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What’s the Big Idea?

The driving impulse of the CiRCE Institute is to figure out what Christian classical education is and to learn how to apply in it ever more complete, authentic, and integrated ways. In my studies and reflection, one astonishing thing has become astonishingly clear to me.

Christian classical education is the education of the idea, whereas conventional education is something else. I’ve been struggling with what on earth that something else is and I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it is simply power. I’m not content with that idea, because it doesn’t really parallel the idea of the idea, so it might not serve as an ordering principle. But if I go on any further down that track, you won’t want to read any more so I’ll stop and try to explain what I mean.

Ideas are what we think about and they are what we think with. Idea is a Greek word, and at least one Latin word for Idea is species. In the classical world, the best educators believed in ideas and they believed that ideas were transformative. They argued about what an idea was (understandably so) and where an idea existed, but the best all agreed that ideas were real things. So far as I can tell, the sophists did not think they were real, but that existed only in the mind.

Conventional education is not coherent, so one department of a university will have very different ideas about ideas than another and one teacher in a grade school will have very different expectations of students in regard to ideas than another. As an abstraction (what conventional thinkers would call an idea) that is fine. At least theoretically, you want a lot of ideas flowing around an educational institution.

But as a practical matter, what you think about ideas will determine everything that follows. Because education has to have something to do with thinking and when we think we think about ideas. So an educated person is a person who is skilled at handling ideas.

At least it used to be that way. But in conventional thought, Christian and secular, there is an overwhelming tendency to believe that ideas exist only in the mind if they exist at all. Once we come to believe that, understanding ideas simply doesn’t matter as much. The inner drive to understand ideas so that we can understand reality is weakened. A couple of generations of education like that will produce students who can’t think and, worse, can’t see the point of thinking.

Unless there is some other reason to think than to understand an idea.

Well, let’s think about that. Why would a person think if his goal isn’t understanding or knowledge? Ah! I think I’ve got it. Influence. To get a job. To impress people. To be able to change something. In a word: power.

What we have seen happen over the last couple generations is a gutting of the intellectual life of our culture. Many causes have brought about this effect, including the entertainment industry. But at the root of the change is the unconsidered, unreflected, assumption that ideas are not worth thinking about unless they have a practical benefit.

Practical rarely means that it will make a person more virtuous or a better person. It usually means that it will give the person power of some sort, however petty or trivial.

If, therefore, we want to follow the Christian classical renewal, we need to go back to thinking about ideas. There’s no use talking about teaching kids how to think if we don’t mean we are going to teach them to think about and with ideas. There’s no use trying to decide what curriculum we’re going to use if we don’t know how to judge whether the curriculum will help a child think about and with ideas. There’s no use learning new teaching techniques if we can’t determine whether the technique will help or hinder the child’s capacity to contemplate ideas.

If we separate practice from ideas we are simply Pragmatists. If you want to be a Pragmatist, you are free to do so. But don’t convince yourself that you can also be a Christian classical educator. Pragmatism on the one hand and Christian and classical thought on the other are very different ideas.

In a way, the goal of Christian classical education is to learn how to think about Christian classical education. That would be time well spent and it would be much more practical than Pragmatism. What I have just written might seem very theoretical. In fact, it is one of the most practical things you will ever read.

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