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A Second Look at Classical Education (Part 2)

  • Elizabeth Smith Speaker, Lobbyist, and Veteran Home-Schooling Mother
  • 2003 20 Mar
A Second Look at Classical Education (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1 of "A Second Look at Classical Education." 

I agree with the classical educators that memorization is an excellent discipline. And not everything our children memorize will be from the Bible, but probably much of it should be. This is another area I question in trying to balance Christian education with the classical approach. There is an emphasis on memorization of secular humanistic passages.

It is probably a good idea to review our personal goals for home schooling from time to time. Why are we doing it, and what do we want to see in our children when they reach adulthood? Classical education seems to idolize education. In ancient times knowledge was virtually worshipped as the means to gaining human perfection. I guess a good question is whether classical education can be Christianized? What impact does great amounts of learning have on the human ego? I Corinthians 8:1 says, "Knowledge puffs up," and knowledge without virtue produces arrogance. James 4:8 says, "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." If acquiring knowledge becomes all-consuming, are we allowing our children to be subject to pride? I have heard a number of parents boast about the highly intellectual books their children are reading. How can we be sure that our children will be balanced and rely on God more than on their academic achievement?

Let us take a look at the dialectic stage of the trivium. Following the grammar stage this phase emphasizes the reason of man. According to the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the wisdom of God is neither sought nor applied. Logic is the cornerstone of this training and pupils must investigate and formulate sound reasons for their arguments. Among other things, this concept teaches that we cannot believe what we cannot see and prove. Everything is to be questioned and nothing is assumed to be true. How is this "scientific" approach reconciled with God’s requirement that we have faith, and believe what we cannot see or prove? How can we be sure that our children will not apply the rules of logic to their faith? As we teach our children to diligently compare what they have learned with the Word of God, man’s concept of logic or reason is often miles apart. (Acts 17:11)

Argument is the basis for the methodology of logic. The most skilled presenter is the one who can argue best, refute best, and question best. The premise is to question everything and accept nothing as certain. There is no absolute truth to interfere with reason in arguing your case. Nor are rules based on any preconceived moral standard. In this method there is virtue in being able to argue every view, while no view is evaluated as right or wrong, and no idea is to be left unchallenged.

As I look at the principles of argumentation, I have attempted to evaluate it from a Christian view. The life and teachings of Jesus as well as other examples from scripture present some challenging principles. On many occasions Jesus was silent when he could have argued persuasively. The Proverbs teach us that there are times when no answer should be given. As we pursue "peace with all men" (Hebrews 12:14), we are often called upon to keep silent. From a practical sense, what effect will teaching my children to argue have on their relationships with others, especially when they marry? Will they successfully separate the skills required for argumentation from everyday relationships? What impact will training in logical argumentation have in the area of pride in my child? The scriptures encourage us to seek wisdom, which is God-given. Can the wisdom of God co-exist with the reason of man?

Frederick Nietzsche was the son of a priest and was headed for the religious life himself. Following his father’s death when Fredrich was a boy, he was sent to a well-known classical school. He learned Greek and Latin; he read the great classics and became well versed in mythology. He then began to question the tenets of Christianity until he totally abandoned the faith. His boyhood instruction taught him to question everything he learned. He was considered a great philosopher, yet his life was troubled and difficult. He spent the last ten years of his life confined in a mental institution. When I read about Nietzsche and others like him, I wonder what impact classical education could have on my child’s faith.

Rhetoric is the last stage in the trivium. Its uses today are quite limited in a practical sense, but it is enjoyed somewhat as a sport or intellectual exercise. Rhetoric is considered the highest form of persuasion and has come to include writing as well. It uses the "art" of oratory based on the laws of logic. Prior to the advent of printing it was useful for presenting argument and persuasion in a skilled, oratorical fashion. As printing became more widespread the technique lapsed into disuse. Like the grammar and dialectic stages, it holds to no moral considerations. The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) discusses rhetoric at length, stating, "So in grammar a rhetorical question is one which is asked not for the purpose of obtaining an answer, but simply for dramatic effect." It has been called "argument for argument’s sake." The Britannica further states, "As we can see, the way in which an argument is presented is everything and the rightness of the argument is of no consequence. It takes account simply of the faculty - the faculty of discovering any means of persuasion."
Christian debate in the home-school movement has made adjustments to accommodate moral rightness in debate training. The rules of debate throughout colleges and universities today, however, emphasize being persuasive regardless of whether the argument is morally right. The laws that prescribe the rules for debate specify that the moral rightness of the argument is not to be considered; the skill needed is persuasion, not correctness. The greatest criticism of the study of rhetoric is that debate is taken to absurdity because the cleverness of persuasion is so valued that it renders the subject matter irrelevant. Interestingly, Plato criticized rhetoric because he thought the arguments were often trivial and emphasized form over substance. Even our Christian home-school debaters struggle with the question of form over substance. All who have witnessed our young debate teams have been impressed. Still, I think it is something to look at in a prayerful way.

As wonderful as the human mind is, the reason of man will always be flawed. Humanism represents the spirit of this world, which is exemplified in fallen man. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines humanism as "a philosophy that asserts the dignity and worth of man and his capacity for self-realization through reason and that often rejects supernaturalism." This is the essential philosophy of the classical writers and thinkers. The scriptures remind us that, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) And "the carnal mind, (mind of flesh) is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." (Romans 8:7) Not only are these scriptures true, but also our children must embrace them to be called children of God.

When scripture teaches us to "love not the world," it speaks not only of the material world, but the unseen world of moral and spiritual reality. (John 2:15) Watchman Nee, in his book titled Love Not The World, writes concerning the world system, "since the day Adam opened the door for evil to enter God’s creation, the world has shown itself to be hostile to God. The world ‘did not know God’ (1 Corinthians 1:21), hated Christ (John 15:18), and cannot receive the spirit of truth (John 14:17). Its works are evil (John 7:7), and ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’ (James 4:4)."

Today we lament over great institutions of higher learning like Harvard and Yale, which were solidly founded by Christian men for the glory of God. They have become monuments to humanism. What happened? At least part of the answer is that the roots of classical education and the slippery slope of the reason of man undermined the higher goal to glorify God. The slow, but steady erosion was caused by the ever-increasing pressure to be "fair and open-minded" and to not shun liberal thinking. It was decided that students would be ignorant if their instruction was too narrowly bound to the Bible.

When we integrate the two systems (the world and Christ’s kingdom), which is what classical Christian education proposes, are we serving two masters? James 4:8 calls believers who befriend the world system "double-minded." I believe there are two risks we face by embracing classical education. One is the pride that our children may experience from personal intellectual achievement, and the other is a divided heart. Home schoolers who have graduated are finding great favor in the work place, and even at the universities of our nation. They are attractive precisely because they are different from the world. Hopefully our choice of teaching materials and methods will nurture that difference as our children go out into the world to be salt and light.

In looking at the trivium model, I wonder if it really is the way that we learn best? Should we isolate these stages of education from each other or is it an artificial system? For the average home-school mom, not only is the concept of trying to implement a classical education overwhelming, but also it may undermine our spiritual goals. How much secular teaching can we introduce to our children without it taking a toll? There are many questions to answer, but the important thing is to ask them and then find peace with the answer.

Elizabeth Smith is the wife of Michael Smith, President of Home School Legal Defense Association.  Elizabeth and Mike home schooled their children for 15 years.  Elizabeth is on  the Board of Directors for the Family Foundation of Virginia and the Madison Project, and on the Advisory Board of Breakthrough International Ministries. Elizabeth speaks at women’s retreats and at home school conferences throughout the country.

Editor's Note: Please send feedback on this article to me at, and I will send your e-mail to Elizabeth.