Classical education is education; everything else is a later modification. Almost all American educational methods trace their origins to this splendid combination of Athens and Jerusalem. The result of Greek philosophy and Jewish revelation is the incarnation of education in Christendom: fully human and fully divine.
There is nothing wrong with modifying a workable system, but good to know the nature of the system one is modifying. You cannot fix the operating system if you do not know the language of the program. Here are the basic parameters of all real education.
A classical education is Socratic. It begins in questions and ends in wonder. The pattern of education is in the very structure of Plato’s Republic and the life of Jesus. First, the upturning of his assumptions will bewilder the student. Second, the student will hypothesize new solutions to his problems. Third, the student will enter into a community that will produce a “world view” that will allow him to live a good life. Finally, the community discovers a divine story that confirms and broadens what reason has taught.
Jesus lived this educational model and it is summarized in a discussion with His disciples in Luke 24: 13-35. Two disciples were walking to Emmaus after the death of Jesus. They were crushed that Jesus had disappointed their expectations that He was the Messiah. Jesus came to speak to them, the very answer to their felt pain, but hid Himself from them. He wanted to educate, not just placate. He bewildered them with questions. They heard his teachings, listened, learned, and finally saw Jesus in communion with Him over a meal.
A classical education starts with texts. Education is Socratic, but uses the best of the arts—books, music, film, art, or any human artifact—for the material needed for discussion. A good education could begin in any type of text, but it is easier when it begins with excellence.
The use of excellent texts allows the dead, those separated from us by the severe divine mercy of death, to speak. If the world was as God made it, then we could ask Eve for wisdom and Noah for truth, but we are isolated in our particular time by death. Texts allow the dead to speak to us—without any use of occult powers—and break down our chronological loneliness.
A classical education makes a place for the lecture, but centers on the discussion. A great lecture is a work of art and so can provoke thought and discussion, but a lecture is for the discussion, not the discussion for the lecture.
The danger of any class that centers on a particular skill of the teacher is “guru-ism.” Christians have a messiah and His name is Jesus, the Christ. No teacher need assume that role. Saint Paul could ask men to do as he did, but only because Saint Paul followed Jesus. Only the Lord Jesus could command that people become as He is.
A classical education stresses the equality of the teacher and the student as human beings, fallen and yet having the divine image. A classical education insists that in a real education there is no teacher but the Rabbi named Jesus.
A classical education values teachers over administrators and professors over programs. If you find Socrates, go study with him. Accreditation is for distributing government funds. Bad education centers on a way of doing things over the people that must be educated. Only classical education begins by asking: “What is the good life?” and develops education as a means to achieve that life.
A classical education produces a virtuous man–or fails. The goal of a good education is not facts or the ability to earn money. It is not bad to learn facts or to earn money, but these are not the goal of the human life. The goal of human life is to be happy and being happy depends on being good. Why? Only a good man can see God and only God is worth seeing.
Of course, education cannot make a man fit to see God by itself. We are so broken that only by grace through faith can any student see God. Education is the growth of man saved by grace and mercy. As Jesus grew in grace, wisdom, and in favor with God and men, so the student, born again, grows through the educational process.
If a woman or man is not a lady or a gentleman, then she or he is not educated.
I am honored to serve on a team of classical educators. Every day they urge me—starting in the fear of the Lord—to seek wisdom, virtue, and joy.
Dr. John Mark Reynolds is President of the St. Constantine School in Houston. He was formerly the provost of Houston Baptist University and also founded the world-renowned Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. Find him blogging, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
**Editor’s note: This is the 1st of a 7 part series on education. Find more information on the entire series here.