It was twenty years ago this fall that I plunged wholeheartedly and somewhat heedlessly into Christian classical education when some comrades and I started Providence Academy in Green Bay, WI. Since then, I have been hearing repeatedly the very sensible call for a practical education.
In theory, I have no objection to a practical education. In practice, however, the focus on the practical is not as easy and the necessity for it is not as obvious as many make it out to be.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that the word is usually undefined and taken as obvious. It is not. At least not to this listener, who has tried to understand what people mean when they use the word only to encounter reactions that range from cloudiness to frustration with me for even asking the question.
Some people only say they want something practical because they know they should. We are Americans. We invented practical. Of course we want practical, and it is insolent of you to distract us by insisting we clarify what we mean.
However, many people do include some degree of precise meaning when they demand a practical education. The trouble is, their meanings vary from what others mean.
Fathers are notoriously absent from the conversation about the purpose of education. When they jump in, it is typically to ensure that their children’s education will meet the “practical” need for a job so their children can grow up to provide for their families.
Mothers have a different view. Since they are the ones who actually have to force their children to do their homework, their practical concerns are more short-term. They are at least overshadowed, if not governed, by the desire to put an end to the evening struggle and have peace with the child.
Teachers have their professional pride, and they need to know what to teach, when, and how. Practical for them means learning effective techniques, managing the classroom, and keeping up on school activities. The theoretical has its place, especially during the summer, but the main goal lies somewhere between survival and tyranny.
Heads of school typically stand as mediators between the parents and the teachers.
Board members need to keep the school fiscally sound, growing, and impressive to prospective parents.
Prospective parents rarely know what they want, though they are filled with anxiety for their children, wavering between short-term issues of self-esteem and long-term matters of vocational success, with academic insecurities filling the midterm gap.
Then, there are the children. Practicality really is not an issue for them, until they get to high school, and then only rarely. Children are idealists and dreamers, if they have not had it burned out of them. They still have lofty visions for what life can be and that is what makes them so gullible to the call of the reformer and the demagogue.
However, they are going to vote, marry, have families, attend or avoid church, make decisions (often affecting others), encounter temptations, wrestle with their faith, suffer persecution, be dishonored, and stand in the presence of Christ on that final day.
For which of these does a “practical” education prepare them?
Properly understood, a Christian classical education prepares the student for them all, as an afterthought, lightly, by transcending them.
What all these have in common is a distinct lack of joy rooted in an endless slide into anxiety and fear.
So what is the practical education that a Christian classical school can actually provide? It is one that teaches a student how to learn, cultivates his faculties to perceive truth, and irrigates the desert of his soul to love beauty unashamedly.
It is one that pushes him to mastery of language through the deep and prolonged study of Latin and/or Greek (that which no practical training is more practical), insists that he overcome his blindness by seeing reality mathematically, and trains his senses through the arts. It is so concerned with cultivating the child’s uniquely human faculties that it has no time or resources for lesser matters.
In short, it is not one oriented toward “practical” outcomes, but toward virtue ordered by truth. The truth sets one free. A practical education, whatever that might mean, has always been regarded by Christian and classical educators as an education for slaves; not because the practical does not matter, but because what is really practical is contained in the truth, while the truth is much too large for the practical to hold it.
Beavers are practical. So are bees. So is every other animal under the sun. And we should be, too, but in a manner that suits us as human beings and as images of God—by turning our hearts to the truth, no matter what it costs us, no matter if people will pay for it, no matter if it is easier for the teachers, prepares the child for a vocation, makes them cry when it is difficult, or makes it obvious up front what they will do with it.
Not because none of these things matter, but because the truth matters more (I have always been fascinated by how suspiciously and even angrily the practical regards the true, while the true has always loved and honored the practical). We cannot afford the consequences of a practical orientation in education anymore.
Lest you feel your chest constricting and your breath shortening, please do not fear. The truth is far more practical than practicality. It is big enough to coordinate the efforts of all the different constituencies and interest groups in a school.
The child will be thrilled with every “Eureka!” Teachers will find their curricula simplified and their pedagogy streamlined. Parents will see their children grow out of themselves and into maturity. Families will be healed. Bodies, souls, and communities will grow in harmony within and among themselves. And the school’s success will advertise it far more effectively than any brochure could ever hope to (especially if the brochure replaces faithful efforts with words and pictures).
That is how good the truth is. Let us take it by faith.
How do we do that? Step one is to orient ourselves in the right direction: true north.