Classical Education Can Purge a Multitude of Sins

I was in Oklahoma City last fall, sitting in a restaurant with my host, Father Nathan Carr, an Anglican priest and the principal of The Academy of Classical Christian Studies. That is a new and most heartening educational initiative—a school now comprising three campuses in and near the city. The Academy is the result of a merger of two schools founded in 2004 by Christian parents who wanted their children to be immersed in the cultural heritage of the west. They knew that the state’s schools would not serve.

From those fragile beginnings the schools grew quickly. The Academy has an enrollment of 465 children, most of them attending five days a week, others taking advantage of a “blended” schedule for parents who want to teach their children at home for two or three days in the week, and send them to school for special courses on the other days.

They are indeed classical, as I witnessed in that restaurant. By chance one of the school’s families was there, so Father Carr asked their daughter if she’d recite to me some poetry she had committed to memory—that faculty which wise educators have always known how to foster, but which is now neglected or despised. All of the Academy’s students learn poetry by heart. That’s the finest way to learn it, as any lover of poetry or music will tell you. So she obliged. She recited, flawlessly, sixty lines of the second canto of Dante’s Inferno. Her selection was the moving conversation between Beatrice and Virgil. “I was among the souls in Limbo,” she began. She was eight years old.

I cannot praise highly enough what I observed in that school, especially the clear vision of the principal, the teachers, and the parents, setting out to recover what has been abandoned. They had the cheerfulness of people who have taken on a difficult and wonderful task, and who knew they were in the right. They had integrated their intellectual and spiritual lives. It was invigorating to be in their company.

 

Thence I derive a lesson for Catholics (well represented in the Academy, by the way), and some recommendations.

Most of the time in this tangled life, we must weigh one good thing against another, because we cannot pursue both with the same devotion. Sometimes we must give up one of them altogether. I cannot spend all my time teaching college students the grammar they were never taught in school, because that would leave no time for the splendid literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I must be content with a modest effort in the former, while pursuing the latter directly.

But sometimes life offers you a chance to pursue many important ends simultaneously by a single means. Such opportunities are precious.

Consider these problems facing the Church:

•  We need to triple our vocations to the priesthood.

•  We need ten times as many vocations to the religious life. Many orders of religious women have “modernized” themselves into oblivion. The sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary taught me and my siblings in our grade school in Pennsylvania. My class ranged in numbers from 45 to 51. That parish school no longer exists; the parish could not afford to pay full salaries to the lay teachers who replaced the sisters.

•  Vocations come disproportionately from Catholic schools. We need to be building schools, and preserving from decline those that have survived.

•  If the heart of the parish is the Mass and the sacraments, its young arms and legs are to be found in the parish school. There, families encounter one another as families, building up memories that span the generations. We need those memories more than ever, as in most places community life is a shadow of what it was, and the next door neighbor may as well have dropped from another planet.

•  Little of what merits the name of “education” goes on in our schools. Some subjects have been discarded: grammar, for instance, as a coherent and systematic whole. Our approach to education springs from a truncated view of man. It is dully utilitarian in its aims, which it nevertheless fails to meet. It fixes a low ceiling over the mind and heart and soul. It begins by denying God, by whom and for whom we are made, and proceeds to deny the objective existence of beauty and goodness, until at last all that’s left are the shreds of learning, political expediency, and the fads of the day.

•  Our schools are Petri dishes of vice: impiety, lust, spiritual sloth, ambition, and avarice. It is not clear to me what more desperately needs the Catholic school less: the Church, or the nation.

Now consider the mission of the Academy of Classical Christian Studies:

  • Our trivium education has a moral and spiritual end rooted in the logos—Christ.
  • We will not arrive there without courage.
  • It will require careful work with the most precious of human artifacts—books—because of what they contain.
  • These books alone will not change lives—they are closer to mirrors; they will need to be accompanied by the “allegory of the Gospel” lived out in our own lives. They will need to be matched with prayer.
  • Our curriculum (and those who teach it) must prepare our young scholars for the argument, and cultivate a love for the very one with whom they will inevitably argue.

“We can only produce life in others by the wear and tear of our own being.” As Paul says, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Or as Spurgeon wrote, “If by excessive labor, we die before reaching the average age of man, worn out in the Master’s service, then glory be to God, we shall have so much less of earth and so much more of Heaven! It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed.”

We cannot be better served in cultivating this intellectually robust moral vision than with the language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Now that the institutions, governments, and committees of this world have turned a blind eye to virtue, our students will change the world with their words and their pens and their lives in courageous sacrificial love.

A classical curriculum does not propose that a student merely “shake hands” and develop a passing acquaintance with the greatest thinkers, the greatest artists, saints, and prophets, but rather that he becomes so wholly habituated to their thoughts and words, their prayers and psalms, their masterpieces of art and music, that he himself becomes like those great people.

Space forbids me to praise all that is fine and wise in that mission. If your Catholic school does not have a mission statement that resembles it, may I ask why not?

There’s no reason why parents should send their children to schools that sprinkle holy water upon the mind-deadening and soul-denying education provided in the public schools. If your child is going to be separated from faith and reason, you might as well purchase the ruin on the cheap.

But they might well send their children to schools that are wholly different from the public schools. That single descriptor, “classical,” will attract their notice. If our Catholic schools are not classical, it’s high time they considered becoming so, and advertising themselves as such while they embark upon the reforms.

Teach grammar as the logic of language, not a grab-bag of arbitrary usages. Read Homer and Virgil. Learn poetry—the most sublime of human arts, now almost vanished from the public schools. Reject Common Core and its useless utilitarianism, root and branch. Return geography to its rightful place in the elementary grades, as a separate subject from history. Return to world history, taught as an intricate whole; not ancient Egypt here and the Civil War there. Return to Latin. Return to reading important works in foreign languages: teach Spanish so that students can read Don Quixote, not just so that they can order tacos in Tijuana. Return to the titans of British and American literature.

Make the practice and the truths of the faith permeate all subjects; let it be the air the students breathe. This cannot be, if they use the same dreadful textbooks the public students use. Establish a fund whereby a Catholic family can pledge to buy textbooks for one student in a classical Catholic school every year.

If you do not have the teachers who can teach a classical curriculum, begin to find them. I know of plenty. But by all means begin. No more closings.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Strahov Monastery library located in the Czech Republic. 

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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