One serious concern is the danger in emphasizing “classical (Christian) education” on exactly these terms, i.e., putting the “Christian” in brackets, i.e., making it secondary….We must be careful not to romanticize things “classical,” without biblical thoughtfulness and scrutiny.
The old saying that that religion and politics should never be brought up in polite society needs expanding. Don’t mention education either! In a recent article in The New Yorker (April 3rd, 2023), Emma Green showed just how much is at stake here, particularly with contemporary partisan politics in mind. She names names, stating in her subtitle that “Conservatives like Ron DeSantis see Hillsdale College as a model for education nationwide”. Green carefully nuances her terms, giving voice to different groups. But in the end a term that she somewhat lands on when speaking of the whole controversy is “classical education.” As a quick aside, readers seeking an ‘on-ramp’ to this subject should read Stanley Fish’s New York Times piece of 2010, which begins with the amusing story of him wearing his high school ring until it wore out. He writes of how it “became black and misshapen,” only for Fish to replaced it with a new one. Why? “[B]ecause although I have degrees from two Ivy league schools and have taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Duke, Classical High School (in Providence, RI) is the best and most demanding educational institution I have ever been associated with.” Fish commends his rigorous classical high school education, which for him required “four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs—French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others.”
The phenomenon Green labels as “classical education,” therefore, is not easily type-cast. If one looks at Gerd Theissen’s wonderfully succinct analysis of European education in the 20th century, highlighting the rise of social studies and its influence, one gets a picture that this discussion is complicated and should be treated as such.
The question I want to ask in this article, given that classical education, even classical Christian education has come under scrutiny, is this one: what exactly does it mean to educate someone (particularly a child) in a way that is appropriate, especially with the Jesus of Christian families in mind? What are the principles for different people at different ages? Should Christians, for example, still be using the Trivium as recommended by Dorothy Sayers in her now-famous article of 1947? Should Christians follow Sayer’s lead (drawn from her own personal growth) that in early grades children’s minds are ripe for memorizing, meaning we start with grammar? Should this then be followed by logic, after which we should teach rhetoric?
This is a huge topic to tackle in a short article, and thus I make no claims to completeness. Nevertheless, I wish to attempt to contemplate all this in light of what the Bible has to say. One serious concern is the danger in emphasizing “classical (Christian) education” on exactly these terms, i.e., putting the “Christian” in brackets, i.e., making it secondary. What God wants (some would seem to say) is a classical Christian education, with the emphasis unknowingly falling heavy on the classical part rather than the Christian part. We must be aware that the first Christians were battling worldliness in their own day. And in some cases, this worldliness WAS the “classical” way of thinking—e.g. the striving for personal honor, and the thought that physical beauty was a sign of divine favor. We must be careful not to romanticize things “classical,” without biblical thoughtfulness and scrutiny.
In this article I will argue that Paul would likely not have been directly against certain educational models of his time, even a “classical education.” But I will argue that Paul always was aware of sin in the human heart and yet retained optimism too, a belief in what the Spirit could achieve in a Christian. So perhaps even while we are thinking about education in terms of grammar and logic and rhetoric, we should be conscious too of the X-factors, i.e., the power of sin (not to underestimate it) and the power of the Holy Spirit (not to underestimate this either). More than anything, therefore, I will suggest from this that Paul promoted what we might call a Classical Spiritual Christian Education.
Philemon will be our text of choice for this article, a choice that might at first seem strange. If readers know anything of Paul’s little letter Philemon, they will know that it has always attracted attention regarding the subject of slavery. Here is the story: a man called Onesimus had apparently run away from his master, Philemon. Onesimus was thereby a runaway slave. Somehow, he had come in contact with the apostle Paul and had become a Christian. Hooray! But this created a tension. Runaway slaves were subject to the most severe punishment under Roman law, meaning that if Onesimus went back to Philemon, horrible things could happen to him. But, given Romans 13, we know that Paul has a deep willingness to work within even unjust governmental frameworks. He would have been legally liable if he harbored an escaped slave, yet Philemon was a brother in Christ. How does he navigate this? For this reason, Paul sent Onesimus back with the letter we now have, a letter whose main point is to appeal to Philemon to take Onesimus back without retribution, even with hints that perhaps he should emancipate him.
The letter is therefore a powerful text for considering the issues of slavery. But the way Paul speaks to Philemon, even the way he instructs him—or not—is instructive for thinking about the general area of teaching and training, even the training of children. As we will see presently, Paul started by assuming that Philemon is mature in the Lord, and based on that he chooses simply to persuade him, not to command him. This is very relevant to our discussion, as we will soon see. But then, even though Paul assumed Philemon would act maturely in line with godliness, Paul also (just in case) instructed him as if he were not mature and might make the wrong decision.
This seems quite helpful, because as we think about different levels of maturity and how to approach them, both mature and immature people are suddenly in view. How do we approach maturity and immaturity, even when it may occur within a single person in a short space of time? This is very relevant in raising kids, particularly teens. What I hope to show is that Paul leads with an optimistic agenda, and only afterwards is he more pessimistic. But even in his willingness, this willingness to be optimistic first, Paul was still bold about his responsibilities, a theme also vital for parents to constantly have in mind.
The letter to Philemon, after a few opening niceties, moves to a thanksgiving where Paul is all about thanking God for Philemon. When was the last time you did this regarding someone else and let them know? We are often quite slow to praise, and sometimes we even see a kind of weird competition at work between people and God! Everyone (including myself), we often decide, is awful to the core, most if not all the time, always tainted by error, having nothing good to be proud of; and so, the only person in the universe we can say anything nice about is God! Paul would disagree. He is quite willing to encourage Philemon, by saying lots of nice things about his maturity:
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 in order that your common faith with others may become even more energized by understanding from all the saints, i.e., every single person among you who is for Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the deep emotions of the saints have been revived through you.
Verse 6 is notoriously difficult. Translations have regularly rendered it differently. I will indulge to give my translation, one that I think best fits with a context of commending maturity. Basically, Paul starts by saying that you (Philemon) have been mature in your help to others: you are mature because you have given out faith and love to the Lord Jesus and to other Christians. Interesting…Maturity is about giving to the Lord. But maturity is also about connection with others, to love them (yes), but also to be willing to share faith with them. Now to verse 6. You have been mature and humble enough to learn from others too.