Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learnings
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by Robert Littlejohn, Charles T. Evans
Description: To succeed in the world today, students need an education that equips them to recognize current trends, to be creative and flexible to respond to changing circumstances, to demonstrate sound judgment to work for society's good, and to gain the ability to communicate persuasively. This book argues for returning to the classical liberal arts educational system so that students are prepared for lifelong learning.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [380 KB]
Reading time: 211-295 min.
THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION:
WISDOM AND ELOQUENCE
IT SEEMS ASTONISHING-archaic, anachronistic-any more to combine one's religious convictions with one's vocational ambitions. But in the history of the human race it has been much more common to do this than not. Modern Western society, the so-called liberal, secular West, is really a historical aberration, not the norm. There are definite benefits to be derived from our current way of life, but they are largely temporal, and they can tend to undermine transcendent commitments. Just because we are the envy of the modern world does not mean we deserve the compliment.
But this book is not a polemic against a decadent West. Rather, it is the expression of a hope-filled goal: that the result of all of the effort we pour into teaching and learning would not only benefit the individuals we educate, but would help our society toward more grace and civility, and toward a universally high quality of life. While acknowledging the truth in the adage that fanaticism can lead one to be "so heavenly minded that he is of no earthly good," we more readily embrace the sentiment expressed by C. S. Lewis that the more heavenly minded we are, the greater earthly good we might do. Though we are not Platonists, we agree with Plato's assertion (which we also believe to be biblical) that the pursuit of transcendent ideals is a sure path toward a satisfying life, and we hope our convictions on both why and how we educate our children will reflect this.
[Footnote 1: Plato, The Republic.]
The purpose of all education can be summarized in terms of both metaphysical and practical benefits. The Christian educational life, characterized as "discipleship," is a life of faith-filled learning to be Christlike. The Christian's lifelong spiritual task is to increasingly express one's God-given personality according to biblical norms of truth, goodness, and beauty. The individual metaphysical benefit of this is eternal. The practical benefit of learning to think and live "Christianly" is that every person, regardless of theological conviction, profits by living in a society characterized by these same biblical norms-i.e., a truly civilized society. Though believer and nonbeliever may bicker over definitions, both possess an instinctive judicial sense that signals when they have been treated justly or mercifully.
So, the purpose of Christian education is always twofold. We want our students to grow spiritually, intellectually, and socially, and we want them to foster similar growth in society. Or as St. Augustine of Hippo would have put it, we seek to lead the citizens of earth toward citizenship in heaven, while instilling in them the desire to introduce the values of the heavenly kingdom into the kingdom they presently inhabit. In short, we aim to shape individuals who are both heavenly minded and capable of doing great earthly good.
To be of any earthly good, a person must understand the world around him and recognize what it needs. He must be capable of discerning between what is true and good and beautiful in society and what is not, and he must be empowered to make a difference through perpetuating the former. In short, he requires wisdom and eloquence and not just a façade of wisdom or eloquence. Our activist must understand himself to be the inheritor of a dependable tradition of wisdom (rooted in a transcendent, authoritative source) that he has the responsibility to steward and to articulate to his contemporary world.
We live in a time in which there is no lack of energy for cultural improvement. Despite the broad insurgency of complacency and consumerism, there is a vibrant strain of activism still at work in Western society. From the environment to the sanctity of life, the motivation for reform is alive and well. Such optimistic inclinations are inherited from our cultural ancestors and have been fed by both Christian and nonChristian sources. But the problem facing those who would shape culture today is that the source of true wisdom is constantly in question, even among professing Christians. But the problem facing those who would shape culture today is that the source of true wisdom is constantly in question, even among professing Christians. The education we received illequipped us to discern truth, goodness, and beauty because uncertainty and skepticism have become the more common results of education, replacing the optimism and confidence of earlier generations. Yet, the drive to reform and to be open to reform, together with the inner honing device that should guide such reform, is most easily acquired when we are children.
So, the goals of wisdom and eloquence must be clarified and set before each student, parent, and teacher if we hope to succeed in crafting an education that will benefit our society. Augustine noted that true wisdom comprises at least two significant components. First, he said, a thorough reading of the Scriptures and a general knowledge of its contents form the necessary base from which to gain wisdom with any practical value to society. To a Christian, this might seem obvious, but how many churches and schools ignore or seem to have forgotten this basic discipline? How many curriculum guides can verify that when a student graduates he has read the entire Bible or has had its most important stories and theological truths taught to him?
Augustine's second wisdom component was, essentially, to learn everything else-not entirely or comprehensively, but in a thorough yet moderate manner. He especially recommended broad study of the areas of knowledge that he considered to be "true and unchangeable" like logic and mathematics. These things he ascertained to be "investigated and discovered" rather than invented. The transcendent aim of such pursuits is to discover and to acknowledge the glory of God's creative genius, while the practical, immediate benefits of these studies include an increasing ability to understand, function in, and positively affect the world around us.
[Footnote 2: Augustine, On Christian Doctrine (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1958).]
After wisdom, eloquence was the second of Augustine's indicators of a properly educated Christian. Before Homer first composed the lyrical speeches of The Iliad in the eighth century B.C., Westerners valued oratorical skill as a sign of great leadership. Augustine had been a renowned professor of rhetoric at the time of his conversion. Though he was raised by a Christian mother in a rural part of North Africa, his recognition of the superior eloquence of the great Roman orator Cicero (106-43 B.C.) had actually prevented him from being able to appreciate the comparatively rustic, Hebraic style of the Scriptures. Augustine's first personal encounter with a highly trained Christian orator, therefore, had profound effect. He found himself compelled to listen to and, finally, to believe the gospel as articulated by Ambrose, the towering bishop of Milan.
We will consider the concept of eloquence as a comprehensive academic objective in greater detail later, but because some might consider it too limited a theme to characterize a school's entire program, it is worth addressing briefly at this point. Ordinarily, eloquence has been taught through the discipline of rhetoric. In the conversation contained in this book, we will limit our definition of rhetoric to its classical articulation-persuasive public discourse. Though we live in an age of fragmented communication, characterized by media-focused sound bites, the necessity of genuine eloquence for cultural influence has not diminished. Even the most unsophisticated audience can sense the difference between a rant and a carefully considered opinion. Though the timeframes allotted for public discourse might have shrunk dramatically since the eighteenth century, what Jonathan Swift called "proper words in proper places" still can have the effect of moving audiences from muddle-headed thinking to sound reasoning or from complacency to action.
Christian education, properly considered, always includes the goal that students will use their schooling to impact the world around them. Not only do we expect our graduates to exercise discernment over their own lives and lifestyles, but we also expect them to be able to persuasively articulate a better way of life to those around them.
We have to be careful, as we educate our students to live "Christianly" in this world, to do more than just teach them how to be a good example to others, should anyone care to look over their suburban privacy fences. Teaching them to think, to discern, and to behave wisely should be coupled with instilling in them a sense of obligation to contend for those same values throughout society. If we believe that Christian living is the fulfillment in this life of what God intends for human beings-if being a Christian is, in fact, "good for us"-then we can legitimately conclude that living in a Christ-influenced society can be good for anyone, even those who do not profess the faith personally. A gracious, articulate citizen who has learned to consider and to com20 municate within the whole range of human concerns will find it much easier to influence those living in the modern world than will those who have missed this set of skills in their education.
In addition to Augustine's intellectual and spiritual power, there is another reason to look to him and his close contemporaries for advice regarding how to educate today. Augustine lived in a time not unlike our own. In the late fourth century A.D., when Augustine did much of his writing on education and culture, the Roman Empire was at the peak of its power and influence in the world, but its foundations were crumbling. Threatened externally by Germanic barbarians and fractured internally by the meandering politics of affluence, Roman society was precariously poised on the verge of collapse.
In the midst of all this, Christianity was gaining political and demographic strength, but all was not well with this four-hundred-year-old faith. Heresies cropped up like weeds. Political power led to syncretism and moral acquiescence. Generations of energetic believers had come and gone, and many sitting in the churches on Sunday were only nominally committed to the faith of their ancestors. The church tended toward the poles of cultural conformity or cultural separation, with little skill at crafting a uniquely Christian vision of society or making that vision a reality.
Augustine stepped into this malaise armed with a comprehensive perspective on what it means to inhabit two worlds simultaneously. He instructed his flocks and the church at large in the skills necessary to understand and accept the limitations of fallen society while simultaneously energizing the here-and-now with heavenly values. His prescription for wisdom and eloquence resonates into the twenty-first century.
We are proposing what is most appropriately and accurately called a Christian liberal arts and sciences approach to education. We must acknowledge that some have labeled elements of this tradition "classical," but we intend to explicate the tradition on the basis of its historical development as well as its practical efficacy and offer a fresh look at what we believe to be the intended outcomes of the tradition. We maintain that the classical liberal arts and sciences have, for centuries, provided and continue to provide the best way to impart genuine wisdom and eloquence to all who are willing to take up the challenge.
Our approach in this book is to focus on the desired ends or outcomes of Christian education, but a book on education is not much help, nor would it be very interesting without suggestions on how to get the job done. Curricular structures, especially those depending on "old-fashioned," even ancient, ideas about teaching and learning, need some context. If we are proposing an unconventional approach to schooling, we must be able to demonstrate that the ideas we have gleaned from our study and experience have both a historical and experiential basis from which to predict success.
If society needs wise and eloquent leaders, Christian schools should be at the forefront of educating people for these roles. The liberal arts tradition has dependably produced creative and active men and women whose impact on Western culture has been felt for millennia. Christian schools that embrace this tradition and its demands and opportunities will equip their students with practical culture-shaping skills for succeeding generations.
Colleges that still embrace the liberal arts and sciences have long understood the broad scope of their curriculum to be the best preparation for life, the true hallmark of the educated person. This is in contrast to education in the professional or industrial arts, which prepares one for a specific vocation and results in a person's being well trained in a single discipline or craft. Liberally educated people, whose intellectual skills are transferable to the learning of any subject or craft, are increasingly important in an economy in which the average adult changes careers multiple times over the course of his life. This reality starkly contrasts with our parents' or grandparents' experience, when serving forty-plus years in one occupation, even in one company, was commonplace.
But the benefits of a liberal arts education were historically not limited to college students. The truest application of the liberal arts and sciences in their historic context must begin with young children. It is this application that we strongly advocate.
Whenever it begins, the heart of the liberal arts tradition is the core curriculum. The cultural impact of the tradition was made possible by philosophical commitments that supported the view of society proposed by Augustine and his intellectual and spiritual descendants. If we are serious about finding a relevant application of this tradition in the twenty-first century, we have to ask ourselves about our own philosophical commitments. Once we accept the responsibility of this tradition, what should our schools look like? What really distinguishes our schools from others? And what convictions must we as Christian educators adopt to fully engage our students with the liberal arts tradition?
WHAT WE ARE NOT
The dominant theories on education these days are the descendants of modernist educators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cultural icons like Columbia's John Dewey, heavily influenced by the philosophical pragmatism of William James and Charles Peirce, constructed a "progressive" educational mentality that is generally characterized by at least three priorities:
1. It places the student at the center of the educational process, displacing or ignoring the cultural tradition in which he or she stands.
2. It educates students according to deterministic assessments of aptitude prescribing college-preparatory tracks for some and vocational education for others.
3. It generally "vocationalizes" the education process, training students primarily to function in the economy.
John Dewey was a brilliant and complex theorist who remained open throughout his life to his ideas being tested and contradicted. We understand that Dewey himself should not be blamed for the full extent of the drift from traditional principles in American education, but his impact on subsequent theories has been profound. So, while current expressions of "progressive" education cannot always be directly attributed to Dewey, we are convinced that Dewey's work created a seismic shift from traditional American educational theory that has resulted in enormous negative consequences for students and our society.
It is important to note that "progressivism" is not limited to the public educational arena. Most private schools have adopted progressive goals and methods in designing curriculum, even as they justify their existence on the basis of social or spiritual benefits, over against their public school counterparts. We would be hard pressed to state unequivocally that children cannot learn in a progressive environment. Yet it is important to be able to discern the differences that ordinarily exist between schools that have embraced the liberal arts educational tradition and those that have accepted progressive and modernistic assumptions about teaching and learning.
Progressivism, because of its close association with modernism, has grown to be identified with secularism in education. The early progressives were strict secularists-modernists convinced that religious devotion, especially among educators, impedes scientific discovery and social progress. The political necessity of secularization in public schools has only enhanced the standing of progressive theories, because they largely relegate religion to the margins of a student's personhood. Private and even Christian educators, often in order to commend their schools to parents who are content with the banality of conventional education, have increasingly adopted progressive curriculum materials and have incorporated progressive teaching methods into their classrooms.
The inevitable effect for Christian schools that adopt progressive ideas uncritically is a de facto dualistic compartmentalization in the curriculum, separating the sacred from the secular. Though it would be unfair to characterize progressively oriented Christian schools as "secularized," still it is a characteristic of un-Christian thinking to separate the sacred and the secular. To the extent that the curriculum structures in our schools do not uphold a consistent, pervasive integration of the sacred into the students' academic and social experiences, we have allowed ourselves to become secularized.
Since liberal arts thinking is currently the minority position in our society, it is easy to think of ourselves as cultural insurrectionists. It is important to remember, however, that modernism overthrew a 2,500-year-old tradition. It, and not the culture we are recovering for our classrooms, is the insurgent. So, against what ideas about teaching and learning have progressive theories rebelled?
The liberal arts tradition positioned faith squarely in the center of human identity. From the Greek pagans to Augustine, to be a person meant that one is inherently religious. Reflecting Solomon's proposition that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10), Augustine understood religious faith to be inextricable from one's understanding of the world. Differences in opinion over the nature of reality were fundamentally understood to be differences in worldview. The purpose of education in such an intellectual economy was to deepen spiritual understanding through belief in an open, divinely ordered universe as a necessary means of understanding oneself and one's place in the world.
Modern education has replaced faith as a foundational element of certainty with skepticism. It seems ironic, but the result of rationalism or anti-supernaturalism in education is a great deal of uncertainty about what is real. Students in most schools these days are taught a confusing epistemology in which certainty, especially regarding anything outside of the sciences, is looked upon as a sign of intellectual arrogance. Knowing and depending upon a cultural tradition equates with intellectual laziness.
The traditional understanding of human nature has also undergone a radical reconstruction. In the liberal arts tradition, human nature is understood to be immutable. To the Greeks, this meant that the tragedy of the human condition was also irremediable. As Christians, we understand the Bible to teach that fallen human nature, though correctable via redemption, is constant. People are who they are, in every time and in every place, from the moment of the fall of man to the present. So, wisdom gained in 2000 B.C. is wholly relevant to those of us living four thousand years later.
Modernistic views of human nature describe human identity as being in a constant state of flux. Evolutionary psychologists posit that improvements in our awareness of ourselves, symbolized in political changes such as women's suffrage or the abolition of slavery, constitute a change in "consciousness"-a synonym for our nature.
The more radical one's view of the mutability of human nature, the less relevant the experiences and traditions that have preceded us become. For instance, in an age in which there is justifiable moral consensus against one person owning another, there is little or nothing to learn from a writer from an age in which slavery was an accepted norm. So the scholarship and thinking of Thomas Jefferson, for example, becomes irrelevant for the current generation. This was clearly behind John Dewey's thinking when he wrote, "As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future society. The school is its chief agency for the accomplishment of this end." Dewey isn't simply relieving us of the responsibility to conserve our cultural heritage; he holds us responsible not to conserve most of it. This thinking produces the highest forms of cultural arrogance and inoculates students against the most useful kinds of historical understanding. Who will choose which parts of our heritage are and are not to be conserved?
[Footnote 3: Great Books Foundation, A Manual for Co-Leaders (Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 1965).]
A third presupposition overthrown by modernism and its educational progeny has to do with objective values. In the liberal arts and sciences tradition, truth, goodness, and beauty have each been understood to be objective categories of knowledge that can be both investigated and known. The Greeks and Romans were, by and large, absolutists. Disagreements among pagans over the nature of truth or goodness or beauty had to do with definitions of their absolute values. Rarely does one find a credible liberal arts thinker who does not assume a basic absolutism. Christianity requires an even higher degree of certainty in that truth, goodness, and beauty are characteristics of God himself. Perfection in each of these arenas is genuinely conceivable because we have seen them revealed and modeled in the person of Christ. So the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty is a worthwhile and achievable goal, even with the qualification that we cannot know or practice them perfectly in this life.
Both modernism and postmodernism reject all absolutes. Inherent contradictions between competing visions of truth, goodness, and beauty are ultimately irrelevant. In the abstract, we might enjoy haggling over the notion that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," but as relativism finds its way into our understanding of truth and goodness, the effects can be horrific. Ethical and moral relativism result directly from the skepticism that accompanies the displacement of faith from our cultural epistemology.
Ultimately, relativism permits each person to define his own version of each of these values, resulting in a world in which six billion people are each encouraged to live according to unrelated and even opposing definitions of notions that are fundamentally important to civic harmony. Carrying such thinking to its logical extreme, Hitler can no longer be morally relegated to the category of "evil," because the category no longer exists. Instead, modern teachers must create for their students a gymnasium of ethical exercises to determine whether the Nazi death camps were, on the whole, helpful or harmful, depending on one's point of view. The end of this persuasion is an educational disaster. In stark contrast, a Christian liberal arts and sciences education rejects such relativism while cultivating in its inheritors genuine wisdom and eloquence, preparing them for culturally relevant living in two kingdoms simultaneously.