I started out to write this as one blog, then it got huge, so now its a series.
I recently received a wonderful letter from an old colleague in Christian Classical Education (who I will address as Miss Classically-minded. I still rank her as being one of the finest teachers I have had the honor to teach with. She is dismayed over the confusion and division that seems to be influencing what we do in CCE these days. She is seeking clarity and asked for my opinion. I thought I would wear my heart out on my sleeve (or blog) and see if my comments generate any other thoughts than just those between her and me. Chime in, buckle up, beware the bearing of one’s soul…
I want to establish first a series of questions to make sure I am barking at the right coons.
A. What is meant when we say the words, “Christian Classical Education”?
B. In particular, what is “classical”?
C. What distinguishes “classical” when referring to education, both in philosophy and pedagogy?
D. Thus, what is “education”?
E. What books would be a starting point for further study and why?
I believe if I can succinctly tackle these five questions, I will be near the heart of what I am being asked by Miss Classically-minded. She is more than welcome to add any other pertinent questions, but that is what I got from her letter.
As many there are some schools in America who seem to use regularly some variation of the phrase, “Christian Classical Education” it appears that there is at least a small movement afoot. I will not pretend to know what others mean when they use the term, only what I currently mean. I use the chronological term, “currently” because it has changed from the past. In a partial answer to the last question about books, it should be noted that many who currently use this phrase do so because of at least one book published in the 1980’s by Douglas Wilson, “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.” In that work he has an appendix of Dorothy Sayer’s speech, “The Lost Tools of Learning” that is the basis of his work. Those two texts together have risen up a large contingency of schools based on the model of Wilson’s own school in Moscow, Idaho.
But this is the first point I wish to make: practice follows philosophy, not vice versa. This is especially true in education. You can’t just start teaching in a manner borrowed from another place and let the understanding come along afterwards. Schools do not come in a box or on CD-ROM. They are the fleshing out of philosophy. And that means a school starts in the mind of a local community of people and grows out of their commitment to those ideas. To the extent that they are borrowing ideas, they are probably not doing things wisely, but rather somewhat awkwardly. This is a modern dilemma.
We have swallowed the notion long ago that teaching consists of technique and process. Good teaching is done in a certain way following certain steps and patterns. This is very modern and behavioral, not to mention inhumane. We cannot expect to cultivate souls that love Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by focusing on business models of efficiency and practice. Education is not a business. I just recently read a quote by one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry:
“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not primarily an industry and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means first things first.”
That being said, we must begin somewhere and I think Wilson and Sayers give us much to think about. Here is where I think some of these questions originate: focusing on technique will bring us up short. Education is relational. It is about what is going on between two minds – teacher and student. Therefore we should be focusing on who the teacher is if we care to cultivate a who rather than a what in our students. Simply returning to practices from a bygone day will not solve our educational ills. We need teachers who embody a cultural ideal that has been lost. That is rather difficult, but I think it can be done. If we accept my first premise then, that practice must follow philosophy, not vice versa, then I think we can answer the first question.
With my given premise, I would say that Christian Classical Education is a conserving and handing forward of the inherited Western Christian culture of the past. Because culture is a very powerful and all encompassing force in the formation of our thinking, we have the Herculean duty of reforming our thoughts along the path of inherited culture rather than on the current culture. We must think differently and then we will act differently, and then our student will be unique in their culture. This is much more than simply returning to some actions of the past, like teaching Latin, or using terms such as “Trivium” all the while still acting out the ideals of our current culture rather than rowing against its current.
I hope I am being clear then that CCE is not an idea but several ideas that are associated. That begs the question of what those ideas might be. I will try to be concise:
A. Wisdom is greater than knowledge – students should be able to live out their learning, and have their lives changed by what they learn, not simply pass the paper test.
B. Questions are the vehicle of learning – some questions are better than others and the best questions lead to the best living.
C. If all learning can be delimited in the columns of Content, Concepts, and Habits, then habits trump or complete the other two. A lot of education and instruction focus on Content and thereby fall short of this ideal.
D. While there is a great deal that can be learned, and even would be good to learn, the best education is one that chooses wisely only the very best for its students – CCE is the raising of one’s tastes.