“American farmers are the only farmers who can read Homer.“ – Thomas Jefferson
While Thomas Jefferson boasted of the education of the commoners of his day, that education he praised—a classical one—now makes no immediate sense to most parents and students. The study of Latin and Greek and what are called the “Great Books” is thought to be akin to taking cod liver oil; it might be beneficial, but one assumes that there must be a less distasteful alternative in modern America. Surely, the advent of computers and new research on cognition has provided alternative means of instruction surpassing the rote and drill used to learn a functionally dead language and read centuries-old books.
But this is a false conclusion. In spite of the advances of online ed-tech platforms, the best education remains one that is infused with the study of the great books of the past: the enduring legacy of the best of thought, art, music, and literature.
This is the stuff of which great minds are made, and it is also the stuff of which our children are starved.
There is a reason contemporary students rank at the bottom of international assessments: behind such advanced countries as Iceland in literacy, Slovakia in mathematics, and Ireland in science. The U.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all countries participating. It is past time that parents wake up to the fact that many children are wasting their time in school. They graduate uneducated and ill-prepared for life. There is a better way and it is to recover traditional education. This is the soaring benefit of classical schooling and a great books education.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
We cannot go forward without first going back. G.K. Chesterton notes, “All the men in history who have really done anything with the future have had their eyes fixed upon the past.” Baylor University church historian D.H. Williams writes that if the contemporary church wants to be faithful, “it cannot do so without recourse to and integration of the foundational tradition of the early church.” We will not be prepared for the future without first appropriating the riches of the past.
Only our contemporary hubris, what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” keeps us from depending on the rich tradition of the Christian church and its thinkers. We must humbly appropriate this tradition once more. It is the foundation of a Christian mind and the sources of Western Civilization.
Jerusalem and Athens
Many Christians wonder why one should pay attention to the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks are widely known for their acceptance of homosexuality and the Romans for infanticide. Ever since the church father Tertullian pondered in the second century, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Christians have wrestled with the relationship between Christianity and Antiquity.
One way to answer this is that the Greeks raised questions that are only answered in the gospel. “The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you,” Paul told the Athenians. Peter Kreeft observed that the Hebrews provided the West with a highly developed understanding of morality just as the Greeks provided important insights into metaphysics. He writes, “The Jews gave us conscience; the Greeks, reason. The Jews gave us the laws of morality, of what ought to be; the Greeks gave us the laws of thought and of being, of what is.” It was in the Middle Ages that Hebraism in its Christian form and Hellenism in its Roman form met, creating the seedbed of the modern world. Western civilization itself is a fusion of Hebrew, Greek, and Christian intellectual traditions. This fusion stands as one of the greatest intellectual and cultural achievements in history
What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Everything. One brings the right questions; the other, the right answers. The postmodernist has neither questions nor answers.
Christians today need to recapture this earlier pre-modern mind in order to engage our current postmodern culture. An exposure to the classical mind serves as an antidote to the modern mind and thereby makes possible the growth of a truly biblical mind.
The late Charles Colson, who wrote widely on the importance of developing a Christian mind, was a vocal advocate of classical Christian education movement:
This is also why I so strongly support Christian classical education…. It combines, you see, the two historic goals of a liberal education: the cultivation of knowledge and the cultivation of character. It shows us the continuum in the intellectual history of the West that goes back to the Greco-Roman era and, therefore, enables us to better understand our own postmodern era. If we cut ourselves off from the past, we can’t understand the present. And it’s particularly critical…to understand the philosophical and cultural currents that have shaped our society.
One of the requirements, then, of developing a Christian mind is a re-engagement with the great works of the classical and patristic period. No meaningful engagement with our intellectual heritage can avoid the study of the classical tradition.
Originally published in December, 2012 issue of The Standard, the newsletter of St. Andrew’s Academy.