What Is Christian Classical Education?

With classical schools popping up across the nation, it might be helpful to step back and ask a few foundational questions:

  • Are “Christian” and “classical” basically synonymous?
  • Is “classical” a methodology? a curriculum? a philosophy? All of the above?
  • Does classical mean anything more than “memorization heavy education”?

Recently I spent some time trying to answer two questions: What is a Christian education? What is a classical education? I do think these are distinct, although more and more I’m seeing a conflation of the two. However, there are many forms of Christian education that are not classical, and there are plenty of classical schools that are not Christian.

In my estimation, a Christian classical education seeks to answer four basic questions: Whose am I? Why am I? How am I? and What am I?

What is Christian education?

A Christian education teaches students to answer the first foundational question: Whose am I? Many philosophies of education ignore this question or answer it incorrectly leading to methods and morals that ultimately bring about the despair and destruction of the student. A Christian education approaches learning through the foundational truth that governs the universe: We belong to God.

Whose am I?

Whose am I? is a question of ownership. Students must understand that as creatures they belong to the one who made them–body and soul. They are not their own. They are God’s.

As creatures, we are made to glorify, obey, and submit to the will of our Creator. He alone understands us intimately and knows what we were made for. Just as a vacuum manufacturer knows a vacuum’s purpose and best understands the way a vacuum ought to be used, so does the Maker know our purpose and best understand how his world and his creatures are to work together in perfect harmony.

As students submit themselves to the Creator, they discover this true sense of purpose. Our modern American society is currently engaged in a passionate attempt to paper over the nihilism that proceeds from an atheistic worldview. Men and women are ascribing meaning to their purposeless lives through identities defined by sexuality, race, nationality, class, career, and power.

However, students who know whose they are know they are not the result of a meaningless chaotic collision of celestial matter. The God who made them made them for a purpose. This becomes the engine of learning, growth, and maturity. This provides the fuel for endurance through difficulties and struggles because students know that all these sufferings too have the purpose of forming them into the likeness of Christ.

Students who know their Maker know they are meant to reflect his glory. Confident that the universe was made to declare the glory of God as a macrocosm and man to be the image of God in microcosm, they can explore the Creator’s design knowing that as they better understand the universe, they will better understand their God.

Moreover, educators and students participate with God by the power of the Spirit in his grand project–the putting on of the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). As students grow in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, we trust that the Father himself is accomplishing his good purpose to see his children “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28).

Whose am I? It’s the most foundational question a school can confront students with. Ultimately, it is a question that students can only correctly answer by the indwelling of the Spirit. And so, it is with great humility and dependence on the mercy and grace of God our Savior that educators endeavor to press deep into the hearts of students that “the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and “we are God’s children” (1 John 3:2).

What is classical education?

Schools can have many purposes. A public school makes free education accessible to all. A vocational school equips students with particular skills for various trades. A seminary provides theological training.

But what is the purpose of a classical school?

In two words, a classical education aims to form people. A classical school forms students by helping them answer–in order–three foundational questions: Why am I? How am I? and What am I?

Why am I?

Why am I? is a question of telos. A classical education begins with the end–the virtuous man. As Christian classical educators, we know that the perfectly righteous (iusti) human being is Christ Jesus. He alone radiates the virtues of the Godhead perfectly. And yet, Peter tells us that God has taken possession of us so that we “may proclaim the excellencies (virtutes) of Him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

A classical education aims to form men and women who proclaim the virtues of God.

Classical educators know why students exist: to live justly, walking in humble prudence harmonized through temperance and strengthened by courage. Moreover, a distinctly Christian classical education fosters the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, for apart from these we cannot please God.

In a classical setting, students must continually be reminded of their ultimate purpose: We exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever. A classical education builds its methods to guide students toward this teleological goal.

How am I?

A classical methodology addresses the question How am I? How are students to become who they will be? Much like a monk’s habit, a classical education provides the necessary external clothing that forms day-by-day the internal habits of the soul. Maturity does not happen spontaneously but through daily, repetitive, intentional choices.

In The Republic, Plato’s Socrates teaches that the how of forming people is two-fold: music and gymnastic. Music is education that forms the soul; gymnastic the body. Together, these work as hands to tune the strings of a man until they reach perfect harmonization.

Classes and curriculum that form the mind only, only educate half the student. Attention must be paid to externals–a child’s uniform, environment, food, campus, and physical activities. Traditionally, the hows of classical education have been summed up as the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). A classical education will focus on primary sources. What is secondary will constantly be in flux. What is primary will never change.

What am I?

Many educational institutions make the mistake of seeking first to help students answer this question: What am I? This is to begin with the secondary and completely ignore the primary. However, students trained for certain vocations or to do specific kinds of work–but lacking habit-formed virtue–will be of little use except to bring destruction and ruin upon the world and themselves.

In contrast, classical education forms men and women suited for all sorts of good work in a wide range of settings. With disciplined minds and bodies, classical students are prepared to glorify God with their full humanity. Though many classical Greeks like Plato and Aristotle believed man’s chief activity begins and ends in the contemplation of the Good, classical Christians believe man is also blessed and commissioned by God to do good.

As people, what we are varies throughout the course of life–I am a mother, I am a business owner, I am a retiree, I am a wife, etc. Classically trained students will be ready to honor and glorify God as the answer to the question What am I? shifts and changes according to the twists and turns of Providence’s path. 

Classical education is not a set of curriculum or devotion to a cultural tradition. It is a philosophy of teaching that seeks to shape the whole person. As educators, we must know why, how, and for what students are being formed. What is more, students must come to know their own why, how, and what. If a classical education is successful, students will reach graduation balanced enough that they no longer need the training wheels. They will be able to ride straight ahead unassisted, because they have taken full ownership of becoming who they will be.

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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