No one really owns the copyright to the word classical.  Even in the realm of education, many are pursuing distinct objectives, and all with a legitimate claim to that word.  From neoclassicists to Thomists to classical Protestants, the word readily fits.  So, in discussing the state of classical and Christian education, I need to take care that I not act as though I have discovered the body of Moses.  One of the glories of language is the fact that one word can bear a multitude of meanings.  The downside of this glory is that things can get into a frightful muddle if you do not define what you are actually talking about.

My interest here is in the resurgence of classical and Christian education within the Protestant evangelical world—and it has been quite a resurgence.  The major organization that typifies this is the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS), which is only about ten years old.  The ACCS now has about 140 member schools in about 40 states.  Foreign countries represented include Nigeria, Cambodia, Peru, New Zealand, France, and Canada.  The last ACCS national conference brought over 700 educators from around the country, and there are approximately 32,000 children being educated in member schools.  Member schools sponsor teacher-training conferences around the country in the summer, and the one college in the association has begun to send graduates to teach in such schools.  There are other organizations in this broad movement as well, filling niches not addressed by the ACCS.  One example is Veritas Press, which provides classical materials for many thousands of homeschoolers who are engaged in this work.

Surely, as Buffalo Springfield informed us so long ago, something’s happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Broadly speaking, in these schools, classical refers both to the pedagogical method and to the content of the curriculum.  Following Dorothy Sayers in her important essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” these schools seek to pattern the curriculum around the ancient trivium—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  This is not a reenactment of ancient schooling patterns but, rather, a modern (and, in my view, brilliant) application of those ancient patterns.  I am unaware of any ancient precedent for her proposal.

Sayers argued that we should educate children by cutting with the grain.  If grammar is an accumulated pile of facts, and dialectic is the process of sorting out those facts, and rhetoric is the process of presenting them in a winsome way once they are sorted out, then what would happen, she wondered, if we applied each element of this trivium to the various “stages” of child development?  Children grow through stages of wanting to accumulate, sort out, and present, which she called the poll-parrot, pert, and poetic stages.  She believed her thought experiment would never be tried, but we actually tried it, and the results have been amazing.

In the elementary years, children love to chant and memorize.  If you do not give them things to chant and memorize, they will make up their own.  So, Sayers argued, why not take advantage of this propensity and stuff their little heads with the facts?  Progressive educators dismiss this as “rote learning,” ignoring the fact that such learning is a dismal process only when you are old and the concrete of your brain is hardened.  When you are in third grade, it is quite a thrill to be able to chant, at the top of your voice, “Hic, haec, hoc! Huius, huius, huius!” 

In the dialectal years (junior high, roughly), children become argumentative.  Then, Sayers said, teach them to argue.  This is where you would teach logic, diagramming sentences, etc.  And, in the high-school years, when children are particularly concerned about how they are coming across, teach them how to come across.  This is where the literature courses and formal rhetoric go.

The content of this kind of curriculum is self-consciously not multicultural.  You do not teach children to appreciate other cultures by teaching them to despise their own.  A child who loves and honors his own mother is far more likely to appreciate that someone else loves and honors his own mother.  So the curriculum is rooted in the history, literature, and traditions of the West.  In order to be accredited by the ACCS, a school needs to teach reading through phonics, provide four years of Latin or Greek instruction, and give “training in classical and modern Western history and literature.”

In these evangelical Protestant schools, the Christian world-view is at the center of the project.  Instead of taking a curriculum that is essentially the same as that of the government school down the street, cleaning it up a bit, and tacking on chapel or a Bible class, the desire here is to teach all the subjects as an integrated whole, with the Scriptures occupying the authoritative center.  This “take no prisoners” approach has applications far beyond a simple Bible class and the rejection of evolution in biology.  It means a distinctively Christian appreciation of literature, for example, and understanding history in the light of the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ.  It means learning how to glorify God in mathematics.

So much is introduction and backdrop.  The bar is certainly set high.  How are these schools actually doing?  What are their successes, their challenges, and their pitfalls?

I will begin with the pitfalls, because it is safe to say that we now know the most about those, since many of our schools have fallen into them.  As we have established this educational beachhead, the forces of modernity have shown that they know how to defend themselves and have laid down a withering fire.  Everyone who seeks to establish such a school in the current educational climate is asking for it.

The most obvious danger is that few of us know exactly what we are doing.  We are not engaged in a magnificent building project; we are still digging out from underneath the cultural rubble after the earthquake that scholars call the Enlightenment.  We are trying to provide an education that none of us received.  Jesus, however, taught us that the student becomes like his teacher.  This danger, then, splits into two dangers.  On the one hand, the founders of the school can begin to grade on a curve and think that because they are ahead of other people in this process, they must actually have a thorough classical education.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  This is the error of the coxcomb, who believes that a classical education can be obtained at Costco: a class here or there, one or two conferences, read the Iliad once, etc.  Such posturing can only arouse the disgust of real classicists whose expertise is needed in this movement but who are put off by poseurs.

The other danger that proceeds from getting in over your head is despair.  H.L. Mencken once said that self-respect was that deep assured feeling that no one, as of yet, was suspicious.  There are many who know (in the most acute way) that they are not qualified to undertake the work they are doing and that many observers ought to be more suspicious.  But the work still has to be done, no one else is doing it, and your children are about ready to start school.  So you throw yourself into the work, God blesses it, and suddenly you find yourself writing articles for Chronicles that someone else should be writing.  The danger here is that you are tempted to give up because you have learned enough to realize that your task is overwhelming.  The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.  Compounding this problem is that as long as one is engaged in a work that is beyond him, the watching classicists and academics can confuse the humble laborer with the coxcomb mentioned earlier.

Another great danger, which has affected more than one of our schools, is that of success, more success, respectability, and then the inevitable mission drift.  This helps create what my daughter has described as “classical schools for show poodles.”  The result is higher educational standards than elsewhere; still, the smell of doggy perfume lingers in the air.  The lust for respectability manifests itself in multiple ways: a desire for secular accreditation, wanting your athletic teams to be able to “go to state,” lobbying for the cash cow of vouchers, or counting placements at Harvard.

Another pitfall occurs when a school is struggling faithfully to implement this classical and Christian vision for education and finds itself under a mountain of bad publicity that it cannot afford.  For example, our classical Christian school recently underwent a slanderous drubbing in the local press, which accused us of harboring affinities for white separatists because we teach about the War Between the States with a measure of honesty and do not make the Confederate armies out to have been made up of orcs and Klingons.

The flashpoint differs from community to community, but the process is always monotonously the same.  Whether there is a flap about a student’s “unfair” expulsion, the school’s failure to observe the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, or its refusal to fight AIDS by tying ribbons around things, the flap gets the school in trouble with the diversity police.  Our multicultural age knows how to punish those who dare to be genuinely different.  The regnant authorities want to celebrate diversity by making everyone march in lockstep.  The pressure builds to think that the program would not be destroyed if “we just went along with this one thing.”  But trying to accommodate the hostility of the outside secularists and statists is like trying to be a little bit pregnant.

The number of schools that are involved in this project would be much higher if it were not for the cunning and hostility that have successfully diverted or overcome a number of our schools.  Still, with virtually no examples, no resources, and no encouragement, over the course of the last ten years, many thousands of families have said something along the lines of “Not with my kid, you don’t.”  They have pulled out of the government school system, followed by taunts and jeers.  Matters were not helped by the fact that many of the taunts were quite valid.  This courage must be praised and honored because, God willing, it will result in the reestablishment of a true education system in the great tradition of the West.  We are not there yet, and I would argue that we are not even close.  The benefit of simply heading in the right direction, however, is that students receive a much better education than they would otherwise have received, and that education will be a great blessing.  The most encouraging thing about what is happening is that parents have taken on what, in military terms, would be called a decisive point.  In order to qualify as a decisive point, a contested battleground must meet two criteria—it must be both feasible and strategic.  A targeted objective must matter to the enemy if you take it, and it must be possible to take.  If cultural conservatives took New York City, that would certainly be strategic.  It is not feasible, however.  We could take Bovill, Idaho, in just a matter of days.  That is feasible but not strategic; it would not matter if we did.  

Parents in the classical Christian school movement have done something that is feasible: They have taken full responsibility for the education of their own children.  And they have done so in a manner that is having an impact entirely out of proportion to the numbers involved.  It is strategic because the direction provided by this kind of education really is a genuine alternative.  People look at what is happening and see that modern American kids can be educated.  Sullen ignorance is not an inevitability.

Too often, conservatives complain about the bills levied on them by the overweening state, but they like the benefits.  There is no moral authority, however, in the rhetoric of the whiner who, after an evening of dancing, does not want to pay the piper.  The man who really wants to resist the current principalities and powers must refuse their offered benefits first.  This is what is happening in the broad Christian school and homeschool movements, and it is occurring self-consciously in the classical Christian school movement.  The impact of such actions is enormous.  When our local classical Christian school started 20 years ago, fewer than five percent of the local schoolchildren were being educated privately.  Today, the figure is around 33 percent and growing.  Within a few years, if God continues His kindness, we may see the local government schools become the choice of the minority.

In doing this, we have stolen a page from the playbook of the liberals: Think globally; act locally.