Imparting a classical education at home. Check out the Edwards Academy.

Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Great Books

What will happen to a culture built upon centuries of Western Civilization thought, that suddenly (within fifty years) stops teaching its offspring of their heritage?

Those of us aiming to impart a classical education at home to our children are familiar with the idea of "great books." Homeschool classical curricula are awash in literature and living book titles and classical homeschoolers retain an appreciation for the ancients. Although the professionals might find it uncomfortable, the classical homeschooling movement truly does bring "great books" to the common man.

There have been other attempts to do so. On Monday the Wall Street Journal carried a book review on A Great Idea at the Time, by Alex Beam, a book which briefly gives the history of a marketing attempt made mid-century to sell sets of "Great Books" to ordinary people. All in all, the attempt wasn't successful and perhaps not entirely admirable either. Still, the book reviewer, retells an anecdote that Mr. Beam relates in the book:

Given what has happened to the study of the humanities in the past two decades -- with theory and politics playing a larger role and fewer people reading the traditional canon -- it is hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for Great Books earnestness. In academe, there is only what might be regarded as a saving remnant: "Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began" -- around the time of World War I, long before the mania erupted in Chicago -- "still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates," Mr. Beam notes. "Tiny St. John's College, created by disciples of Hutchins and Adler, still devotes all four years to teaching the Great Books, as Hutchins vainly hoped the University of Chicago would do."

Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John's in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John's sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. "She told me they were studying Rhetoric," Ms. Rothenberg said, "and they would be watching episodes of 'Desperate Housewives' and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?"

I mourn for our culture that so gleefully cuts its ties with great thinkers of the past. For more on this subject, see the book Climbing Parnassus (by Tracy Lee Simmons), and other posts I've written on the subject:

Higher Learning? (Oct. '07)
Mrs. Edwards Reviews The Dumbest Generation(June '08) A review of a book that examines the impact of our digital age on education.
Fighting Without Ammo (Oct. '08) Is it possible to intellectually defeat your enemies when you've given up on the idea of truth?
Give An Answer (Oct. '08) Can a Muslim faithfully lead the United States?
Election Reflections (Nov. '08) This post touches on the impact of a new President educated after this major shift in higher educational focus.


Max Weismann said...

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thank you, Mr. Weismann.
I have not yet read Mr. Beam's book, but what particularly snagged my attention in the Wall Street Journal's review was the stark contrast between the St. John's student and the Bates College student and the depth of their respective educations.

Whether or not Mr. Beam is fair to the "Great Books of the Western World" movement in his book, at least it is bringing some attention to the fact that today's students simply aren't reading Great Books.

I appreciate your comment.

Sharon said...

HI Amy,

We have a complete set of these "Great Books" sitting on our shelves. Jeff bought them second hand, and they were in immaculate condition. Quite possibly the original owner had never cracked open a cover.

I will admit that I do find my Penguin Classics collection easier going, both physically (holding the book) and mentally. But it does make me happy when I go searching everywhere for an obscure (well, for the staff of today's bookstores, anyway) title which I have found references to buried deep in footnotes somewhere, and then I find I have it already, right there on my shelf. That's what happened with Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine" which will probably be my next (heavy) theological read after Carson's book. Unless I decide to tackle Calvin's "Institutes" which is... sitting right there on that same shelf!

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

That's wild that you have the set of books!

I confess that even as I rail about the loss of this connection with Western Civilization, I'm a living symptom of the problem. My own college education was at a stellar evangelical liberal arts college, considered to be a strong educational institution. It was a great education that I'm proud of, but I didn't spend time studying ancient literature (probably by my choice) and young and foolishly took "Business Ethics" rather than philosophy, being scared off by the title.

Still, the liberal arts degree I earned there did give me, in spite of its gaps, a strong understanding of Western Civilization. Later, in the work place, I soon realized just how valuable it was seeing what others had learned (or not) in their university experiences elsewhere.

The beauty of learning is that it doesn't need to stop! Which is probably the number one reason I homeschool. I just love it.

Perhaps I'll be able to read Calvin's Institutes with you. I've not read "On Christian Doctrine", although I have read "The City of God" and learned a lot!

Sharon said...

You are one up on me. City of God is there on the bookshelf as well (Penguin Classics) but it's just a little thick for me to tackle right now, even though it is on my list for "sometime".

On Christian Doctrine is Augustine's approach to Christian Education, so I think it would be really interesting for someone who is both a Christian mother working hard to bring her children up in the Christian faith (which we both are) and as a woman who teaches Sunday School (or will at some time in the future (and I think you fall into this category as well, don't you?).

I just read through a friend's MDiv project (editing) on the psychological research behind many of today's RE programs and it appalled me how much of the stuff is based either upon liberal theological interpretations of what faith should be ("ultimate concern") or upon romantic notions of the child (a la Montessori), and how very little of it upholds the worth of Biblical knowledge. Anyway, I digress... but even in this I can see that if we do not teach the children explicitly, they will have a hard time grasping Truth on their own, purely via general revelation. Sort of a similar problem with the lack of liberal arts education you have considered in this post.

And I am very envious of your liberal arts education. A BSc is wonderful in its own way, but I do wish I'd had the chance to read the classics more before now. Although, perhaps now is a better time given my own greater emotional and spiritual maturity, and more discerningly critical nature.

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

I think I should amend my comment just a bit. I have City of God and have read large sections of it. There are portions that are so specific to his own day-and-age with Rome and I skipped them!

This whole problem of Christian children's ministry is a big burden on my soul. (Is that "RE"?) I've posted about that a bit as well, noting exactly what you mention about Montesorri and so on. Oh, if only I could pick your brain on that...


Sharon said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to this thread we had going here. "RE" means "religious education", as in, classes in Christian Belief (or possibly other religions) which are taught by Christians (or whoever, depending on the religion) on a voluntary basis in public and private schools here in Australia.

Yes, you heard it right, religion classes in public schools. Some Australian schools require parents to opt their child in, others allow parents to opt their kids out. Here in WA, the RE teachers have to do a short course and go through a registration process, as well as having the obligatory Working With Children Check, but they don't have to be certified teachers. So often church ministers or lay people with a bit of spare time and an interest in this ministry will go to their local school and teach "RE" lessons.

And feel free to pick my brains about Montessori so long as you can do it with a very long picker!

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

That's interesting about the RE classes in public schools. We don't have anything like that here, although in some states there is a movement toward teaching the Bible as literature. Overall, however, American schools prefer to pretend that religion doesn't exist.

The silliness of this is on display this week, our week of the American Thanksgiving holiday. The history of Thanksgiving is tied to the Pilgrims celebration after finally experiencing a bountiful harvest and after enduring a period of starvation before that. I heard yesterday that a nearby public school told its students that the Thanksgiving feast that the Pilgrims held was really a thank-you gesture to the Indians, who advised them on planting crops. It is absurd to deny that it was a feast in thanksgiving to God--even if you don't share that faith in God.

I lived in Canada briefly as a secondary student and they had a "values" class, which attempted to give some benign religious instruction and your "RE" classes sound a bit like that.

I was thinking along the lines of Sunday school children's ministry (which I'm defining as the church's attempt to education kids about Christ and the Bible) trends when I mentioned picking your brain. I've seen some Montesorri philosophy creep into some children's ministry here.

Once again, I have to say that BSF's children's (grade school) program is really first class. It isn't entertainment, but my kids still love it and it gets them daily in their Bibles searching the Scriptures.

Sharon said...

Yes, I was talking to my friend who did the project the other day about children's ministry in church as well. She's a teacher by trade and has been involved in children's ministry at her church for a long time. After she finishes her MDiv she's hoping to get employment as a children's ministry worker, which will be an immense blessing to the congregation she ends up serving.

We were talking about the benefits of matching the stories or topics of the children's Sunday lessons to the Bible passage which the sermon is based upon that week. This is similar to how BSF does it, of course. While BSF classes move from individual Bible reading up towards more intensive reading of an exegesis of the text, I was thinking that a congregational ministry model can work in a more downward, and perhaps outward model. I was talking to Jeff about this as well.

We were thinking about a pattern where:

1) the reading for the following week is announced prior and the congregation is encouraged to read it before Sunday, perhaps with some introductory questions to begin grasping the passage, and then

2) the sermon gives an overview of the main doctrinal points/principles, a little bit of biblical context and a few general applications (sufficient for the newer or younger Christian), and

3) the children hear the same story in their classes (or another Biblical story which teaches the main theme of the passage, if it is not narrative and the kids are younger) along with some brief discussion of the doctrine and/or applications from the passage (probably at a lower level than in the sermon, but along the same lines), then

4) individuals on their own (or families corporately) are given questions to help them dig into the Bible passage further for themselves, particularly giving an opportunity to consider how what they learn can be applied to their own lives, and inspire them to worship God (encouraging all to take the initiative in their own spiritual growth/sanctification & increasing knowledge of God), and finally

5) if an individual is in a weekly small group (home/growth group - especially those Christians who are more mature in their faith and require more "meat" as well as the "milk") then they revisit the passage in that group with the opportunity to dig deeper into the passage, particularly through the use of helps provided by the pastor (or other teacher from the church) to equip the small group leaders with a greater knowledge of the passage: eg context within God's plan of salvation, any Israelite or other cultural customs which are relevant, references to help define or explain difficult words in the passage, links to other related passages for further study, etc. Within these small groups there would also be an opportunity for accountability questions to be raised regarding the applications from the passages studied recently and in the past.

So this was the model we came up with! You can see that it owes a lot to what I have seen work in BSF but it also is aimed at supporting and utilising the standard programs which are being used in many churches today. It would allow for a much deeper level of teaching and also help people to put what they have learnt into practise. Probably... possibly? Hopefully.

It is certainly NOT based upon the "get the environment right and they'll learn all they need by themselves" model of education. It recognises that our sinfulness makes it difficult for us to understand the Bible alone - or even get around to reading it ourselves, without accountability. And it tries to address that situation in a way that will also train the congregation in methods which will help them to study the Bible without those helps in the future.

It also recognises that the sermon, while the only time the majority of the congregation is together in a given week, is not necessarily the best opportunity to provide the stronger meat that mature Christians need. However, it doesn't presume that the sermon should just be fluff, either, so as not to "put off" any "seekers" in the congregation. Rather, it attempts to strike a balance between sound corporate teaching that is accessible intellectually to the average person in the pew, while still providing opportunities and means for those who desire and are able, to learn more.

Of course, one would have to plan the sermon program more than a few days in advance!

Any other thoughts?

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

I love your thoughts about integrating the teaching across generations! That would be fantastic! Daunting, but fantastic. I say daunting because it would basically require children's teachers to prepare a children's lesson on their own, without an in-the-box curriculum, which makes it difficult. But, perhaps you could write it! :)

My mom is teaching an 8-week class for adults at her church called "Connecting Kids to Christ." One key theme of her teaching is that when we teach kids about Christ and the Bible, we need to consider our audience, that there are saved kids and unsaved kids. It is critical that children's ministry avoids becoming simply a weekly lesson on how to behave. Moral instruction is important for parenting, but so many children's ministry programs have become moral instruction without the Gospel.

A curriculum here in the U.S. that is growing in popularity among evangelical churches (that you would expect not to be liberal theologically) is based upon teaching children a virtue every week. Called 252 Basics, the curriculum strives to grow up children like Jesus (Luke 2:52), growing in stature, wisdom, and knowledge. The problem is that with all the talk about how to be faithful, kind, loyal, whatever the virtue of the week is, there is very little, if any, teaching that says, "Oh, by the way, you CAN'T do this! You CAN'T meet God's standard. That's why, thanks be to God, Jesus died for you. If you have believed in Him as your Savior, you must ask the Holy Spirit for help."

This is why my mom's class emphasizes to potential teachers that every children's lesson needs to have a message for the saved child and a message for the unsaved child and that (to use the proper theological term) justification and sanctification not be blurred in the mind of a child. So many kids grow up in (American, anyway) church and leave thinking it is all about living a certain way and often even reject the "rules." Ironically, the seeker movement tries to address this and yet programs like 252 Basic are just giving old-fashioned rule-based teaching a makeover!

The impulse to teach behavior is a a disappointing because the whole power of Christ and the Gospel is the salvation FROM the despair that comes in trying to be good. I think the root of this trend comes from the desire to avoid turning off seekers. I suppose the thinking goes that if we don't offer "practical" instruction it is a real turn-off. My response is, every seeker already knows through experience that life is a hard slog and many seekers are deeply suffering the pain of sin. Why worry about turning them off with God-talk? After all, God has given us victory and we seem afraid to talk about it! But I digress...

Going back to your ideas of integrating teaching across generations, I've thought about this in the reverse. The Children Desiring God curriculum that our church children's program uses is so meaty that it often occurs to me that it is a real shame that the parents are not getting the same teaching in their classes (or small group)! I wonder if it is possible to balance a scope-and-sequence that aims to teach certain things to every "graduating" child in the church (i.e. what should every twelve year old that grew up in our church know?) with sermon tie-ins and weekly at-home family study? That would be an incredible model if it is possible.

(I've noticed I keep making typos lately in my comments, sorry about the rushed composition.)

I guess we've veered off the subject of Great Books, but it is a good thread in any event. Thanks for thinking with me.

Sharon said...

Yes, a wee bit off topic to say the least but then this post is pretty far down your page now and soon it'll be in the older posts and no-one other than us will ever check out all these comments! (And I am just about to send you my email address so we can take this discussion off the comments altogether if you like.)

I agree exactly with your last point about a scope-and-sequence. That's why you would need to plan the sermon topics in advance. One of the things which has made me enthusiastic about the church Jeff is presently applying for is that they have a ten year plan (wow!) for pretty much what will be covered in their sermons. They aim to teach from the whole Bible (not just the gospels, or one or two of the letters but never the longer or harder ones). They also have specifically planned which core doctrines they will be teaching about over this time. Of course, this is not to say that they will not be moved by the HS to teach something unless it is down in the plan, but there has been a lot of thought and prayer as to what should be taught and how to cover all that well and thoroughly. And even with that plan, I found it wonderful to note that the weekend we visited the sermon was from Titus 2 (on what should be taught in the churches) and the previous week was on Titus 1 (quite possibly on what should be the cirteria for "overseers") and given that the church is currently accepting applications (well, one application anyway) for the role of pastor, I think this was a clear example of systematic planning still being used by our Holy and Sovereign God for His good purposes.

And yes, I'd love to get my teeth stuck into bringing something like this to fruition! As would my friend who I wrote about earlier, who (praise God!) is hoping to become a (full time) children's ministry worker. I did mention the idea of the pastor or other well-equipped teacher providing help notes for the small group leaders. You are definitely right that something like this would need to be done for the children's workers as well. Ideally, the small group leaders and children's ministry workers could be a fortnight or so ahead of the sermon timetable so that they are able to digest the extra teaching supports before they have to teach on the subject to others.

I like the idea of what your mother is teaching. The situation sounds so familiar to me because what you said about people leaving because they think it is only about living a certain way was pretty much what happened to me. I remember thinking, I can't live up to God's standard on my own so I won't even bother trying... and things just went downhill from there. Obviously, by HIs grace, God called me to Him later, thankfully! But I do mourn those wasted and wrath-deserving years of my life. It really never occurred to me that if I placed my trust in Jesus, then He - His Holy Spirit - would be at work in me to shape me gradually to be more like Him. I am not sure why, except it might have something to do with the one vigorously charistmatic sermon I had preached at me about the need for tongues etc. I think from that I got a very wrong picture of who the Holy Spirit is and what He does in the life of a believer.

Anyway, I can see exactly what you mean about this program being focused on the wrong part of the journey. Yes, a Christian should live a life that is different to those around them, and they should do this according to the standards God Himself has set. But that doesn't mean that this is necessarily the first thing to teach. How will they ever be able to live these lives without the Holy Spirit within, counselling and guiding them? And how is the Holy Spirit at work in them except if they are a believer? And how can they believe if they do not ever hear about the One in whom they can place their trust? (Yes, I know, sounding a bit like Rom 10:11-15 but doesn't Paul's argument there just further our case?)

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

I'm very, very impressed by the ten year plan of the church you are interviewing with. I'm praying about this job for you and Jeff. May God's will be done! It sounds like a very solid, healthy church.

Our Thanksgiving dinner conversation drifted to Australia this afternoon. We were reminiscing about my nephew's birth nearly ten years ago. At the time, by brother-in-law (my nephew's dad) was deployed with the Marines and was in Australia when he got the news that Wesley was born in California. My brother-in-law's ship had stopped in Perth and also in Cairns (is that right? I think that is what he said.).

We're counting our blessings on Thanksgiving, and I'm thankful for swapping comments and reading blog posts with friends like you!

Sharon said...

I think he might find out tomorrow.

Mmm, Cairns is probably right, that's in northern Queensland, diagonally opposite Perth if you look at Australia on a map. Perth is towards the south end of the west coast, and Cairns is towards the north of the eastern coast. Did they visit Darwin (middle of the north coast) in between the two? A lot of American ships used to come in there for R&R when I was living there, and there is an Australian navy base there as well.

I have no idea what Kansas must be like. It is so wonderful and funny and strange to be able to say I have a friend a whole world away. Isn't the internet a lovely thing (sometimes!)?

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

He didn't mention Darwin, but he may have forgotten.

Kansas gets a bad rap thanks to "The Wizard of Oz" and, more recently, the liberal political diatribe "What's the Matter with Kansas?" by Thomas Frank. I was born in the state, but have lived in other places before finding that I'm settled in here again. East and west coasters call it Flyover Country, but we're quite happy here and feel it is a very nice place to raise children and live life. (Admittedly not a vacation spot, however!)

Sharon said...

Jumping with excitement here - Jeff was offered the job this evening and happily accepted!! Just wanted to tell you because I am sooo happy. And excited. And I'm going to stop listing emotions before I get to nervous.

(And don't say that about Kansas holidays - I've seen your wonderful photos at the lake.)

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

Wonderful, Sharon! This is very, very exciting! I'm giving you a high-five and a hug across the ocean and continents!

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