In my previous post, Take 1, I didn’t relate that I was late getting on the classical education bandwagon. I’ve always been a fan of the liberal arts, the humanities and such, but the term “classical education” meant little to me even into my 50th year. I was so clueless that when my wife insisted that our youngest son was not going to our public junior high school, I thought she was being irrational. We survived a public school education, I told her, and turned out fine. Our older daughter and son did as well. And we couldn’t afford that Christian classical school she was so excited about anyway. What an idiot I was. When family stepped up to help us afford it, I resented it, that it might inconvenience me. It so happens that God’s providence (and mercy), and results, intervened to enlighten me.
At the same time our son started 5th grade in the Christian classical school, our daughter attending Hillsdale College (one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the country) started to get excited about classical education as she was learning about it. Hmmm. In fact, she decided to minor in it. Then I started noticing my son talking about things like the French Revolution and Robespierre. What 10 year old does that! He was memorizing and learning things that were impressive, and slowly but surely I was beginning to appreciate this thing called classical education. The epiphany I refer to in the title came at the end of his first school year and an event to close out the semester called Summer Vespers. The kids get up by grade and perform things, most completely memorized, they’ve learned throughout the school year. I was blown away, and instantly became an evangelist (yes, it’s good news) for classical education.
I joke sarcastically now that just because I had to endure public schooling, I’m not bitter about it. But it does tick me off! It’s one thing to survive an education, and quite another to flourish in and because of it. That’s what classical education makes possible, true human flourishing. How does it do that? Last week I read a blog post by Peter Leithart at First Things that beautifully captures what I think is the answer to this question:
Educate” derives from the Latin educare, “to lead out.” All education promises an exodus from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. All education proclaims liberty to captives. The question is, whose slavery? Whose freedom?
We cannot answer by defining slavery as “whatever inhibits my will” nor freedom as “the power to do whatever I like.” Such absolutist notions of freedom are self-contradictory. If freedom is limited by anything beyond individual will and desire, then freedom is no longer absolute. But desire is itself a limit. When I hunger or thirst, I seek particular satisfactions—food and drink. Sexual desire impels toward sexual gratification. Desires can be diverted, repressed, masked, but they retain the same teleological structure. Desire is ordered to ends, tethered to a telos. “Freedom to do whatever I desire” shatters this structure. It leaves desire end-less.
Classical education directs all its means to a specific end for the student. That end is the flourishing for which human beings were created by God, the telos (purpose) of their being.
The publicly educated postmodern relativist would ask the logical question, but reject the answer. How do you know what that telos is? Many would go further and deny that there is such a thing as a purpose to our being and existence. We make up our own, don’t you know. Here is a quote that is the quintessential expression of progressive public education, and it comes from the pen of recently retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. He wrote it in 1992 in a decision upholding abortion as a constitutional right:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
You can quickly see that the Leithart and Kennedy definitions of liberty are mutually exclusive; it is either one or the other. Justice Kennedy takes “the power to do whatever I like” (which is not freedom or liberty, but anarchy) and turns it into the power to decide meaning itself. Meaning is found within me, not outside of me. That, my friends, is the stark and incompatible difference between progressive and classical education.
Another way to put it is that the progressive educator (whether they could articulate it or not) believes that our knowledge is an imposition of order by the human mind on reality. By contrast, the classical educator believes our knowledge is a recognition of order given in reality. It is an order to be discovered in reality, not an order imposed on it. In my next post I’ll show how classical education does this, and why Christians should embrace it.