Why another book on education and, in particular, another book on Christian education? Because things keep changing, and we believe that, of all people, Christian educators must be responsive to society’s changing needs so that our graduates are prepared to make a difference in the world in which they live. We need to be habitual about improving the quality of the education we provide, not only with respect to how we teach, but also with respect to what we teach. In the pages that follow, we advocate a timeless system of education, the core of which hasn’t changed for centuries and does need not to change in order to meet the changing needs of society. But the ways we go about implementing this system and the emphases we place upon the various dimensions of the system must be flexible to achieve the essential ends of the education we provide.
But what has changed? On a practical level, the economic environment in which our graduates must function is vastly different from that encountered just a short generation ago. With 75 percent of today’s workforce being characterized by management guru Peter Drucker as “knowledge workers,” the value of raw human intellectual capital is at an all-time high. The demand for mere training in a particular trade or craft has faded with the industrial age, rendering the educational paradigms that catered to such demand obsolete. Instead, the need for men and women who can “think outside the box” pervades the American business culture.
Further, between the mass outsourcing of production and services to other countries and the gradual consumption of American companies by foreign private and government investors, there is increasing demand for those who can function and succeed in a global economy. Meanwhile, the majority of new jobs at home are being generated by small start-up businesses, putting the creative entrepreneur in the driver’s seat, not only for the creation of wealth, but for local and regional economic development across much of our nation. And with the bulk of these ventures involving technology, biotechnology, or some other form of applied science or engineering, there has never been a greater demand for a deepening understanding of mathematics and science among American adults.
At the same time, big company scandals involving “cooked” books and insider trading have punctuated the desperate need for a generation of business and political leaders who consider ethics to be as important to the corporate and political landscape as the related economic and political agendas. In short, our nation is crying for leaders who possess the knowledge, skills, and virtues necessary to function, communicate, and succeed in the face of never more rapidly expanding information and communication technologies and never more rapidly changing circumstances.
On a deeper level, truth has changed. That is to say, the way most people in our contemporary culture perceive and process truth is profoundly different from how it was before. Until the dawn of the Enlightenment, faith constituted the major means of knowing truth, but with that dawning, modernism reigned supreme as the primary epistemology in American and European culture for two centuries. Perceived truth was apprehended on the basis of rational, empirical, scientific authority. What could be supported rationally must be truth. However, over the last several decades modernism has been supplanted in our global culture by its “nameless” successor, postmodernism. For the postmodernist, rational arguments no longer convince, and authority is essentially located in oneself. If I can be persuaded that something is true, then it is truth. The truth I embrace may be different from (even contradictory to) someone else’s truth, and that is okay. So believe the postmodernists. As Christians, we may bristle at such thinking, but the sad reality is that our children are terribly vulnerable to the pervasive influences of postmodernism in their world.
So, this significant cultural change poses the deeper educational demand, since education is more about cultural relevance than about attaining economic advantage. We want to prepare our graduates not only to make a living, but also to make a profound difference in the world into which they emerge and in the world that emerges over the course of their lives. We must guide them through the often difficult process of acquiring the skills, knowledge, and virtues necessary for the task.
So what are the essential qualities that our graduates must possess to make the kinds of culturally relevant contributions that we describe? We propose that these essential qualities are the very same as those indicated by St. Augustine of Hippo nearly 1,600 years ago—namely wisdom and eloquence. Our graduates need wisdom to navigate the murky waters of the current cultural, political, and economic milieu as well as those of an uncertain future. They require more than training for the here and now. They require an education that imbues them with the ability to recognize and understand current trends, the creative flexibility to respond effectively to ever-changing circumstances, and the sound judgment to perceive and champion the highest good for society.
But an education for wisdom is only half the formula. Without the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively, wisdom’s benefit is singular to its possessor. Our graduates also require eloquence, especially in a post-Christian, postmodern age when, for many, authority comes not from the Scriptures or from reason but from within. Our wise servant must also be imbued with understanding of and compassion for his fellow humans and must be ready to put his wisdom into action by helping “the many” to embrace the greater good that wisdom offers.
Augustine expressed this most eloquently when he spoke of two cities or kingdoms—the earthly and the heavenly. We must be about the work of both cities at once, looking forward to the heavenly while living in the earthly and bringing to it as many of the characteristics of the heavenly as we possibly can. Such work requires both wisdom and eloquence.
But how will we accomplish such noble educational goals in our students? In his letter to the Romans, Paul urged that his readers not be conformed to this world (the earthly), but that they should be transformed by the renewing of their minds. We allege that from the whole of Paul’s writing it is clear that he was not advocating abandonment of the earthly city, but a reversal of roles as to who influences whom. Through renewing their minds, Paul’s readers could be transformed and simultaneously become transforming influencers in their world . . . very effective education indeed. Augustine suggested that this is best accomplished through a serious study of the Scriptures and the study of essentially “everything else”—that is through study of God’s special revelation of himself to his creatures (i.e., the Scriptures) and through study of his general revelation of himself in creation and providence as well.
What we propose is precisely this: a syllabus that prepares our students for the lifelong journey of independent learning in the Holy Scriptures and everything else. We believe that this is best accomplished by beginning with the end of our educational endeavor in view and planning a top-down scope and sequence for the thorough mastery of the classical liberal arts and sciences in Christian context. We must acknowledge that there are other effective ways to educate, but we believe this to be the best of a handful of ways to accomplish our educational objectives. We draw our confidence from the centuries-old tradition itself. We maintain that the classical liberal arts and sciences do not work because they represent a long-standing tradition. Rather, the tradition is long-standing because, as a system of education, it works.
It is worth mentioning that while the tradition upon which we are drawing has its roots in Western civilization, it has its counterparts in Eastern cultures also. Further, this form of education has spread, with Christianity itself, to many nations and cultures throughout the world and has found success in educating peoples of all languages and ethnic backgrounds. The paradigm that we espouse is neither intellectually elitist nor culturally exclusive. We maintain that it is an education for every person and that those schools who extend its promise to a racially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse student body will see the greatest benefits of its power.
This book has been subtitled A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning. In our understanding, the expression “classical learning” owes its derivation to the development of the “liberal arts and sciences,” beginning with classical antiquity and culminating with modern applications. Those already familiar with the history and application of the liberal arts will detect in this a certain “spin” that calls for an explanation. The liberal arts, as we interpret them for the modern school, include a thorough treatment of the natural sciences; so to say “arts and sciences” is in fact redundant. However, there is such wide misapprehension these days that the liberal arts sufficiently emphasize the natural sciences that we cannot apologize for the double meaning in our nomenclature. Too many have dismissed the liberal arts as an inappropriate paradigm for a technological age, believing it to be a humanities-only approach. So whether our readers understand us to mean the liberal arts (including math and science) plus the “true sciences” of theology and philosophy or whether they understand us to mean the humanities plus the natural sciences is of little consequence. Our message is the same. We will ask, however, the reader’s indulgence in our alternate use of “liberal arts” and “liberal arts and sciences” as we address the salient issues related to educating in this rich tradition.
We believe that much in the ensuing chapters will be of great interest and help to parents of school-aged children. But we have written this book primarily with professional educators in mind, not so much as a scholarly work, but as a sometimes apologetic for the tradition, a sometimes historical overview, and a sometimes how-to manual. We have endeavored to address the place of Christian worldview formation, character development, academic rigor, and cultural relevance—together with the concept of “schoolness” and the historical development, explication, and implementation of the liberal arts and sciences for the modern student. Should parents wish, they may be best advised to begin the book by reading “A Message to Parents” in Appendix A. Professional educators will do best to jump right in with chapter 1.