Is Classical Education for Christians?
The classical book list entitled the “Great Books of the Western World” contains the writings of Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, and other men who declared that the answers to life’s mysteries and problems are found in men and not in God (even the Koran is on the list). Our children should be immersed in the sixty-six great books in God’s Word, and books by Christians, not in writings by men who knew not our Lord!
This surge of interest to return to Greek classical education cries, “We need to return to the traditional literary culture, the classical standards of the past.” Insistence on a “back to basics” curriculum of “reading, writing and arithmetic,” has again become popular. It is a desire to turn back to the fork where we took the wrong road.
The classical method that was developed in ancient Greece and Rome, and established in the Middle Ages, was used almost exclusively in the Western world until the nineteenth century. The main focus was reading the Greek and Roman classics. To be in touch with literary arts marked one as accomplished.
We understand this desire to return to a better way, but believe that, instead of returning to the ancient Greeks’ ways, we need to return to the biblical model. Our only hope for a stable, ongoing, integrated culture is placing the Word of God at the center of our thinking, speaking, and acting. Literature and all literary arts must give place to mastery of the Bible. And they themselves become servants to the Word of God.
The Greek model is comprised of three phases of learning: 1) grammar, 2) dialectic, and 3) rhetoric. It is similar to the biblical model except for the main ingredient: true wisdom cannot be gained by unaided human reason. The Greeks wanted to conform to the good and natural things of the world, but without God this is not possible.
We must do more than rail against godless education. We must identify a distinctly Christian curriculum—one that takes its identity, its motion, from the reality of our redeemed condition—one that begins with the authority of the risen Christ speaking through His Word.
It is not enough to know what we are against; we must know what we are for. Dismantling the world is one work; building the kingdom is another. If we fail to make a positive contribution to education, if we keep the same old public school agenda packaged in Christian dress, our children will not prosper as they should. Without fundamental changes, we are only straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel. We cannot let the wolf of antichrist values in because he is wearing sheep’s clothing.
There is a long tradition in this country of resistance to the wisdom of the Greeks: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Noah Webster all judged the classics to be of scant use. (Learning from the Greeks, Commentary Magazine, Valiunas, 1998)
Literature is a blessing, but should never be the purpose or center of learning. When we return to Scripture-centered education, two things occur:
- We can view language in its splendor without the danger of it replacing religion. We can appreciate it as God’s gift to us.
- Considering language as a skill, we can study it in a deeper way.
There can be no doubt that literary education is more whole, more human, and more satisfying than scientific technological education. But is even literary education enough? Good literature—Scott, Milton, Virgil—promotes courage, insight, high morality, and imagination—but it can never do what the Bible does.
Why Go Back to Ancient Greek Ways? Why Not Return to Biblical Methods?
David Mulligan, author of Far Above Rubies, explains that when we hear the phrase “returning to traditional methods” we need to ask “whose tradition?”
In reacting against modernist educational failure comes an instinctive turning to traditional schooling. What does this mean? Does the bare use of nineteenth century educational material safeguard the essential Christianity of our school? There is a nagging sensation that we have not yet gotten down to the bottom of things. What is traditional education? What is the tradition? It isn’t modernism. We know that traditionalism offers another way to look at the world. We know that, but what is it? Where did it come from? Is it just a haven for Christians playing modernist Babylon?
We just want to be sure, lest we be like the man who, to escape the lion, ran into the house and was bitten by a serpent. An essential element of this truly Christian education is discovering what we mean by traditional or old-fashioned education, and to that question we have now turned.
Teachers of philosophy give their lives to examining convictions by which people can live, in order to develop a consistent worldview and way of life based on reliable evidence. The Bible warns against philosophies whose highest realities and concerns are atoms, energy, cosmic laws—or even humanity—those founded on the basic principles of the world and not according to Christ.
To build a thoroughly Christian educational system, we must begin with a thoroughly Christian definition of education. What does the Bible tell us about education? What is it? What is it for? As we have stated, nothing is self-defining or of absolute value except God, so how can education be thought of as having intrinsic value? The value we usually give to education is the value imputed by man. Is that really valid? The intrinsic value of education is so taken for granted in our culture that our institutions of learning are intellectually considered to be common ground between the believer and the unbeliever.
The Emperor is Naked!
I have watched this growing trend reflected in the availability of numerous Greek mythology and philosophy books in homeschool catalogs and at curriculum fairs. I feel like the little boy who felt that he must point out the emperor’s obvious lack of clothing. Well-intentioned Christians have combined classical Greek educational methods with Bible-based curricula, which is exactly the same error that the early Church committed!
The classical Greek approach focuses on Greek literature and man’s reasoning.
Ancient Hebrew methods focus on God’s Word and faith.
Why Go Back to the Ancient Greek Ways?
The Bible warns us about Greek philosophies:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
Under the ancient Greek system, learning begets goodness. Under the biblical system, goodness begets learning. All non-biblical education assumes that man can become learned without God. Biblical education makes knowledge the foundation of learning.
Greece was a once mighty empire. The ancient Greeks promoted beautiful fashion, fine dining, sonorous music, aesthetic arts, vigorous athletics, captivating entertainment, and a bevy of similarly stimulating activities. The ancient Greeks were the most advanced and sophisticated culture of their time. Were it not for their excellence (applying the principle to modern terms), we would not have heart transplants, ballet, air transportation or, for that matter, the Internet.
So why didn’t the ancient Greek empire survive more than a few hundred years? Historians concur that they were destroyed by moral decay. Pursuing knowledge without God is a recipe for disaster. We simply cannot survive without clear moral direction.
Three Approaches to Classical Literature—and HOW’s Alternative
Currently there are three different approaches to literature using the classical approach:
- With the traditional focus on mythology and Greek philosophy.
- Using the classical methods, but rejecting material written by pagans.
- Immersion into the classic literature from a critical viewpoint.
1. Traditional Focus on Classics
The focus of the traditional classical approach (as promoted in the book The Well Trained Mind) is on Greek mythology, philosophy, logic, and Latin. The current best-selling homeschool book on the classical approach focuses on creating a student Plato would be proud of. Students of all ages, beginning with kindergarten, are immersed in stories about Greek gods. Mythology and philosophy are encouraged, while there is no emphasis on Bible study, and only a scant mention of religion. The authors suggest reading the Bible during history studies because it “ought to be treated as a serious philosophical document.”
There is legitimate cause for concern when a curriculum’s focus is on mythology and philosophy rather than the Bible. Proponents of classical education defend the study of mythology (which is really the study of false gods, idols, and/or demons) by saying that the myths are an integral part of our Western literary heritage. (Rodd)
It is short-sighted to use the argument that children need to study mythology in order to be adequately aware of the world; the same argument would imply that our children should be immersed in books on New Age philosophies, astrology, witchcraft, reincarnation, or Harry Potter. A well-grounded Christian adult with discernment may safely choose to study these subjects, but we should be careful not to feed these as entertainment to our children. Jesus said, Therefore, be as wise as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).
2. Adoption of Classical Methods but Rejection of Classical Literature
Some using the classical approach avoid the pagan literature. There are Christian homeschoolers who use the classical approach because they view the Trivium— grammar, logic, and rhetoric—as a worthy form of structure, but reject the writings by pagan authors (which is somewhat like trying to order a cheeseburger without the cheese). There is nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging these three discernible stages of learning (grammar, logic, and rhetoric); it is only common sense that children go through certain basic learning stages that build upon each other. It seems somewhat ironic to me, though, that one would use classical methods designed by classical authors, but reject the classical authors’ writings. I do, however, applaud their efforts to avoid evil.
3. Focus on the Classic Literature From a Critical Viewpoint
There are other Christians using the classical approach that focus on the Bible. They immerse students in the “Great Books of the Western World,” but do so from a critical viewpoint–—to teach their children about the positive and negative influences these books have had on our culture—which is an understandable endeavor. But this too seems an irony—that one would use the classical methods designed by the classical authors to teach students the deficiencies of the writings of the classical authors. But I am glad to see they are evaluating the writings from the standpoint of Scripture.
Heart of Wisdom’s Alternative
We recommend reading the good books–but not the books on traditional classical list.
Download Our List Here 31 pages PDF includes classics by grade level
Ask yourself if the book has value; does the book emphasize a Biblical worldview in some way?
To ignore the classics would be like a doctor disregarding the symptoms of a serious disease. We need to understand the classics for ourselves and to teach our children the impact of these works on our history and philosophy.
We can reject the classical teaching approach, as the Hebrews did, but study the impact of classical literature on our culture. Our children need to understand the world’s philosophy so they can recognize and avoid it, just as a doctor must study in order to recognize disease. However, when a doctor studies a disease, he takes precautions lest he catch the disease. He does most of his studies at a distance. When he does examine a patient with the disease, he does so with limited exposure. We can teach spiritually mature students, from a biblical worldview, about the influences of the classical authors sufficiently, with historical analysis and brief excerpts, without immersing them in pagan writings.
John D. Beckett explains in his book Loving Monday: A biblical worldview has awesome implications for those of us in the secular, Greek-thinking West. As we allow it, the Bible speaks to us concerning government, economics, education, science, art, communications and business. Really, it speaks to all of life.
Abraham Joshua Heschel encapsulated this approach to study by saying that
The Greeks study in order to understand while the Hebrews study in order to revere.
God’s Word and ways are ineffable: only by doing them can one understand them.
Don’t get bogged down in the knowledge of the Greeks. Spend your time learning what the Bible says about education.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS MOVE BACK TO CLASSICAL EDUCATION?
I’m curious—what do you think about this giant movement toward classical education? What do you think about The Well Trained Mind being the most popular book for homeschoolers? Sound off in the comments section below.