Raising our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is one of the most important tasks in which parents will engage. Making the decision on how best to do that might be one of the most difficult decisions a parent will make. This, of course, can be seen in the wide range of choices that are made: homeschooling, private schooling, public schooling, or Christian schooling. Then, within these choices are more choices that must be made: which curriculum, which texts, and which style (classical, unschooling, conventional).
For the last several decades, there has been a rising interest in classical education. Private schools and homeschool families have invested much time and energy trying to understand classical, Christian education as the model that was used for centuries to educate the faithful. As interest in classical education has blossomed, “classical” has become a buzzword in educational circles. The increased interest has also caused many to question what it truly is. In particular, some homeschool leaders have questioned whether it is possible to give children an education that is both classical and Christian. One recent example is David Quine’s homeschool workshop, The Pitfalls of Classical Education, at the Arlington Homeschool Book Fair.
This is why we are indebted to a family like David and Shirley Quine. The Quines have introduced a curriculum emphasizing a Christian and biblical worldview that has been immensely helpful to the homeschooling community.
They have also raised questions that are important to the education conversation, the great conversation, the classical conversation. Consider the series of choices that a parent makes as enumerated above. The Quines are adding to the conversation, thereby helping parents to make more informed decisions. This is exactly the purpose of classical education.
Classical education teaches according to the Trivium. It is not content-based, although content is chosen. It is methodology-based. The methodology used is the Trivium, three of the seven liberal arts. Remember that liberal here comes from the Latin word liber meaning free. Learning the seven liberal arts helps to insure that a child grows up to be a free human being.
The Trivium consists of three stages: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the art of learning terms associated with a subject. Dialectic is the art of the processing of concepts within and across subjects. Rhetoric is the art of clearly explaining the grammar and dialectic of a subject. The Quines have entered into the classical conversation about education. The parties involved have learned the grammar of the styles and types of education and are now involved in the dialectic of education. We are discussing dialectically what education is and how best to do it. Dialectic is both good and necessary, and the key to the dialectic is that it requires a multiplicity of participants. You cannot argue with yourself—not well. We are indebted to the Quines again because they are helping the homeschooling community to enter into a dialectical conversation, a conversation that will only help us as we mature.
Things may have become conflated. Classical education, as previously mentioned, is not content-based, but methodology-based. We are classical in our approach to education, not classicists. Thus, we do not necessarily teach the classics and their pagan authors, but when we do, we do not do it exclusively. In fact, to teach it exclusively would be the opposite of classical education. The dialectic is so important an aspect of the Trivium that to exclude anything but the pagan classics would be to prevent the dialectic from occurring, an anticlassical error.
It has been said that classical educators teach children about pagan gods and goddesses, but that they do that alongside the Bible. The supposed problem is that the Bible is taught independent of history, thereby relegating the revelation of God to just one of the subjects we learn, rather than it being an integrating factor of all that we learn. With this latter point of contention, Classical Conversations would agree. Classical Conversations, however, does not teach biblical history apart from the rest of history. The two are fully integrated in our own Classical Acts and Facts History Timeline Cards and were also integrated when we used the history timeline cards produced by our friends at Veritas Press.
It is possible, unfortunately, that the reverse problem can occur. To teach the Bible apart from the general revelation of God’s creation and what His creatures have produced also prevents students from engaging in the dialectic. When our children grow up, they can look back on their childhood and interpret our withholding of ‘pagan’ knowledge as a form of dishonesty. A dishonesty that might make them skeptical of what else we withheld and drive them into an appreciation for the pagan that is unprotected by the safe dialectic they would have had with their parents and peers.
As we engage in the dialectic about classical education, we need to remember to maintain a proper understanding of its grammar. Classical education is about the methodology, the Trivium. To oppose classical education is to oppose the Trivium as a methodology, and by extension to oppose the biblical ideas of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. To oppose the Trivium using arguments against pagan classics is to conflate two different topics. If one opposes the use of pagan classics in education, that is an important part of the dialectic that needs to be heard, but it is not an argument against classical education as methodology. The Trivium must not be conflated with classicism, lest in our zeal to purge what we suppose to be harmful we rid ourselves of the tools needed to learn, to know God, and to make Him known.
Furthermore, we are just supposing the classics to be harmful at this point. Without having engaged in a dialectical conversation about them, we cannot have knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to discern their harmfulness or beneficence faithfully. We have to have a conversation in which we engage the question Louise Cowan asks in Invitation to the Classics, “But why in particular should followers of Christ be interested in the classics? Is Scripture not sufficient in itself for all occasions? What interest do Christians have in the propagation of the masterworks? The answer is as I indicated at the beginning of this essay: Many of us in the contemporary world have been misled by the secularism of our epoch; we expect proof if we are to believe in the existence of a spiritual order. Our dry, reductionist reason leads us astray, so that we harden our hearts against the presence of the holy. Something apart from family or church must act as mediator, to restore our full humanity, to endow us with the imagination and the heart to believe.” (Baker Books, 1998)
After all, this is what Christian educators are ultimately after—or should be. Whether they be classical, unschooling, or conventional educators, parents want to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We want our children to have “the imagination and the heart to believe,” to know God and to make Him known. In fact, this is what classical educators of centuries past were after, which is why the seven liberal arts culminated in the study of theology. They were handmaidens to the queen of the arts—theology. And what is theology if not the study of God that we might know Him and make Him known?