What is Classical Christian Education? – Formation of the Soul
Classical Christian education can be a difficult term to nail down. If you ask ten different people what it is, you’re likely to get ten fairly different answers: some people will describe it as a structure, some as a methodology, some as the content taught, and some as an objective or purpose, what the Greeks called telos. This is a similar problem you could imagine having with a mechanic: if you ask him what the most important part of a car is, if he primarily works on motors, he might tell you that; if he specializes in transmissions, he might tell you that; or if he’s only worked on brakes, he might tell you that. The truth of the matter is a car is a composite of all these things, and they all have to be functioning properly for a car to fulfill its purpose. In the same way, classical Christian education is the composition of a lot of things, and they all are present when education is complete. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at each of these individual components and exploring how they come together to provide a holistic education for the Christian student. This week we will look at the most important distinctive of classical Christian education, which is its telos, or the full end or purpose to which it is directed: to cultivate virtue in the eternal soul of the student.
Let me illustrate why the telos of classical Christian education is so important with an illustration from the sports world. Every once in a while a person will come along who is so gifted by God that they transcend the world around them: they reach such incredible heights in their career that they seem almost superhuman by comparison to us mere mortals. Dwight “Doc” Gooden possessed just such a gift. He could throw a baseball with unparalleled power and precision, so much so that he was elevated to the New York Mets major league team as a fresh-faced nineteen year old. As a teenager, he took Major League Baseball by storm: he was selected to the All Star team, won the Rookie of the Year award, and led the league in strikeouts. He was a boy amongst men, and he was making all the men look bad. The following year, Doc won the pitcher’s version of the Triple Crown, leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, all while winning the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. The following year, he led the Mets to their first World Series championship in almost 30 years.
Doc Gooden was destined for greatness – he had the gifting to be the greatest pitcher of all time – but he didn’t get there. His career was derailed by one bad decision after another: substance abuse and legal problems prevented him from ever performing nearly as well as he did those first three years in the league. He ended his career as a journeyman, bouncing around the league, hanging on as long as his various addictions would allow him.
Doc Gooden had transcendent talent, but not transcendent character; he lacked the virtue, the depth of character, he needed to realize his God-given calling in life. His baseball career highlights perfectly a key distinction between classical Christian education and the conventional, progressive education model typical of most schools. At the heart of Christian education is the knowledge that each student is an eternal soul created in the image of God. The human soul is not a static thing that never changes; instead it is a dynamic thing that grows strong (or weak) with every decision we make, every action we take. This process of the soul being formed into the image of Christ is the cultivation of Christian virtue, and that is the highest, best aim of education. In his most famous work, The City of God, Augustine defined the sum of Christian virtue as “rightly ordered love.” The human soul is set right only when it grows to love what God loves; it is disordered when it loves the self and the things of the world above God and other eternal souls. The full purpose of classical Christian education is to correctly order the soul.
None of this is to say that the goals of conventional, progressive education are necessarily bad (depending on how one frames those goals.) Progressive educators are often most concerned with skills training, which they anchor around what they call ‘SWBATs’ (Students Will Be Able To…), a list of skills they hope their students leave their schools with. In course curriculum you are likely to see things like ‘Student will be able to balance a chemical equation’ or a ‘Student will be able to construct a 5 paragraph descriptive essay.’ These are fine goals for sure, but classical Christian teachers and parents understand that they are not the best goals; they are secondary targets mistaken for primary ones. They are a lot like providing Doc Gooden with the skill to throw a fastball with pinpoint accuracy but not providing him with the character to harness those skills to their full potential to the glory of God Who made him. Classical Christian education is more concerned with who students are than what students can do. It strives to replace the SWBAT with the SWBe — “Student will be….”. Imagine a list of goals that looks something like follows: “Student will be faithful to the God who loves him and died to save him”; “Student will be loving and kind towards his neighbor”; “Student will be courageous in the face of all adversity” or “Student will be a light to the world by being honorable and just in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” That is classical Christian education.