The New Classical SchoolingPeter J. Leithart - 01/29/08
In September 1974, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott delivered the Abbott Memorial Lecture at Colorado College. Entitled “A Place for Learning,” Oakeshott’s lecture attacked the dominant model of education, a model predicated on the theories of the American educationist John Dewey. Learning, Oakeshott observed, should take place under “conditions of direction and restraint designed to provoke habits of attention, concentration, exactness, courage, patience, and discrimination”; but schools shaped by Dewey had instead become arenas of “childish self-indulgence,” “experimental activity,” “discovery,” and “group discussions.” Oakeshott was especially scornful of the notion that education’s purpose was “socialization,” which could only turn the child into a compliant little cog in the machine of commerce and industry. “The design to substitute ‘socialization’ for education,” he argued, was “the momentous occurrence of this century, the greatest of the adversaries to have overtaken our culture, the beginning of a dark age devoted to barbaric affluence.”1
In other lectures and writings, Oakeshott elaborated a positive vision of education. Education should initiate the student into a “historic inheritance or ‘culture,’” which Oakeshott imagined as a multi-voiced conversation. Scientific, historical, philosophical, and poetic voices contribute, each voice expressing “a distinct . . . understanding of the world and a distinct idiom of human self-understanding.” Education enables the student to participate in the “endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure” of that conversation. Liberal education is “above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship, and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.”2 Since education is the “distinguishing mark of a human being,” replacing education with “socialization” is fundamentally dehumanizing. True education is an initiation into our full humanity. It is not so much a leading-out as a passing-on of the skills necessary to participate in culture. True education is really traducation.
Inside a flat-roofed yellow building that looks like a roller rink because it used to be one, students at the Logos School in the small northern Idaho town of Moscow are being initiated into an inheritance that the school describes as “classical and Christ-centered.” As in every Christian school, students learn the Bible and take classes in Christian doctrine. To these subjects, however, Logos adds liberal arts and classical studies. Second-graders chant Latin paradigms and learn important names and dates from classical and American history. Middle school students study formal logic and engage in debates. Older students read Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Spenser, Shakespeare and Dante. Every high school student must take two years of rhetoric, using Aristotle as a text, and the hardy have the chance to learn Greek.3
Logos is one of the flagship schools for “Classical Christian Education” (CCE), a movement of educational renewal taking place mostly among American Protestants. Many of the leaders are evangelicals who, over the years, have become more attuned to the role of tradition both in theology and in educational philosophy. Formed by the heated revivals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American evangelicalism has been congenitally hostile to tradition, preferring instead to “stand alone on the word of God.” But contemporary evangelicalism has been recovering a sense of tradition.4 CCE is a vigorous educational expression of this evangelical ressourcement—a return to the “sources.” Douglas Wilson, one of the founders of Logos, observes that outside CCE circles “most conservative private schools have a sense of church history that goes back [only] to 1776.” Leaders of CCE reach more deeply into the past. Some come from Protestant denominations with confessional traditions going back to the Reformation, and others are evangelical Protestants “looking for something deeper.” Wilson himself was drawn to CCE because he perceived a “historical lack” in his own education and Christian experience, and his search for remedies led him to classical education and to the Reformed tradition in theology. At bottom, Wilson believes, the classical turn in Christian education arises from a “hunger for historical rootedness.”5