IV. Classical Christian Education in the 21st century: A Radical Return to Christian Humanism
Not long after Irving Babbitt’s death, the cataclysmic cultural shifts following two world wars encouraged influential writers and thinkers to take up, once again, the torch of humanism as a means to reform higher education. English writers like Eliot, Lewis and Auden, as well as French philosophers Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil, each began to imagine a philosophy of education in the wake of World War II. Surveying this diverse gathering of authors in his book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, Alan Jacobs points to Christian humanism as the uniting element of their individual projects. Why Christian humanism? Jacobs believes that the study of humane letters, of the Trivium, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, has the potential to fortify students against the destructive societal effects of secularism and nihilism. In Chapter 2, Jacobs even employs the term studia humanitatis to characterize the post-WWII humanist project. He cites the work of Paul Oskar Kristeller, a scholar of Renaissance Humanism:
The studia humanitatis therefore were ‘concerned neither with the classics [as such] nor with philosophy [as such]; their focus ‘might roughly be described as literature. It was this peculiar literary preoccupation that the very intensive and extensive study of literature which the humanists devoted to the Greek and especially Latin classics owed its peculiar character, which differentiates it from that of modern classical scholars since the second half of the eighteenth century.’
Jacobs asserts that the “peculiar” character of the Renaissance Humanists’ legacy directly influenced Eliot, Lewis, Maritain, Auden, and Weil: “the humanistas were doing something unprecedented in keying the search for wisdom—including specifically Christian wisdom—to the study of literature.” It is no coincidence that Eliot, Lewis, Auden, and even Dorothy Sayers were also poets, playwrights, and novelists. Their literary legacies speak to the theologically transformative power of literature as it reflects Christ’s incarnation back to us.
And yet by the end of Jacobs’ book, he claims that these writers’ prescriptions did not bear fruit. While they advocated a humane study of literature that sought to “redeem the time,” he alleges that their programs were never implemented, and perhaps never could have been, for they came a century too late, “after the reign of technocracy had become so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” By his calculations, Christian humanists failed to regain the institutions, and so secularism and technocracy took their twin thrones to reign in the new millennium. And yet, the influence of their educational treatises—specifically Eliot’s “Modern Education and the Classics,” Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, and Jacques Maritain’s The Education of Man—on contemporary conversations in classical Christian education circles cannot go unacknowledged for any longer.
While I may concede Alan Jacobs his conclusion, that the Christian humanists of the post-WWII era did not regain the institutions of higher learning in the United States, I am not content with the idea that Renaissance humanism has been lost forever. The work of the 20th-century Christian humanists created a bridge to Renaissance humanism for those in the classical Christian educational movement (which gained significant momentum in the 1980s) who were interested in offering a truly humane program of study. When parents, church leaders, and educators confronted the degenerating virtue in established educational institutions, they not only set out to offer their children access to the best that had been thought and said, but to form a new network of institutions all united in purpose: educating children in wisdom and virtue through the study of humane literature, the reading of classical and medieval texts in light of Christian truth. As Eric Adler indicated in his chapter “From the Studia Humanitatis to the Modern Humanities,” they revived the studia humanitatis with a particular, deeply Christian end in mind. This section of this essay will explore how this program of study was taken up once again, how it has evolved over three decades, and how it may maintain its Christian humanist roots in the age to come.
From 1980-1999, sixty-six distinctly classical Christian schools were founded across the United States, from Annapolis to Tampa, Fort Worth to Kansas City, all the way up to Seattle and a little town called Moscow, Idaho. What spurred this renewed interest in old books and old languages, in the studia humanitatis and the Trivium? Who were the driving voices behind this movement? What did this diverse group of parents, teachers, administrators, businessmen, and pastors read as they acquainted themselves with the tradition of the liberal arts? And what was the link between their project and the educational theories of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis?
In May 2021, I began to conduct interviews with parents, teachers, and school founders to try to illuminate the connections between past programs of study and their present applications or iterations. After three years as an English teacher at Bloomfield Christian School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and three years as a student at New Saint Andrews College, I had started to have a “hunch” about the ways in which parents and educators fell in love with classical Christian education (CCE). Prior to the interviews, I asked a series of questions about their educational training, what courses and age groups they had taught, how they had first discovered classical Christian education, and what books had proved formative in teaching them about the tradition.
The teachers I interviewed ranged in age, teaching experience, and fluency with Classical Christian education. An experienced kindergarten teacher named Mrs. Wierenga had only been at a newly planted classical Christian school for two and a half years; Mrs. Meadowcroft had taught Integrated Humanities for twenty-two years. In response to the question “Did you consider yourself to be classically educated as a child and/or adolescent?” 67% answered a resounding “no.” Because my interviewees were all over the age of 25, I suspected this might be the case. Where would they have received a classical education? And if they had, would they have been aware of that fact? Two interviewees reported their parents or school utilized a “mixture” of classical methods in Elementary and High School; another said he attended the Interdisciplinary Core program at Baylor University, which could be described as “loosely classical.” In response to the question about teacher training and experience with CCE prior to entering the classroom, 56% of respondents claimed to have been self-taught. The phrase that people consistently returned to was: “I read my way into this tradition.” Could this tradition of teaching oneself via the classical texts be a return to the tradition of Renaissance humanism?
When I probed further into exactly what texts were feeding the teachers of this tradition, I was surprised to discover an evangelistic streak when it came to sharing resources. Many teachers mentioned that they had first encountered Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson at church or a homeschool co-operative, or had been given Wisdom and Eloquence by Charles Evans and Robert Littlejohn by a close family friend. The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory, the collected works of Charlotte Mason, and Norms and Nobility by David Hicks seemed particularly valuable to school educators, and were often cited as useful teacher training resources. Some interviewees simply mentioned the value of reading Holy Scripture, others alluded to Mortimer Adler’s writings on the Great Books, or the works of C.S. Lewis. The variety of texts, some of which were to be expected, still surprised me. Where were the primary sources that had been celebrated by Bruni and Vergerio? Most, if not all of these teachers were teaching primary sources in translation. But it seemed to be a philosophy of education, and not the texts themselves, that had originally drawn them into the tradition! Only two of the men I interviewed mentioned the study of Latin or Greek, and if they did, it was because it was either their subject specialization, as it was for Marcus Foster, or the basis for personal study, as it was for Sean Hadley, who implored me that every staff of a CCE should read The Iliad together at least once. From my calculations, many in this first wave of educators relied on the secondary and tertiary sources, the translations and commentaries upon great texts, as their initial invitations to the great feast of Classical Christian Education.
In order to better trace the Renaissance humanist roots to the present flourishing of CCE, one must look to Alan Jacobs’ post-war Christian Humanists as a bridge between the past treatises on education and the present manifestations of those ideals. Three oft-cited apologies for CCE, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to a Distinctively Christian Education, Wisdom and Eloquence, and most recently, The Liberal Arts Tradition will serve as a basis for my considerations. Finally, I will make a humble recommendation on how the next generation of classical educators, especially the students who were beneficiaries of CCE, may maintain fidelity to the tradition in an age that the post-WWII humanists found to be increasingly saturated with competing voices.
Inspired by Dorothy Sayers’ essay on education, Douglas Wilson penned his own manifesto in 1991, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to a Distinctly Christian Education. In order to outline an ideal program of education, he begins with a Biblical perspective on humanity, which entails “a high view of human dignity and a realistic view of human sinfulness.” Citing John Milton, he initially thought that quality education, from a Biblical worldview, was the antidote to man’s sin nature:
A Christian education, in order to accomplish its purpose, must not see the fall of Adam as an incidental obstacle in the path of right learning. Rather, we are to see that godly education is made necessary by our sinfulness, and that the goal of this education is to “repair the ruins.”
Unfortunately, students who were brought up in a Christian home and had been taught from a distinctive “Biblical worldview” still fell for the spirit of the age. How could education engage students’ hearts and minds as they matured in an increasingly secularized culture? Wilson nods to C.S. Lewis, who “made the point that good philosophy needed to exist for no other reason than to answer bad philosophy.” The “good philosophy” Wilson prescribes is to be found in the roots of Western Civilization, in Sayers’ proposed return to the medieval curriculum, the “modern Trivium ‘with modifications’.” Wilson’s proposal follows Sayers’ suggestion that stages of learning, the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic correspond with the Trivium; “[w]hen grammar, dialectic and rhetoric are taught at these ages, the teacher is teaching ‘with the grain.” When children are learning in accordance with their natures, they become equipped with the “tools of learning,” and are then ready for “The Quadrivium, and beyond that, life.” Wilson concludes that the best study happens when a student who was raised on the best that had been thought and said begins to take learning into his own hands:
The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the role of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.
His impulse is not dissimilar from that of Bruni and Vergerio, who encouraged their pupils to read and engage with the best texts that could serve as their teachers in cultivating wisdom and virtue over a lifetime. Aptly, Repairing the Ruins, an anthology of essays on how to implement classical Christian education, ends with a “Suggested Reading List” of classic, medieval, and contemporary texts alike. He includes the Bible, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, Calvin’s Institutes, Cicero’s Ad Herennium, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, and more. As a writer of an educational treatise of sorts, it follows that Wilson would commend certain books. But he commits a “medieval misstep,” a digression not unlike that of the auctoristas, who mined classical and medieval texts equally for truth. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a classical canon, per se, but it may be tempting to pen an ever-expanding booklist that overwhelms curious classical Christian teachers, students, and parents alike.
Because he has taken up the medieval curriculum outlined by Sayers, Wilson’s promises fall short. He also neglects the centrality of Latin and Greek language study, committing the same errors that the Renaissance humanists found so egregious: all canonical literature in any language—whether classical, medieval, and modern—is treated as equally profitable in imparting wisdom, eloquence, and virtue. This is not the studias humanitatis; by humanist standards, this form of education cannot rightfully call itself classical. It is not the education that Augustine received, Bruni and Vergerio recovered, or Eliot and Lewis upheld as essentially humane. And perhaps Wilson knows this fact, but for practical purposes must strike a compromise; after all, exposing students to a great number of seminal classical texts, albeit in English, is better than encountering none at all. Still, I believe the method and curriculum proposed by the Renaissance Humanists would allow the CCE movement to mature in a way that Wilson’s (by way of Sayers) pioneering model cannot. Perhaps the second treatise, Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning of the CCE movement, provides the necessary corrective.
While many parents, teachers, pastors, and educators followed Wilson’s thesis and started their own classical Christian schools, not everyone in the movement was persuaded equally. In 2006, Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans penned their response in Wisdom and Eloquence. In Chapter 2, they outline a substantial criticism of Dorothy Sayers to provide necessary clarity for the CCE movement going forward, and propose an alternative method of instruction in the liberal arts. They contest Sayers’ method and claim that the lost tools of learning are “the skills that are learned during one’s study of the liberal arts and science. Among these skills might be memory, penmanship, phonetic decoding, reading comprehension, computation, critical thinking, analysis…” Littlejohn and Evans find the correspondence between stages of learning and the Trivium to be misleading, and logistically difficult to map onto every subject. They conclude: while it may be clever or whimsical to “use such constructs figuratively [astronomy of rhetoric and music of architecture], the serious use of such constructs undermines the integrity of the liberal arts discipline. Overall we believe that the concept has proven far more confusing than useful.”
Instead, Littlejohn and Evans advocate a “12-K Curriculum” that begins with the ends firmly in place and asks, “What are the major skills, knowledge, and virtues we want manifested in each of our graduates? Are they achievable, and how will we measure them?” They borrow a teleological approach from St. Augustine, who wrote about two kingdoms, the earthly and the heavenly. Littlejohn and Evans believe they “must be about the work of both cities at once, looking forward to the heavenly while living in the earthly and bringing to it as many characteristics of the heavenly as we possibly can. Such work requires both wisdom and eloquence.” They articulate the two most important influences on Western tradition to be Greek heroism and Hebrew humility: “Christian humanists from Augustine to Erasmus to Cardinal Newman have contended for centuries that this combination of Greek and Hebrew qualities is what makes our culture so unique.” The authors outline a broad study of the liberal arts and sciences for a “modern Christian liberal arts school,” which includes three broad categories: The Languages Arts (The Trivium Updated), The Mathematical Arts (The Quadrivium Expanded), and The True Science (Philosophy and Theology). While Littlejohn and Evans try to strike an equilibrium between these broad categories, they also fail to give primacy to classical texts. There may be a humanistic impulse underpinning their proposed curriculum and view of the liberal arts, but it is incomplete. They elevated “The Language Arts” above the other sub-categories of the liberal arts, but failed to commend classical texts as singularly foundational to CCE. Littlejohn and Evans conclude by citing Augustine as the ideal, who
Represents the grace with which God has repeatedly gifted our civilization: the ability to blend the blessings of special revelation (the truth of Scriptures) with the blessings of common grace (the liberal arts educational paradigms).
While I appreciate their intent, this contemporary curricular vision of CCE would hardly be recognizable as classical to Cicero, Augustine, or Bruni and Vergerio.
Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain’s The Liberal Arts Tradition offers a vision of classical Christian education that is steeped in tradition. Their treatise does not seek to recharacterize the Trivium or Quadrivium; rather, they pay homage to both the classical and medieval tradition of the liberal arts by quoting the authors themselves in their paradigm, PGMAPT. In his introduction, Christopher Perrin celebrates how Clark and Jain’s project brings clarity by
Showing us the entire context of the classical curriculum—a context larger than the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium. In fact, for the first time, they show us explicitly how singing, worship, poetry, recess, stories, drama, and field days are in fact an integral part of classical education. They show us how history, literature, philosophy, and theology (not liberal arts) are critical to the tradition. They summarize that context for the integrated, holistic, and humanizing curriculum as PGMAPT: piety, gymnastic, music, arts (the liberal arts), philosophy, and theology.
While PGMAPT may seem like an innovative presentation of classical education, it is actually a mnemonic device that summarizes classical education and a vision of the liberal arts that “were never meant to stand on their own as the entire curriculum, for they are designed particularly for cultivating intellectual virtue. Since human beings are more than just intellect, the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.” Clark and Jain claim the foundational difference between “traditional education and modern education is that the ancients believed education was fundamentally about shaping loves.” They provide this definition of classical education:
Grounded in piety, Christian classical education is the transmission of the culture of the Church through a faculty of friends who love the truth by cultivating virtue in the students in body, heart, and mind, and nurturing their loves for wisdom and faithful service of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The starting place of that definition, piety, which is the “duty, love, and respect owed to God, parents, and communal authorities past and present,” must be central to the faculty’s decisions about the content they teach. But what factors should guide the faculty’s crucial decisions about curriculum?
In Part II, Clark and Jain provide a clarification around the word “auctor” that places the emphasis back on the classical texts, while still allowing medieval texts to have a role in contemporary classical Christian curricula. They correct Sayers’ misapplication of the Trivium with stages of learning appropriately: the “grammar” of grammar has never meant “to learn the rudiments of all the subjects;” but instead,
It means learning to read and to write, to hear and to speak Latin (and later Greek), and it means gaining a knowledge of the history, literature, and even geography for understanding an auctor. The great poets, philosophers, and rhetoricians, the Scriptures and the Fathers, are not simply great texts; they are the classical syllabus.
Clark and Jain insist an auctor is not simply an author, but an authority: “the philosophers, historians, and poets, are not simply writers; they are exemplars.” If this is the case, then “the study of classical languages as well as classical history, geography, and culture must be part of the curriculum […] learning the classical languages of Latin and Greek in order to read the auctores lies at the heart of grammar education…” The use of the word “exemplars” and the emphasis that Clark and Jain place on classical languages are particularly humanist traits. They tip their hats to that tradition: “the goal of language study in grammar education, must attain to the slogan of the humanists of the sixteenth century- ad fontes: ‘to the sources.’” And while they do not cite any of the humanists from the quattrocentro, they need not; to do so would undermine the significance of classical texts as authorities. This oft-disputed category of “grammar” in CCE relies on the language and authors of antiquity who provide “a vital link as well between piety, moral philosophy, and theology.” Without this link, the desired ends of classical Christian education may be lost or obscured by time.
The revival of Classical Christian education has already borne much fruit since the 1980s. What started as a hunch in Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning” flourished into Douglas Wilson’s fuller apology for a contemporary iteration of classical Christian education, with a special emphasis on medieval conception of the liberal arts, the Trivium and Quadrivium. Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans sensed that something was “off” about Wilson’s articulation, so they attempted a corrective in Wisdom and Eloquence that sought to fuse the subjects of contemporary education with the liberal arts. All the while, these voices failed to pritorize classical languages as a means of reading the texts. Thirty years on from Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain penned a new paradigm of CCE that emphasized the study of classical languages and authors as exemplars once again. Their proposed articulation of the liberal arts is steeped in the classical tradition celebrated by T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis in their own writings on education. And while Alan Jacobs claims the doctrines of Christian humanism will not flourish in the face of 21st-century technocracy, he is wrong. The seeds of classical study have been sown, if sometimes imperfectly, by the first generation of classical Christian educators. Though Clark and Jain recommend the reading of classical, medieval, Reformation and Renaissance texts, their celebration of classical languages and the centrality of the auctors’ voices is a step in right direction. This should be the ideal going forward: teachers and students alike engaging the classical texts, reading and re-reading, as teachers, exemplars. A continued return to the doctrines of Renaissance humanism will strengthen the classical Christian education movement in the age to come.
- Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2018, 38. ↑
- Ibid. Jacobs quotes from Kristeller’s work Renaissance Thought. ↑
- Ibid., 38. ↑
- Jacobs considers how “the theology of the humanists- with its emphasis on literature over philosophy, and on the wisdom to be gained from pagan classical writers and thinkers- is dramatically different from that of the schoolmen, but it is not on that account less theological, or less Christian,” 39. ↑
- Ibid., 206. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- According to the Member Schools database on the Association of Classical Christian Schools website. ↑
- “Survey on ACCS/ CCE Educator Background,” survey conducted via Google Sheets from April 6-May 29, 2021. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid., survey response from Marcus Walker. ↑
- “Survey on ACCS/ CCE Educator Background.” ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to a Distinctively Christian Education, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991, 71. ↑
- Ibid., 74. ↑
- Wilson cites a study from Josh McDowell that shows “the sexual behavior of children from evangelical homes is not appreciably different from that of their secular counterparts. He reports that by age eighteen, 43 percent of churched youth have had sexual intercourse,” 55. ↑
- Ibid., 118. ↑
- Ibid., 153. ↑
- Ibid., 92. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid., 164. Emphasis mine. ↑
- Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 50. ↑
- Ibid., 51. ↑
- Ibid., 104. ↑
- Ibid., 107. ↑
- Ibid., 13. Their title Wisdom and Eloquence is an illusion to Augustine’s City of God. ↑
- Ibid., 278. ↑
- Ibid., 122. ↑
- Ibid., 292. ↑
- “Introduction,” The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, 20. ↑
- Clark and Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition, Classical Academic Press, 2019, 28. ↑
- Ibid., 29. And, the phrase ordo amoris comes directly from Augustine. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid., 39. ↑
- Ibid., 69. ↑
- Perhaps time is a great aid in smoothing out the wrinkles of difference in a tradition. Clark and Jain clarify that auctores is simply the medieval name for Latin authors— Cicero, Virgil, St. Augustine. ↑
- Ibid., 69. Emphasis mine. ↑
- Ibid. Emphasis mine. ↑
- Ibid., 70. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid., 69. ↑