This is an outline of a recent presentation I gave at New Covenant School in Anderson, SC.
Toward a Biblical Vision for a Classical Curriculum
It was St. Augustine who said in his Confessions that “we learn better in a free state of curiosity than under fear and compulsion.” At the same time, every experienced teacher knows that some stuff just isn’t fun. Many of students, we think, shouldn’t even be trusted in “free state of curiosity” even locked up alone in a room with their history book. Please note that I am taking for granted very basic Christian values like hard work, discipline, and high academic standards. Nothing that follows is meant to suggest otherwise.
Teachers as Curriculum
Given what we’ve already seen about the nature of teaching and knowledge, it is not too difficult to realize that teachers are the most important curriculum. Another way of saying this is that “subjects” don’t exist on their own. What we mean when we say “subject” is the cumulated efforts of study of some area of creation and history. When our students study “math” we mean that we are introducing them to the labors and observations of people. And then we (the teachers) are standing up their in front of them as yet one more witness of how the world works in these particular instances. Every individual teacher is the face at the front of a great crowd of witnesses on any given subject. And yet, you, the flesh and blood teacher at the front of the classroom are the most important one for your students. The task of these students is to imitate you; to become like you (Lk. 6:40). You are not only called to be “good examples,” you are called to be the examples. Your job is to love your area of subject so much as to draw your students into the story; you’re aiming to stun, to romance, to stupefy your students with your studies. But what does this look like?
A Curriculum of Play
By this I do not mean that education should be less than rigorous or that we need to lower academic standards. Rather, if we see education as centrally concerned with imitation and discipleship then it is not too difficult to see the need for learning to be good actors. Christians have been suspicious of theater and drama for its many failures in the areas of morality, but “play” is central to being good Christians. We are called to “act” like Christ and to act like those who imitate him well. Also, if we understand knowledge as a kind of loving with all that we are then acting is a way of embodying the truth. Short plays, skits, and speeches can be excellent opportunities to live out what is being learned. Stories also invite our students to imagine themselves in foreign situations, to pretend, to act out (if only mentally) the world that the teacher is inviting them into.
A Curriculum of Poetry
While Augustine said that we learn what we love; it was Blaise Pascal who said that we love what we find lovely. This means that as teachers, we are called to present the world that we have been called to present in way that is beautiful, noble, and good. For several semesters of science, we used Audubon Field Guides, and we spent as many hours as we could outside observing and discovering. When we weren’t outside, we were inside drawing pictures of them, learning their names, and writing stories and poetry about them. Included in poetry is a love of song and the Psalms in particular. Martin Luther said that singing something is like saying it twice. Putting words to music gives them glory and beauty. Of course some subjects fit will with “ditties”, but we should be careful not to ignore the glories of the Psalms and hymns of our heritage. Finally, poetry teaches us to integrate. There is no area of the world that Jesus is not Lord of, and thus, if all things consist and are held together in Him, then they must all relate and supplement one another. The glory of poetry is metaphor, seeing the world through the world. As people of the Book, we should be people enamored with good books. As people of the Word, we should be people enamored with words: Scripture, literature, poetry, languages, etc.
A Curriculum of Laughter
When we studied history and literature, I wrote short, silly plays for my students to act out. Often enough, the plays would include various one-liners about things completely off topic (e.g. video games, baseball, dirty laundry, etc.). The point was of course to make my students laugh, but it was also to teach them something fundamentally true about the world and history. We live in the world that a good and sovereign God rules over. The story of the world and creation is a story that pleases God and he rejoices in. And we have been invited into that story. This means that we need to learn to rejoice and laugh at the world with the Lord of heaven. We know that the story of history is the story of God’s triumph over all evil with his grace. The death and resurrection is a comedy, and therefore the history of the world is comedy, a romance: it will have a happy ending. From this point of view, teaching our students to laugh with joy and wonder at the world that God has made is teaching our students to love the Triune God and revel in His goodness.
We have argued that fundamentally, when we say “classical education” we mean a full-orbed biblical education. We mean that we are seeking to follow the old ways, the good paths. We are seeking the good life, the life of abundance. We want students that have sharp minds and quick wits but also fat souls, joyful and thankful for their studies, not inoculated to the goodness of God. We have noted that learning is essentially discipleship, and since worship is the center of Christian discipleship, Christian education must flow out of Christian worship too. Just as worship is a dramatic performance and appearance before God, so too learning should be dramatic, artistic, and even theatrical. As Christian worship is filled with the poetry of God (his words and songs and blessings), so too Christian education should be filled with beautiful words and song. And just as Christian worship is a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus and His victory in the world, so too education should be full of the joy and laughter of faith. Perhaps one of the hardest skills that teachers need to learn is how not to tell all, how to intrigue and surprise, how to make our students hungry for more.