|The Living Church Institute’s Faith Talks series continued October 18 in Dallas to consider Christian education in our time. Jon Jordan, Logic School director and teacher at Coram Deo Academy of Dallas, presented a case for why Christian education should be different.
He argued that classical education provides the best model for education that shapes disciples. The panel and audience, while mostly sympathetic to Jordan’s case, raised questions about the connection between classical pedagogy and Christianity, as well as how classical education can serve a wider population wider than the white upper middle class.
Here are abridged versions of Jordan’s talk and panelist Seth Oldham’s response.
By Jon Jordan
Christian education, like education in general, is indeed in need of reframing.
Read college brochures; skim high school textbooks; attend preview weekends for universities; read the names of the most popular majors on campus. What you will see may not shock you but it should: Educational institutions today exist to train a workforce to complete tasks.
The human person is reduced to a computational and mechanical unit, and education becomes something like the installation of software. Career preparation is certainly not an evil goal, but it is woefully inadequate as a vision of education.
Contrast it with the ancient Greek notion of paideia, which includes passing down a way of life and a love of learning, to equip the disciple for a lifetime of growth and development.
Christian education at its best not only can embrace this ancient notion of paideia, but can bring it to fullness. While for the Greeks becoming the ideal person was the goal of education, Christians educate in order to form more fully human beings into the image of Jesus Christ.
A passage by C.S. Lewis conveys the destiny God has in mind for humans. In The Screwtape Letters, demons are designed to feast upon their prey once they are successfully lured to hell. The demon Screwtape bemoans the reality that God wants to conform free humans into his children, not consume them as his meal:
He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons.
We cannot simply add religion, Bible, or theology classes to the modern curriculum. What we need in the Church and the world is fully alive human beings being formed into the image of Jesus — virtuous women and men who have been trained in prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; Christians whose parents, pastors, and teachers have modeled and awakened wisdom, concern for the other, courage, and restraint.
Christian Education is in need of reframing — not by means of new innovation, but by returning to an older, better way: as a liturgical, teleological, erotic, and eschatological endeavor.
To say that Christian education is liturgical means that we are forming worshipers. Even a subject like physics can be taught in a way that elicits praise. We must recognize that humans are drawn to worship. A Christian educator should ask: If my classroom, school, stage, court, or field were a religious service, whom or what would my students be inspired to worship?
To say that Christian education is teleological is to say that it is focused on an end goal: becoming like Jesus. All other stated goals, such as vision or mission statements and school standards, ought to flow from that. We should ask: How does what I am doing right now move my student closer to the end goal of our family, church, and school?
To say that Christian education is about eros means that we are about more than knowledge: education forms students’ love and desires. Aristotle said that the aim of education is to make the pupil “like and dislike what he ought.” St. Augustine had something similar in mind when he said that virtue involved an ordo amoris, the right ordering of our loves. To educate this way, we can ask ourselves: What do I want my students to love? What do my students think I want them to love? Why does an outside observer think that I love?
To say that Christian education is eschatological means that we are playing the long game. We are laying a moral and intellectual foundation that prepares students to face whatever may come, rather than working toward short-term results. We should ask: What is the long-term benefit of what I am doing right now? What is the shortcut I am tempted to take?
Attaining the Good Life
By Seth Oldham
In a world in which money and fame are held in high regard, it makes sense that the liberal arts, or classical education, need staunch defenders ready to argue for the good that a liberal arts education can provide. I am one of them, and I see the value in what Jon Jordan has laid out.
On the other hand, those who defend the liberal arts need to understand and work toward three different goals.
First, we need to understand that the good life may not need to be achieved through formal education. On the contrary, paideia (passing on a way of life) often occurs outside a four-walled classroom through families, churches, or other venues such as residence halls or cafeterias. The virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude can be or should be learned through living together in Christian community.
Second, those who defend the liberal arts should work toward making classical education more accessible, especially for minority and low-income students. Creating classical charter schools in low-income communities is a great model, but it is likely not a long-term solution, for a variety of political reasons. Creating new opportunities through the Church, or supporting policies that encourage state boards of education to include a Great Books curriculum, may be better long-term solutions.
Finally, we need to apply what we have learned. The best way to convince people that the good life is worth pursuing is by showing it. As we discussed during Faith Talks, it may be possible to attain the good life without faith in God, but it will be incomplete. Our commitment to the Christian faith and our applied classical education will create the greatest potential for the world, currently blinded by false goods, to embrace the truly good life.