“Fare Forward”: The Influence of Christian Humanism on the Classical Christian Education Movement (Part 1 of 4)

Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

I. Introduction

The world of dystopian literature has a peculiar interest in a world without books. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 both envision a world where literature has been censored, suppressed, or even publicly burned. Each author imagines how man may act in such a world: Huxley’s character John “the Savage” regularly revisits and quotes from the complete works of Shakespeare, the only text he had access to on the Reservation where he was raised, and Bradbury’s lead, former book burner Guy Montag, encounters a group of vigilantes whose wild rebellion is the act of memorizing large swaths of literature in an attempt to preserve and pass it on to future generations. Both authors imagine a future where great literature, from the classics and Holy Scripture to Shakespeare, has been expunged from history due to its dangerous qualities.

But what if their vision of the future was wrong? In reality, literacy rates and access to literature have reached unprecedented levels. And yet, the apathy that accompanies the overwhelming volume of literature now readily available for free needs some response. What and how should man read, and to what end? He needs a guide, a teacher for his literary wanderings. Even more, he needs a tradition.

In this essay, I contend that humanism is the tradition designed to best equip man to live a life of piety, wisdom, and eloquence. I will initially outline how the doctrine of humanism is essential to understand man’s relationship with God, and then demonstrate how true humanism must therefore be Christian in nature. I will explore the influence that Renaissance humanism has had on the revitalization of the classical Christian Education (CCE) movement in the United States since the 1980s. Finally, I contend that an explicit return to the methods and texts of Renaissance humanism will place those in the CCE movement in the best position to maintain the tradition in the age to come.

The essay is divided into four parts. The first section will consider several definitions of humanism and settle on the definition that will best illuminate the contemporary conversation around CCE. I will also contrast humanism with classical education and the medieval conception of the liberal arts to demonstrate how contemporary CCE is in the tradition of Christian humanism. The second portion deals with a brief foray into St. Augustine of Hippo’s Christian apology for the study of pagan texts in De Doctrina Christiana. As a student of the liberal arts and a talented teacher of rhetoric, Augustine was equipped by his studies to grapple with man’s desire to know the Word himself, Jesus Christ. His apology and conversion narrative lay the foundation for Renaissance humanists’ return to the original Greek and Roman sources in a text-based education, or studia humanitatis. Aptly, Augustine is a favored source of contemporary apologists for classical Christian education. The third section of the essay will consider the proposals of two Renaissance humanists, Leonardo Bruni and Pier Paolo Vergerio, as they advocate a program of study best befitting pupils on the path to wisdom and virtue. This section will also demonstrate the ways humanism may be perverted when divorced from its proper ends: the knowledge and love of God. I will show an alternative path that humanism may take, that outlined in Irving Babbitt’s New Humanism, which took the institutional applications of humanism in a different direction at the turn of the century. Then, I will analyze the responses of T.S. Eliot to Babbitt’s proposals and outline his ideal program of study, which serves as a corrective to the relativism in Babbitt’s thought. Afterward, C.S. Lewis, not only a contemporary of Eliot’s and educational theorist in his own right, but a staple in the classical Christian education movement, will have his say on the role of humanism in the academy. From that point I will engage an interlocutor, Alan Jacobs, whose book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis traces the work of five thinkers as they wrote books, poetry, and lectures that imagined a humanist philosophy of education in the aftermath of the great loss and social upheaval brought about by WWII. In conclusion, I will advance the bold proposal that the classical Christian education movement in the United States that began in the 1980s is not just a fragmented return to the study of classical texts of antiquity or a medieval understanding of the Trivium and Quadrivium, but a hearkening back to the methods and texts of Renaissance humanists. Their treatises on education advance the idea that textual permanence—“what has been skilfully entrusted to books endures forever”[1]—is not only central to man’s conception of himself, but essential to his knowledge of divine revelation. If leaders, educators, administrators and parents in the CCE movement recognize the connection to the tradition of Christian humanism, they can fortify the project against the threats of relativism and secularism that are inevitably to be found in the New Humanist projects of Classical charter schools. By maintaining the tenets of Christian humanism, they offer a truer form of classical education that, in light of Christ, “will not return void.”[2]

A. What is Humanism?

Humanism of late has achieved something of a bad name. Adorned with many different modifiers, employed by secularists and religious alike, it seems quite a task to identify the origins and ends of humanism. The ever-shifting priorities of the contemporary educational scene bring the issue of pedagogy and curriculum to the fore once again. Increasingly, the response to the question at the heart of education—“Who is man, and what is he for?”— seems to find its answer in a dangerous breed of progressive humanism: man exists to glorify himself and his own desires. The full flourishing of this ideal can be found in the educational theories of the mid-20th century, wherein figures like Carl Rogers and John Dewey emphasize individual experience over textual traditions. Still, in spite of this emphasis, students and teachers in the 21st century struggle to make sense of human history and to find peace. Perhaps this is because the question at the heart of education—“Who is man, and what is he for?”—can find its most robust response not by looking inward, but in the doctrine of Christian humanism, which unites personhood and pedagogy in purpose.

In order to offer a defense of the Renaissance humanists’ influence on CCE, I must explore several definitions of humanism. As Angus Ritchie and Nick Spencer are keen to point out, Humanism’s prehistory can be traced to the classical world, where the Latin term humanitas meant civilized, not barbarian, human nature.[3] Because God gave man speech and distinguished him from animals—fine speech, or eloquence—humanitas came to be defined by Cicero as the “virtues of an educated and cultivated existence.”[4] Renaissance humanists were not only interested in cultural fixations with “charismatic versus intellectual culture,”[5] but with the role that texts play in helping man understand his relationship to God. As the editors of A Companion to Medieval Christian Humanism assert, “the mystery of the incarnation, that God assumed a human nature in Jesus Christ in order to accomplish the salvation of humankind,”[6] is integral to understanding not just what a human being is, but what moral and educational ideals are involved in shaping the human person and helping the person realize what he is for. Christian humanism cannot only be concerned with human anthropology, but must engage with the classical philosophical and literary tradition as the great thinkers of this tradition reflect upon the mystery of human existence in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ.[7] Why texts? God created man in his image and bestowed upon him speech and reason, and Christ is “the Word made flesh” revealed once for all mankind. Texts are the mode by which we come to know the divine revelation.

The proponents of humanism, however, do not commend all classical texts equally. Though Renaissance Humanists such as Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni, Pier Paolo Vergerio, and Battista Guarino traced the seed of their thought back to the works of Cicero, their task was to refine the broad program of study originally categorized as the studia humanitatis. In Pro Archia, an oration for his Greek mentor, Archias, Cicero celebrates the “moral lessons he drew from wide reading, of the incentives to noble actions he received from history and philosophy, and of the good effect the authors of Greece and Rome had on his mind and understanding.”[8] Benjamin Kohl, in “The Changing Concept of the ‘Studia Humanitatis’ in the Early Renaissance,” notes that while “schooling, noble action, and high culture are linked in Cicero’s speech […] no definite curricular programme is envisioned or given in any detail.”[9] The Renaissance Humanists had their work cut out for them. Relying on the ideal provided by Cicero, they developed a program of study in Greek and Latin texts: “grammar, poetry, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy with the belief that these subjects made men more human.”[10] Interestingly, the letters and orations of Cicero himself featured heavily in the recommendations: he “became the orator in the new curriculum of orators, poets, and historians.”[11] For the Renaissance humanists, the reading of a core set of classical texts—grammar, poetry, history, rhetoric and moral philosophy—in their original languages provided man with a deep well from which he could imbibe over the course of his lifetime.

The second portion of this essay will detail that program of study as proposed by two key Renaissance Humanists in their educational treatises. Their refinement of Cicero’s broadly categorized program of study, studia humanitatis, serves as a model for how classical Christian educators also sought to return to the study of Greek and Latin texts. The final portion of this essay will consider how classical Christian schools emphasize, if sometimes imperfectly, the same classical texts of “grammar, poetry, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy” in the curriculum they developed for students in the 21st century.

B. How is Humanism distinct?

Before proceeding further, it may be helpful to pause and clarify terms that are often used glibly, even interchangeably in the world of classical Christian Education. Such terms are: classics, the humanities, the liberal arts, and classical education. “Classics” simply refers to the branch of knowledge concerned with the languages and literature of Greek and Roman antiquity. “Classical education,” therefore, implies a certain curricular primacy given to the classics. Considering the influence that Cicero had on the Renaissance Humanists, Eric Adler in Chapter 2 of The Battle of the Classics clarifies the connection between the classical conception of the studia humanitatis, humanities, and artes liberales, liberal arts:

These phrases signified for Cicero a new educational idea—one rooted in the earlier history of Greek pedagogy and scholarship, but reformulated and recontextualized to fit the nature of Roman aristocratic culture. For Cicero, the studia humanitatis and artes liberals describe a lifelong educational program encompassing a variety of studies appropriate for a freeborn person. Such a program, Cicero argued, can serve to instill the crucial quality of humanitas in human beings.[12]

Essentially, Cicero believed that studia humanitatis and artes liberales were the program of study best suited for a freeborn man. The seven liberal arts, composed of the Trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music) are what Hugh of St. Victor deems in Didascalicon to “excel all the rest in usefulness that anyone who had been thoroughly schooled in them might afterward come to knowledge of the others by his own inquiry and effort rather than by listening to a teacher.”[13] Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain in The Liberal Arts Tradition provide further clarity: “the liberal arts then include all forms of human activity which are an end in themselves.”[14] Liberal arts cannot, therefore, simply be the tools by which a student acquires knowledge, nor hard content that one can memorize, but a production of his knowledge, how he is equipped to overcome his own ignorance over the course of his lifetime.[15] It is common to hear people in classical education circles quip that “classical education teaches one not what to think but how.” The ease of this phrasing may be tempting, but it is incomplete. To study the liberal arts is to encounter both method and content, the structure of a well-written speech and the notes of a gorgeous aria. Cicero did not find the liberal arts and the humanities to be at odds with one another. With that in mind, Renaissance humanists commended the studia humanitatis, a program of study that emphasized classical texts, as a corrective to the rigid medieval view of the liberal arts. They believed such study provided man with exemplars in his lifelong pursuit of eloquence, wisdom, and virtue.[16]


  1. Pier Paolo Vergerio, “The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth, Dedicated to Ubertino Da Carrrara,” Humanist Educational Treatises. trans. Craig Kallendorf. The Il Tatti Renaissance Library, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002, 45.
  2. Isaiah 55:11.
  3. Agnus Ritchie and Nick Spencer, The Case for Christian Humanism, London: Theos, 2014, 15.
  4. Ibid.
  5. C. Stephen Jaeger, The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, 5.
  6. A Companion to Medieval Christian Humanism: Essays on Principal Thinkers, ed. John P. Bequette. 2016, 1.
  7. Ibid., 1‒2.
  8. Benjamin G. Kohl, “The Changing Concept of the ‘Studia Humanitatis’ in the Early Renaissance.” Renaissance Studies 6, no. 2 (1992): 187.
  9. Ibid.
  10. David Robey, “Studia humanitatis,” in The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  11. Paul F. Grendler, Schooling In Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300-1600, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 122.
  12. Eric Adler, The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, 37.
  13. Hugh of Saint-Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, 86.
  14. Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019, 282. Later they go on to cite Aristotle: “Aristotle used episteme to mean ‘a demonstrable knowledge of causes.’ There are two key words in that phrase: ‘ demonstrable,’ which means ‘to be demonstrated as true,’ and ‘causes,’ which refers to invisible relationship behind the appearances we see. The liberal arts were used to demonstrate something as true.”
  15. I am grounding this in Dr. Chris Schlect’s definition of the liberal arts: “a liberal art is a productive of knowledge—of how and what to know,” History of Classical Christian Education, New Saint Andrews College, December 2020.
  16. In his introduction to The Liberal Arts Tradition, Christopher Perrin notes that the liberal arts, “while humanizing ‘goods’ in themselves nonetheless prepares students for the formal study of philosophy and theology,” 20.


Sarah Collister

Sarah Collister is a writer, teacher, and Anglican who lives in Cambridge with her beloved husband, Clinton.

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