Part 3: Practices
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I have reminded parents of the sacred task they have in raising children and laid out four ways in which the philosophy behind classical Christian education dovetails perfectly with the way that I as a Christian parent strive to raise my children. In this third installment, I will provide 4 more reasons why I want a classical Christian education for my children, focusing particularly on some of the distinctive practices of classical education.
Now that we have looked at the big picture, we are prepared to dig into what classical Christian education looks like in action. Some of the practices in a classical school are similar to what you would see in classrooms elsewhere; there is no need to be different for different’s sake. However, in my remaining reasons, I will focus particularly on distinctive aspects of classical teaching that set it apart in the modern educational landscape.
I know what you’re thinking, “You promised us distinctives of classical Christian education and you start with something that every school does?” Hear me out. A classical Christian education uses stories more often and in different ways than most modern schools. Stories, both fictional and not, are an essential part of how we learn and how we view the world around us. Stories hit home in a way that mere statements usually do not; they speak to us at a gut level. This power can be used for good and for ill, to develop in virtue and to lead into vice.
Classical Christian education harnesses the power of story for the development of Christian character. By entering into the world of the story and seeing characters and actions that serve as good and bad examples, students see virtue and vice embodied and internalize lessons in a way that mere definition and explanation could never accomplish. This starts in early grades with very clear heroes and villains and becomes more complex as students mature and are prepared to talk about grey areas because they know what black and white are.
A world obsessed with efficiency and the bottom line questions the value of stories, but for those interested in cultivating the soul, they are indispensable. Because of the value of reading for both moral and intellectual development, classical schools unapologetically spend copious amounts of time reading stories.
“Memorizing is mostly a waste of time. Almost everyone has access to all the information they could ever want in their pocket.” This is a common objection to memorization in the smartphone age and one that I used to believe myself. However, I have come to see the indispensable value of memory and recognize the faulty assumptions that underlie that statement. First, while it is true that facts are more accessible than ever, our working memory as humans remains unchanged.
Remember this number: 3840971.
Now scroll down so that you can’t see the number anymore and whatever you do, don’t forget it. If you are like me, you are repeating that number over and over in your head, perhaps even creating a little jingle to help you remember. You’re finding it more difficult to read this because part of your attention is consumed by remembering the number. You continue to repeat the number over and over. Now check to see if you remember the number. Odds are that you do, but notice the sense of relief you have now that you no longer have to keep that number floating around in your mind. Holding something in working memory is mentally exhausting and takes our attention away from other things. If we are constantly having to look up fundamental terms, formulas, ideas, or figures while we think through a new concept we will find that learning will be more taxing, less fruitful, and less enjoyable.
Second, and more importantly, when we memorize something, we are literally making it a part of ourselves, weaving it into the fabric of our synapses. As we go through the repetitive process of committing something to memory, we learn to see it in a new light and make connections that were not immediately apparent. I have seen this in my own life as I have worked on memorizing the book of James this year. As I memorize and meditate on James, I have become more intimately acquainted with the book and I see its flow of thought in a new way. I am able to recite it from memory while I drive in the car and stop to repeat and think about parts that the Holy Spirit is highlighting for me. Memory is powerful and the classical curriculum is designed to build and utilize that power.
There is a tempting train of thought about education that runs something like this: “In each subject, we should be setting students on a trajectory for expertise in that content area. Therefore, we should start by thinking about what experts do, then break down those skills and teach them to our students.” This approach, however, fails to take into account two things. First, if the goal is to cultivate students who are wise and virtuous and will “glorify God and enjoy him forever,” we must first ask whether the experts are worthy of imitation. In some cases they may be, but we must be aware of the underlying worldviews that have shaped that particular field and ask if they are in alignment with our mission as Christian parents and educators.
Second, one must ask whether those activities are developmentally appropriate. The expert historian may be great at analyzing sources, but their love of history was likely stoked by hearing the incredible stories of history and by absorbing fascinating facts about the past. Further, if our students spend all their time analyzing sources to understand what happened without ever asking what should have happened, they have missed out on the most important part of history.
Much of the activity of experts deals with analysis, picking ideas apart. This is an important skill and has a part to play in developing that form of wisdom we call discernment. However, analysis can become incredibly detrimental when it is introduced at the wrong time. Learning how an illusionist does a trick can be fascinating, but only after one has first been awed by the magic. So also, analyzing a piece of poetry can be rewarding, but much more so if one has first enjoyed the poem. By first authentically experiencing the thing to be studied, the student will come to love a thing (see reason #3) before dissecting it. Then, those parts of analysis which are beneficial to the mission of education find their proper place in the curriculum, while those that are not can be discarded.
On several occasions, I have had the pleasure of hearing a student say something like, “Wow, it’s so weird to think that events from history and the stuff in the Bible are happening at the same time.” I love hearing them bring together separate pieces of knowledge and come to understand them in relation to each other. Classical Christian education is designed to do just that; it brings unity to the curriculum. First, because of the emphasis on memory and broad reading, students have a great repository of information from which to develop connections. If one is going to build a sturdy house, it helps to have a good bit of lumber; so also if one wants to have a solid, integrated worldview, a mind full of facts and ideas is a prerequisite. Second, by presenting content in an orderly and logical way, the classical curriculum enables students to mentally organize the information they learn.
Take as an example our Upper School Humanities Program at Madison Christian. Our students move chronologically, through history starting with the ancient world in 7th grade, moving into the medieval period and Reformation in 8th grade, and to the modern age in 9th. Then they repeat that chronology again in grades 10-12. In Bible, English, and History courses they read texts from their respective time period and are able to understand the ideas and events of that era with some depth. As they move through the timeline, they have a much clearer sense of the conversations and developments that are happening across the centuries than they would if they were thrown haphazardly from one period or topic to another year by year.
The connections between the three classes helps students to see that all the events of history are happening in the same world and do not occur in isolation. The literature of the time flows from and speaks to the events of that day; the theological discussions happening in the church are influenced by the challenges that Christians faced and are often in conversation with what the philosophers of that time had to say. Nothing happens in isolation, and the integration of the curriculum across classes and through the timeline guides students to see the unity of truth and of human experience through the ages.
I could have mentioned any number of other reasons why I love Christian classical education. I haven’t touched logic or languages, science or seminars. Dialectic, dogma, and discipline all went neglected. But I hope that you were able to catch a vision of what education can be when the right ends are married to the right means, when Christian values and effective teaching combine to cultivate sharp minds and virtuous spirits. That’s the kind of education that I want for my children.