Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wisdom & Eloquence

I have been reading Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning, by Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans. (Crossway, 2006).

Those who are involved in the Classical Christian Education movement will benefit from reading Wisdom and Eloquence. Though not as engaging as Doug Wilson’s books on the subject, it goes further in offering practical support to those involved in running classical Christian schools. Both authors are Heads of Schools and draw from their years of experience.
One of the benefits of the book is the authors’ ability to successfully integrate theory with practice. I think it must be easy for those involved in the Christian classical school movement to come to education it with a lot of abstract ideas about goodness, truth and beauty, as if that is sufficient. But the key to success - whether success in religion, business, education, art, etc – is to know how to make one’s ideas take on flesh. That is why Littlejohn and Evans book is so useful.

Although the book is very down to earth, it also has some good theological insights. Consider the following:
“To the extent that the curriculum structures in our schools do not uphold a consistent, pervasive integration of the sacred into the students’ academic and social experiences, we have allowed ourselves to become secularised…. It is through [spiritual, cultural, and intellectual] formation that we can help reduce our students’ susceptibility to the dualism that plagues so many Christians, causing us to separate our religious life from our everyday life.”

“Oddly, the likelihood of having a genuinely biblical worldview is less dependent upon our personal knowledge of the Scriptures or our parents’ knowledge of the Scriptures than it is upon our parents having consistently lived an integrated, Christ-centred life before us. Our world-and-life view is caught much more than taught. It is the result of enculturation and not just education (theological or otherwise). Enculturation comprises the influences of parents, teachers, pastors, peers, television, music, and even video games (not necessarily in that order). The enculturation process is often passive and barely discernible.”

The authors argue that it is important for educators to have a theological system or grid in which to structure the worldview they seek to impart to the students. The system which they suggest is one which is most clearly stated as “Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation” thinking (this is very similar to the system I utilized when I wrote my Bible Overview). At the heart of this system is the doctrine of the image of God, the creation mandate, an understanding of common grace, and the need to implement Christ’s redemption into every area of life and society. On this last point, the authors sometimes come close to sounding like functional postmillennialists: “people need redemption, but so does every other aspect of creation, including the physical universe and all social constructs and institutions (such as marriage, churches, governments, and, yes, schools – even Christian schools).”

The book also takes a few knocks at what has come to be a primary paradigm in Christian classical education, namely Sayers’ understanding of the Trivium. If Littlejohn and Evans are to be believed, Sayers was in error to describe the Trivium as a methodological schema. The ‘language arts’ of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric, they argue, were always understood as subjects and belonged within a seven-fold scheme that included the four ‘mathematical arts’ of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). Thus, they write:
…we take strong exception to Sayers’s characterization of the trivium as a systematic pedagogy and especially to her attachment of the trivium’s component parts to her three stages of cognitive development. We disagree with the notion that dialectic and rhetoric are not subjects but are merely methods of dealing with subjects. From ancient times these, together with grammar, have formed the curriculum – not the pedagogy – of the language arts….

“On the contrary, the tradition handed us by our forebears says little to nothing about pedagogy, while saying everything about curriculum. The trivium is not a pedagogical paradigm, but a collection of disciplines, the study of which imparts a set of linguistic skills and knowledge that are transferable to other subjects. From Pythagoras to Augustine to Hugo of St. Victor, the evolution of the liberal arts has been about curriculum, curriculum, and curriculum!”

Littlejohn and Evans seem to have history on their side when they argue that Sayers’ explanation of the “trivium” is anachronistic. I think we would be hard pressed to find references to ‘the grammar of history’ or ‘the grammar of mathematics’ anywhere in the classical or medieval tradition, while there are plenty of examples of grammar being used to refer to a subject alongside the other 6 primary disciplines. But this does not mean that Sayers’ basic thesis has no historical precedent, even if she called it by the wrong name. I find it almost impossible to believe that our tradition says little to nothing about pedagogy and would like to see more extensive research undertaken in this area.

Nevertheless, questions of history are logically independent to that of cognitive development. On cognitive development, Littlejohn and Evans suggest that “A better understanding of the liberal arts and sciences as an educational paradigm, which long preceded Ms. Sayers, insists that we separate the arts from the question of cognitive development altogether.” In so far as the liberal arts are understood as ‘subjects’, I would agree that they are separate from cognitive development, just as apples are separate from teeth and the digestive system. But the action of eating an apple is not separate from teeth and the digestive system, and neither should teaching liberal arts be separate from question of cognitive development. In focusing so exclusively on curriculum, the book downplays the role of pedagogy to a degree that I think is unhelpful.

Wisdom and Eloquence is also useful in that Littlejohn and Evans have broken new ground in a number of areas. For example, they share ways in which they have been able to bring classical education to children with learning disabilities and Asperger Syndrome.

While this is not the first book I would choose to give to a parent who is considering jumping on board the classical education bandwagon, it is an excellent resource for teachers. It will hopefully provoke us to take a fresh look at the foundations of classical education and to further refine and clarify Sayers’s casual suggestions.

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 

Click Here to follow me on Twitter.

Visit my other website: Alfred the Great Society
Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!