This post reviews Peter J. Leithart, “The New Classical Schooling” in Intercollegiate Review 43, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 3-12. (Available fulltext here)
Leithart, a professor at New Saint Andrews University in Moscow, Idaho, is well-placed to chronicle the emerging classical Christian Education movement. He has long been associated with The Logos school and Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow (where he now serves as pastor), the seedbed of the movement. In this article Leithart traces the history of the movement and discusses its underlying philosophical rationale.
The Classical Christian Education (CCE) movement’s seminal event was a 1947 essay published by the famous British writer Dorothy Sayers called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In that essay Sayers bewailed the sorry state of British intelligence and of the schools. As an antidote, she suggested returning to the classical trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. But Sayers reimagined these subjects not as strictly linguistic but as the building blocks of all of knowledge. Every subject has a grammar (its basic material–numbers for math, names and dates for history, etc.), a dialectic (the logical relationships between this subject matter) and a rhetoric (the way humans use this subject matter to accomplish their ends). Furthermore, Sayers associated each of the three components of the trivium with a childhood developmental stage. Young children are in the grammar stage, as they love to memorize any and all facts. Children in what we would call middle school tend to be argumentative and defensive–the dialectic stage. Older children tend to obsess about themselves and yearn to express their obsessions–they are rhetors.
Sayers’ essay was reprinted several times over the next few decades by The National Review. Its positive programme was adopted by a few, mostly Catholic schools in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1980 Douglas Wilson, a young pastor located in Moscow, Idaho, decided to start a school based on Sayers’ principles–the Logos school. He wrote a book about it titled Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Wilson’s book was picked up by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio program and thousands of Evangelical Protestants bought it and found its vigorous critique of public schools and its robust positive program grounded in the classics compelling. The Christian Classical Education movement was born.
Several organizations have emerged to facilitate networking among the proliferating number of classical private schools. The Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS), founded in 1994, had 200 member schools in 2007, educating over 25,000 children. Robert Littlejohn founded the Society for Classical Learning (SCL) around the same time as a forum around which leaders of the movement might coalesce. Homeschooling families have been especially drawn to this curricular model, inspired largely by the prolific Susan Wise Bauer. Classical Christian Home Educators (CCHE), founded in 2000, is a popular meeting place for these families.
Leithart chronicles all of this and more in the first part of his article. In the second he addresses some of the criticisms CCE has received and muses over its deeper significance for American life. He notes three basic criticisms. First, some intellectuals find the classical education movement insufficiently classical. Littlejohn and Charles Evans, in their 2006 book Wisdom And Eloquence, fault the movement for overstressing the trivium at the expense of the quadrivium, the other branch of the historic “seven liberal arts.” Littlejohn and Evans correctly note that Sayers’ account of the trivium, for all its creativity, is historically inaccurate. The trivium was not for medievals a pedagogical model but simply three subjects pertaining to language, to which should be added four more subjects (the quadrivium) pertaining to mathematics. In response, Leithart acknowledges that the CCE movement is a work in progress, noting that many CCE schools are still evolving in their understanding of the nature and purpose of classical learning. Granted, many of the first generation schools and activists didn’t really know what they were doing, and hardly any of them actually knew Latin and Greek, but things are getting better and some of the best schools are developing a more accurate understanding of the true nature of classical education.
Secondly, some critics, notably Ken Myers, founder of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, see CCE as less a legitimate educational endeavor than simply another front in the American culture war between reactionary elements and secular liberals. Thus CCE schools do not educate so much as train culture warriors to carry the conservative banner. Leithart responds by arguing that the CCE model has “built-in protections against becoming an arm of the Christian Right.” Students in this movement are reading a wide range of material, learning that the Western Tradition is not monolithic. They are developing a sense of the nuance and complexity of thought and learning how to spot spurious reasoning. Students such as these will not easily become blind followers of charismatic leaders mouthing reductivist slogans.
Finally, in a short historical section of the article, Leithart notes that classical education has usually been held suspect in the United States because it isn’t all that useful. From the Founding Fathers to Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Dewey, pragmatism has been the hallmark American educational instinct, and classical education did not fit this emphasis on the practical. Here Leithart acknowledges the conflict. He suggests that the American pragmatic temper starves the human soul and leads to a culture that saturates us in material luxury but leaves us bereft of true wisdom.
I’d like to note three things about Leithart’s article and the CCE movement. First, as he notes in several places, this model has become in recent years a very popular pedagogical orientation for many homeschoolers. Many Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant homeschoolers are turning to this model for its intellectual heft. It seems to many a more compelling approach than the more fundamentalistic curricula that tended to dominate the 1980s and 1990s (Bob Jones, A Beka, and Alpha Omega in particular). But as anyone who has been a part of homeschoolers’ discussion of these curricular models can attest, some conservative Protestant homeschoolers are deeply suspicious of this classical model because to them it seems to substitute Pagan worldly wisdom for the Bible. This is a criticism that Leithart did not mention.
A second potential criticism of the classical approach that Leithart did not address (though it is there in some of the quotations he provides from the likes of Benjamin Rush), is that the model is inherently elitist. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe classical education was the tool used to train the ruling classes, the 2% of the population who didn’t have to work for a living because they had servants and slaves to do it for them. The term “liberal arts” itself is historically freighted with this elitist perspective. In ancient Rome, the “liber” were the free people–the ones who owned the slaves and hence were free from having to toil. What do people who don’t have to work for a living do to pass the time? They engage in the crafts of the free, the liberal arts.
In my view it is not only the pragmatic temper of American life that classical education is fighting aginst. It is democracy itself. I have been struck over the years as I’ve observed the growth of the Christian Classical Education movement how the model appeals to many evangelicals who are emerging from a cultural and economic ghetto and developing more sophisticated tastes and bigger bank accounts. Classical education seems to me to offer to many Evangelicals who have joined the American upper-middle classes an educational option that promises to get their kids into Harvard just as well as the local secular private school does but still reflects Chrisitan theological and moral commitments. Anyone who has spent much time around people involved in the classical education movement (and I have many friends who are) must admit that a sort of cultural snobbery and disdain for the ignorant masses is pervasive.
Finally, it seems to me that Evangelicals embracing this model could be playing with fire. Sayers herself was no Evangelical, and of course many Catholic schools were “classical” long before Wilson started Logos School. Leithart describes in his article how many Evangelicals “are looking for ancient roots.” To the degree that they and their children find such roots in an educational model grounded in the medieval Catholic tradition, one wonders how much longer they will stay Evangelical. It is no secret that at the highest intellectual level, Evangelicals tend in large numbers to convert to mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy (or, indeed, to secularism). Only time will tell what the long-term effects of CCE will be, but it would not surprise me if it contributes to this Evangelical brain drain.