Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

Advertisements

A Doomed Experiment in Christian Higher Ed

I’ll say it: It’s not gonna last. Everyone knows historians make terrible prognosticators, but in this case I’m feeling pretty confident. A two-year old experiment in a new kind of evangelical college experience has only one slim chance of survival.

created institute

Sounds great. Won’t last.

The experiment at issue is CreatEd Institute in North Carolina. The new school hopes to offer conservative evangelical Protestants a new way to experience higher education. Instead of traditional classes and majors, CI has an 18-month cohort approach. All students progress together through core ideas, relying on something like a Great Books approach. After that time, students can move into a professional apprenticeship program in a field of their choosing.

Will it work? Its boosters promise the world. As the website explains,

What is Truth? What is beauty? What is society? Who is God? What does it mean to be fully human? Who am I? These are the questions students wrestle with, and find answers to, in the CreatEd Core.

Our 16-month, discussion-based program inspires students through an engaging study of the Great Books built upon the biblical narrative. We pair history’s most creative, insightful thinkers with the Truth of God’s Story. Rather than offering dozens of unrelated courses, the intentional sequenced curriculum of the CreatEd Core brings meaning to learning, igniting a passion in our students as they make connections between themselves, God’s Word, and His world.

By including a “Guild” program, CI hopes to be more than just a dream factory. CI insists it will prepare students better than traditional colleges for an authentic, successful Christian life and career.

CI faces big hurdles. It has not earned any accreditation and says it won’t try to. Its model only allows it to welcome small batches of students. The cost per student is accordingly high: $39,820 for the first two years, and more if students want to proceed into the apprenticeship program.

There is only one way a school like this will survive and thrive and the founders of CI don’t show any signs of recognizing it.

Think about it: How many tuition-paying students can an experimental school like this attract? It apparently hopes to appeal to the homeschool and “classical” evangelical school crowd. For families with the wherewithal to afford the CI program, though, there is way too much competition.

Consider, for a moment, what a CI student would be giving up. Without accreditation, none of the credits from a CI transcript will transfer. And without offering a bachelor’s degree program, graduates will invest time and money without any recognized professional credential.

Why would students choose such a thing?

In the variegated world of American higher ed, there is a long-standing precedent and model. Deep Springs College in California has a long history of offering a very similar program from a non-evangelical perspective. Students at Deep Springs go on a two-year intellectual journey. At the end, however, they often transfer to elite universities to complete their degrees.

How has Deep Springs thrived for a century? For one thing, it is free. Second, it is able to brag that its students are being prepared to trounce all competition in professional success. As they state prominently,

Alumni have gone on to become leaders in a number of fields, some receiving MacArthur Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, and Truman and Rhodes Scholarships. Today, Deep Springs is often cited as an example of the transformative experience that higher education can offer.

Unless CreatEd can pull off an evangelical version of Deep Springs, it is doomed. Unless, that is, the school can promise that its students will not suffer professionally for their experience, CI will go the route of so many other experiments in higher education: Big dreams and a quick expiration.

Why Didn’t Christianity Today Mention The Most Important Part?

Remember Dorothy Sayers? A lot of us don’t, but the twentieth-century writer has had enormous influence on twenty-first century evangelicalism. A recent article in Christianity Today about Sayers’ influence, though, mysteriously left out the most important part of Sayers’ legacy for American evangelicalism. Why?sayers

In the Christianity Today article, author Crystal Downing focuses on Sayers’ famous series of BBC plays about Christ. As Downing tells the story,

In 1940, the BBC asked Sayers to write a series of 12 radio plays about Jesus. Taking the commission very seriously, Sayers spent a year rereading the Gospels, studying the original Greek as well as Bible commentaries. . . . Reporters, surprised that Sayers used colloquial rather than King James English, played up the fact that some of Christ’s disciples spoke working-class slang. . . . Due to the nationwide scandal, hundreds of people tuned in to the broadcasts for titillation more than for edification. What they got was the gospel delivered in language that made sense to them. They discovered that their perceptions of Jesus had become as static as stained-glass depictions in their churches. . . . As Sayers recounted to [C.S.] Lewis in 1946, “Thousands of people write to say that they have been ‘brought back to God,’ or had their faith renewed, or returned with eagerness to reading the Bible” due to the broadcasts. Lewis himself was so impressed by the profundity of Sayers’s plays that he read the print version for his Lenten devotions every year.

It’s a well-known story and one that should be remembered. But when it comes to real influence in the world of American evangelical culture, there is a much more important side of Sayers’ that this article simply didn’t mention.

sayers lost tools of learning

Sayers’ REAL lost legacy…

Why not?

It might be simply due to ignorance. As Patrick Halbrook has explained in these pages, not many people know the story of Sayers’ indirect influence on conservative evangelical schooling in the twenty-first century. As Halbrook explained,

if you were to visit a conference on Christian education and pull aside a parent or teacher to inquire about the distinguished Ms. Sayers, more often than not she would simply be lauded as the author of a brief 1947 essay on education entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Throughout the past few decades, this essay has spread throughout the evangelical Christian community through a peculiar turn of events.  In the mid twentieth century it came to the attention of William F. Buckley, who reprinted it at various times in National Review.  In the pages of Buckley’s magazine, it was read by a pastor of a small church in Moscow, Idaho named Douglas Wilson (Wilson is now known, among other things, for debating Christopher Hitchens and writing an award-winning novel).  In the early 1980s, Wilson began a private Christian school in Moscow in which he implemented Sayers’ ideas; he later popularized them in his 1991 book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Over the following years, hundreds of schools across the country began to form using Wilson’s school as a model.  Sayers’ ideas also appear in the pages of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, an enormously popular book on homeschooling which is now in its third edition.

Perhaps the general reader might not know about this vital legacy of Dorothy Sayers, but it seems odd that it wouldn’t be mentioned in an article specifically dedicated to revealing Sayers’ oft-forgotten legacy.

Classical Education and Conservatism

What is “classical” education?  Is it a “conservative” thing?

The Heritage Foundation recently published a video lecture by Leigh Bortins, founder and leader of Classical Conversations.

Readers of ILYBYGTH may remember a recent guest post from Patrick Halbrook about the thought of classical education inspiration Dorothy Sayers.

Bortins’ talk at Heritage did not focus too much on Sayers’ work, but rather on teaching homeschooling parents  a classical approach.  Those familiar with the themes of classical Christian education will notice that Bortins mostly assumes the age-graded breakdown of the Trivium, though she does talk us through it.

Her organization, Classical Conversations, claims over 62,000 students enrolled.  Bortins says her program has trained over 8,000 parents, as well as over 16,000 parents who have attended three-day practicums.

Bortins herself now hosts groups of college-age people (currently 19) in her home.  She teaches them in the classical model at her home.

Young people, Bortins insists, must be challenged in age-appropriate ways.  Monotony and repetition, she says, are the right way to teach young people.  Older students must move into questioning and using knowledge to improve themselves and their communities.

Too many contemporary education systems, Bortins argues, focus on basics such as literacy and numeracy.  Instead, education must keep its focus on big questions of virtue and personal formation.  Education, she says, has been turned too often into an industrial processing of young people.

The talk runs for about an hour and is worth your time if you’re interested in understanding the spectrum of conservative ideas about education.  Bortins takes her audience through some exercises relating to teaching with a classical model.  How do we define a common thing?  Bortins uses the example of the Washington Redskins.  What makes the Redskins different from other similar things?  What defines the team?

Parents can learn to engage their student-children in a set of guiding questions like this.  There is no mystery to it, Bortins believes.  Classical education, she says, will allow everyone to enter into all the great conversations from across human history.

Critics might complain that this educational model is literally medieval.  Students in this approach spend time defining, comparing, and disputing, just as young Europeans learned for centuries.

But knee-jerk characterizations of “conservative education” might be thrown off by Bortins’ emphasis on the educational value of the humanization and individualization of education.  Caricatures of conservative education often don’t have room to include Bortins’ emphasis on young people freed to sit under the stars and ponder their existence, young people learning to knit as a way to connect themselves to past generations of civilization.  Bortins’ take on good education revolts against an industrial model that treats young people like widgets.

Yet Bortins also insists on the value of free-market values in education.  She implies a Christian grounding to all true and proper education.  In the American context these days, that puts her in the conservative camp.

Of course, Bortins’ vision of classical education can’t be taken as the last word.  Other classical educators might differ in their definitions and approaches.  But Bortins’ talk gives us at least one prominent classical educator’s explanation of the promise of classical education.

 

What You Need to Know about . . . Dorothy L. Sayers

By Patrick Halbrook

I Love You but You’re Going to Hell is pleased to announce a new series of guest posts.  Inspired loosely by the One Thousand Words series at Front Porch Republic, this series asks experts to describe briefly the most important contributions of the most important conservative educational theorists and activists.   

How did a British detective novelist inspire an evangelical pastor from a small town in Idaho to found one of the fastest growing Christian schooling movements in America decades after her death?

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) is most widely remembered today not for her writings on education (which were rather brief), but for her literary output.  Her Peter Wimsey detective novels continue to be re-printed, and were adapted for television by the BBC in the 1970s.  Her twelve-part radio play about the life of Jesus, “The Man Who Would Be King” (1941-42), was considered by her friend C.S. Lewis to have been one of her finest works, and he enjoyed re-reading the manuscript every year during the week before Easter.  Sayers continues to be praised for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which she spent the final decade of her life after teaching herself Italian.  Her prolific career as a writer and social critic have led her to be called “the most significant female British Christian intellectual of the twentieth century,” and an author who “made a substantial impact on nearly as many fields as G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis.”

But if you were to visit a conference on Christian education and pull aside a parent or teacher to inquire about the distinguished Ms. Sayers, more often than not she would simply be lauded as the author of a brief 1947 essay on education entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Throughout the past few decades, this essay has spread throughout the evangelical Christian community through a peculiar turn of events.  In the mid twentieth century it came to the attention of William F. Buckley, who reprinted it at various times in National Review.  In the pages of Buckley’s magazine, it was read by a pastor of a small church in Moscow, Idaho named Douglas Wilson (Wilson is now known, among other things, for debating Christopher Hitchens and writing an award-winning novel).  In the early 1980s, Wilson began a private Christian school in Moscow in which he implemented Sayers’ ideas; he later popularized them in his 1991 book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Over the following years, hundreds of schools across the country began to form using Wilson’s school as a model.  Sayers’ ideas also appear in the pages of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, an enormously popular book on homeschooling which is now in its third edition.

“The Lost Tools of Learning” presents a rather simple educational paradigm based on the medieval Trivium and the notion that the goal of education is to teach students to think and learn for themselves.  For Sayers, this paradigm was the solution to what she considered to be the rather sorry state of early twentieth-century education.  “Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate,” she asked, “that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?”  She continued,

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary.  By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word.  By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words.  They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

Students were graduating from school unprepared for life, Sayers argued, because “we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”  What was needed in such times was a system of education capable of producing “a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society.”

Sayers found in medieval education two insights which, if applied in the twentieth century, would offer modern man a way out of the mess in which he had found himself.  First, by way of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), medieval education offered a paradigm for stages of learning to think and express oneself.  Second, its emphasis on theology gave all knowledge a coherence and unity without which education could only disintegrate into a collection of irrational, disjointed parts.

Confessing that her views of child development were “neither orthodox nor enlightened,” Sayers maintained that children go through three basic stages of development.  Each of these she associated with a part of the Trivium.  In the elementary years, or “Poll-Parrot” stage, children excel at memorizing new facts.  This corresponds with the “grammar” stage of the Trivium, which consists of learning the basic facts for each subject.  The grammar of language is self-evident, but other subjects have grammar stages as well.  In history, for instance, it consists of memorizing names and dates and events.  The goal of this stage is therefore to get as many facts into children’s heads, whether they understand their significance or not, while memorization is still relatively easy and even fun.

In the “Pert” stage, which corresponds to middle school, children naturally begin mastering the art of talking back and contradicting their elders.  This makes them ideally suited for the “logic” or “dialectic” stage, which would include the study of formal logic, as well as the “logic” of various subjects.  At this point students take what they have learned in the grammar stage and learn to apply critical thinking skills to those facts.  In literature, they debate whether or not a character’s actions were justified; in history, they study the causes and effects of the events they have already learned about.

Finally, students of high school age enter the “Poetic” stage, in which they yearn to express themselves and to achieve real independence of life and thought.  Because during the grammar stage they have been given something to think about, and during the logic stage they have learned how to think clearly, they are finally ready during their high school years to begin the study of “rhetoric.”  The purpose of this stage is to teach students to express their thoughts with clarity and eloquence through writing and speaking.  Students by this point in time have also become competent to take up new subjects to study on their own, needing less and less guidance needed from their teachers.

(It is worth noting that Sayers has come under fire for allegedly misrepresenting the Trivium, whose parts were, during the medieval period, all studied together and never corresponded to stages of child development.  Yet Sayers admitted as much, recognizing that what she was suggesting was a modern application of a traditional paradigm using her own views on psychology.  On another note, it has also been pointed out that Sayers’ paradigm of learning stages parallels Bloom’s taxonomy, which was published about a decade after “The Lost Tools of Learning.”)

In addition to her explanation of the Trivium, Sayers also turned to medieval education for its emphasis on Christian theology.  She wrote,

I shall add it to the curriculum because theology is the mistress-science without which the whole educational structure will necessarily lack its final synthesis.  Those who disagree about this will remain content to leave their pupil’s education still full of loose ends.

Theology would provide a coherent worldview which would allow students to understand how each subject fit together.  For Sayers, Christianity was never merely a set of ethical principles and religious rituals, but was at its core a way of making sense of the world.  “To me, Christian dogma seems to offer the only explanation of the universe that is intellectually satisfactory,” she wrote on one occasion.[1]  It was therefore an indispensable part of her educational vision, its neglect being a significant cause of modern education’s impotence.

What would it look for these “tools of learning” to be rediscovered and once again put to use?  Ironically, Sayers never dreamed it would actually happen.  She considered it “in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.”  She would therefore be quite surprised to know that today, over 40,000 students in private Christian schools (not to mention countless homeschooled students) are being taught grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the way that she envisioned.

They may not know much about her detective novels, but multitudes of conservative Christian educators have been profoundly influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers.

 

For more on Sayers…

About the author: Patrick Halbrook teaches at a classical Christian school near Raleigh, North Carolina.  His research interests include the history of Christian education and the intersection of science and religion, and for his master’s thesis he explored the role of the Scopes trial in American memory.  You can reach Patrick at phalbrook@carychristianschool.org.

 


[1] Letters, 2:401

Public Schools Can’t Serve the Public

To be useful to the public, Christians must reject “public” education.

That’s the argument made recently by Stephen Richard Turley in the pages of The Imaginative Conservative.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, one of the fundamental questions of Christian-school advocates is whether or not to stay in public education.  Dr. Turley makes the case that real Christians must abandon so-called public education.  In doing so, Turley writes, Christians do not turn away from the public sphere, but rather embrace it.

Today’s public education, Turley argues, is by definition anti-public.  Today’s so-called public schools hope to squeeze religious life into the private margins.  By doing so, so-called public schools warp the public sphere, allowing only secular notions to flourish, Turley writes.

The only answer for Christians, Turley believes, is to remain dedicated to true public witness by embracing private schools.

Confused?  Read Turley’s entire essay.

As he concludes,

If Christians are to remain faithful to the biblical gospel, we must once again affirm the public witness of the church, particularly in the field of education. For such an affirmation not only awakens the soul to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, but in embodying the Truth, it exposes the state-financed educational system which denies Truth as what it is: a lie. We cannot teach our students that Truth is relative and expect our politicians to be honest; we can’t claim that the Good has been replaced by situational ethics and expect Wall Street executives to ground their business decisions in anything other than profit, greed, and expediency; and we cannot relegate Beauty to personal preference and then feign shock when we encounter a urinal as part of an art exhibit.

Christians will never expose this lie as long as they support and fund it. Classical Christian education offers nothing less than a parallel public, a revelation of Truth that in its social splendor awakens wonder and awe in teacher and student alike, as together they fellowship in Him who is the divine renewal of all things.

 

 

 

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.