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Classical Education for Christians

By Doug Wilson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #1, 1993.

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Douglas Wilson

What do you think of when you hear the word classic? Coke? ‘57 Chevies? Beetho-ven’s Fifth Symphony? The early Beatles?

In the world of education, classical education means three different things. Two of them won’t help us as we try to develop a distinctively Christian approach to education—in fact, they can hurt us. The third type of classical education, on the other hand, will help us educate children who are capable of becoming leaders in the restoration of Western culture.

Pagan Classicalism

When people talk about classical education, they often are thinking of the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, with special emphasis placed upon the “golden eras” of Athens under Pericles or Rome under Augustus.

While the art and literature produced in classical antiquity has great value and we ought to study it, Christians face one problem in using classical antiquity as the central point of reference in understanding classicism. The problem is, of course, the paganism. Many Christian parents rightly have a problem with an education that prominently features the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, pagan myths and heroes, etc. As a Christian classicist, I am not calling for a return to the paganism of the ancient world, or any attempt to revive a “kinder, gentler” paganism, as was partially seen in the Renaissance.

Mixed Classicalism

The second type of classical education is a compromise, so it is sometimes harder to see the problems it brings. Here we see the basic ideas, categories, and concepts of classical antiquity combined in assorted ways with Christian theology and terminology.

Obviously, given the nature of biblical truth, it is the integrity of Christian theology which suffers in the mix. An example of this would be Thomas Aquinas’ attempt to combine the philosophy of Aristotle with the theology of Christianity, resulting in a theology called Thomism. In the field of education, a recent example of this would be the educational theory of Mortimer Adler, which is unabashedly Aristotelian. In his book Reforming Education, Dr. Adler makes the statement that the liberal arts are neither pagan or Christian, but rather human. This elevates the liberal arts into a religion of their own, midway between Christianity and paganism, and superior to both. Any consistent Christian educator must obviously reject Dr. Adler’s statement, along with the world view behind it.

Christian Classicalism

The third type of classical education—Biblical classical education—is what we are looking for. It attempts to provide a timeless introduction to knowledge, based not on the insights of great thinkers but on the Bible. Once the student’s presuppositions have been formed and instructed by Bible study, he is then set free to consider the breadth and depth of human achievement—for example, what some call the “Great Books.” The difference is that the student is trained to evaluate human insights by the yardstick of the Bible’s teaching, not vice versa.

The classically trained Christian student doesn’t have to hide from history. Without worshipping the past, he knows he can—and must—learn from it. In fact, without these studies in history, literature, rhetoric, and theology he will become a slave of the passing popular opinions of our day, incapable of leading others back to the timeless ways of God.

Modern Protestant educators, unhappily, have often tended to ignore the past. Many evangelicals mistakenly assume, for example, that to appreciate Latin you must be a Roman Catholic traditionalist. This indicates just how much of our Western heritage we have lost—and must recover. The Latin language is not the exclusive language of Catholics; it is the language of the West. John Calvin and Martin Luther wrote many works in Latin!

Because we have failed to educate our children properly, we have lost touch with our own Founding Fathers—the everyday Christians and church leaders of the past. While our culture has made much technological progress, in the liberal arts our culture is almost completely at sea. We have forgotten our heritage.

Consequently, this column is dedicated to helping homeschooling parents develop a vision for classical education which will remain faithful to the teaching of Scripture.

Our model for understanding culture—art, literature, history, etc.—will be the apostle Paul, who was the first biblical classicist. Thoroughly trained in classical languages, literature, and philosophy, he consistently refused to trim God’s message to fit the classical pagan mold. Yet Paul was never a “fundamentalist know-nothing.” We must remember that Paul demonstrated in his writings a thorough knowledge and use of classical culture. He knew classical poets (Acts 17:28), classical playwrights (Acts 26:14), the language (Acts 21:37), classical philosophy (1 Timothy 6:10), and so on. But as a consistent Christian, his intention in all of this was no secret—to bring every thought captive to the risen Christ.

What better time could we find for bringing our children to love and serve Christ than the time we spend teaching them? But because a large part of this work has been done before, it would be foolish to undertake the work “from scratch.” Others have gone before us and already thought through how to accomplish these tasks. Is it not better to learn from almost 2,000 years of Christian civilizations—and learn to avoid copying the mistakes of the pagan civilizations—than to try to reinvent the wheel?

Many of us are therefore attempting to restore a sense of our Western heritage to our children. It should go without saying that we will not entirely succeed. We are seeking to impart an education to our children which very few of us have had (including the writer of this column). This should not discourage us.

After all, Rome wasn’t replaced in a day.

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