Classical Education Requires a Classical Home
By Michael J. McKenna
John Gatto was awarded New York State Teacher of the Year in both 1990 and 1991. In his revealing book, Dumbing Us Down, he says, “The first lesson I teach is confusion. I teach everything out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, dance, surprise guests, pull-out programs, standardized tests…. What do any of these things have to do with each other?” As I said, he was teacher of the year!
As I think back on my own grammar and high school education, Gatto’s description sounds awfully familiar. One year we studied world cultures, the next year American history, European history the next. While we were studying American history, we read A Tale of Two Cities, and while we studied European history, we read Huck Finn. What logical integration stood behind any of this?
Likewise, it never occurred to our math teacher that, when he was teaching Direct and Inverse Variation in Algebra II, he should do so using the Ideal Gas Law, since that’s what we’d be studying soon in Chemistry, and Direct and Inverse Variation as a math concept is directly applicable in science class when discussing the Ideal Gas Law. A natural point of integration. So natural, in fact, it almost takes more effort to miss it than it does to teach them together.
As Headmaster of Rockbridge Academy for 15 years, one of the greatest challenges and pleasures we had as a faculty was to think through the orderliness of our curriculum and teach things in concert with other things. For example: If you teach Medieval History in the fourth grade, why not use trebuchets and catapults to demonstrate properties of physics in science class, and then read A Door in the Wall in literature class? If you teach colonial American history in fifth grade, why not teach celestial navigation in science and read Johnny Tremain and Treasure Island in literature?
This ordered, coherent manner in which the classical Christian curriculum is structured also gives a structure and framework to the students’ thinking as they move through it. Not only does the world make more sense, they grow inoculated against the modern notion that nothing ultimately makes any sense at all.
However, as we full well know, the school and the home must work in concert with one another in order for this educational model to “take root” in our students’ hearts and minds. A well-ordered school curriculum, and a well-ordered classroom will be less effective if the home from which the students come fails to reinforce that learning at best, or actively works to undermine it at worst.
What characteristics should adhere to the classical home? I can think of several off the bat.
Classical Education—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, i.e., the Trivium—is ultimately about language. Therefore, the classical home should be a home that loves language and is rich in its love for words. And because we’re talking about a Christian classical education, the people in this home should be lovers of The Word.
Reading. Children in classical homes must be taught to love reading. And while I don’t have the scientific studies on hand to prove it, I think I stand on solid ground when I say that if children don’t see their parents love reading, they never will either. Right from the cradle, children should be read to, daily, and when they learn to read, they should read to their parents and for their own pleasure and enjoyment. But what if they don’t enjoy reading? Make them do it anyway. We make our children do all sorts of things they don’t enjoy: take piano lessons, rake the leaves, eat their broccoli, put the dishes in the dishwasher, memorize their multiplication tables, and the list goes on. Eventually, as they mature, they learn to appreciate the value of all these things, and even learn to like many of them.
Conversation. The classical home delights in conversation. Therefore, parents should not only talk to their children, they should also get their children to talk to them. Meals are a great time to engage in conversation. My wife Christine and I determined from the beginning of our married life that we would eat meals at the table together virtually every night. Until our five children began moving out of the house, almost every evening meal was spent together. Of course, the vicissitudes of life would occasionally intervene and prevent the family meal, but generally speaking, most nights we ate together at the table. With the advent of cell phones, we had a long-standing rule in our house: No devices at the table. Our children (and ourselves) were not allowed to pay attention to those who were distant, all the while ignoring those who were proximate. Eating together and putting away all social media distractions made for good conversation at the table.
Drive time provides another opportunity to spur conversation. Turn off the radio and CD player, unhook the smartphone, and turn off the head-rest TV screens. Ask your children questions as you drive along. If they’re reticent to talk, providing you with only one- or two-word answers, ask them to explain themselves. What do you mean by that? Tell me more. The more your children practice speaking and conversing, the better they’ll get at it.
Also, occasionally ask your children to join the adults in conversation. They may not be able to join in, but it’s good for them to just listen to how adults engage in conversation. Our modern culture, and even our modern churches, love to age-segregate us one from another. Children go to children’s church while the adults worship over there. Young adults in the “College and Career” group have little contact with those of the hoary head in their congregations. When my children were younger, I would often ask the boys to come and join the men if we were engaged in a conversation out on the back porch, or my girls would join Christine and the ladies in the living room. Initially, they balked. (Do I have to?! I wanna play with the kids out in the street!) Eventually, they grew to prefer adult conversation to the childish alternative. And that’s the point! We’re raising young men and women, not boys and girls, and one way to do that is to deliberately expose them to the world of adults.
Story-telling. Tell your children stories. Regale them with stories about your childhood, your school days, college, how you met your spouse, what life was like when you were young. Bless your children with the stories of the day they were born. Heck! Even tell them imaginary stories! And then, when they’re able (even before), ask them to tell you stories; stories about their day at school, their favorite vacation, their Sunday school lesson, etc. When Jesus wanted His followers to better understand the Kingdom of God, He didn’t give them a lecture. He told them stories! Stories are a great way to develop not only our children’s ability to speak, they’re also a great way for our children to understand what I’ll refer to as poetic knowledge. Not all truth is propositional in nature. Like Jesus, if I want my children to understand how unsurpassed the Kingdom of God is, maybe I’ll tell them a story about a man who owned a field.
Attending to oral arguments. What I’m really referring to here is sermons, although there may be other applications. Rather than dismissing your children to children’s church, have them stay with you and take down notes from the pastor’s sermon. Even a kindergartener can do this. When my children were in Kindergarten and grammar school, as the pastor was beginning his sermon, I would give them a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to write down every time they heard the pastor say a few key words or phrases. Since they were in Kindergarten, I’d provide them a “word bank” of sorts at the top of the page. Then, when the pastor said “grace,” or “gospel,” or “David and Goliath,” or whatever was likely to be stated repeatedly in that sermon, their faces would light up at the recognition, and they would write it down on their paper. As they grew, this practice developed into outlining sermons during worship. Think about other ways they can attend to a speaker and take down his thoughts.
In addition to being about language and words, Classical Education is also about logical thought and clarity of expression. So how can we help our children develop in this area?
Lest you begin to think of me as a Luddite who hates modernity, perish the thought! I love my iTunes and smartphone and Waze App just as much as the next guy. But just like the next guy, I have to work to keep “tools” in their place. In that light, I will suggest that the classical home limit the time children (and we adults) spend on social media. And I’m not talking about this from the perspective of wasting time, from the fact that there are better ways for our children to spend their time. Think about the very nature of our devices and the social media apps loaded onto them. Virtually all of our social media platforms are, by design, based on the rapidity and disconnectedness of images (and occasionally ideas) that flash across the screen without any connection to anything that came before or will come after. Four to five hours a day spent processing bits and pieces of disconnected data like this eventually hinders the development of logical thought, analysis, and inference. And this isn’t just the opinion of a disgruntled classical educator. The studies are now being done and the science is in.
When speaking with your children, require that they use precise, concise, and clear language. When you ask them questions, require that they actually answer your questions, not tell you the stories they want to tell you. (Unless you actually want to hear their stories. See above.) When you ask them why they like this or that friend, teacher, movie, book, or video game, require that they speak about the friend, teacher, movie, book, or video game, not about what they like about those people and things. What do I mean? When I would ask my young children why they liked this or that movie, they would always begin by talking about themselves: “I like movies about super heroes, and I like movies with lots of explosions and action.” They would talk about themselves and what they like, when I was asking them to talk about the thing itself. Over time, challenging them to talk about the thing, not about their preference, their answers to my questions would change: “That movie was great because it had an interesting and suspenseful plot with lots of unexpected twists. The actors did a good job of portraying their characters. They were believable.” Thus do we teach our children not only to speak about things rather than themselves, we’re also gradually teaching them an important lesson about reality: the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Require your children to use standard spoken and written English; no verbal detritus such as “like,” “um,” and “y’know.” How often do I ask students to repeat what they just said, but this time without all the verbal effluence? Initially, they find it very difficult, almost impossible, to speak without saying “like” and “y’know,” and “um” after every other word. But eventually, they actually love the challenge and rise to meet it with a sense of achievement. If we stand fast and set our faces like flint, eventually our children will become well-spoken, contra mundum.
And finally, the classical home should be built upon on a particular worldview.
For the last two thousand+ years of human history, the existence of this philosophical or theological foundation would have passed without comment in a student’s education. It was prima facie, accepted almost without thought. Today, these ideas are under such intense assault, that basically the only place in which they’re being considered is in the context of a classical and Christian education.
Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, both pagan and Judeo-Christian, Westerners have believed that we live in two worlds, one world limited by time, the other world existing eternally; one world created out of physical matter, the other world created of immaterial reality. He was a citizen of these two cities: The City of God and the City of Man.
I’ll only discuss a few negative consequences of the modern rejection of this idea: The methods of science are seen as the final and ultimate arbiters of Truth. This notion holds out the promise of a utopian future in which Man is able to recreate himself and the world as he sees fit. It renders practically pointless the works of writers and artists before the Enlightenment. It relegates the study of history to the dustbin and replaces it with social sciences. It makes the search for meaning and morality irrelevant at best, highly subjective at worst. How? Well, if there is no Lawgiver above our laws Who can tell us why we are here or what our purposes and obligations are, then that task is only left to us. Finally, it places the burden on the State to define morality and give Man meaning and purpose.
The classical home on the other hand embraces the reality of City of God and the City of Man, and our citizenship in both simultaneously. No matter what we study, the light of this idea increases our knowledge of the world and informs all of life. This understanding assures us of two things: that in this life and certainly the next, we will be held accountable, and so we are to govern our passions and emotions in this life with our intellect, to be aware of our natural limitations, and to accept them as God’s design for us and gift to us, with grace and humility.
It logically follows that, since matter in the present is all there is, we study the natural world not to understand it, but in order to manipulate it and improve nature for our own comfort and profit. Of course, modern technology has brought us a great many benefits in health and material well-being. But since the material world is all there is—and we are only one animal among many in that natural world—modern education increasingly concludes that the end of science is to turn us all into the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The purpose of science is to help us manipulate the world for our own economic and material well-being.
In CS Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, he warns of what happens when “science” gives way to “scientism,” and what happens when the perversion of science defines, manipulates and dominates every aspect of human existence, ultimately obliterating what it means to be truly human.
The classical home places science back within its rightful confines, so that we can intelligently study the natural world in order to understand those limitations and our place within them. The classical home realizes that, if matter spinning through time and space by chance is really all there is, then our existence truly is nasty, brutish and short, and there can be no logical objection when people treat one another as animals do.
I’ll refer to the third facet as Teleological Reasoning. Fundamental to Aristotle’s approach to scientific reasoning was his four-causal explanation of what happens in the material world.
First Cause is the Material Cause. So, if we’re talking about a chair, the matter or the material cause is the wood out of which the chair is made. The Second Cause is the Formal Cause, or the form of the thing. Again if we’re talking about a chair, it has a seat, four legs, a back to support me as I sit in it, etc. The Third Cause is the Efficient Cause, that thing outside the confines of the chair that give it its form. So, in the case of the chair, it would be the saw, chisels, hammers, and even the carpenter, that are included in the Efficient Cause. And lastly is the End Cause, the Final Cause, or the Telos, the purpose for which the thing exists. In the case of our chair, the End Cause or the Telos of the chair is to allow me to sit, to rest in a seated position. The Telos of the acorn is to become a mighty oak tree.
The telos might inhere in nature itself, as it does in the acorn and the oak tree, but this is not a crucial distinction to the point I want to make regarding the classical home. I want us to understand that by rejecting teleological reasoning and no longer believing that everything has a pre-existing natural end toward which it is moving, even us and our children, we have freed ourselves to define or re-engineer everything’s telos, including our own, as we choose.
The modern rejection of teleological reasoning is why Facebook has 51 gender options. It’s why Rachel Dolezal (a white woman who claims to be a black woman) isn’t in therapy. It’s why Mack Beggs, a transgender boy who, in the process of undergoing hormone therapy, can wrestle on the girls’ team at her Texas school and become state girls champion two years in a row. (If that last sentence confused you or required more than one reading, I rest my case.)
Now, this rejection would have seemed incomprehensible to a thinking person before the modern era. Teleological reasoning was deeply embedded in Western education and understanding. Such an education entailed the study of final causes and, on a personal level, the knowledge of those ends by which to guide a man’s actions and order his life. He would have believed that any alteration or interruption in an organism’s movement to its natural and appointed ends would certainly harm and possibly destroy it. He would have identified our society’s recent claim to have a right to re-define or re-engineer the telos of a thing as a divine, not a human, right. And let me say that this final pillar would be rendered meaningless by the absence of the first facet.
The classical home rejects what I call the “Disneyfication” of the child, which works against a Christian understanding of telos. If you can dream it, you can do it! Follow your heart! Let your dreams guide you! All of this is so much piffle, drivel, and swill, and has nothing to do with what God has called us to as we seek to glorify Him.
Apart from Man, the natural world is not free to deviate from its telos. Acorns must do what they are meant to do. Man, on the other hand, lives in a condition of posse peccare, he is free to sin or deviate from his final cause or telos. This is the most profound ethical and intellectual concern of his life. In the Genesis story, the Tree of Knowledge represents this freedom, and Adam and Eve ate the fruit of this tree to become godlike as the Serpent promised, free of their human telos and natural limitations. The result was death. In the modern age, the result is an intellectual death. By returning to a teleological understanding of Man, classical Christian education gives life to that educational valley of dry bones.
In Ephesians 6:4, Paul tells fathers to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The phrase “nurture and admonition” in the Greek is one word: Paideia. Now this word is so jam-packed full of meaning that Werner Jaeger wrote three volumes just on this one word alone. Paideia was not just instruction, as we tend to interpret it. When an ancient Greek walked through his town and passed the temples and the markets and the old women and the slaves and the soldiers, all of that encompassed that young man’s paideia, his nurture and instruction. It encompassed virtually everything in his cultural experience. And in Ephesians 6, Paul tells fathers to bring up their children in a Christian one of those!
Above all, the classical home seeks to preserve and pass on the culture’s norms for individual and social behavior. Education (paideia) as all teachers and schools until the 20th century understood it, was overwhelmingly about transferring the norms of civilization from one generation to the next. There were norms for everything. Not only for grammar, logic, and rhetoric, but for drawing, dressing, dining, and dancing. Norms governed all of life. Perhaps this is why G.K. Chesterton said, “The most important fact about the subject of education is that there is no such thing. Education is not a subject, and it does not deal in subjects. It is instead the transfer of a way of life.”
Hopefully, it is apparent by now how radically different from the home next door the classical home will be. Without this difference, not only can we no longer think rightly about the world, ultimately, there is nothing in the world worth thinking about.