Like many other parents and educators, my journey into classical Christian education was accompanied by both a disenchantment and an enchantment. In one sense, my first teaching job was disenchanting; at twenty-two years old I was hired at a large Christian school (not classical) and I saw the cracks. I saw the pitfalls. But I didn’t see viable solutions being offered at any level. I then thought back to my own education and began to wonder who was behind the structure, curriculum, and popular movements in education. This was the first time educational theory mattered to me. I was yet unmarried and didn’t have children. And I had yet to even hear the term “classical Christian education.” At my core, I was simply a Christian man with a growing interest in loving God with my mind. My undergraduate degree was from the School of Architecture in Design at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, so even my interest in literature was new.
At the same time I was hired for my first teaching job, I was invited to join a local book club at my church. The men, in their wisdom and care for the group, named the group “Spirits and Classics.” We would meet, drink wine, and read a classical piece of literature. The book they chose for our first book that fall was Confessions by St. Augustine, indeed a classic by any estimation.
In Confessions Augustine tells us of his time with the cult group known as the Manichees, whose most regarded leader was a man named Faustus. The Manichees were an ancient Christian sect who took tenants of Gnosticism and twisted them with Christian doctrine. Augustine had been learning alongside this group since he was twenty; in the story he retells he was twenty-nine. Here is his account:
“In the nine years or so during which my vagabond mind listened to the Manichees, I waited with intense yearning for the coming of this Faustus. Other Manichees, whom I had happened to meet, were unable to answer my questions which I put. But they promised me that once Faustus had come and had conversation with me, these questions and any yet greater problems I might have would be resolved very easily and clearly…For a long time I had eagerly awaited Faustus. When he came, I was delighted by the fitting language which flowed with facility to clothe his ideas. I was pleased and, as much as many and even more than many, I praised and spoke highly of him. But I was disappointed that in the public assembly of his audience I was not allowed to put a question, and to share with him the perplexing questions disturbing me, by informal conference and by the give and take of argument. When this became possible, I together with my close friends began to engage his attention at a moment when it was not out of place to exchange question and answer in discussion. When I put forward some problems which troubled me, I quickly discovered him to be ignorant of the liberal arts other than grammar and literature; and his knowledge was of a conventional kind…After [Faustus] had clearly showed his lack of training in liberal arts in which I had supposed him to be highly qualified, I began to lose all hope that he would be able to analyse and resolve the difficulties which disturbed me.” – Confessions p. 76-79
Thus ends Augustine’s account. I can still remember reading this moment in Confessions. It was the very week I had my own Faustus moment. I had attended a teacher retreat where the English instructors were to provide their recommendation for next year’s curriculum. I was surprised by how little thought went into the curriculum, and what thought there was didn’t seem to have much merit. Instead of instructors discussing a theory of literature and how we might employ the gift of literature for our children to know the truth, the good, and the beautiful, the discussions, and the presentations by admin, were about market trends, standardized testing, Barnes and Noble’s reading list, and the initiatives being done at the local library. Like Augustine, I found myself in the inner chambers, and I was seeing that what was going on at the top level was hardly respectable. This was my Faustus moment.
I am convinced if a parent or educator is going to move away from the current and corrosive trends in education, they too must have a Faustus moment. What does a Faustus moment look like in education? It is when we see that those leading the charge have very little understanding of educational theory beyond a century ago. It’s when we see that college and career readiness is a dead end. It’s when we see that if education does not become more than test preparation, we will continue to wither the souls and imaginations of our children. At its core, a man’s Faustus moment in education is when he becomes overwhelmingly underwhelmed with the status quo. When that happens, he, like Augustine, has entered what we may call a moment of plausibility. When we see the broken core of modern education, we begin to long for something more. We may not know what more is out there, but we want something else.
Shortly after my Faustus moment, a friend handed me a book on classical Christian education. It was the first time I had heard the term “classical Christian education.” I read the book. I heard its claims. It is one of those moments when you realize you can’t unlearn or ignore something so important.