Why Classical Education?
(by Luke Nieuwsma)
If you’ve found this website, you probably want your family to have a Christian education – that is, an education which is based upon the belief that the Bible is God’s Word, the ultimate guide for our lives. You probably believe that any education must stand on the foundation of the gospel – salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. You probably realize how important it is that the next generation – your children – believe the truth and know how to reject the lies of the world. But you might wonder, “Why would I want a classical, Christian education?”
Let me give you an introduction to the world which thousands of Christian fathers and mothers and teachers have found compelling and captivating. Literally thousands of families have embraced this method and philosophy because classical, Christian education teaches children to think clearly and to love beauty and the past. Countless books by Christian educators are flooding publishers and websites because classical, Christian education nurtures children into life-long learners. And above all, many Christians today are diving into the world of classical education because classical, Christian education is the education of our past – of America, of medieval Europe, and of the church of Christ our King.
Learn to Think Clearly
First, have you heard of the liberal arts? Classical, Christian education is centered on a set of arts created by the Greeks and the Romans to build up a child’s mind and his morals. These were expanded during the early Middle ages into seven separate arts: the Trivium (Grammar/Literature, Logic, and Rhetoric), and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy).
These arts are “liberal” or freeing – they are rigorous, but they make a child’s mind powerful and flexible. They became the basis of education for many of the greatest Christians (and pagans) of the past, from the rhetorically trained author of Hebrews to Augustine of Hippo, Anselm, Martin Luther, the Puritans, William Bradford, the Founding Fathers, and C. S. Lewis.
Second, Classical, Christian education today also means learning classical languages, such as Greek and Latin. These languages are often very challenging to modern students because they are inflected – the meaning of the words changes depending on what ending each word has. Latin, in particular, requires each child to think logically as he examines words, identifies the endings, and carefully, systematically decodes the meaning of the sentence.
But classical languages will also strengthen your family’s knowledge of grammar and English vocabulary, since large amounts of English come directly from Latin and Greek derivatives. Classical education helps each child learn not just to think clearly, but to do so in his own language as well. And it also prepares children to learn other related languages, such as French or Spanish.
This last bit will take a bit to explain. Modern classical education helps children to learn in the ways which fit with how the human mind develops. If you’ve researched classical education very much, the name “Dorothy Sayers” has surely come up. Sayers was a brilliant 20th-century British thinker who realized that children generally develop in three different stages.
The first stage she called the poll-parrot stage (roughly kindergarten till 6th grade), where children eagerly learn basic facts, very basic ideas; they love repetition, to learn rhymes and jingles and chants and songs. The second stage is called the pert-stage (roughly junior high), a time when children have really begun to question and challenge and logically debate what they hear; they love to learn through spirited discussion. The third stage is named the poetic stage (roughly high school), a stage at which students naturally desire to think (and act) more independently, to express themselves, to write and compose (often literally in poetry!).
Dorothy Sayers re-applied the ideas of the Trivium to these three stages. The poll-parrot stage she termed the Grammar Stage, where teachers and parents can teach children to memorize great heaps of rich knowledge through chants and songs and sound-offs. The pert stage she renamed the Logic Stage, where we can teach those eager, questioning minds to respectfully debate by learning and applying the art of formal logic (not usually taught in our secular world until college) – learning how to make connections and see fallacious reasoning. And the third stage, the poetic stage, she saw as the perfect opportunity to teach students how to present the basic knowledge they had learned and the connections they had made in a beautiful and winsome way through learning the long-practiced art of rhetoric – persuasive speech.
Not all classical educators today accept Mrs. Sayers’ ideas, but I’ve seen them work fantastically both as a graduate of Logos School, and as a teacher at a classical, Christian school. Her approach is, yes, an innovation, but a brilliant one. It allows you to take full advantage of how children develop and when.
II. Learn to Love Beauty and the Past
Have you ever looked around you at the buildings on a modern university or in a big city only to see boxy ugliness everywhere you turned? The downward spiral of modern architecture seems to fit exactly with what happened in education. Partway through the 1800’s, a number of humanist, rather anti-Christian educators tried to turn America’s education away from the past and into a massive, modern experiment through the public school systems. New methods, new curriculum, and (eventually) the new religion of secularism.
In doing so, these men (such as Horace Mann and John Dewey) prepared America to accept a revolutionary, new way of thinking about education itself: that education was really just job training. This idea really came from the communist Karl Marx, but it has became so engrained in the thinking of Americans that today hardly anyone questions the idea. Education is to make us into mental tractors so our minds can pull things and earn money. Go to school to get a job, right?
Is that really the sole purpose of education? What an ugly, plain idea! The revival of classical, Christian education in the past forty years has helped many Christians realize that historically, education had an entirely different purpose – to make you into a better person. And to believers who remember Paul’s exhortation to think on what is noble, true, and lovely, classical, Christian education comes as a breath of fresh air compared to the modern and postmodern system of thinking.
When we turn to the past four thousand years of history, we find Greek philosophy seeking after the brightest wisdom and keenly analyzing human nature. We see tall, clean marble columns holding up Rome’s honor. We find heart-tearing but glorious tales of martyrs dying for Christ. We find monks studiously sitting in lofty monasteries, copying stories upon stories of valiant men fighting for the honor of a lord or a fair lady. We find grand poems practically leaking silver phrases about the days of chivalry and bold defiance of the Muslim foe. We find fearless lords charging to last stands to fight off dragons and demons. We find scrolls of Greek telling of the growing beauty of Christian theology as God sheltered His church from heresy after heresy. In front of us stand tall castles built to last for generations, and behind them stretch the breathtaking palaces of God, the cathedrals of Europe, with chorales by Bach floating through the doors.
What am I saying? Simply this: a classical, Christian education will teach Christian children and families to cherish beauty and to see how much of God’s story on earth has already been filled with glimmering jewels. When this sort of education is done faithfully and integrated with Scripture, young Christians will grow up with standards – there are such things as loveliness and nobility, and no beholder, no matter how beautiful his eye might be, can deny them. A robust classical, Christian education can plant in each child’s heart a bursting desire to turn his life into a garden plowed with diligence and heavy with fruit. And he will gladly go back to the past, to our past, to learn more.
III. Learn to Learn
So let us suppose that you decide to give this classical, Christian approach a try for several years. You purchase some Latin materials, some history videos, and some logic or poetry courses, and you put them to good use in your home or classroom. What you will find, whether you tackle the historic liberal-arts approach or Dorothy Sayers’ Trivium, is that your children learn how to learn.
They will learn how to pick up new subjects. They will learn how to spot patterns and principles, how to solve problems and tie in new ideas. They will realize that their young minds can grasp basic facts, draw connections, and explain the whole matter in a clear and compelling way. After learning to read good (and challenging) books, they’ll be able to read better and harder ones. After mastering how to identify Latin and English parts of speech, they’ll be able to tackle Spanish and French and Greek and Hebew. After grasping logic, geometrical proofs will come much easier! After absorbing the great literature, history, and theology of the past, they’ll naturally develop a strong writing voice themselves. After building a strong memory in the younger years, biology and astronomy will seem really much more manageable.
Classical, Christian education, in short, is like weight-lifting for the mind. The more you do of it, the more you can learn! And the more that you are taught to cherish knowledge, the more you will want to gain. A disciplined and thorough classical education will produce children who are ready, as young adults, to truly begin their real education – the rest of their lives.
IV. The Education of Our Past
As I’ve already been hinting for some time, the liberal arts, combined with the classical, were the education of the Christian past up to the founding of America. If you read through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers which debated over the content of the Constitution, you’ll probably be surprised (as I was) at how very difficult they are to understand! And yet they were written to the common man – to the farmer – of the 1780’s. And what is more, at the bottom of many of the papers is a Roman name – the name of some famous Roman statesman whom everyone knew about back then, but whom we have to look up on Wikipedia today.
Go back a little further to 1776. If you glance back at the debates between the Sons of Liberty and the British loyalists in the colonies, you’ll find a pamphlet written against the Revolution by Charles Inglis. On the front page are a couple helpful quotes of Roman authors Tacitus and Terrence, but unlike today, only in the original language – no helpful translation!
Go back to 1620 and acquaint yourself with William Bradford. On top of being a faithful servant of God and governor of Plymouth Plantation (and historian to boot), Bradford knew four or five different languages and was teaching himself Hebrew in his old age! And his Puritan colleagues were so well-versed with classical literature that they could recognize regular allusions to the classics, allusions which today require lengthy footnotes.
A century before that, the monk Martin Luther helped to turn the world of Europe upside-down – a man well versed in Scripture and the church fathers and in Greek philosophy. He stands besides men like John Calvin, who constantly referred back to the church fathers to show the faults of Roman Catholicism – a long list of Christian theologians whom we faintly recognize, if at all.
Eight hundred years before the Reformation, the gospel flooded across England, as you can read about in the writings of the venerable Bede. He mentions how learned Christian men came over versed in grammar, logic, rhetoric, and Greek. And shortly after Bede, Charlemagne in France nurtured the Carolingian Renaissance into a full, rich life of learning – centered around the Trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric!
Even in the first three hundred years of Christianity, you can find the first church historian Eusebius recording how different godly men learned both Christian and classical literature and mastered the liberal arts as a part of their education as believers and teachers. And just flip through Hebrews for a moment and note how many figures of speech and long, flowing sentences and rhetorical questions cover chapter after chapter of flowing words – writing which would have made Cicero or Augustine both quite proud and impressed. Whoever wrote Hebrews mastered the classical art of rhetoric. And that’s not even to mention Paul’s quotation of Greek tragedies and prophets.
Classical, Christian education in the liberal arts and culture has been the lasting educational tradition of the Christian, Western past. Godly believers built upon what the Greeks and Romans mastered by common grace, and the gold which they plundered for the past 2000 years led to Shakespeare and the piano and Descartes and Paschal and the orchestra and the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution and the fact that you can read Plutarch on your iPhone, and everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote or thought. It’s hard to believe in our modern era of progress – where man has evolved to the point that he thinks he came from a mud puddle, and that everyone can believe his own truth no matter what, and that worms crawling through paint make great art. But it’s still true – the gold which was plundered from the Greeks and Romans is still as golden as ever. Why not lead your family or your school to start digging up the treasure boxes and continue building a city, the city, the City of God?
Luke Nieuwsma is a graduate of Logos School and New Saint Andrews College. He currently teaches at Prayer Rock Academy, a classical and Christian school in southern Oregon, where he lives with his dear wife, Lizzie, and their two bouncing children, Beowulf and Monica. SDG
Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical History.
Cicero. The Rhetoric and Poetics.
Littlejohn and Evans. Wisdom and Eloquence.
Dorothy Sayers. The Lost Tools of Learning.
R.J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education
Douglas Wilson. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.
_____________, ed. Repairing the Ruins.
_____________, and Ty Fischer. Omnibus I-III