An Affront to Credentialed Coggery

A good place to start here is to respond to a comment on my earlier post about the trivium, “Working With the Grain.” It’s a good place to start both because other readers may share the same objection to homeschooling, and because it allows me to be more clear about what I’m after.

In the first place, if a father and mother decide to homeschool their children, it does not follow that they don’t care about other children. That’s a non sequitur, as the one thought does not follow from the other. It would be just as illogical to argue that feeding your kids a certain diet means that you don’t care about what other kids eat.

Secondly, and most importantly, in my case it simply isn’t true. I wouldn’t bother putting all the time into writing these posts if I were interested only in doing my own little thing behind the closed doors of the manor. Rather, I want to commend classical education to whomsoever may stumble into this nano-sized blip in the NSA’s mainframe. I think that classical education is the future of Christian education, that as more schools recover this dusty old model its benefits will speak for themselves. I think that this is true of Canadian Reformed schools, too. My hope is that through these posts I can persuade at least a few of my readers of the same.

I’ll share some thoughts here about what actually make this education classical. But in order to get there, in order for the content to make sense, I have to spend some time on the point of an education in general. After all, reading the Aeneid, or Beowulf, won’t get you a job outside of a select few university-level Classics or English departments. If a career were the primary goal of education, it would be an indefensible waste of time for students to be reflecting on why duty-bound Aeneas abandoned his little tryst with Queen Dido, and that in her despair the latter committed suicide atop a flaming funeral pyre. If we hold that a real education is supposed to shape you into a credentialed cog in the great professional Mammon machine, then a classical education is a most impractical way to get there.

But according to Scripture, the great Christian thinkers of the past, and basically most of Western history, the target of learning is the state of your soul. Real education is about the formation of you as a human being, the question being not what kind of job you’ll get, but what kind of man you’ll be. And the only true humanity out there is that which is in a posture of obedience at the footstool of the Triune God. In that holy place we find both the beginning of wisdom and the command to pursue it: “If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God… let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life.” It is the pursuit of wisdom that matures us into great men and women of the faith; and it is that pursuit that forms the template for education, the standard against which we can judge the quality of all learning.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this is the reward of divine truth. Indeed, this is a major point of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. He argues that faith, hope, and love are not only the highest forms of the Christian life, but also the necessary prerequisites to understanding the Scriptures. Access to God’s Word is not only granted through the intellectual tools of exegesis, background study, and knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, but especially by obeying the two greatest commandments. If you seek wisdom and adorn your soul with the virtues it confers, then you will find the knowledge of God.

This also means that catechism class alone is insufficient to transmit this sacred knowledge to the next generation. Children will grow up to be bored by spiritual things, by the knowledge of God, if they have not from their youngest years been instructed in the love of wisdom. For the path of wisdom is an alien life to the natural man, who is drawn by nature to pursue this world and to forgo the next. If children don’t see this true alien life either within their teachers or their textbooks, this otherworld intimacy with tri-unity, immutability, the beauty of holiness; with blood atonement, an indwelling Spirit, an omnipotent Voice; with burning angels, lion-ox-eagle-man creatures, a sea of glass, unapproachable light, and the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of the God-man, they’ll stick to their hockey and their Glee, thanks. Mustn’t get too weird, now.

The pursuit of wisdom is the treasure we’re after, but we Christians haven’t been the only ones digging. The ancient Greek and Roman pagans also pursued wisdom – much, much more than modern man, it should be said – and Christians have long held that the pagan pursuit is worth studying. John Calvin was of this opinion. At the end of his commentary on Titus, Calvin points us to Basil the Great as an authority on how to use the pagan classics for God’s glory. Basil argues that “since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours, and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more still by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature. For it is no small advantage that a certain intimacy and familiarity with virtue should be engendered in the souls of the young.”

So reading about Aeneas won’t get you a job, but it will show you what it looks like for a man to forsake tempting distractions for the greater duty to which he is called. And reading the Iliad won’t give you hands-on skills, but it will give you the picture of arrogant and “godlike” folly. These stories show us lived virtue and lived folly, that despite the great and intimidating cost of virtue, yet it “excelleth folly as far as light excelleth darkness.” Homer wrote the Iliad, and Basil encourages us to read him, for “all Homer’s poetry is an encomium of virtue.” The great value of these pagan books is that they whet our appetites for the virtuous life, assuring us with Proverbs that wisdom “is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.” Nothing in all the world can compare with Lady Wisdom and her promise of “length of days, long life, and peace.” Twelve years is ample time to introduce our children to her.

So the reason we are thinking of homeschooling is not because homeschooling is a superior form of education. It isn’t. Yes, there are advantages, like being able to tailor your children’s education according to their individual strengths and weaknesses. At home you have more control over what will influence them, and you are more involved in the formation of their character. But there are real challenges, too. Homeschooling parents have to be more intentional about involving their children in science fairs, or debate clubs, or sports, or music, not to mention putting them in situations where they can develop friendships with other children. Of course it’s possible to do all that, but it’s easier when it can all happen at one place. All things being equal, I think institutional schools are a better choice than homeschooling.

But in this respect all things are not equal. Classical education explicitly targets the character of the students in a way that conventional education does not. Its emphasis on the poets, historians, and philosophers of Western civilization gives students the broad historical perspective that enables them both to understand and to critique their own time. I intend to bless my children with this education, even if that means educating them at home. But I think that all children would be blessed by such learning, and that it would strengthen the spiritual life of the church, as well.

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One thought on “An Affront to Credentialed Coggery

  1. Just want to thank you for this – good piece, clear explanation, and going where few have gone before, so you are being courageous in taking this on. May God bless your efforts in getting us to try to stand on the shoulders of our parents in seeking to improve on and expand what they have given us.

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