Dreaming Wisdom at St. Johns College

Dreaming Wisdom at St. Johns College

When we were newly married, Christine and I took a trip to Annapolis and walked around the campus of St. Johns College. I fell in love. “What if we could go to the Graduate Institute here?” I dreamed. “What if we both became tutors and taught here?” I dreamed further. “And what if…?” At that point in my revelry, Christine intervened and urged me to stop, thinking I was being carried away to some unreasonable place. Christine is a poet and capable of dreaming, but she knows that I sometimes dream up folly.

Not all my dreams regarding St. Johns have been fulfilled, but one has. I did, about seven years after the conversation above, enroll in the Graduate Institute at St. Johns. The timing was very good, for I was in the thick of graduate studies in seminary and still a bit sophomoric, thinking myself wiser than I was. St. Johns addressed that. Sitting around sturdy old (very old) tables like the one pictured above with engaged, thoughtful and challenging students, I learned something about myself. Observing the guidance of skilled tutors who took us through the texts of Melville and Shakespeare, l learned something about teaching.

I learned that I often spoke before I should. I learned the pertinence of Jame’s admonition to be slow to speak and quick to listen. I learned to follow the dance steps in a collaborative conversation, gaining an intuitive sense of when to follow, when to compliment, when to occasionally risk an initiating move.

I learned what it meant to be assessed not by a number or letter grade, but by thoughtful words. There are not numerical or letter grades at St. Johns. So how did I know where I stood or how I was doing? By what people said–both my classmates and my tutors. At St. Johns, we would write several short papers in one class, which we could copy for every student. We all read each other’s papers and then incorporated both the ideas in those papers and our thoughts about them into our class conversations. In one class dedicated to Shakespeare, I did write a long paper for the tutor (Elliot Zuckerman). Mr. Zuckerman (everyone is “Mr.” or “Miss” at St. Johns) read my paper and wrote extensive notes assessing, challenging and occasionally commending it. I recall the two pages of notes stapled to the back of my paper. At the bottom of the page following his comments, there was…nothing. No grade, no number. I read everything he said with great attention, focus and interest. For the first time in my life, I was completely engrossed with what a professor thought of my work.

Then there was the Don Rags–the stated meeting with your tutors to discuss your work and class contributions. My tutors met for about 20 minutes before I was invited into the room to discuss…me. Then they invited me into the room and they told me what they thought… using words. I know they commended me in a few ways, but I forget those comments. I remember very well, however, what they said I could do to grow and improve: be slower to speak and quicker to listen. This stuck with me, and still rings in my ears. Until they said it, I did not realize this about myself. Once they said it, I instantly knew it to be true and began a kind of lifelong repentance. This crucial admonition came to me because of a college (and tutors) that actually wants to communicate truth about education and learning with honest, charitable words.

Some of the most delightful academic (I should just say human) conversations I have ever had occurred during my time at St. Johns. As the classical renewal continues and grows around the U.S., Socratic discussion and teaching is being recovered with it. How does one lead a good discussion surrounding an important text? How do we create an atmosphere where the love of truth, goodness and beauty transcends concerns for status, grades and props? St. Johns holds some of the answers to these questions, simply because it has not departed from the tradition of classical learning that never considered assigning someone a number or treating one as such.

Many of my dreams have slid into folly–but the dream of going to St. Johns helped confront a sophomore.

Update (April 2017):  I am also glad to report that our classical teacher training site, ClassicalU.com, is creating a Level Two course on Socratic DiscussionHow to Lead Effective Seminars and Socratic Discussions, featuring two St John’s tutors, Eva Brann and Hannah Hintze. There are also four live seminars with several St. Johns students led by Hannah Hintze. It is expected to release on April 25. To peruse 20 of our other current courses—all with free previews—visit the website: ClassicalU.com.


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?




Grove City College and Classical Christian Education

I received word today that Grove City College now offers students a minor in Classical Christian Education as well as a minor in Classical Studies.  This is great news.

A student taking the Classical Studies minor  must take 21 credit hours of courses (from several departments) from the following offerings:  Classical and Christian Education, Foundations of Cultural Anthropology, History and Appreciation of Art, Old Testament Literature and History, New Testament Literature and History, Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education, Introduction to New Testament Greek (I and II), Readings in New Testament Greek (I and II), The Ancient World, Medieval Europe, The Rise of Christianity, Byzantium and Islam, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World, Elementary Latin (I and II), Intermediate Latin (I and II), Reading Latin, Classical Literature in Translation, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Classical Political Thought, Theories of Communication, Rhetorical Theory and Criticism.  Ready to go back to college?

A student taking the Classical Christian Education minor will do all the work of the Classical Studies minor plus do a two credit internship at a classical Christian school.  Students can do the internship during the month of January (J-term) or during the month of May.  Already five GCC students are fanning out to CC schools this January for their internships.

This development should warm the hearts of classical school advocates.  Another important college has recognized the growing importance (and size) of the classical Christian school renewal and is now helping  prepare students to teach at classical Christian schools or homeschools.  Naturally CC administrators and educators should take a close look at Grove City and these two new minors.

There is another reason this news warms my heart–that takes the form of a disclaimer:  My oldest daughter is a junior English major at Grove City and by all accounts is receiving a superb education, and will likely become a teacher at CC school.  I have also had the chance to meet and consult with some of the faculty leading these new minors–and have every reason to believe they will serve exceedingly well.  Here is a link to Grove City College where you can explore and learn more about the college: Grove City College Website



What is Classical Education? Part II

My hat is off to my colleague and friend Bob Ingram, headmaster at the Geneva School of Orlando.  He writes the lead article in the recent issue of Geneva’s monthly newsletter, The Courier, and addresses that irritating question of how to define classical Christian education in a sentence or two. He puts it this way:

For eighteen years the board, administration, and faculty have sought to compress the totality of a 2500 year-old educational system into one or two sentences.  It is nearly impossible to achieve this goal, but on the other hand it is hard to ignore the persistent and ever-present question, “In a nutshell, what is Christian classical education?”

As you might guess, the Geneva leadership actually did put Christian classical education into a nutshell, which they can now hand out to the entire school community.  Were they successful at cramming something so big into something so small?  Bob relates in his article that the leadership tried to avoid two dangers in crafting a definition of CCE—the danger of reducing CCE to “one or two partially correct insights that cannot do justice to the rich heritage we preserve,” and the danger of expanding CCE to complex treatment that would exhaust the common man’s patience and interest.   The Geneva leadership did work hard to create a two sentence definition of itself, coming up with this brief statement:

The Geneva School is: A Christian preparatory school that integrates the classical arts and sciences to transform students into life-long scholars.  Geneva is recognized nationally for its unique strength in faculty and leadership, and locally for its commitment to academics and biblical truths.

This is a pretty good nut.  It certainly makes me want more, but that is by design.  As I wrote in my blog What is Classical Education? Part I, we need condensed and expanded definitions of CCE, for different needs, times and people.  Classical schools do need a first-level, two-sentence description of their school and the classical approach to education.

It is important to note that a nut will never satisfy one’s appetite—so the nut is never enough to serve someone new to CCE.  It is very wise, however, to start with a nut as a kind of appetizer that leads naturally to additional meatier offerings.   Does your school offer an appetizing description of CCE that avoids sentimental references to “excellent academics” and a “warm environment”?  These clichés have no bite or substance.   The Geneva statement gives me something to chew on: “classical arts and sciences,” (sure I want to know more, but I suspect there is more), “transform students into life-long scholars,” (I can picture that much better than a “warm environment”) “recognized nationally for its unique strength in faculty and leadership,” (that is substantial unless they are lying—and they’re not) “commitment to academics,”  (this is the only cliché in the definition, but is balanced by the earlier reference to classical arts and sciences) “commitment to biblical truths” (this signals to me that the school is no ordinary vanilla “Christian” school—and whets my appetite to know more).

Of course Geneva does not stop with this nut, but it does start with it.  It gives the community a baseline or a frame within which to paint the whole picture.  Or should I say it leads naturally to the rest of the menu and a superb meal that is waiting.

Classical Education As A Marathon Race: An Interview With Mark Guthrie, Head of School at Caldwell Academy

Mark Guthrie has been Head of School at Caldwell Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina for seven years.  Caldwell Academy has grown to 800 students under his leadership.  As Mark relates in this interview, acquiring and providing a great education is no quick process–it is more like a marathon than a sprint. Mark knows this figuratively and personally–he trained for and ran his first and last marathon in the year 2000.  He discovered that running a marathon is not an individual endeavor after all–he would not have finished as he did without some surprising help along the way.  In this interview, Mark tells the story of this marathon which not only shaped him, but shaped his vision for classical education at Caldwell Academy.  You can’t miss Mark’s passion for education and his love for students–administrators and teachers will be inspired by Mark’s story and vision.  Simply click the link below to listen to the interview.

Mark Guthrie Interview

This Journalist Understands Classical Education

Let’s face it—it is hard to speak clearly about classical Christian education.  I have been studying it, implementing it and writing about it for almost 15 years and I still can become tongue-tied when someone asks me “What is classical Christian education?”  I am always brushing up and revising my elevator speech.

That is why the recent article about Covenant Classical School (CCS) in Naperville, Illinois, is so remarkable.  CCS is not an established school.  It opened its doors barely a month ago with 87 students.

And yet journalist Jane Donahue of the Naperville Sun was able to crystallize the complex mission of CCS in a relatively short story.  I am astonished that this happened.  It usually takes new parents about a year to gain the kind of understanding displayed by Donahue.  In her story, Donahue quotes a board member, head of school, teacher, two parents and a student. Taken together, the comments of these people tell us that Covenant Classical School:

  • is a new school rooted in an old tradition
  • has a classical curriculum (grammar, Latin, logic, rhetoric, music, etc.)
  • employs a pedagogy appropriate to the developmental stage of students
  • seeks to train students “to think, reason, read, write and speak well”
  • learns from the best ideas, thinkers and literature of the past
  • aims to build character: “Everyone is cheerful, friendly and thoughtful.”
  • integrates biblical teaching and faith
  • provides a joyful, warm environment
  • develops community and strong bonds

I think this surpasses my elevator speech.

Here is the link to the article—compare it to your speech: Faith and Education Combine at Covenant

So how did the journalist figure this out?  Somehow CCS has managed to pass on a clear concept of its mission to all members of its community—even a 12 year-old student.  How is your school doing in this regard?  We could all do worse than to take this article and seek to embody it and communicate it in our own schools.  Pass this article along to your marketing director or head of school and to the board.  Pass it along to your 12 year-old.