Classical Education: Christian and Secular
I cut my teeth on classical education as a headmaster of a Protestant classical school for ten years here in central Pennsylvania. Having studied history and classics in college, I knew at least the rough outline of the liberal arts tradition—at least enough to know that the Greeks and Romans studied a good bit of grammar, logic and rhetoric. I read Plato’s Republic in which he describes his ideal education for the ideal guardian for his ideal society.
It is indisputable: classical education existed during the classical periods—before the coming of Christ. Yes, there is a lot of talk about Classical Christian education, and for two good reasons: 1) Historically, the Christian church assumed the mantle of classical education, modified it, calibrated it to serve the Christian gospel and then greatly extended it. Thus a great deal of what we know as “classical education” has been “Christian” as well. 2) The recent renewal (over the past 25 years or so) of classical education has been initiated and led by Christians, particularly Protestants.
Number 1) remains a historical fact, though there are numerous examples of classical, secular schools and institutions that have carried on successfully, especially since the Enlightenment. Many schools that started as classical and Christian schools, are now secular even if retaining some classical elements. Most of the Ivy League colleges for example (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) started as classical and Christian institutions, and are now certainly not Christian, and a mix of classical and progressive elements.
Number 2), the recent renewal of classical education, is changing and extending. While there are at least 240 Protestant classical schools (the number of schools that are part of the Association of Classical Christian Schools) in the U.S. that have started since about 1990, there are many schools that have started outside of Protestantism and outside of the Christian church generally. A number of Catholic schools have returned to the classical approach and new ones are starting. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has started to support this effort. Several Orthodox schools have begun as classical schools too. Homeschooling continues its rapid growth in America and the classical approach to homeschooling is one very popular approach that is represented by Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics. Classical Conversations advocates for classical homeschooling and in my estimation attracts mainly Protestants, but also has Orthodox and Catholic participants. Aquinas Learning supports classical homeschool education for Catholics as does Laura Berquist’s Mother of Divine Grace School.
Those outside the Christian church are also rediscovering classical education, and finding it part of their heritage too, even if they sift out the religious elements almost always intertwined with classical education (see number 1). There are approximately 100 classical charter schools that have started around the U.S. in the last ten years—and more are on the way. The Great Hearts Academies association of Arizona has started 19 classical charter schools, with plans under way to start more in other states. Secular classical homeschooling is also on the rise—I note the rapid growth of Hip Homeschool Moms (not officially classical, but with many classical homeschoolers) and Sandbox to Socrates as examples. The Well-Trained Mind Forum contains thousands of classical homeschooling parents and a separate group for secular parents.
I find this very encouraging, and I say this as a citizen and a Christian. Why? As a citizen, I support better education generally. I would rather see a classical public school (likely a charter school) in my neighborhood than a troubled, progressive public school. A secular classical education is superior to what we have today, and a secular, truly classical education, will be by nature friendly to religious tradition. How is that? The ideals of a secular classical education hold forth the reality of truth, goodness and beauty and the life-long pursuit of these transcendentals. Virtue is regarded as real, paramount and attainable. The Great Hearts schools describe this as philosophical realism, rooted in teaching extending back to Plato.
However, I am a Christian and deeply love the Christian classical tradition that assumed, transformed and extended the liberal arts studied by the Greeks and Romans. This is part of a large story not worthy of this short essay, but we can note that large numbers of pagan Greeks and Romans became Christians, were the first Christians, and they adopted and transformed the classical curriculum, putting theology at the head as the queen or governess. Up until about 1900 education was “classical” and largely Christian as well.
I have labored (imperfectly) to give my children a Christian classical education. To my colleagues and friends outside the church, I say give your children a classical education. Study and seek after wisdom, eloquence and virtue, after truth, goodness and beauty. Like so many Greeks and Romans centuries ago you may find that the church (and her theology) the extension of your search, the fulfillment of all that you dream. If not, you will remain my esteemed colleagues laboring for the common-wealth of our children and nation.
Next blog article in this series: Why the Liberal Arts Are for Every Human
Then next after that: Do Classical Charter Schools Threaten Classical Christian Schools?