An Interview conducted on May 23, 2023, by Graeme Pitman with Andrew Kern on the beginnings, nature, and purpose of the CiRCE Apprenticeship.
G: When and why did you start the CiRCE Apprenticeship Program?
A: It was around 2005. If I had a simple answer, it would be that I agreed with David Hicks that any changes in education were going to depend not on curriculum primarily, but on teachers. I also believed that Christian teachers wanted to teach in a Christ-centered way, but they weren’t equipped to do so. They would go to college and maybe get a degree in teaching and then find themselves in a Christian school where they did what they learned to do in college and what they were required to do by school leadership. However, in my observation, too often that training didn’t dig deep and ask questions about what Christ-Centered teaching truly is.
So, I had to think about that. And by 2005, I had about twelve years of experience doing teacher development—teaching teachers in school settings, in home settings, and at conferences; and I had a deep intuition for the need. I saw how contrary mimetic teaching was to what teachers expected to do in the classroom, which was strange to me because it’s so natural. So why, if this is how children learn, is it so odd and discomforting for the teacher to be asked to do it in the classroom? That disturbed me. It was a discord between curriculum and training and the way children learn. And because, you could say, the classical renewal began with Dorothy Sayers’ essay about the way a child learns, don’t we need to reconcile this discord?
So, with all of that going on in my mind, I attended conferences and all I heard about was method, method, method. It reminds me of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge line, “Water, water, every where and nor any drop to drink.” This thirst is what I was encountering in my interactions with teachers: this thirst for a more whole way of teaching—a way of teaching that integrated their own minds and integrated the classroom experience and gave honor to Christ. But people didn’t feel comfortable with a mode of teaching that attended to all that.
And I’ll add one more thing. From the beginning of my involvement in classical education, especially from reading the Scriptures, Plato, and David Hicks, I advocated that the essence of classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. However, I knew perfectly well that cultivating wisdom and virtue is not what they teach you how to do in college. So even though I only had intuitions, I had to take responsibility for what I was saying. I had to figure it out, you might say. So, toward that end and based on the experiences and quest that I was on, along with requests from other people, I started The Apprenticeship.
I think I should add another point or two: a couple practical reasons why I started The Apprenticeship. One reason is because I couldn’t find any training in apprenticeship format, and I don’t think you learn how to teach in any other. I think you need a mentor. I think you need a community. And I think you need practice with feedback. And then you need to learn it not as a method but as an art. And art requires apprenticeship, not what we today typically call “professional training.” Art is different.
Colleges, at that time, certainly, were too eager to be current and to follow the latest trends, and by then I had known that trends come and go all the time and that they aren’t worth tracking in the education realm because they only last for three to five years. So, they didn’t interest me. In general, colleges need things to be complex, because that’s how you justify the fact that you are a college, but teaching is simple. And Christ is simple. So, we have to get to the simplicity, and I don’t think very many colleges can afford to do that.
Finally, there is the long-term sense that I felt like any hope for the future of our society, but even more immediately any hope for the growth of the CIRCE Institute, depended on people cultivating wisdom and virtue. Since I’m involved in education, from my perspective, that meant it had to happen in schools. The Apprenticeship was created to help teachers cultivate wisdom and virtue in a Christ-centered way so that they could be free to teach, and students could be free to learn. And it would prepare them not just for more school but for the lived life in the world God made, to fulfill their duties by pursuing virtue rather than method.
G: Who is the CiRCE Apprenticeship for?
A: That’s such a good question and my answer is going to disappoint you. The Apprenticeship is for people who want to cultivate wisdom and virtue. It’s for the homeschool mom who loves her children and wants them to grow up to become wise and virtuous. It’s for the classroom teacher who also wants to do their portion in the classroom setting of cultivating wisdom and virtue in the students. It’s for the headmaster or the dean who wants to oversee a coordinated curriculum that enables teachers to systematically, you might say, or at least artistically, cultivate wisdom and virtue in the students. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it takes a long time to become wise and virtuous. We have pastors and priests do the Apprenticeship because they want to cultivate wisdom and virtue in their flocks. I would love to get more businesspeople who are involved in the training of their staff.
The Apprenticeship really is meant for all those different people, but primarily we see teachers in the classroom and teachers in the home join the program. We don’t allow for a conflict between schoolteachers and home-teachers because in both cases the form of learning is the same and the soul that’s learning is the same, and once you get the principles it’s easy to adapt to the circumstances (or easy-ish to adapt to the circumstances.)
G: What do you see as the key benefits of joining the CiRCE Apprenticeship?
A: Benefits are the ancillary things that happened because of the purpose, so that’s how I’ll answer the question. I would say that one of the most vivid benefits that we hear about constantly is joining a community. I think two groups of people, in particular, tend to be rather lonely: homeschool moms and school administrators/headmasters. It’s hard for them to find connections. I think as a general rule schoolteachers are also somewhat lonely, but they do have each other. So, I believe those two groups of people have been particularly responsive to the communal element of the program, but I think everybody has cherished that sense of community. And it’s very surprising to me how much some of the members open up to each other in private and share their struggles. A supreme benefit of glorifying Christ the logos is that he makes us one in miraculous and wonderful ways.
I also think learning a mode of teaching that is simple, Christ-manifesting, and universally applicable is a great benefit. The Apprenticeship focuses on the simplicity of mimetic and incarnational teaching. It’s welcoming to people who want to teach outside the established modes, whether that be charter schools, homeschools, co-ops, or others, it’s welcoming to all the different settings because that’s how universal and simple Christ is. So, when you learn to teach in the form of Christ it’s easy to move from one setting to another. I mean there are circumstances and content that you have to adapt but the form of Christ goes with you.
So, I would say those are some of the main benefits. Gaining community, mastery of teaching, learning to read and write better, learning to dialogue better. There’s pretty good food at the retreats too.
G: What distinct differences are there between The CiRCE Apprenticeship and other teacher training programs?
A: I want to be really careful with this question because I’m excited about the number of colleges that have come out with advanced degrees in classical education teacher development in the last three to four years. I have nothing whatsoever to say that would in any way harm them, so rather than contrast with any one of them, I’ll just idealize a nemesis and say why we’re better than this nemesis.
I think our approach to logo-centrism is somewhat unique. We believe in Christ the Logos. We believe that Christ the logos is that ordering principle of all reality. We believe that the curriculum is most efficiently and effectively structured around Christ the Logos. We believe that Christ the Logos incarnate is the very form of truth and that learning is engaging Christ the Logos incarnate. Therefore, the pattern of a lesson is the incarnation of a Logos. And I don’t know that I’ve seen any colleges or other programs explicitly develop that.
I said before that it’s hard, for it’s hard for a training program not to want to produce experts, and I’ll just say we’re not producing experts in the CIRCE Apprenticeship—we’re producing master teachers. We’re producing artists. There’s a big difference between the modern conception of an expert and the classical Christian conception of an artist. There’s a quest for simplicity and artistry and not control. We’re not trying to gain control over what happens because if you control what happens in the classroom too much, as opposed to leading and guiding, you have to reduce it to something you can control. That means that some aspects of the child’s experiences have to be reduced to something that you have mastery over, and we don’t accept that. So, the simplicity and respect for that infinite worth and the infinite capacity of the human soul are essential to what we do.
We also put a very high emphasis on the goal of integration. I like to say that what we’re teaching a child to do when we teach mimetically is to weave the loom of their mind into the tapestry of their life experience. They need to interpret their own lives, and that’s hard. They have the loom, which is their mind, but they don’t get the instruction manual. They need to know how to put the loom together before they can weave a tapestry. The Apprenticeship teaches you how to build the loom. In a sense, that’s what Christian classical education is essentially trying to do: helping you construct a loom so that the threads of your life can be woven into a very beautiful tapestry.
The experience of teaching, not just the mind of the student, should be integrated in harmonized. It’s hard on the students when you have a number of teachers in the school that are teaching different things that aren’t connected. It’s massively inefficient and it’s confusing for students. It causes one class to put pressure on another class and kind of tears on the fabric a little bit. So, what we want to do is provide a mode of teaching that integrates across classrooms and experiences.
Let’s go back to the picture of a loom again. Now let’s say the classroom is the loom, and that class is creating a tapestry, but threads come into that classroom from other classes, and also from life. So, if the child comes into the classroom from the sports field, from a fight with a friend, from a great dilemma going on at home, from a church experience, or any of these things, and those are all excluded from the tapestry, then you’ve isolated the learning experience and turned it to something merely academic. And that’s not wisdom and it doesn’t equip them with virtue. So, there’s an integration of the experience of teaching and learning with all of life and with the rest of the curriculum. I’ll say this for the record, I don’t believe in so-called “subjects.” I believe in arts and sciences. I think it matters that you use those terms. Subjects fragment too easily. In one sense the most important thing for teachers to communicate is the relationships between subjects and in a lot of cases they don’t teach that at all. But the mode of mimetic teaching enables the integration of all the subjects.
The other thing I’ll say about the CiRCE Apprenticeship is that we are constantly learning and constantly revising because we’re on a journey ourselves. It’s a Socratic and mimetic journey to the beauty of Christ the Logos, and I can assure you we’ve only just begun this journey. It is because the beauty of Christ is so much greater than anything we’ve been able to perceive, explain or practice, that I feel almost embarrassed that we have a program. And yet we have to do what we can do.
G: It has been almost twenty years since you started the CiRCE Apprenticeship. Do you have a couple of favorite memories from over that time?
A: So many. Personally, The Apprenticeship has been one of the most joyful and heartbreaking things because I’m a starter. In 2005, we started the Apprenticeship. And then somewhere around 2010, we started the second group. And then somewhere around 2012, we started the third and the fourth. Now there are eight, and I couldn’t lead them all. So, at some point, I had to leave. I had to stop leading The Apprenticeship, and that was very hard. The hardest thing about teaching generally is that you love your students and then they grow up and leave, and there’s that same experience in The Apprenticeship. You become very attached. So, my fondest memories all relate to the relationships. The Apprenticeship retreats include banquets where the apprentices give speeches, and I just love watching those first-year apprentices sweat blood and then in the third year they’re so lighthearted. I love to watch people grow into themselves—to become masters both of themselves and the art they are learning.
It was bittersweet when I handed the Apprenticeship off to others to lead. It’s a favorite memory that I hate the most.
Another favorite memory comes from an early Apprenticeship retreat. As a joke at one of the banquets, I gave one of the apprentices a Latin name. I forget what it was and who it was. I am senile now, so I can be forgiven. So, I gave someone this nickname and then another person wanted one as well, and then suddenly everybody wanted a name, so right then and there I had to give everybody a name. I didn’t know Latin very well, so I did the best that I could. It was just a lighthearted moment, but for the rest of the time I was leading an Apprenticeship group, they wanted me to name them. Some of those people still have bookmarks and notebooks with them on them. They often cling to those names. It’s a wonderful thing that reflects that intimacy within the group. Think of Adam naming the animals, God naming Abram “Abraham”, and how we pray “Hallowed be Thy Name.” A Name is a big deal.
Every apprentice has to practice teaching at the retreats. And seeing the progression from the first retreat nerves to watching them play and dance with intention inside the lesson has to be the essential joy of the program.
G: Any final thoughts you would like to share?
A: I said previously that I’m excited about all the degree programs from different colleges, and I hope people join those programs, but I do think our Apprenticeship is unique because of the depth of community, because of the simplicity of the one thing needful, because of the unique personality that each Apprenticeship group develops—partly because of the different head mentors, but also because of the members. Each member’s personhood is welcomed into the group and helps form it. When you know that you are a living member of an organism then the organism is more pleasant to be a part of.
Our Apprenticeship is more like a discipleship experience than a classroom experience. It includes mentoring, practice teaching, feedback, relationship, as well as Biblical contemplation and prayer.
For those reasons, we invite anybody who wants to learn how to teach in a Christ-centered, Logo-centric, mimetic, Socratic, incarnational, harmonious, artistic way for the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, to join us on our journey.