method to describe what does and does not exist in the world, and how what does exist came to be, with no thought to the meaning nor purpose of that which has been observed (or not).  The humanness of the scientists and their followers is unexplainable via this method, and thus ignored.  Modern education is now essentially a disembodied intellectual exercise, with “extracurricular” activities thrown in merely to provide breaks and distractions from the “real” learning.

The negative consequences of these fundamental errors on the quality of formal education have been both debilitating and disastrous.  Because of the ever-increasing centricity of science, appreciation for the beauty of the world around us, and wonder and awe at its creation and autonomous order, have been lost in a discourse which limits itself only to that which has been observed and explained through science and its methods of existential proof. Meanwhile, what passes for science drifts into whatever scientists say (and are now often paid to say) has been sufficiently proven in their collective minds.   And since it is now being presumed that children are more “right” in basic thought and deed before they are exposed to those who have been corrupted by “wrong” others, school has become increasingly insulative and isolative as “educators” strive to ensure that their “students” are only exposed to that which comports with the narratives of the scientific community. 

What has largely resulted from this method is a collective of closed-minded, arrogant adults who have been told what to think, and have come to believe that they have learned all that there is to know and cannot be told otherwise.  And ironically, their “science-based” knowledge is typically quite detached from the actual world, as it was gleaned exclusively through classroom instruction and book-based study and examination, with little or no direct experience with the phenomena about which they have been presumably taught.  Sadly, many Christian, as well as most public, schools have fallen prey to these modernistic and purely intellectual methods.

Despite modern-day narratives to the contrary, classical education takes, and has traditionally taken, a much more holistic and open-ended approach to learning:  holistic in the sense of including body and spirit (i.e., heart and soul) as well as mind, and in constant recognition and acceptance that there is much about the world around us and its origins which we still do not (and may not ever) know.  The purpose of education in the classical paradigm is to provide the basics of what has truly been learned about by humans in their direct interactions with other humans and the universe around them, with the posture that such education is only the beginning of a process of lifelong learning.  Students are oriented to how to think, rather than what.

Intrinsic and essential to those basics is education of the body and spirit as well as the mind.  In the book The Liberal Arts Tradition, by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, Piety and Poetic Knowledge (i.e., Gymnastic and Music) serve as the roots of the tree which feed the trunk of Liberal Arts (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music) and Philosophy to the flourishing of Theology.  Piety, Gymnastic and Music involve the body, heart and soul of the student, and education of these takes precedence over that of the mind:  discipline of the body, heart, soul andmind occupy the foreground of a classical education, and when well-cultivated provide fertile soil for the seeds of knowledge which will be planted with the Liberal Arts of the lower school, and will grow and flourish in the upper and beyond.

Even with this well-ordered approach, education and thought still require an anchor to prevent the kind of drift we are witnessing from the scientific community today—hence the Christian element of Classical Christian Education.  That anchor ironically takes the form of the unknowable, or that which surpasses the limited capabilities of human understanding, i.e., God, and the inherent fallenness of Man.  Piety is heavily rooted in acceptance of both of these, with the bodily and spiritual discipline (and also the wonder, awe and openness) of Music and Gymnastic.  Not only is the whole person now addressed in the educational philosophy, that philosophy is also affixed to a stable and humbling set of principles which provide the foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and knowledge-hungry and critically-thinking society and culture which is then also teachable to future generations via that transcendent underpinning.

And to have such a transferrable society and culture of mind, body and spirit requires sustained embodiment of allof the members in it, including the teachers and administrators of the system, as well as the parents.  Our children are watching us and other adults for examples of how to behave in various situations, especially when younger, and imitation is as important, if not more so, a part of an holistic education as listening to lectures, reading, taking tests, etc.  We must be every bit as Christian in our everyday lives as we desire our children to be for that education to take hold as they move to adulthood, and become examples for their children.  While many families and faculty in modern Christian school systems personally ascribe to this, it does tend to be less vital to the curriculum and stressed than in the classical paradigm.

I subtitled this article “A Path Forward to American Renewal” because what we are calling Classical Christian Education today is the very method by which the early Americans passed on their culture and civilization to future generations for nearly the first two centuries of our existence as a United States.  The freedom, liberty and relative peace we have enjoyed for so long as a nation is heavily rooted in the notions of piety and humility, and wonder and awe in the principles of Natural and Divine Law in which we are immersed throughout our earthly lives, whether we recognize this or not.  Our methods of education (as have our principles for civilization) have diverged greatly from those of our American ancestors, and the Classical Christian approach, while rooted in ancient history, provides a practical path forward to returning us to those methods and principles.

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