talk given at the 2016 Louisiana Classical Christian Education Conference in Pineville, Louisiana
We have taken on an impossible task. We have taken on a task that is far greater than we would have chosen for ourselves, and if we had known the kind of work required of us, the kind of change required in us, the kind of perseverance required from us, we perhaps would have never stepped into this role.
No, we have not set out to build another great Romanesque cathedral. That would be far too easy. With modern technology we can do that within a few short months. No, we have not been given the task of building a city. That too can be precisely erected by a Hollywood film crew working minimum wage on a low-budget film. And no, we have not decided to topple a nation. This can happen by the push of a small, red button somewhere in Washington D.C.
When we become parents and educators, we set our hands to a task for above any of us, a calling far beyond the reach of our ears and hearts. For the most educated among us, for the most charismatic among us, for the most strategic and hardworking among us, for the richest among us and the smartest among us, this task is all the same: it is impossible. When we become parents and educators we are given another human. Consider that for a moment.
If we didn’t believe in a God who gives children to us as gifts, we may believe children are given to us by an impersonal universe as some cruel and horrible joke, some test to see how little sleep, how little patience, and how little money it takes for an adult to stay sane. But children are not a jest. Placed within our care is another soul, another body, another heart and set of desires, another will. Placed within our home is the greatest creature this world has ever held. Given to us to form, nurture, teach, and guide is someone who will someday be someone else’s mother or someone else’s father. They will be someone’s husband or wife. They are someone made in the very image of the Triune God, the very God who fashioned you and me from our mothers’ wombs. This task of parenting is higher than any of us deserve; it is greater than any of us can rightly handle. And that should lead us to constantly ask one very important question: “What kind of men and women are we forming in our homes?” To answer this, we must ask “What kind of men and women are we?”
I’m afraid we live in a time and culture which loves too much the things we ought not to love. Or at least we love too much the things we ought to love a little. This is hard to overcome. It is swimming inside us and around us. It bombards us on the radio, at television commercials, on a billboard, and even in many of our churches. And now as classical Christian educators we are trying to do something diametrically opposed to the rhythms, values, and current of the world. We are trying to impart an education which fights against what feels so central to our core as Americans and even as people.
It has been said that classical Christian education is the kind of thing we are using to form our children, yet it is the very thing most of us did not receive. If you are anything like me, your imagination was set by the popular television shows of the 90s. You watched too much Full House and read too few great epics. Your musical taste was grounded in radio wonders like Hanson, Boyz 2 Men, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, and cds like Jock Jams. If you are anything like me, sports were made too much of and education was simply an opportunity to better ourselves. For the first twenty-one years of my life I was formed in large part by things that were neither Christian nor classical, and now as a father, headmaster, and teacher I am trying to pass on the very thing I didn’t receive until much later in my academic career.
And this brings us back to that very important question: “What kind of men and women are we? What kind of men and women are we becoming?” I said earlier I was afraid our culture has gone off the deep end. It has. And our academic institutions have in large part gone with us. It likewise saddens me to say that the very work needed to raise a child and have true education reform, the work you and I should be daily doing, is the kind of work we most often times neglect. In other words, our culture has gone off the deep end because we have led us there, and I ask whether our academic institutions, churches, and parents are doing what God has called us to do in order that we may be where God most desires us to be.
Whether you are a parent, educator, college president, grandparent, or student, we have some hard questions to ask: What is forming you? Who do you believe? Who are your teachers? Where do you get your ideas? All these can be condensed down into one main question that will drive our time today: What are you reading? If are not reading anything, there lies our first problem. If you are reading, then what are you reading? Whose ideas are you obeying? God has given us great gifts to fulfill this very impossible task of raising children and reforming education. One of those great gifts is literature, particularly the great voices which have said much about a proper philosophy of education. Nearly every college or university in this nation has a Department of Education, and certainly a corresponding degree which confers on its recipients the honor of being called a teacher, administrator, master of education, or simply just educator. But have we introduced our future teachers and administrators to the best voices on educational philosophy? If you are a homeschool mom or dad, have you read the best voices on educational philosophy? This is bigger than the right curricula or the right lesson plans. This is about having the right paradigm by which we see and define education.
So, this talk is entitled “The Great Conversation: Top Voices to Help You Know and Love Classical Christian Education.” And while I plan on covering some philosophical ground, my main goal is to ensure you walk out of here with some practical points. My goal is that you come to not only know classical Christian education, but know and love it. And I’d be amiss if I thought I could do either in a sixty-minute breakout session in Pineville, Louisiana. Therefore, when you leave here you will have a lifetime of homework.
Today I’ll break my talk into one principle and three commands:
The principle I’ll begin with is “You teach what you think.”
The three commands will be “Read among the dead. Read among the living. Eat lots of Chesterton.”
So, let’s begin with the principle. You teach what you think. What do you think about education? If we want to offer our posterity a classical and Christian education, then we must think classically and Christianly about education. More than that, those thoughts must become habits of our affections. Those classical and Christian ideas we have about education should have incarnational consequences. We cannot avoid the principle: each of us will teach what we think.
One way to know what you think about education is to consider how you were educated. You think in the patterns of how you were educated. For most of us in here, we were educated traditionally, at a 40-hour per week public school. Therefore, our categories are those given to us, and it’s hard to think outside of them.
Another way to know what you think about education is to consider how you plan to educate your children. How do you plan to educate your child? How are you currently educating your child? How would you encourage your children to educate their children?
A third way to know what you think about education is to consider how you would answer certain questions. Try these on for size:
What is man? What is the chief end of man? Who is God? What is the good life? What is happiness? What are truth, goodness, and beauty? What are liberty, equality, and justice? How should we measure student success in school? How should we view Western tradition? What subjects do our students most need? How integrated is religion with education? Is there right and wrong? How is knowledge best acquired? Why should students learn? How are curriculum choices made? What is a successful teacher? Whose responsibility is education?
Now, I know what you might be thinking. “Hey, those questions weren’t about education at all. They were….they were…they were about philosophy or ethics or religion.” And to that I would say “precisely.” Education is one of those terms that is comprehensive, and we cannot know our own ideas about education until we know our own ideas about things that comprise education: man, the divine, philosophy, happiness, ethics, tradition, etc.
Once you spend some good contemplative time considering your philosophy of education, the ideas you hold concerning education, we must then ask, assuming those ideas ought to be changed to some degree or another, and for each of us they should, “how can you think differently about education?”
If in our introspection we find we think wrongly about anything, what are we to do? When it comes to anything, the first step is to repent of our wrong belief and to work toward those habits of mind and habits of life that would allow us to think and live rightly. When it comes to a philosophy of education, there are a few ways to move beyond our current categories, to move into a healthier philosophical and practical frame regarding education.
First, get a good education. For many of us, we have reached a critical place in our lives where we cannot go out and get a classical Christian education. We cannot re-enroll in college or move to another city to be a part of a growing and thriving classical and Christian community. So, we must be faithful to start those where we are and do what we can to mature that community where God has us. For all of us it will be generational work.
Second, read and listen to good ideas on education. Use modern technology as a tool for an informal education on a good philosophy of education. Immerse yourself in good ideas.
Third, discuss theories and practices of education. Once you’ve got some good ideas swirling around, take an opportunity to discuss those with others, whether or not your conversation partner is like-minded. Pursue dialogue among your friends and family members so that those ideas may be sharpened, challenged, and ultimately matured.
If we teach what we think, then the best way to education reform is by what the Apostle Paul calls “a renewing of the mind.” This leads us to our three commands, the three points of application: “Read among the dead. Read among the living. Eat lots of Chesterton.” Repeat.
First, read among the dead. When I interview prospective parents for our academy in Baton Rouge and I begin explaining what a classical school is, I always want them to know we value old dead people. Now, this is not some kind of weird necromancy. You will not find our students lighting incense and summoning the dead to our Ouija board. Reading among the dead is merely doing what tradition always does: it goes forward only by turning back. Our culture teaches the opposite. The modern sentiment says progress is turning our backs on the past. Today we teach that generational freedom is generational autonomy. Grandpa can’t operate an iPhone, and therefore grandpa’s ability to relate to our children and teach them is somehow disavowed. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This is chronological snobbery, and if we read well enough among the dead then we would eventually study logic, and we would know this is chronological snobbery, and we perhaps would avoid it.
Reading among the dead in order to mature our educational philosophy means reading the best educational treatises in six time periods: the ancient world, the medieval world, the renaissance world, the baroque world, the modern world, and the recent world. It means tapping into a time not our own so that our blinders and philosophical prejudices, which we all have, may be seen aright and stripped from our eyes. It is jarring to not only read some of the language from those who have gone before us, but it is especially jarring to read some of their ideas.
Because John Milton was writing in a time and place not our own, he was able to say, “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war. And how all this may be done between twelve and one and twenty is to be thus ordered…” (p. 324-325 of education)
Because St. Theophan the Recluse was writing in a time and place not our own, he was able to say, “How good it is to subject oneself in this regard to a strict an even a most strict discipline, and to be, during the whole time of one’s youth, under the guidance of others. Those youths who are not allowed to arrange their own conduct until they read the age of manhood, one can call happy.” (p. 73 STtR)
Because T.S. Eliot was writing in a time and place not our own, he was able to say, “…it is the tritest commonplace that a knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Bunyan (I might add the Book of Common Prayer) could teach a man of genius, or a man of first-rate ability short of genius, all that he needs in order to write English well.” (T.S. Eliot, The Classics and the Man of Letters, page 9)
When we read among the dead, we are brought into a world that is both familiar and strange. The nostalgia ought to further convict us of our common humanity, the universals and transcendentals which God has given to us. The strangeness of reading among the dead ought to be jarring, poking and prodding us to examine our unexamined beliefs and practices.
The second point of application is to read among the living. Notice and consider the common trends in a present-day educational philosophy. Why is Common Core all the craze? Why are we enthralled with buzz words like “college and career readiness” or “student centered education” or “technology” or “research” or “progress” or “equality” or “STEM and magnet schools”? When with our eyes open we read among the living, we see patterns. We may even see those patterns in ourselves. And when we read wide enough, we see how those patterns are being answered and what we as parents and educators should be making of those patterns. To read among the living and the dead gives us both a window upstream and a window into our present slow-rolling pool.
The third point of application is one which perhaps summarizes the first two: read lots of Chesterton. G.K. Chesterton is the greatest author the majority of us have never known. In both quantity of work and breadth of writing, by far he is the most prolific writer in Western history. And if we are to have a place where the living and the dead must meet, it is in Chesterton. When it comes to a philosophy of education, Chesterton is an ever-springing well, because, as I said earlier, he is an ever-springing well of ideas concerning philosophy, religion, ethics, happiness, man, the divine, etc., all things which comprise one’s philosophy of education. If we likewise want to see the dead interact with the living—that is, if we want to see the ideas of old stare squarely into the face of the new—we must read Chesterton. Dale Ahlquist is fond of saying that G.K. Chesterton is an education in himself, and he is quite right. Chesterton is not only an education in himself, he is a philosophy of education in himself.
I have sought here to convince you that education reform in our homes, in our grade schools, in our colleges, in our churches, and in our own minds requires us to become the right people, and to do that we must be formed by the right ideas. Being formed by the right ideas means one simple thing: reading great educational treatises from the living and the dead. The way to educational reform is not through practical wisdom, because practical wisdom fixes nothing, and if we need anything in Louisiana it is a clearheaded path forward in fixing what is so badly wrong with education, including the lack of participation and leadership from our churches and from Christian leaders. I recently read an article citing a recent study done by a personal finance website called WalletHub. I’m sure some of you saw this same study. Based on 17 key metrics, WalletHub compared the quality of education in all fifty states. What was the result? Louisiana came out last. Therefore, to have true education reform in Louisiana, we must as parents and educators be great readers. In becoming great readers we ought to become great thinkers. As Chesterton says, “There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.” (page 19 in What’s Wrong with the World)