Is Classical Christian Education Traditional or Progressive? Yes.

by Dr. Aaron Denlinger

Ours is an age that values the new over the old. We all want the newest fashion, the latest release, the most recent model of whatever technology is currently sweeping the marketplace, because we’ve been shaped by our culture to value that which is new over that which is old. Our privileging of the new and exciting over the old is reflected in our shopping habits and advertising jingoes. We are, on a daily basis, assaulted with advertisements promising us something “new and improved,” or “hot off the press,” of “under new management.” We never met the old management or had any real problem with it, but new management must be good. Or how about this one from the late 1980s: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Our privileging of the new over the old extends to the realm of ideas as well. To call an idea “antiquated” in our day is to discredit it. The word “antiquated” comes to us from the Latin antiquus, meaning “old” or “long-standing,” and—at least according to its etymological root—really means nothing more than that. But when we hear the word “antiquated” applied to an idea we think, “dated,” “no longer useful,” or just simply, “false.”

chestertonThis privileging of the new over the old, especially in the realm of ideas, sets us apart significantly from our forefathers in western history. Up until fairly recently in the west, to call an idea “antiquated’ was to praise it, not discredit it. If someone wished to discredit an idea he or she would typically call that idea “novel” (from the Latin novus, meaning “new”). That which was old, that which was established, that which was time-tested and proven, was until the onset of modernity consistently privileged and valued over that which had yet to stand the test of time. But such is no longer the case.

In some areas of life, of course, the advantages of the new over the old are hard to argue against. Technological and medical advances of recent years have improved our standard of living. Scientific discoveries of the last half-millenium have opened our eyes to the overwhelming power and creativity of our God, and so have become fodder for praise. Nevertheless, when it comes to education, I’m not convinced that new is necessarily better than old, whether by “new” we think primarily of the content of education (the curriculum) or the form of education (pedagogy).

Education, after all, is really as old as we are. From the dawn of human history, societies have been invested in the transmission of knowledge and values from one generation to the next. And we know fairly well, actually, what that has looked like for the last 2500 years or so. We know, for instance, how Socrates engaged the attention of his students, and what truths he considered relevant to teach.

There is, of course, plenty of new out there in the marketplace of competing educational ideologies and practices—especially so in our context of the United States of America. But this is precisely what excites me about classical Christian education. At the very moment when our society as a whole seems determined to latch on to every new idea, every new interpretation of the past, every new theory about human existence and origins, every new theory of pedagogy or child psychology, every new means or method for transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next, classical Christian education as a movement in our day is pushing in the opposite direction, looking to the past, looking at the content of education from years gone by, immersing our children in the great works of previous millennia—works that have shaped our western identity, informed our values, and changed our world—and thereby bringing our students into thoughtful conversation with the countless thoughtful men and women who have preceded them, who have asked and given answers to the truly meaningful questions in life. Not, “How much money can I make if I pursue this career path?” But rather, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “For what end was I created?” “How can I best fulfill in my life the purpose of the One who made me?”

To put it another way, classical Christian education as a movement has the good sense to say: “When it comes to education, give us our parents’ Oldsmobile.” We know that our parents’ Oldsmobile worked. When you turned the key in the ignition, it started up, and it did what a car should do, it got us from point A to point B, even without a rear view camera or heated seats.

Are we then merely slaves to the past, stubbornly refusing to admit anything new into our classrooms? Not at all. We recognize advances in each of the subjects we teach in the classroom. In fact, we expect advances in each of the subjects we teach in the classroom because we believe that God has made us with a capacity to learn and discover. And, although we resist the tendency of our day to hitch the educational wagon to a culture whose ideas about the nature of reality and values seem to be constantly in flux, we remain open—always—to the correcting voice of Scripture. God’s word speaks to education—both to its content and its method—just like it speaks to every human endeavor, and we must be willing to hear and respond.

lewisNevertheless we remain, in our philosophy of education, unapologetically traditionalist, in the best sense of the word. G.K. Chesterton defined tradition as “the democracy of the dead,” and he explained that definition thus: “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” “Tradition,” he continued, “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” That is precisely the philosophy that we as classical Christian educators seek to apply to the art of inculcating knowledge and values in our children. We seek and we cherish the wisdom of our ancestors as such pertains to the art of education.

Let me conclude with a quote from C.S. Lewis that I believe very appropriately sums up the ethos of classical Christian education. Lewis wrote this in the introduction to his famous work Mere Christianity: “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer [to your goal]. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” On the basis of Lewis’s quote when read against the backdrop of Chesterton’s comments on tradition, I would submit to you that classical Christian education might be summed up as a simultaneously traditional and progressive approach to education.

I believe that education, in our modern world, has taken a “wrong turning,” in Lewis’s words. And we could define that “wrong turning” in much greater detail, though space will not permit that here. But the best way forward, the really progressive step, when you’ve taken a wrong turn is to turn around and go back to a time and a place when the goals, and the content, and the methods of education were more clearly defined. And there was a time when the goals and methods and content of education were more clearly defined, because they were informed by a clearer sense of who we are, of Who made us, of how He made us, and of why He made us.