I am very interested in the subject of education, specifically, with the training of pastors and leaders for the Church. I have read extensively and thought deeply on this subject for a while now. Ever since I found out we were going to have a child two years ago, that interest in education has broadened to the topic of education throughout life, teaching children and adults. I have had serious concerns about the nature and very concept of state-run and secular education, so I have spent much time studying alternative Christian approaches to Childhood education. I first encountered Classical Christian education on thegospelcoalition.org, and then became concerned through the brief discussion of the movement in the book Media, Journalism, and Communication.1 Since then, I have been looking for the opportunity to read more on the movement. Wilson’s work seems to be highly influential, and the whole approach is closely tied to a book I am currently writing on Christian living in Western culture, so now seemed as good a time as any to give it a shot. In this review, I will offer a summary of the contents of The Case for Classical Education and then provide an evaluation of its content.
Douglas Wilson has written several books about education and the “Classical Christian” approach. The Case for Classical Christian Education brings together the themes of these books into a single volume offering a broad overview of Classical Christian Schools and offering a programme for their implementation. Through a critique of the current state of education and a presentation of the Classical Christian Approach, Wilson hopes to offer “a call for continued reformation of education in our country.”2 Overall, I think that Wilson fails to demonstrate why his model is Biblical and an acceptable Christian alternative to the contemporary crisis of public education. There is some value in his critique of contemporary public education and the occasional practical insight for teaching from a Christian perspective. Still, overall, the book is ineffective for its stated goal. Furthermore, the argument and outline are not clear and, as I have observed in a previous review of Wilson’s work, the rhetoric Wilson uses is not persuasive or becoming of Christian charity and clarity.3
The Logos edition I read was divided into 30 chapters and seven parts. The first eight chapters, making up the first part, present a broad criticism of government schools and the ideology that drives them. The next three parts (chapters 9-19) outline the Classical Christian School approach, in contrast with the government system. The final three parts (chapters 20-30) seem to offer a call and programme for implementing the Classical Christian approach in a local setting.
Though there are helpful insights throughout, and the critique of the public education system is often right on the mark, I did not find The Case to a balanced, persuasive, or carefully argued book. For example, the first comments Wilson makes about the public-school system are a broad condemnation of its use of “drugs.” This section lacks any citations or research backing it, so it comes across as anecdotal and not considered. The topic itself is a large one; there is undoubtedly a problem, but it is a lot more complicated than just blaming drugs. As a student, I was prescribed a significant behaviour-altering medication (Dexedrine) and had a negative experience with it; in hindsight, this was surely a case of over-prescription. Yet, can we be sure that this is the case every time? Like many issues in our contemporary culture, this topic takes far more sensitivity and nuance than Wilson offers. This lack of sensitivity and nuance is characteristic of Wilson’s rhetoric throughout the book. For example, I largely agree that public schools (in my own country, Canada, and in the USA) are a mess and I think it is unwise to trust them for our children’s education. However, it is equally unwise—and highly unpastoral—to say that putting your child in public school is a sin. As leaders, we can counsel our congregations in wise action. However, if in good conscience they put their children in the public school system, I see no clear Biblical reason to identify this as sin. His comments about God’s ordering the world hierarchically, such that each person has a fixed station, and desire to see a high tuition charged to parents suggests that his “Christian” approach to education is only for a small portion of the Christians. That may be okay, but it seems to be pastorally irresponsible to call public education a sin, reject homeschooling as problematic, and suggest that the best alternative ought to be put out of reach for the average Christian family. One gets the impression that the education intended to equip Christian, covenant children for life before God should be reserved for the upper classes of such children. I think the exegetical warrant for such a position is lacking and the rhetoric employed highly unhelpful. Examples such as these could be multiplied.
Lack of Exegetical Warrant
This brings us to the biggest issue I found with the book, the lack of exegetical warrant for Wilson’s proposal. One the hand, there is not a lot of actual Biblical argumentation for the “Classical Christian” approach to education. Wilson’s argument for it is largely based on historical precedence. When he does turn to the Bible, his exegesis is not strong. For example, “nations” (εθνη) in the great commission does not refer to “nation” in the modern sense of the word, so it cannot be used to justify the conversion of culture in Christendom.4 The commission refers to the evangelization and discipleship of all sorts of people, not nation-states (whatever it might mean to baptize and teach a nation-state). Also, it is exegetically irresponsible to import the whole concept of ancient Greek παιδεια (paideia) into the use of this word in Ephesians 6:4. This passage cannot on any reasonable exegesis of its context be used a call for formulating and providing a particularly Christian “παιδεια” (on analogy with the Greek concept). Instead, the ESV is right to translate the word “discipline.” Also, even if one concludes that the promise cited by Paul here (Eph 6:1-3) is still in effect—which is not the only possible reading of this passage—the life promised is the New Covenant promise of Eternal Life, not possession of the earth. It is also exegetically irresponsible to suggest that the Proverbs 22:6 can be used in a modus tollens syllogism, such that if a child does depart from the way, it is the parents’ fault. This neglects the nature of a proverb (it is not a promise but a generalization of life in covenant before God) and neglects personal responsibility, a clear Biblical teaching. Lastly, the concepts of “knowledge,” “understanding,” and “wisdom” in the Proverbs cannot be neatly correlated with the Trivium’s “grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.” This brings us to the final point of evaluation I want to offer, on the overall proposal and its theological foundation.
General Issues with the Classical Christian Proposal
Apart from clear exegetical support, the primary theological justification for Wilson’s proposal is Postmillennial eschatology. If God’s will is for an earthly Christendom and this is guaranteed through the progressive spread of the Gospel and Christian civilization on earth, then it makes sense that training Christians to live for God involves training them to live in and transform culture. Furthermore, on such a theology, the appeal Wilson makes to providence—such that the relationship between the West and Christianity is normative—is justified. However, if the reader rejects Postmillennial eschatology, as this reader does, then there is no good reason to accept Wilsons’ proposal. If you do accept a postmillennial vision of reality, I would still ask if we Reformed Christians should be content with a proposal that is consistent with our theology but has no clear exegetical foundation? If the Bible is truly sufficient for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17), should we not expect the Bible to clearer on these matters? I think the Bible has a lot to say about education and the parent’s responsibility for it; I believe it would point in the direction of homeschooling for at least part of a child’s education.5
As for the overall proposal, to fully address all the possible issues I see with this approach would take a book arguing for an alternative proposal (maybe I will get to it one day, or someone will beat me to it). However, I will raise three concerns. First, Wilson seems to reject all Enlightenment and post-enlightenment culture as bad, calling for a return to the pre-enlightenment culture of Augustine and the early Church. However, as much as we can respect Augustine and the early Church, it must be recognized that they were heavily influenced by Greek thought, thought that is as pagan as modern thought. There is no consistent reason to accept their Christianized Hellenism and reject Christianized modernism or postmodernism. Instead, what is needed is careful, Biblical interaction with all of these movements. We live in a Postmodern world, so we as Christians need to address Postmodern issues. Many Postmodern writers help us do this. Modern thought and Postmodern thought also have given us great insight into the way God has created us and our minds; thus we can learn a lot about education from the last 300 years of philosophy and science—even psychology.6 We must tread with care and submit all things before the Bible. We need to be thoroughly Biblical, but we need to be Biblically prepared to answer the questions and concerns of our age, not Augustine’s, lest our children be unprepared for the world in which they actually live.
Second, Wilson argument for Latin is unpersuasive and misses a huge opportunity. Latin is a beautiful language, but if we are teaching our children responsible language use, it won’t help them master English.7 Many great books in Church history are in Latin, yet only a handful of scholars will practically use Latin in this way (confession: I am a PhD student in theology with some training in Latin; I don’t use it much and don’t see myself using it much more than I do). Latin is also not better suited for logical thinking than English: the case system allows some precision in communication, yet English word order suffices for this. Furthermore, the case system does not give any ontological insights into the nature of reality or logic (such that knowing the ablative case would allow you to know the true meaning of prepositions). Indeed, English is more precise in some ways because of the use of the definite and indefinite article (Latin does not have an article). All of Wilson’s goals could be met if his school taught Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew. In this way, the student would be exposed to different ways of expressing concepts and stories and thinking about logic, and they would be equipped to read the Bible in all the richness of its original languages. From this point, if the student wanted to specialize in Latin, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, or Modern Hebrew, they would have a broad foundation for doing so.
Lastly, Wilson’s provides no more than anecdotal evidence for the use of the Trivium in education: is this adequate justification for using it? It seems to me that it could be as much a case of fitting the foot to the shoe as it is fitting the shoe to the foot; that is, the system may work because it is merely adequate and not because it is the ideal or best way to teach students. Linguistics offers a similar threefold analysis of human communication that may offer different insights, and some information theorists offer a five-fold analysis: either approach may work better than the Trivium’s threefold analysis. However, it seems to me that all these levels interlock even in a child’s understanding; could we be missing an opportunity by postponing analysis and presentation until Junior or High school ages? All this to say, there is no good philosophical, empirical, or Biblical reason to believe that the Trivium is better than any educational insights we might glean from the Bible or contemporary thought. It is not hard to beat contemporary education, but merely doing better than what we have been doing should not be our goal. Doing the best to equip our children for life before God in this world should be the contemporary Christian educator’s goal.
Towards this end, a lot more thinking can be and should be put into the nature, goals, methods, and content of education aimed towards training our children for kingdom living. I am thankful that people are thinking about these matters but let’s not be content with retrieving the past; looking to Scripture, let’s do our best to meet the needs of our children in the present and the future with all the tools God has given us—including the insights of Modernism and Postmodernism.
- Read Mercer Schuchardt, Crossway 2018
- The Logos Edition I read does not have page numbers
- cf. https://teleioteti.ca/2020/04/12/review-of-empires-of-dirt/
- Wilson addresses homeschooling briefly but does not address the exegetical warrant for it, namely, that the Bible identifies a child’s education as the parents’ responsibility
- if I am right in identifying Van Tillian presuppositionalism at the root of Wilson’s approach, it should be observed that Van Til is more in line with Postmodern thought than Modern or Premodern thought.
- E.g. “nescius” will not teach you the meaning of “nice”; “ambulo” won’t help you understand “ambulance”; simply, etymology is not a good way to learn most languages, especially when they have a complicated history, as English does.