Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Vision for Education

Disclaimer: many of the ideas in this vision came from this book and this essay. I encourage you to read both.

It is no secret that public education as a whole is on the precipice of disaster. Many school districts in urban centers are failure factories. The schools in mostly middle-class suburbs, while churning out (somewhat) college-ready students, are perilously close to abdicating objective standards and criteria altogether. After that, there is no turning back. While I am happy that the system will likely topple, it leaves us with a potentially gargantuan mess to clean up and the need for different blueprints with which to start over.

What we need is a fundamental change, from the very foundation. And like all truly good foundations, this one must begin with repentance and faith. We must repent (as a community and as individuals) of believing the lies we have been taught since childhood: that education will save you. While we may say, as Christians, that Jesus saves us spiritually, there's no denying that many of us have believed that a good education will save us physically. And so we pursue education as a means of saving ourselves. This is a lie, and we must recognize it as such.

But recognizing the lie is only the first step in repentance and faith. We must have something upon which we can build when the public education system lies in ruins. Even if public education stays around for the entirety of our lives, a new vision for Christ-centered education wouldn't hurt. In fact, I believe it would prove immensely powerful in fulfilling the Great Commission.

What follows, then, is my vision for education—specifically an education that is rooted in Christ and formed around the Classical method.

The Purpose of Education

Earlier in this blog, I hinted at the true purpose of education. The goal of true education is ultimately true worship. And we cannot worship that which we know nothing about. Therefore, we should want our children to love to think and learn as a means of teaching them to worship. But we need to teach them how to think and learn properly. Believe it or not, everything in life is connected; it is all part of the grand narrative of Scripture. And it is all subject to the Lordship of Christ. This includes the education of our children. So, in our educational pursuits, we ought to endeavor to show how trigonometry and Shakespeare are related under the umbrella of Christ. That is just an example, but the point is made: If the universe is upheld by Christ's word of power, then we ought to learn about both the universe and about Christ. And they ought to be done together, under one roof. We need to raise our children in the paideia (worldview) of God (Eph. 6:4).

The Purpose of All Pursuits

The purpose of a classical Christian education follows closely with Scripture. Throughout the Psalms and Proverbs, we are encouraged to get knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We are told to love God's law—to meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1). Surely, the man who delights in God's law becomes a blessing to those around him. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, a blessing to all who come into contact with him.

The Bible commands us to do everything unto the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). So, the purpose of all human pursuits, whether eating, drinking, or learning, is to glorify God. Education is a tool to help us know, understand, and appreciate the world in which we live. And we should aim to appreciate God because of the world we know so much about.

Classical education focuses on a student's ability to learn, not merely learn subjects. So, its purpose is to train children how to learn and think properly. What good would it do to have your child memorize "Clair de Lune" when you could teach them to read music instead? Classical education teaches students the "art of learning." Christian classical education teaches students the art of learning in a Christ-centered universe.

Purpose in Threes

So, with the mandate to get knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, we can examine how the mandate applies to a Christian pedagogy. When looked at closely, these commands fall perfectly in line with the classical model of education. The path of classical education follows three stages, which we will discuss later. But the stages themselves follow Scripture's admonition to get knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. This threefold path has both a scientific and aesthetic component that correspond to our purposes. The scientific component seeks to gain knowledge, understanding, and ultimately wisdom. The complimentary aesthetic components are truth, goodness, and beauty. These dual sets of three line up nicely with the progression of the classical Trivium syllabus (discussed in the next section):

Grammar =Knowledge / Truth
Logic =Understanding / Goodness
Rhetoric =Wisdom / Beauty

When done with the Scriptures as the foundation, this progression teaches students to recognize and appreciate the unity of all knowledge under Christ. It aims their sights past the mere accumulation of knowledge—it goes on to teach students to apply that knowledge in a way consistent with the Bible's great commands: to love God and love our neighbors.

All of this ends with a singular purpose: the purpose of education is to teach children principles of right learning and right thinking that will ultimately cultivate right living, for the glory of God and the good of society.

The Plan of Education

With our purposes established, let us discuss what the "art of learning" actually means. The plan of education follows the Medieval Classical model laid out in Sayers' essay "The Lost Tools of Learning." But before we talk about the solution, we should identify the problem with modern education. Dorothy Sayers summarized the issue well in her 1947 essay: "[A]lthough we often succeed in teaching our pupils 'subjects,' we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning." The problem is even more pronounced in our current school system. Standardized tests and "teaching to the test" are the norms under which we operate. I believe this does a severe disservice to the student's mind and natural intellectual development. 

The classical model, on the other hand, follows closely a child's natural development stages. When kids are mental sponges, soaking up everything around them, we teach them facts, facts, and more facts. We cram their heads full of information because it is more likely to stay there. Later on, when older children are learning that they like to challenge authority and argue, we teach them what authority means and how to argue well. When teenagers are trying to find meaning and significance in their lives, we teach them the root of their identity and show them that life flows from it in a beautiful, cohesive manner. So, let's look at a basic outline of the classical model of education. 

The Trivium

The Trivium was a central part of the Syllabus of Medieval Classical Schools. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Logic (or Dialectic), and Rhetoric, in that order. These are not so much "subjects" as they are methods of dealing with subjects. In other words, they represent methods of learning. The purpose of the Trivium is to give the student the proper tools of learning before they attempt to apply them to different subjects (the Quadrivium). With that background, let us look at the nature of each stage in the Trivium. (Note: this section borrows heavily from Dorothy Sayers's essay).

Grammar (Knowledge, Truth)

Grammar, in its essential terms, is the study of things as they are. In modern expression, grammar students will learn facts, figures, names, places, events, and so on. They will also learn "grammar" as it is colloquially known—English and Latin grammar. Principally, students will be taught Latin grammar as a foundation of the rest of their education. Latin, although a "dead" language, is indispensable to a liberal arts education. Latin proficiency, some say, cuts down the effort required to learn other subjects by at least fifty percent.  

In this stage of learning, children's brains are sponges waiting to soak up knowledge. We must make use of this proclivity as much as possible. The principal method of learning in this stage will be the child's memory. Their heads should be filled with scripture, stories, myths, geography, multiplication tables, and anything else we can cram into them. 

In the study of English, verse and prose should be memorized by heart. It should be through recitation and memory exercises. Classical stories and masterpieces of all kinds should be included in the curriculum. All in all, the student should be taught to love to read, memorize, and learn about stories. After all, we are a part of a story ourselves. 

The grammar of history should consist of dates, events, anecdotes, and personalities. A set of dates that form a timeline of history in the student's brain will serve him well in obtaining a proper perspective of history. Western history should be emphasized, particularly because it is so closely intertwined with the history of the Church. And of course, dates and names should be accompanied by pictures, drawings, buildings, and so on, so that any date will trigger a litany of images from the entire period.

Geography should be presented factually, with emphasis on maps, natural features, and visualizations of geographic flora, fauna, and cultural customs. Old school memorization of countries and their capitals wouldn't hurt, either. 

Science, in the grammar stage, structures itself around natural philosophy. The identification and naming of species, plants, constellations, clouds, and so on should dominate the curriculum. Learning these scientific facts—oftentimes forgotten by adults—gives children an immense sense of satisfaction, not to mention practical value (if, say, they know which indigenous snakes are poisonous or not).

The grammar of mathematics should start with the multiplication tables, which should be learned as early as possible; other study should include geometric shapes and groupings of numbers.

Lastly, the grammar of theology ties everything else together. In this stage, students should be well acquainted with the storyline of creation-fall-redemption-restoration. Heavy emphasis is also placed on creeds, catechisms, and the Ten Commandments. Students should memorize Scripture regularly. The important thing is that these truths are remembered—full comprehension of their meaning and relation will come in due time.

So far, this type of curriculum looks fairly similar to the current systems of education (with the exception of theology). But the prevailing difference shows up in the attitude of the teachers. The teachers should view these exercises not as subjects in and of themselves, but as information-gathering for later use. In order to invent things, your mind has to have an inventory. This is the stage where children enlarge their mental inventory, so that they can invent things later on.

Logic (Understanding, Goodness)

The logic stage should be begun as soon as the child shows signs of pertness and interminable argument. In other words, when the child becomes predisposed to argue and challenge authority at every turn, it is time to focus that energy on arguing and challenging correctly. Logic, in its simplest terms, is the art of arguing correctly. We introduce children to the syllogism and teach them how to detect logical fallacies. The practical utility of these teachings lies not in the ability to arrive at a positive conclusion but in being able to detect a false inference. This skill will be immensely useful to students as adults. Coincidentally, the logic stage is where the classical model of education takes its largest departure from the modern method. 

In the study of language, an emphasis will be placed on the logical construction of speech in order to understand how we convey ideas to one another. Reading should be focused on essays, argument, and criticism, and the student should be taught to write in these forms as well. 

Mathematics will be focused on algebra, geometry, and other forms of higher arithmetic. Math will be taught, not as a separate "subject," but as a sub-department of logic. It is the rule of the syllogism applied to numbers and measurement. Math is neither a dark mystery nor a special revelation.

History will be aided by a system of ethics derived from the grammar of theology, which should provide much material suitable for discussion on specific events in history. Discussion should often take the form of a debate. Questions about history will inevitably arise: Was this behavior justified? What was the effect of this law? What is the best form of government? And so on. Inevitably this will lead to the study of constitutional history, a subject of much interest to students who are learning to debate.

The principles of logic will transcend any one subject and spill over into the student's every day life. "Subjects, " as Sayers opined, merely provide the grist for the mental mill to work upon. Children are natural born casuists, and this inclination should be developed and trained in order to bring into focus the events of the adult world. Material for such training is abundant throughout life's normal circumstances.

Rhetoric (Wisdom, Beauty)

Just as the Logic stage showed us that all branches of learning to be inter-related, Rhetoric shows us that all knowledge is unified. At this stage, students will discover that logic and reason only take the mind so far; they will crave more material for their minds to chew on. With a solid foundation of the tools of learning (Grammar and Logic), the storehouses of knowledge may now be opened up to the students for them to browse at will. 

The syllabus of the rhetoric stage will be more difficult to map out than in prior stages. Appreciation should be emphasized over criticism. Students should be allowed to explore subjects that interest them or engage a realized aptitude. Because grammar and logic provided and sharpened the tools for learning, the rhetoric stage should be used to appreciate learning. Students who wish to specialize in one or two subject should be allowed to pursue those subjects more ardently. Latin, having been taught thoroughly, should be dropped for more modern languages should the student so choose. 

Practically speaking, the rhetoric stage can be completed in two years and corresponds to the beginning years of high school. Once completed, the student can continue on to the Quadrivium, where the tools of learning are applied to various specialized subjects. A student's education does not end with rhetoric; instead, the student is now well-equipped for a lifetime of learning. 

Although the rhetoric stage allows for much flexibility, it also equips the student to tackle any subject he chooses with relative ease. In a Christian School setting, rhetoric should point to the unity of all things under Christ. Students should by now come to a full understanding of a comprehensive biblical worldview and be ready to defend it persuasively. The goal of Christian rhetoric should be wisdom—knowledge applied. So far, students have amassed a large body of facts (grammar) and sorted those facts into good, bad, right and wrong (logic). Now, the object of education is to teach the students how all of those things are interrelated. We want the students to be able to apply all of their knowledge to a given scenario (or subject), and to do it well. This is the essence of wisdom.

The final goal of the rhetoric stage is wisdom and beauty. Rhetoric teaches students how to use wisdom and how to convey beauty. And it teaches them how to do so with a backbone.

The Quadrivium

Historically, the Quadrivium consisted of four elements—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The quadrivium was originally taught as the study of numbers: pure numbers (arithmetic), numbers in space (geometry), numbers in motion (astronomy), and numbers in time (music). In modern usage, however, the quadrivium refers to the body of knowledge to which the trivium is applied. Together they (trivium and quadrivium) form the "seven liberal arts" of classical education.

In a Christian School setting, the quadrivium will provide material upon which the students will use their tools of learning. Students will apply the principles of the trivium to each of the specialized subjects. Students should also be allowed to explore their interests more widely—those who wish to attend college will continue to develop their mastery of advanced courses, whereas students who wish to enter into a trade can "rest on their oars" and develop the necessary trade skills.

Above all else, the quadrivium will give students a chance to encounter and apply a unified worldview to life's various aspects. Armed with a biblical worldview and a robust understanding of the world and how it works, students will be prepared to enter the public square and advocate for the faith with wisdom, beauty, and clarity.

More resources on establishing a Classical Christian curriculum can be found here.

The Practice of Education

Even if a school employs the best ideals and curriculum, it still must operate in some sort of context. It must serve some larger purpose than education for its own sake. How should a child's education take place? How will children use what they learn in schools in a missional context? What role does the local body of believers play in each child's education? These are reasonable questions for Christians who live in close community with one another. Raising and educating children is—like all of life—not supposed to be a solo act. It takes a village. 

The practice of education should function as a training ground for effective missional living in the context of a covenant community and in the public square. Education should be a community effort, driven by the desire to raise and train men and women to fulfill the Great Commission. Through knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, we ought to inculcate our children with a unified and biblical view of the world, which they proceed to take to the world. Because we know that education is not merely memorization of facts, figures, and formulas—but rather a robust training for the mind and heart—we ought to approach the practice of education differently than modern methods would dictate. 

Education in Christian Community

Much like the Christian life, Christian education flourishes in the confines of a loving community of faith. In this regard, the communal aspect of Christian education has two aims: (1) to train and educate men and women to be powerful witnesses for Christ, and (2) to teach children to grow in sanctification together. The principles that guide our missional communities should guide our schools as well. The only difference is that the schools will take on a slightly different vision and mission than those of the missional communities. In the school, there should be an emphasis on repentance, confession, and reconciliation with God and one another. The students wandering the halls are not doing so as random, independent people with nothing in common. Ideally, they are walking as a body—unified in the faith. So the biblical exhortations to the church at large will apply to the students as well. We must not only teach them academically; we must prepare them for life together. And as with any community of sinners, there will be conflict in schools. Therefore, the faculty, staff, and leadership of the school should lead by example in these areas. We must show that education is not a separate entity from the Christian life. The things that the children learn are all connected, as everything is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ. We should therefore not exclude the communal aspects of the Christian life from the classroom. 

Education and Mission

As strange as it may seem, education and mission are inextricably linked at the core. In today's society, the intelligentsia rule the cultural discussion. Christianity has been marginalized, partly because Christians are seen as ignorant, uninformed fairy-tale believers. Many people also believe that science and Christianity simply don't mix. You either believe one or the other. We know, from the Bible, that this isn't true. But we ought to be able to show how this isn't true. 

Gospel-centered mission requires some level of cultural engagement. We must be able to engage with ideas if we are to show that Christ is Lord over those ideas. We must understand the true human condition if we are going to offer the only true solution to that condition. Education is critical to these functions. The classroom is where students are trained to engage ideas and understand the human condition. So, the classroom serves as a training ground for the     

Objections to the Classical Christian Model and Methods

Several objections to Classical Christian education are reasonable and deserve a response, though mine will be brief. I will respond briefly to two major objections to this method. Further discussion will be warranted on these topics (and I would like the discussion to continue).

Shouldn't we send our kids to public schools to try and reach public school kids?

In other words, if we are training our kids to be missionaries, but simultaneously taking them out of the mission field, what good does that do? This is a reasonable objection, but we should learn to think carefully about why we take our kids out of public school in the first place. The issue is not that Classical Christian School abandons the kids' mission field for a "holy huddle." The issue is the mission field and where it lies. If we really believe that education is the training ground for mission, then a school will not be the mission field for kids. For teachers, maybe. But children must be trained as missionaries before they can be missionaries. You wouldn't send your soldiers into battle and plan on training them in battle tactics after the war ended. It would not work out well. In the same way, we shouldn't send our kids into the mission field as inexperienced converts when we could train them from their youth.

Instead, we should be leading our children in the mission field as a community. Mission isn't an isolated activity; it's a way of life. I believe the best way for children to live out this way of life is in the context of a covenant community, walking alongside the children as missionaries in their neighborhoods. Instead of sending our kids to public schools, hoping for the best as their young minds are filled with secular theology, we should train them in God's way—and then show them what it looks like to be a missionary in their neighborhood. You can't do that in public schools—your voice will be squelched.

Public schools are increasingly becoming "closed" to the gospel. While I heartily agree that our children should be the face and voice of Jesus to their peers, that voice is not getting a hearing in school. In fact, it is being snuffed out intentionally. And as schools continue to push for an increasingly anti-biblical curriculum and worldview, a fair exchange of ideas where the gospel can be heard will be a thing of the past.

But let me clarify, lest anyone mistake my position here. I do not think that Christian children should isolate themselves from their unbelieving peers. Christian students absolutely should engage their peers and bear witness to Christ in their lives. The question, though, is where should the children engage their peers? What I am saying is that it should not be in the classroom. Instead, it should be in the neighborhood and through outside community activities, such as sports leagues, music and/or art groups, etc. If we are honest, that is probably where most of the interaction would take place anyway, regardless of school choice.

Classical Christian School is too expensive for economically disadvantaged kids—who will reach them?

This concern is usually borne out of a heart for the lost in poor communities, and rightly so. A proverbial turning-up-of-the-nose at the poor and marginalized is anathema to the gospel. And private school tuition is by no means cheap. Thus, won't the poorer kids be left behind to drown in failing public schools where there is no witness for Christ?

First, we must remember that education is not our savior. A child's eternal security does not rise and fall with the quality of education that is available to him. Here we may need to reassess some of our longstanding assumptions about public school and its mission-critical nature.

Second—and this goes back to what I talked about in the previous objection—public school children would not be "left out." If we truly believe in the neighborhood parish model of mission, we would ideally reach the public school kids in our neighborhood regardless of where they attend school. I don't work with my neighbors, but I still form relationships with them and share the gospel with them. I think the same principle applies to our children: they may not go to school with the neighborhood kids, but they should still form relationships with them and tell them about Jesus. If mission is truly accomplished as a community, this takes the focus off of the school as the mission field and places it on the community. The children will be trained for robust faith and mission at school, and then they will out it into practice in their neighborhood, with the guidance of their parents and parish family. 

Third, classical Christian school doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive. If we really view education as part of the mission of the church, then we will be committed to making it as available as possible to all who desire it. If we view school-planting like we view church planting, we will give generously and creatively to make it happen. I know people rarely like to talk about adding an "extra" giving item to their budget, but it is possible. We only have to incorporate it into our worldview and believe that it is something worth giving to. 

My kids will grow up to be weirdos

No, they won't. Not if we do this right. They will, by God's grace, grow up to be powerful witnesses for Christ in the public square. They will be able to hold their own and go toe-to-toe intellectually with the best the secular world has to offer. They will be able to give a reasoned and worthy defense of their faith. They will understand how God should inform our culture and creativity. And coupled with a biblical understanding of sin and how the world works, they will be a mighty force for good in society. If your kid grows up to be a weirdo, it will be your fault.

Adopting the Vision

I encourage you to consider this vision for education. If—after testing it with God's word and prayer—you find it compelling, adopt it as your own. I hope it becomes our vision together. I look forward to the day when we have the freedom and resources to educate our children to be warriors for Christ instead of spending our time backtracking the values they are fed in public schools. Our children should see a unified vision of the world through church and school. Once equipped, they can be sent to make disciples in all corners of the world. A well-trained mind coupled with a heart on fire for Christ is a powerful force for the gospel. If making disciples is our goal, why wouldn't we devote resources to training disciple-makers from birth? Think of it as an extended disciple-making residency program.

I realize that not everyone will agree with my vision for educating our children, and that's ok. But I do believe that this conversation stems from our desire to be faithful to God's word and the realization that education doesn't get a pass from the whole counsel of God. While the practical outworking of our convictions may look different, I am thankful that God has given us convictions in the first place. It is a testament to the grace of the Holy Spirit in our body.

As you consider this vision, keep in mind that we commit considerable resources to planting churches in communities that have little gospel presence. We plant churches so that the gospel would be non-ignorable in those communities. What would it look like if we took the same approach to education? What if we planted schools alongside churches, so that children would be trained to make the gospel non-ignorable in their communities? What kind of culture would we create? What kind of harvest would we see? My vision is to establish a Christ-centered education that teaches children to love God and their neighbors with their whole beings. I hope you will join me in this vision—for the glory of God and the good of our city.

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