Classical Christian Education and Classics: What’s in a Name?

Josey Wright

Classical Christian Schools – described excitedly by Classical Education advocate Andrew Kern as a “movement sweeping America” – have rapidly grown in number over recent years. The movement has now swept so far that Kern’s description may no longer be apt. New Classical Christian schools have been springing up beyond the shores of the United States –in the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and – outside the Anglosphere – South Korea.

The schools are resoundingly popular with parents and pupils alike, and this popularity is not without good reason. For many Christians, exploring the ancient world and its languages allows for a deeper understanding of their own faith. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were the languages in which the Bible, liturgy, and early doctrine were written; even more importantly, all three languages were present at the central moment for Christian history: on the cross itself (John 19:19–20). The ancient world, for Christians, means the world in which Jesus lived, and understanding it allows for a deeper understanding of Him and His teachings.

A neo-classical statue of Jesus, Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1829 (plaster cast in the Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark; a subsequent marble version, of 1833, stands in the city’s Church of Our Lady, for which it was commissioned).

However, many – including, perhaps, even some in university Classics faculties – may find the designation ‘Classical Christian’ oxymoronic. Although Classics and Christianity have been historic bedfellows, they have often stood at an awkward remove in modern universities (despite many of these once being Christian institutions). Following the rise of Deism and secularism as brought about by the ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century, Christianity and its worldview have become divorced from nearly every discipline in universities, and Classics is no exception.

Christian texts written in Greek and Latin are commonly considered a matter of second-order interest by Classicists, texts which can be relegated to and dealt with by Theology and Religion faculties. According to this logic, ‘true Classicists’ study only the ‘pagans’. The fact of the matter is that Classics, as a discipline, has even been conceived as a higher order pursuit which has no business with Christian writings, so that the subject’s very identity (whether we are talking about such diverse matters as the Greek reflexes of Indo-European laryngeals, Stoic philosophy, or explicit wall paintings of Pompeii… one could go on) has been defined to the exclusion of these Christian writings.

In view of this background, what, then, might Classics and Classical Christian Education have in common? And what, if anything, can they learn from one another?  

Sculptors in Ancient Rome, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1877 (priv. coll.).

A brief digression on the history of contemporary Classical Christian Education (henceforth CCE) will provide some understanding of why these schools I shall be considering look and function the way they do today. Perhaps unexpectedly, given its ‘Classical’ moniker, the source of the CCE movement is an essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning”, which was written in 1947 by Dorothy Sayers – a novelist and contemporary of Agatha Christie, who, outside of CCE circles, is known primarily for her eleven detective novels and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Sayers’ essay contains an appeal – albeit one that she admits was unlikely to come to fruition – for schools to return to the medieval curriculum of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) so that students might focus on “forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” This shift from focusing on content to focusing on a method of approaching content is one of the primary defining philosophies of CCE.

Bronze statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, John Doubleday, 1994 (Witham, Essex, UK).

The first CCE school was opened in 1980 by Douglas Wilson. Disillusioned with the American public-school system, Wilson sought to open a school which would offer a rigorous education from a Christian point of view; he found Sayers’ model to be the best choice. Following his opening of Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, Wilson wrote a book entitled Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education (1991), in which he expands on Sayers’ musings on education and entwines them even more securely with his own thoughts on ‘Christ-centered education’. Pastor Wilson would go on to become one of the founding members of the Association of Classical and Christian schools (ACCS), which now contains over 300 member schools. If you were to try to name the two modern intellectual influences on the contemporary CCE movement, Sayers and Wilson would be strong candidates.

When one peruses the ‘About Us’ pages of various CCE schools, one finds surprisingly few references to ‘Classics’ as it is now conceived of as a university discipline. Rather, nearly all schools explicitly  focus on the Trivium, the Liberal Arts, Great Books, and more abstract objectives such as “cultivating virtue and wisdom”. These terms as well as the history of CCE are often left loosely defined. For example, the ACCS defines CCE as follows:

Classical Christian Education (CCE) is education as it was practiced prior to the progressive movement early in the 20th century when the focus switched to job training. Instead, CCE sharpens students’ reasoning, language, and rhetorical skills with a Christian vision for all truth and knowledge. Classical education was created by the Greeks to train citizens to self-govern and live in freedom. Later, it was Christianized to become “Classical Christian”. In the medieval era, “scholastics” refined the form into what inspires classical Christian education today. Rather than emphasizing “subjects”, it emphasizes seven “liberal arts”, which liberate the mind to be less subject to controlling influences. The goal is to cultivate wisdom in light of Christ’s creation and kingdom.

Philosophy presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?; attrib.), 1460s (illumination in a manuscript of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA, Ms. 42, f.2v).

Some might critique this narrative of the history of CCE for painting with overly broad brushstrokes or for the way it defines itself in opposition to “the progressive movement”; others might decry it as patently false. There is too little space here to consider in any detail the more general history of education in the West from the time of ancient Greece until the present. What may be of interest, however, is this critique of the CCE’s self-description from a historical perspective by Jonathan Roberts. In short, it will suffice to say that the CCE in its current form may be fairly described as just as much of a modern innovation as the ‘postmodernist pedagogy’ that many CCE advocates like to use as punching bag.

After such an introduction to CCE, readers may wonder what on earth Classics as practiced in universities and in non-CCE schools, namely the study of ‘pagan’ Greece and Rome, has in common with CCE (apart from the ubiquitous use of Greek columns in their branding!). The answer lies in CCE’s fixation with Classical languages. The vast majority – if not all – of CCE schools offer or require Latin, and many will also offer a more limited amount of Ancient Greek.

Noah in his ark: detail from a fresco in the Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, late 3rd / early 4th century, Rome, Italy.

The question ‘Why Latin and Greek?’ has many different answers, however, depending on which CCE educator you ask. Some proponents of CCE, such as Cheryl Lowe from Memoria Press, list reasons that include helping understand English vocabulary and grammar, preparing for learning other languages, and training the mind to recognise connections – all extremely pragmatic (albeit important) objectives. Some, however, such as Marlin Detweiler of Veritas Press, have suggested that the goal of having students read texts in the original is unfeasible and even “esoteric”:

Sometimes a vocal minority of the more academic types can be heard expressing lofty, even esoteric ideas. One idea we’ve heard is that the most important reason to learn Latin is to read ancient works in the language in which they’ve been written. We don’t mind the thought, but few students will ever realize this reason for learning Latin.

This sort of rationale has been strongly critiqued by Roberts for its divorce of Latin and Greek from the texts which they encode and the cultures from which they originate. Indeed, such pragmatic rationales could be used to justify learning any language. Why learn Latin and Greek when you could learn French and German, or any other language which can be spoken within living speech communities?

Rhetoric and Arithmetic, two of the seven liberal arts sculpted by Nicolò and Giovanni Pisano, 1275-8 (Fontana Maggiore, Perugia, Italy).

While Roberts believes that such rationales dominate CCE circles, my own sense is that a majority in the CCE movement see the ultimate goal of learning ancient languages to be gaining a deeper sense of engagement with texts written in Latin and Greek. Andrew Kern, for example, writes that “the Great Conversation that is the beating heart of Western civilization took place in Latin and Greek and their offspring. A Western community lacking citizens versed in Latin and Greek must lose its heritage.” In fact, the ACCS website itself has an entire page dedicated to the idea of returning ad fontes (“to the sources”) and learning Latin and Greek in order to facilitate the reading of primary sources.

Moreover, many in CCE are now on the cutting edge of new methodologies of learning Latin and Ancient Greek, namely the ‘active Latin and Greek’ movements, which have grown in America over the past decade. In fact, some of the schools most famous now for using spoken Latin and Ancient Greek in the classroom are CCE schools. For example, Veritas School, an institution of over 600 students located in Richmond, Virginia, now uses spoken Latin, Ancient Greek, and Biblical Hebrew in the classroom. The Circe (Center for Independent Research on Classical Education) Institute, an organisation dedicated to furthering CCE, offers a training program for CCE educators which includes a three-year apprenticeship in spoken Latin. The goal of this active methodology is to gain the ability to engage with texts on an even closer level, without the need for translation.

Illustration of Rhetoric, Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, 1470s (illumination in a manuscript of Martianus Capella (Vatican Library, MS Urb. Lat. 329, f.64v).

This close, unmediated engagement with Classical texts is likewise a priority for many university Classics faculties; although there are very few where spoken Latin and Ancient Greek are used, there are some notable exceptions which include the University of Kentucky, the University of Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin. Irrespective of the different pedagogical approaches, it would be difficult to suggest that engaging with literature, inscriptions, and other historical documents in their original languages does not offer clear potential for rich and valuable insights. Moreover, novel research on ancient texts of the kind traditionally pursued by Classicists practically demands close attention and engagement on a linguistic level. Thus, while the CCE goal of engaging with great ideas in the original may seem somewhat lofty, in practice, given its concern with linguistic study and encountering ancient authors in their original languages, it very closely resembles the emphasis placed on the study of ancient languages by university Classics faculties.

What, then, if anything, might the ‘secular’ world of Classics on the one hand, and CCE on the other, have to learn from one another? Of course, the two spheres of study are designed with quite different principles and goals in mind. It would, of course, be absurd (and discriminatory) to suggest that all university Classics faculties should suddenly place a Christian rationale at the heart of their curricula – though there are some in America that do (e.g. Hillsdale College, Christendom College, etc.). Likewise, one would not expect CCE schools to abandon their Christian principles. However, I do believe that their individual approaches to Classics each have something to offer the other.

Bust of Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States of America (1829–37), Hiram Powers, 1839 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Given the generally conservative leanings of the CCE movement, there should be little surprise that its proponents often take issue with the modern university and its approach to Classics, especially its recent emphasis on critical theory and common tendency to emphasise the importance of reading Classical texts through the lenses of gender and racial politics.

By contrast, the CCE movement’s approach has been to praise Classics and ‘Western Civilization’ almost unreservedly, while glossing over those areas which should feel challenging for anyone to contemplate who espouses a Christian moral sense. From the unequal treatment of women and of slaves, to extreme violence and pedophilia, much of what was considered acceptable behavior in the ancient world falls far outside of the bounds of anything deserving the label of ‘Christian morality’. Nor do the texts of renowned authors such as Plato and Aristotle escape the cultural norms of the societies in which they were written (and how could they, in any case?). CCE schools would do well to remember that the Classical is not necessarily the Christian and should not be afraid to criticise the ideas and texts of the ancient world as often as they praise them.

Plato argues with Aristotle, Luca della Robbia, 1437/9 (formerly on Giotto’s Bell Tower of the Duomo in Florence, Italy, and now in the associated museum).

On the other hand, the optimism with which CCE schools approach the ancient world is a healthy reminder of why many Classicists chose to study the discipline in the first place: because we are fascinated by the texts, culture, history, and ideas of the ancient world. University Classics faculties have not always had an easy time expressing this sort of optimism of late: perhaps the example of CCE can serve as an instructive reminder of how and why it might matter, even if the CCE’s own modus operandi will not be more widely adopted outside its own movement.

Second, as has been noted above, CCE schools often blur the boundaries between the Classical, the Medieval, and the Renaissance into one mass that they title ‘Western Civilization’. While this scheme of understanding can be reductive, not least for the way it may be hospitable to unpleasant political opinions which have marred ‘Western’ history and thought, it does allow students to explore the connections and similarities they encounter across various periods. By contrast with this, Classics as a university discipline has sometimes suffered from a narrowness of focus and even a sense of isolation within school and university sectors.

Fresco of a young man with the seven liberal arts, Sandro Botticelli, 1480s (discovered in the Villa Lemmi near Florence, Italy, and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

New and interesting research which includes Christian material as well as Classical is often considered more appropriate for Theology faculties than for Classics. Indeed, even Classical reception (the engagement of later periods with the ancient world) has only recently become an accepted area of research in Classics and is still considered by some not to be ‘real Classics’. The historical development of Classics as a discipline, however, is inescapable for any serious Classicist, regardless of their subspeciality. From the edited texts one studies, to the grammars from which one learns Latin and Greek, to the conventions and ideas of Classical scholarship, every piece of Classics has passed through centuries of mediation. Recognizing and even celebrating these connections to other periods of history rather than suppressing them would surely produce much fruit.

My suggestion here is that, while CCE schools perhaps go too far in their quest to create a united picture of Western Civilization, ‘secular’ Classics has often gone too far in the opposite direction to isolate the discipline and ignore its connections both to the Christian tradition and to later periods of history.

St Bernard preaching the Second Crusade at Vézelay in 1146, Émile Signol (Palace of Versailles, France).

I hope my readers will forgive me for ending on a personal note. From the age of five to eighteen, I was educated in a Christian Classical school; since then, I have studied for a bachelor’s, master’s, and now doctoral degree in Classics. Both educational experiences have offered advantages and limitations. A simple way of summarising my experience would be to say that my CCE school taught me how to appreciate the ancient world, while my university taught me how to critique the ancient world. My CCE school taught me Latin; my university taught me how to engage with Latin. My CCE school taught me how to draw connections between ideas; my university taught me how to turn those ideas into research. Yet, I have often found myself feeling a clear sense that both environments lack something important. Despite the similarity in their names, Classics and Classical Christian Education often run parallel courses; a degree of collaboration and crossover would do both some good.

Josey Wright (née Parker) is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include Renaissance Neo-Latin, Ciceronian reception, and Latin sociolinguistics. She has written for Antigone on the humanist Isotta Nogarola and on the obsessive cult of Ciceronian Latin.