This is an outline of a recent presentation I gave at New Covenant School in Anderson, SC.
Toward A Biblical Vision for Classical Education
While it is exciting to see what God has done over last 25 years in this country with Christian Education, as educators, we know that one of the most important disciplines of learning is repetition and review. It’s not a silly question to ask, “What do we mean by Classical Education?” Some have emphasized the “classics” in terms of content, others have emphasized “classical empires/culture”, and still others have used the term primarily to describe the medieval Trivium, some in terms of subject matter others more specifically as applied to K-12 learning stages. And many of us have attempted to do a combination of all of these things.
We know that when we say classical there is at least some sense in which we are looking back. We realize that we have gone off the trail; we’ve lost our way in some way. And we want to get back to where we were going before. We see the ruins around us, and we want to follow the prophet’s exhortation. Jeremiah 6:16: “Thus says the LORD: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.” But as Christians it is not merely enough to find old stuff. Dust is not the guarantee of success. Unfortunately, it appears that this is the idea some folks have gotten when it comes to classical education. But we are Christians, and we know that sin and ugliness is old too. So when it comes to looking back, we want to look back to what we know was good. The only infallible source of history and antiquity is the Bible. Thus, as Christians, when we say “classical” we mean first and foremost biblical; we mean Christian.
Classical Education as Discipleship
Of courses it’s not enough to sprinkle a bunch of Bible verses in our text books and move on. Having a weekly or daily chapel doesn’t make an education classical or Christian. The Scriptures speak of learning and education in highly personal terms, in terms of discipleship. Ephesians 4:17-21: “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus…” Luke 6:40: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.” In other words, our students are not studying subjects; they are studying us. We, like Paul, are urging our students to imitate us as we imitate Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1). Imitation is more than just ideas or words. Imitation involves facial expressions, attitudes, actions, and more. We imitate Christ by doing what he says, but also doing as he did as, for example, in the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23). This is why worship is the center of our discipleship.
Classical Education as Knowing and Loving God
We learn not only be watching and listening but also by doing and saying and acting. Much of what we are talking about has a lot to do with our theory of knowledge. What does it mean to know something? If we want our math students to *know* math, it would be a good idea to have some notion of that might look like before we begin. If we start at the beginning, we remember that “knowing” is first used in connection to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Knowledge is presented as something that is far from neutral. Without denying the historicity of any of Genesis, the fact is that one lesson we learn is that we must acquire knowledge under the blessing of God or under the cursing of God. There is no other option. In other words, learning is covenantal. We will either keep covenant by faith as we learn or will break covenant by unbelief as we study. There is no middle road; there is no neutrality.
We know from the law and Christ’s own words that the entire law and the prophets are summarized with the two greatest commandments (Mt. 22:37-40). Fundamentally, this is how we are called to keep covenant with God: loving him with everything that we are. And this brings us back to the idea of knowing. Shortly after the incident in Eden, we are told that Adam “knew” his wife and she bore a son (Gen. 4:1). Knowing is something we do with our bodies and our minds. And this kind of knowing is really a deep sort of loving. St. Augustine is remembered as saying that in order for us to come to know something we must in some way come to love it. In other words, learning and knowing is not primarily a kind of “getting” but rather a kind of “giving.” When students learn literature or spelling or music, they are giving themselves to the stories, to the rules, to the practice of doing those things well. They are imitating their teachers, watching their teachers love their areas of study and following after them.
What we are aiming for as classical educators is the training of students who follow Christ in every area of life. Our aim is teach our students how to live well. We’re not aiming merely full brains; we’re aiming for fat souls (Prov.16:24, 19:8). Souls are fed with imagination, laughter, stories, poetry, puzzles, and more laughter. We are not merely aiming to have students graduate without having left the faith; we are not aiming merely to ‘make it’ to college. We are aiming to have disciples that are militant and courageous for Christ in every sphere of life, students who love life because they have known Christ and love him with all that they are.