3 Great Challenges Facing Classical Education as a Movement

A couple of weeks ago, as I have been documenting on this blog, I went to Rockbridge Academy's annual teacher training. It was great. 
So. Much. To think about. 
So. Much. To do.

But the event stirred up a few thoughts in me, 3 especially that I want to relate here. 

None of these issues have anything specifically to do with Rockbridge's ideology or methodology, although I saw these issues at play there. Instead, these issues more broadly connect to both conservative Evangelical American Christianity (which I would very much consider myself a part of) and to the rise of private schools in America (and thus Classical Christian schools as well) in the wake of a troubled public school system. Here are those thoughts now.

1. Assuming Cultural Homogeneity
I could be greatly wrong in my assessment, but it seems most Classical Christian schools assume a normative Christian culture exists, where we all agree on the same issues/beliefs and value the same kinds of art (and thus we also all agree on the issues and art in which are against). But to me this normative culture, without ever being explicitly acknowledged, is simply assumed to be a white American version of culture in the European/Western tradition. Thus, everything that does not meet the standards of white culture is not considered part of the "good" and really isn't "beautiful".

I should say that I love white culture and am an exceptional practitioner of it, a connoisseur if you will. Just read my blog and take a survey of the types of art I am interested in. You'll see what I mean. But, even though I feel pretty sheltered culturally as a middle class white guy, I've experienced enough of the world through my education and through meeting people to know (1)there is no single version of Christianity and that (2)my culture's expression of our faith in Christ is just that: a single culture's beautiful offering back to their creator and savior (note: I'm not talking about creeds here but about how our faith and culture is expressed). My life and faith has been deeply expanded by seeing the multitudinous expressions of faith at work in the Christian people I have met from Korea, Rwanda, Tanzania, Honduras, and other traditions that are already prevalent in the U.S. but are not "normal" to me (namely African American, Latino, and Eastern Orthodox expressions). Christianity is not homogeneous and it never has been, not at least since Jesus started talking to a Samaritan woman at a well, or a dying criminal next to Jesus and a Roman soldier playing a part in Jesus' execution professed faith in him (or, if that doesn't stand for you, not since the first Romans became Christians in the book of Acts and subsequently stirred up a lot of trouble for the early church). 

Please note: I would never advocate a wishy-washy pluralism or a legalistic adherence to diversity and tolerance. Instead, my thoughts come from the deep conviction that Jesus is Lord of all, and that all peoples of the earth and the culture's that come along with them fall under his Lordship. To be clear: I am in no way saying all the nations are already Christian without knowing it, but I am saying that (1)whether they acknowledge it or not Jesus is their Lord and King and (2)when people in different cultures come to know the risen Christ the expression of their faith will take a unique cultural form. Therefore, I believe it is time those of us who have walled ourselves into the small city of White American Christianity to stop feeling threatened by those we perceive as being part of another kingdom, those brothers and sisters who, like us, are proclaiming "Christ is risen!"

There is much more to explore on this topic, including many complicated practical implications and questions needing to be asked. I'll either write about that another time or leave it to those of far greater skill.

A related endnote to this section: I want to be sure to not set up any straw men in my arguments on this issue. So here are a few points demonstrating how the Classical Education movement I am a part of already isn't homogenous in it's thinking:  
1.) During a couple of his lectures Headmaster Michael McKenna quoted Confucius, using the philosopher's wisdom to make a point of his own. By doing so Mr. McKenna seemed to be putting a great Chinese thinker in the same realm as the Greek thinkers, who have already been "baptized" in Christian thought for basically millennia now. 
2.) Classical Education already seems to draw from diverse sources, even if it's within the general scope of Western Civilization. For instance, in my school we use a curriculum in our Jr. High/High School classes that reads from non-Biblical ancient near-Eastern sources on up to the Communist Manifesto or Hitler's Mein Kampf. We certainly don't agree with these works' ideology, but teach them antithetically and put them in conversation with the Bible and who we are in Christ. But even works like the Communist Manifesto have some good points to make, as flawed as they are. I could see us creating a curriculum that does something similar with works, events, and figures from the non-Western cultures of the world. 
3.) Perhaps a working model within Classical Ed. already exists for us in Susan Wise Bauer's The Story of the World which incorporates a truly world history, documenting the most important historical movements in the greatest cultures of the world. A work like this is a harbinger for getting us outside the gated Western Civ. walls.

2. MONEYMONEYMONEY...MONEY (or Elitism vs. Accessibility)
One thing that really struck me while at the teacher training was that a whole lot of the Rockbridge teachers have developed their own curriculum and indeed were selling it there. To me this speaks of an institution that has invested in its teachers, giving them time, resources, and encouragement to be really good at just teaching. And so, if you follow the trail to the end, what this really means is Rockbridge has had of raised LOTS of money. I'm sure their teachers deserve to get paid more (like all teachers everywhere), but it would seem their teachers are already making enough to support their families comfortably. Rockbridge's annual tuition costs seem astronomical to me (you can view them here), but I am sure they find valid ways to use all their income and probably feel a push every year to raise it even higher.

Rockbridge is in an elite area of the country (Annapolis, Maryland) and can perhaps justify their 10K plus yearly tuition (my head is swimming with all the things my school could do with half that money), but that number leaves me unsettled, questioning who exactly can access the wonderful benefits of a Rockbridge education? My school's yearly tuition is not even one-fourth of the cost and still many of our people continually feel the pressure to make payments. And Rockbridge is in no way unique within the private and Christian school worlds. 

Here is my main concern with all this, the point I really want to make: excellent private education, and thus Classical Christian education, seems only accessible to people who are already privileged, people who are already in a somewhat elite economic class. Rockbridge, like my school, offers financial assistance to families in need, but that is to say nothing of all the families who would never consider a private school education from the outset due to the costs and unworthiness felt in the application process.

I am speaking in ignorance here and realize there could be lots of people working within the ACCS or ACSI and other organizations to make private education a possibility for lower class and middle class people, but the questions stand: How can we reduce the inherent elitism involved in Classical Education? How can we create a movement where students who never thought they would ever be able access this kind of education find an open door for them? Where will the investors come from to make this happen?

3. The need for Classical Christian Vocational Technical Schools
It seems to me Classical Education as a movement and ACCS as an organization's main aim is to create scholars, that is, PhD candidates, masters of rhetoric, dispensers of wisdom in their given field. While I fully support this and am aspiring to be this myself, I do not think such a pursuit is for all students. Thus, one area I think Classical Education is sorely lacking in is in supporting the vocational arts: all the various artisanal and technical professions. Where I come from just as many children grow up in families where the pursuit of the labor and technical vocations is honored as much as the academic vocations. I believe we as schools should be supporting these vocations as well, and not just those that end in a PhD. 

This stems from two beliefs:
  1. Not all people need to or should become scholars. In fact many many more people will go to work in “normal” jobs. Therefore, even as we teach to the highest level possible using the greatest material we can find, we need to acknowledge that most of our kids will end up with jobs requiring technical skills. We need to value this and support the technical and artisanal fields accordingly.
  2. The artisanal and technical fields use the progression of the Trivium just like the scholarly fields do. Every technical skill requires the student to know the individual parts of that skill (grammar), how to order those parts in order to work skillfully (logic), and then the discernment in that skill necessary to become a master at it (rhetoric). This is true whether one is pursuing philosophy or carpentry.

Therefore, it is my contention Classical schools are in a unique position to inaugurate a dual school system, one that equally supports the academic and vocational arts. Schools dedicated to raising up both master scholars and master craftsmen, all from the foundation that Jesus is Lord of all. I believe this assertion is backed up in the work of Dorothy L. Sayers' seminal work "The Lost Tools of Learning", with her recommendation that during [what would be] our high school years in the States we begin to help guide students into different fields of study. This means a student who is more gifted in language or art would begin to thin out his math and science classes as they mature and specialize in their field of giftedness. I could imagine Classical schools helping students to choose either "academic" or "vocational technical" concentrated paths, all while still giving them classes on Bible and theology. They could still have an immersive fully Classical and Christian education, but those students who feel called and are indeed gifted in a technical field would be given an out from the rigor of academia and instead pursue the rigors of the many technically skilled people who work with their hands.

Finally, our emphasis on the intellectual aspects of learning over the physical has rings of gnosticism to me. As incarnational creatures created in God's image, I would like to see us pursue the complete integration of the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual in our education. I want to see our kids grow up to be adults connected to the earth because they are connected to God who made the earth. Also, I see a great benefit in having our more intellectually minded students studying right along with the more "earthy" students. To me this is a more comprehensive vision of the Kingdom.  
So there you have it: the 3 main issues that kept cycling around my mind during the teacher training. I hope they can become part of a greater conversation within the Classical Christian Education movement. 
End note: I was able to interview one of the founders of Classical Education as a movement in America, Pastor Douglas Wilson. You can stream that interview here:

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2016 ACCS Conference Day 2

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