Progressive Teaching for Christian Schools? The Classical Christian Approach

–Thanks to P.H.

We’ve been learning a lot lately at ILYBYGTH about the Classical Christian Education movement. Recently on First Things we read a thoughtful analysis of the state of the movement today.  Brian Douglas warns of some growing pains for the movement.  He highlights the need for schools in this tradition to keep their eyes focused on the big educational picture.

But first, a few words on the background of the movement: The recent Classical Christian Education movement can date its origin to a 1991 book by Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Wilson, a Reformed pastor, Christian educator and school founder from Moscow, Idaho, popularized the classical education formula of Christian and crime writer Dorothy Sayers.

The Association of Classical & Christian Schools now claims 229 schools.  The movement is affiliated with two colleges, New Saint Andrews and New College Franklin.

Such a booming educational movement quickly runs into some definitional problems, as Douglas notes in his essay.  Douglas warns of “five temptations” for the growing movement: mistaking the trappings of success for true success; focusing on uniforms, discipline, and Latin instead of the broader Christian mission; assuming that success relies on the schools rather than on God; failing to integrate the Bible into a classical curriculum; and assuming that school will be the most decisive influence on every student.

For those of us outside the movement, the most intriguing parts of Douglas’ essay concern the growing middle ground between “progressive” and “traditional” education.

As we have noted here before, some leading “progressive” educational thinkers have long advocated a more traditional, authoritarian classroom style.

Similarly, conservative Christian educators affiliated with Walter Fremont’s School of Education at Bob Jones University have long argued for a more “progressive” pedagogy.

Douglas articulates a vision for this energetic new educational movement that seems to combine the “progressive” emphasis on child-centered education with the “traditional” emphasis on evangelical Christian theology, student discipline, and a Trivium-based, great-books curriculum.

Indeed, if words such as “Christian” and “Bible” were replaced, Douglas’ nostrums could certainly find a home in many ferociously “progressive” education schools.

For instance, Douglas wants an education that “tends to develop thinkers defined by who they are instead of workers defined by what they do.”  Similarly, Douglas warns of an over-emphasis on classroom discipline: “focusing on order becomes hazardous when it overtakes the joy of experiencing God’s grace.  When this happens, students may learn to jump through the hoops, obey the rules, do the right things, but they do not learn to love God and others. . . . Creating a truly gracious classroom is much harder than creating an orderly classroom.”  To pick just one more well-turned phrase of Douglas’ that could just as easily have come from the progressive camp: “Education cannot be reduced to a formula, even if the formula is a good one.”

Douglas’ essay, and the development of the Classical Christian movement as a whole, suggest a broad middle ground in education.  Make no mistake: Douglas is ferociously Christian.  He does not suggest any watering down of the uniquely Biblical elements of good education.  However, when advocates of Christian education can agree with advocates of “progressive,” “multicultural” education about the most important factors of good schooling, it seems we might have some room with which to work.