Some Christian schools choose their curriculum based upon whether or not it has a “Christian” publisher. But our criteria should be different; we should not ask, “Who is the publisher?” but rather, “What is the best curriculum? What curriculum best develops a child’s ability to listen, speak, read, and write? What curriculum best prepares the student for college? What curriculum will make our students well informed Christians? What curriculum best prepares our students to thoughtfully challenge the humanistic professor or the pagan professional? What curriculum best insures that our students will be safely secured to the masthead of Truth when the wild winds and waves of fallen culture roar and blow?” What makes a curriculum “Christian” is not the “curriculum” but rather the Christian. Thus, our curriculum should be taught by godly men and women. But more importantly, our curriculum should be taught by thinking Christians whose vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, and whose passion for lifetime learning, will permeate our hallways, classrooms, athletic fields, and academic disciplines, thus bringing “every thought in captivity to Christ.” And perhaps most importantly for parents, our curriculum should prepare students to meet the world head on, to boldly engage and impact their culture for the glory of God.
A Christian education demands excellence – maximum performance and accomplishment – in all academic disciplines. Grammar School (grades K-4) should concentrate upon students’ mastery of the “nuts and bolts” of learning, the elemental facts of math, science, language, art, music, and history. Logic School (grades 5-8) should emphasize clear and rational thinking within the various academic disciplines, epitomized by integrating principles of formal logic throughout the curriculum, especially in language arts and mathematics. The consummation of a Christian school curriculum (9-12) should aim to refine students’ ability to listen and think clearly, and to speak and write eloquently from an informed perspective, whether in math, science, art, or the humanities.
Beyond these elemental and structural benefits of the curriculum, classical Christian education should emphasize an appreciation of the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western culture. The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed an intellectual attack against Western culture, not only attempting to de-Westernize the literary canon, but even to undermine the political, religious, and moral foundations that have contributed to the rise and influence of Western culture and the Judeo Christian ethic that undergirds it. By studying God’s Word and great works of art, music, literature, and philosophy from the pre-Socratic era to modernity, students experience a sweeping view of Western history and thought, and thus attain a clear understanding of how we came to be what we are. Such a panoramic vision of history is vital to students’ understanding of the future, especially in view of the political correctness, multi-culturalism, emerging globalism, and anti-Western biases of the “new world order.” Though the primary focus of our curriculum should be Western history, the emerging influence of China, India, and the Islamic nations also requires that we be intellectually informed about those cultures as well.
One way to illustrate classical-Christian education is to imagine a magical time machine that could travel to any point in world history, to any place, and to any person. What century would you choose? What shining city from the past? What great minds would you seek out? Would you be charmed by Homer’s muse or Virgil’s voice, and survey the grandeur of their epic visions by tracing the daring exploits of brave Odysseus and Aeneas as they sail the blue oceans and wage bloody war to establish the kingdoms of Greece and Rome? Would you march with Caesar’s legions, or walk beneath the portico of the Acropolis and listen to Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle as they contemplate the great themes of Western Philosophy – justice, beauty, truth, love, and goodness? Or would you travel to sixteenth-century Florence, or perhaps to Rome, and momentarily recapture the splendor of the Renaissance? Would you stare at the sun through the kaleidoscopic prism of cathedral glass, or ponder the dark and disturbing architectural images of the gargoyle? Would you gaze over da Vinci’s shoulder as he scribbles the first primitive aircraft, gently curves the Mona Lisa’s smile, or sketches the thirteen human forms that would become The Last Supper? Or perhaps you would visit the Piazza della Signoria and watch in wonder as Michelangelo’s delicate but strong hands make David come to life from stone, or ascend Michelangelo’s scaffold and recline with him beneath the Sistine Chapel dome as the history of Providence unfolds in splendid color and dynamic form. Would you descend with Dante into the nether regions of The Inferno, dark circle by dark circle, downward and downward still, fathoming the terrifying depths of human pride, prevarication, perversion, lust, greed, and envy until finally, in a moment of supreme poetic irony, you discover the devil frozen in ice?
Or would the next century allure you, the century that shook the foundations of Christendom, cast down the Holy Roman Empire, and dethroned and decapitated apostate kings? Would you listen for Luther’s hammer upon the Wittenberg door, or stand boldly beside the German Lion as he tells the worldly prince, “Here I stand”? Would you strain your eyes in the flickering candlelight of Calvin’s midnight study, and watch in wonder as the bearded sage dips his iron pen, diamond-pointed, into the ineradicable ink of the Great Reformation, and trace out the recovery of sola gratia, sola scriptura, sola fide, sola Christos, and soli deo gloria? Or perhaps you would sail with Calvin’s heirs to Plymouth Bay in quest of the shining city upon the hill.
Or, would you venture into the age of reason, scientific discovery, and enlightenment? How thrilling to catch Newton’s apple and experience the sudden wonder of profound discovery? How stupefying to witness Leibniz’s formulation of calculus, or to scope the shining heavens with Copernicus’ eye, and with a simple stroke of his pen, shake the stars, sun, moon, and earth from their courses? Or perhaps you would choose to sit with Jefferson on his verandah, as the Virginia gentleman condenses the abstract political philosophy of Locke, Montesquieu, and Kant into a declaration of concrete action. Would you be a Tory or a Whig, obey the God-ordained magistrate and pay your taxes, or take up arms with the sons of liberty? And would you willingly pay the high price of liberty and, if necessary, die for the rights of those with whom you vehemently disagree – the Shakers’ heresy, Paine’s agnosticism, Jefferson’s Christ-less deism, or even the atheist? And how would you solve this delightful dilemma? Would you lend your ear to Mozart or Beethoven, Bach or Handel? Whose strings would stir your spirit, whose horns awaken your soul to the majesty that is music?
Now thrust your time machine into the 19th century, the Age of Romanticism, Industrial Revolution, and unparalleled scientific upheaval. Eavesdrop at a quaint café along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées as Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh discuss the mysterious interplay of light and color, function and form. Listen to the soft, impressionistic tones of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. Ponder the beauties of nature through Wordsworth’s eye, your heart leaping up as you gaze upon the splendor of a rainbow or the dignified simplicity of a solitary lass threshing golden grain. Listen to the opiate charms of the Ancient Mariner’s rime, or Byron’s comparison of a woman’s beauty to the rolling spheres of a starry midnight. Retreat to the woods and live deliberately with Thoreau; go fishing in the stream of time and learn timeless lessons from the industrious ant, the morning mist, the lark’s song, and Walden Pond in winter. And then, hear the soft voice of nature’s music when it dies, as monstrous machines of the Industrial Revolution growl with cacophonous roar, their unnatural and hideous heads bobbing up and down like mad elephants, and their grotesque snouts spewing black smoke into England’s sapphire sky, stripping the sun of its golden glory and clothing it in the gray rags of greed. Weep as England’s silver rivers turn strangely purple with the poison of progress, bleeding from factories where pregnant women and eight-year-old children work eighteen-hour days; hear the blare of the brutal whistle that sends them into dark streets oozing with sewage, and into twelve-by-twelve rooms where tuberculosis and alcoholism ravage the souls of England’s poor. Empathize with Dickens’ tender soul as he caricatures England’s brutalized masses in such unforgettable characters as David Copperfield and Stephen Blackpool, or stand quietly in the labyrinth of the London library and witness the tears of a young Jewish intellectual who had “seen enough” of capitalism’s invisible hand; follow his fingers page by page as he exhausts the annals of economic history and theory; hear him whisper the words that would shake the nations – workers of the world, unite! Sail with Conrad down the winding Congo into the dark heart of Africa, only to discover that it is a voyage into our own twisted hearts of darkness. Shudder at Darwin’s explanation of this tragic age – things are as they are because the strong must necessarily rule the weak, and the weak must adapt or die. Tremble at Nietzsche’s matter-of-fact, soulless declaration – God is dead.
Now accelerate your time machine into the twentieth century. See the crimson specter of communism engulf the third world, and the triumph of atheism, existentialism, and nihilism in Europe. Inhale the mustard gas and anthrax spores, feel the thunder of Panzer divisions moving the earth beneath your feet, and shade your eyes to the Blitzkrieg’s lightning. Smell the burning flesh. Trace America’s rise to world domination at the cost of two Armageddons. Marvel at Einstein’s genius, and watch in horrible anticipation as the mushroom blooms upon the horizon of terrorism in the twenty-first century.
But we do not need Orwell’s time machine to take this journey; a well-organized, classical-Christian school curriculum is in fact just such a time machine. This wondrous expedition into the past is exactly what we should do. What an amazing gift to give our children! By studying the “great books,” students encounter the most influential thinkers, artists, and writers of history – face to face, and mind to mind – and thus come to understand Western history and culture. We should not merely read about great books; in literature and history, we should read great books, see great art, listen to classical music. In math and science we should learn to apply classical logic and theory to practical learning. In our humanities classes, we should organize our curriculum chronologically so that students read great books as an ordered, historical narrative, and thus navigate the rising and falling tides of culture as it is shaped by great thinkers. To the extent we are able, we should also organize our curriculum interdisciplinarily, so that our students understand how philosophy, literature, art, science, and politics, like tributaries to a great river, converge at watershed moments in human history. Studying great books, art, and music will inform our students as to why things were as they were, and more importantly, why things are as they are. Our students thus will understand the foundations of Western culture through the Greco-Roman philosophers and poets; they will understand why the Dark Ages are so-called; they will grasp the true meaning of the Renaissance as an age in which learning is reborn, and how, subsequently, individualism triumphs over institutionalism; they will understand why the Age of Reason is an age of Scientific Enlightenment, political revolution, and ultimately skepticism, and why modernity has yielded to humanistic “isms” which have effectively unraveled the fabric of Western culture.
But we do not explore the great books, music, and art merely to understand the history of Western culture; we study them as a basis to make value judgments. Great works are touchstones of excellence so that, by studying them, students learn how to think with aesthetic discernment and discrimination and thus make qualitative judgments about what is bad or worse, better or best. In other words, studying great works cultivates taste. But much more than this, by filtering all earning through the grid of God’s Word, we impart to our students a Christian world-view that equips them to make moral judgments, not merely about the basic questions of right and wrong, but also about profound ideas that, in the modern world more often than not, directly clash with Christianity.
Thus understood, our philosophy of Christian education is not only a time machine, but also a kind of intellectual hospital or zoo. What parent would send his child into a disease-infested city without inoculation? Too often, Christian schools quarantine their students by slamming the door to a dangerous and hostile culture. But we must know that, sooner or later, the door must be opened and the vulnerable child emerge. A Christian education should inoculate students to the outside world and its dangerous diseases – atheism, existentialism, Marxism, Darwinism, Nihilism, humanism, and all the other “isms” – that threaten, not just the health, but the very life of Christianity. Metaphorically speaking, “It’s a jungle out there!” But the classical-Christian school curriculum should “cage the beast” so that, when our students safari into adulthood, they will not only recognize the serpent and the lion but also have the weapons to defeat them and thus protect themselves and their posterity.
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