“Knowledge is power” is a quote often attributed to Francis Bacon, and its sentiment is responsible for much of the dissolution of our modern souls.
Classical education does not view learning as the means to power. Instead, learning is the end. Eternity is written on our hearts. We learn so that the heart-etched longing for eternity is given voice. We are formed (educare) in order that we might experience the leading out from within the eternal fingerprint (educere) innate in each of us. Adam was not gifted Lordship of the Garden. He was given stewardship. Stewards give names to realities, but not essence or value. The Lord does. Adam could only give names to that which he observed because he himself was first named. His value was not self-created. It was a gift. Francis Bacon began a revolution which usurped Lordship (although it could be said that this usurpation also took place in the Garden). If knowledge is simply power, then the learned are the masters – masters of place, masters of nature, masters of others, and ultimately masters of themselves. Our entire modern education system is built upon the idea that we can be made into lords. If we simply learn facts, we can become masters of the universe.
This belief causes the tension we often face in our schools: creatures meant to be stewards make poor lords. Our students desire to learn the material, gain cursory knowledge, earn a high grade, get into an elite college, receive a lucrative job offer with a competitive salary, all in order to master themselves and the world around them. Classical educators desire for our students to love truth, goodness and beauty. We yearn for them to be men and women of virtue and moral character. We want them to love what God loves and to steward the world gifted to them by their Creator. Wendell Berry, American essayist, describes well the dilemma of modern education:
Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible… A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.
Economic, political, social, and cultural responsibility are the marks of a good steward. If we are the masters, then to whom are we responsible? Classical education aims at the formation of the stewards. Progressive education aims at the formation of lords. Ours is a counter-cultural revolution, which explains a tension often experienced between classical educators and parents. We not only need classical teachers and classically-minded students; we need classically-minded parents. The job of the educator is not to replace the parent but to partner with them. Partnerships do not thrive if the partners are unequally yoked.
I believe a three step approach to the formation of classical parents will greatly increase the impact of a classical education and strengthen our school communities. The three steps are: clear articulation of classical education through admissions, provision of adult classical learning opportunities within schools as well as classical resources for parents, and incentivizing parents to utilize such classes, books clubs, and other resources.
Firstly, the articulation of classical education in the admissions process is already happening at classical schools, however, we must avoid the temptation to speak Baconian language in the process. Of course, parents question what it is their child will receive for their tuition dollars. We should not reach for the lowest common denominator and suggest “our students are admitted into the best colleges” or “our students score incredibly high on the SAT and the ACT.” Every independent school delivers the same sales pitch. We ought to be careful with platitudes that appear classical on the surface such as, “our students learn to think well through logic” and “our students learn to write well and present their ideas through the study of rhetoric.” While these are true statements, we risk justifying these subjects as useful for creating the skills that employers are looking for in applicants. Such justifications present education as a means to the end – college, employment, money – which are prerequisites for the master of the universe. Instead, let us present to potential parents the idea of flourishing stewards.
We teach our students to think and write not primarily because it makes them employable, but because it makes them people who see eternity. St. Augustine writes, “Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.” We long for our students to be thriving adults who love what they ought and who live lives at peace. The byproduct may be an elite college admission or a high paying job, but it is certainly not the proper end. We think, write, and speak well because these are the truly human things. A good thinker, writer, and speaker knows, writes, and speaks passionately for the true, good, and beautiful, because he loves these transcendent realities. While a master manipulates the gift he has been given to his own ends, a steward loves it and gives it in turn to others.
Secondly, we formalize opportunities to promote classically-minded parents. We could offer a year-long course on the great books, theology, or epic literature. Let us offer week-long summer intensives on logic, writing, Apologetics, or art. Let us offer faculty-led book clubs throughout the year. We cultivate parents as partners. Partners we would know and who would know us. Our admissions material could include copies of The Abolition of Man or The Lost Tools of Learning, and links to The Circe Institute, The Close Reads Podcast, Proverbial, and more. Parents often say to me, “I wish I had this class when I was young” or “I would love to read these books.” Let us provide them an opportunity.
Lastly, we should incentivize participation in such opportunities. Give parents a modest tuition remission for taking classes. Offer child care for evening classes or book clubs. Wave the re-enrollment fee if they complete a certain number of courses. What is lost on the front end will most certainly be worth the investment in our parents, which is an investment in our students, which is an investment in our communities, and an investment in the Kingdom of God.
We are not the masters of this universe. We are stewards. Let us steward what God has given us in our schools by enabling parents to become thriving stewards thus freeing students to become the same in their neighborhoods and in the world. Knowledge may be power, but wisdom is a virtue and virtue is the robe of the steward.