My journey into classical education mirrors the story of so many others. I came across a catalog from a Christian classical publishing house, which led me to Dorothy Sayers’s essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which led me to internet searches, which led me to The Abolition of Man, and so on. I was quickly drawn into the world of C.S. Lewis, including and beyond Narnia, to Middle Earth, to G.K. Chesterton, and so on. Such are the nostoi (“return stories” or homeward journeys) of so many in the classical renewal.
Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien, and a few others have ushered many into the renewal, and have come to be viewed as the “founding fathers” of the movement. Their works rightly garner wide readings, their lives become the subject of conference talks, and they have inspired many young men to twill coats and pipe-smoking. And while they are deserving of the high praise they receive in many classical school circles, there may be a downside to their elevation. As Gregory Wolfe observed in Beauty Will Save the World:
Among Christians who care about the arts, there are many who cling to the works of a few figures, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor, who have forged a compelling religious vision in the midst of a secular age. But the danger in celebrating these Christian artists is that we isolate them from their cultural context, from the influences that shaped their art. There is a large body of believers who have essentially given up on contemporary culture; they may admire a few writers here or there, but they do not really believe that Western culture can produce anything that might inform and deepen their own faith. One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time. For me, the most depressing trend of all is the extent to which Christians have belittled or ignored the imagination and succumbed to politicized and ideological thinking.
A couple of things need to be pointed out directly. First of all, Wolfe is not downplaying the marvelous contributions of those artists. In fact, he goes on to specifically praise the influence of both Eliot and O’Connor later in the book. It should also be noted that Wolfe’s argument against “politicized and ideological thinking” is far more developed than what I shall present here. So read his book.
But with these qualifications in mind, let me say that Wolfe’s point must be taken seriously, and applied by both Church and school. For too many in the classical renewal, Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Eliot, and so on, have been a very ineffective gateway drugs; that is, while these culture-making giants have drawn us to the threshold of a whole new world, too often we have not stepped through.
Classical education, unlike forms of modern education, aims at the nurturing of the soul, the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. This stands in contrast to arming students with ready-made answers – the problem of “ideology,” according to Wolfe. We claim our desire is for students to know how to think, not just what to think; yet we seem to fall short of that reality.
For example, in many Christian classical schools, the teaching of logic and the growing emphasis on apologetics courses belies a truly defensive slant, the courses being taught as a way of protecting students from an ungodly culture. And, while there is nothing wrong with arming students for defense, it does not stop there. Even rhetoric has been reduced to the mere production of persuasive essays and speeches, rather than developing (as Aristotle said) the “faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion” – an art that could include story-telling, creative writing, poetry, and more.
The result is that classical educators are preparing culture warriors but not “culture-makers.” In holding up the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, et al, then, we hold up museum pieces because rather than stressing the need for great artists, musicians, songwriters, poets, and authors, we merely equip our students to argue. We have called them to uphold truth and, perhaps, goodness, but beauty has been left out of the equation.
To be continued…