Every cultivator looks forward to the fruits of his labor. Farmers plan, prepare, work, adjust, pray, and hope for a good harvest. Educators, likewise, are cultivators. But since the task of education is largely, if not predominantly, spiritual labor, there is often variance in what educators think they are bringing to fruition through their labor.
Even when there is agreement on the general category of fruit there can be variance about what makes for the best fruit, and therefore in what sort of planning, preparation, work, adjustment, and prayers must be offered in order to accomplish the labor’s end. Even if we know what sort of fruit we want to grow, it matters who is doing the cultivating, what methods one is using to cultivate, and what nourishment is being turned into the soil.
But there is another way of asking the question, which is more existential: “What is it that Classical Education is Making?” Classical educators aren’t just conceptualizing the ideal image of classical education–they are trying to cultivate it in the present. What are we doing, and what does the fruit of our labor look like; how does it taste; is it life-giving and life-sustaining? How does one tell?
Contemporary classical education is still young, infantile even. Associations like ACCS and SCL are still approaching their silver anniversaries. There seems to be expansive growth, and a significant number of classical educators (like me) have less than ten years experience of teaching in the field. Many have no background in classical pedagogy (as a rhetoric student, I gleaned what little I knew before coming in rather indirectly).
I imagine that many experienced teachers could confess that their understanding of classical pedagogy is still superficial, relying heavily upon modern summaries (e.g. Repairing the Ruins), brief historical overviews (e.g. Sayers’ essay, Lost Tools of Learning), and maybe one or two extensive studies (e.g. Jaeger’s Paideia) of classical pedagogy; rather than a thoroughgoing investigation and adaptation of primary texts (e.g. Commenius’ Great Didactic).
New teachers who were educated classically are better equipped for doing whatever it is we are doing, but I’d be surprised to find many who had spent considerable time investigating the history of classical education–in short, they are a group cultured by the first re-discoverers, and have yet to (or are only beginning to) see the tradition with an eye toward deepening, expanding, and revising the first drafts their teachers wrote into them.
There are a good number of leaders who have been plowing the ground from the beginning–who’ve been reading the primary pedagogical texts of Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, the Renaissance and Reformation, and so on. Additionally, there is increasing interest in the classical works and methods of Western Culture in undergraduate and graduate programs at Christian universities.
If these observations are correct, the answer to the question, “What is it that Classical Education is Making?” is likely to vary significantly, and not necessarily for lack of a common vision so much as for a lack of saturation in primary classical materials and heterogeneous Christian cultures. Schools produce mission statements and vision statements that vary little, and most educators can speak in the tongues of such documents. But such things are Big Idea Abstractions that can and do look very different in the classrooms, hallways, and homes of administrators, teachers, and families who are riding on the coattails of trailblazers.
Given the relative novelty of classical education in a yet impoverished intellectual culture, those who continue to swell the ranks of Christian classical education (I include myself) are still fumbling in the dark. Like toddlers picking up a brush for the first time, our efforts are clumsy and built upon half-understood notions of the task. Our strokes are unskilled, our composition confused, and our sense of proportion askew. We may even be tempted to abandon our brushes for finger-painting; much more satisfying to our childish stature.
I suspect that whatever it is that classical education today is making looks pretty messy to our distant forefathers, whose tomes, towers, and tapestries still seem insufferably inaccessible to us. But perhaps, like gentle, long-suffering parents, they look down upon us with knowing smiles, content that we are playing at being like them, and happy to put our “best work” up on the fridge and gently guide us back to the easel for the next lesson.
I’m sure that to many readers my observations sound grim, skeptical, or even a bit disenchanted. Maybe they ring especially hollow to folks who are new to Classical education, or are high on the “classical movement,” or who are in the know, and know that I’m popping off at the mouth, just like the sophomore of classical educator that I am. Don’t be so pessimistic, Josh. Don’t be so glum, Butch.
Well, you may be right. I may just be grumpy and glum. But I’m aspiring to be Puddleglum. And I’ll let my last word coast on the breath of C.S. Lewis.
Although I’ve been a “classical educator” for almost five years now, I still feel more like Jill having just entered Narnia than a fixture like Puddleglum. Aslan gives Jill what amounts to an insurmountable task for anyone, let alone a child–to search for, find, and rescue the lost Prince of Narnia, and to do so until she succeeds, or dies trying, or finds herself taken back to her own world. Aslan gives her four signs she needs to complete the quest, and helps her to memorize them. As he sends her off to meet Eustace and begin the quest, he tells her:
Stand sill. In a moment I will blow. But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to the appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters. And now, daughter of Eve, farewell–“
For classical educators like me this task of educating God’s children is insurmountable. I’m only a child. I’m new to this world. I’m not knowledgeable or gifted enough. But there are signs. There is truth, there is goodness, there is beauty. There is grammar, logic, and rhetoric (and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). There is Scripture, the Church, and the Sacraments. They don’t appear the same to me in the hazy activities of the day as they do in the clear and quiet arbors of thought.
I know what happens to Jill and Eustace on their quest. I don’t want to miss the signs. I don’t want my excitement for a new insight or experience to cause me to miss the old friend whose aid would better serve me in the quest. I don’t want to grow so enamored of pedagogical plans or academic accomplishments that I miss the ruins I am to repair right under me. I don’t want my appetites and longings to divert me from the Difficult Right Road into the soft, secure clutches of Gentle Giants whose aim is to gobble me up. I don’t want to be skeptical of inscrutable ancient words whose seemingly incomplete and obscure directions seem nonsensical to my way of thinking. I most certainly don’t want to fail in the quest to rescue every single Prince and Princess of Narnia out of the clutches of the Witches and Warlocks who would place them under a strong spell of enchantment and use them for the overthrow of their homeland because I am too afraid to try when called upon in the name of Aslan to do what I can.
I want to be a teacher who educates Classically as a Christian and teaches the Classics in Christ-like fashion. The signs aren’t so easy to see down here, so let’s not stop looking for the signs where we’ve been told to look, ad fontes. There are plenty of sings to discover yet, and we probably won’t find them all in our lifetime. More than likely we’ll miss a few, maybe many; and others we’ll get wrong. And if you still say to my observations, “I don’t think Aslan would ever have sent us if there was so little chance as all that.” Well I say, “That’s the spirit, Scrubb. That’s the way to talk. Put a good face on it. But we all need to be very careful about our tempers, seeing all the hard times we shall have to go through together.” And you may ask, “Well, if you feel it’s so hopeless I think you’d better stay behind. Pole and I can go on alone, can’t we, Pole?” But then I’ll say, “I’m coming, sure and certain. I’m not going to lose an opportunity like this. It will do me good.”