a summary of Pastor Douglas Wilson’s address by Marty Wynn
For families now attending a classical Christian school or those who would like to get acquainted with what a classical Christian education is all about, I can think of no better introduction to the “what” and “why” than the address that Pastor Doug Wilson gave at the 2009 Association of Classical and Christian Schools conference in Atlanta.
Pastor Wilson was an early pioneer of the Classical Christian School movement in the U.S. and continues to be a source of strength and guidance for the ACCS movement that is now worldwide in scope.
To download a free copy of Doug Wilson’s “The Value of a Classical Christian Education”, click here.
Pastor Wilson’s address centers around the value of classical Christian education in today’s world, and he asks some challenging questions of Christian parents and educators. He starts with the question, “What is the end toward which we are striving?” Wilson asserts that the world today has a very practical view of education. The world sees education as a vocational issue and perhaps this view is misplaced, according to Wilson. Maybe, as he says, we need to have a willingness to be impractical. We need to recognize that God put us here for a higher purpose. Wilson says that “we need to understand that God has built us. As the Scripture writer says, God has set eternity in our hearts; and, we are not going to function well in the mundane day-to-day existence of life providing for families, taking care of kids, and bringing them up, unless we are connected to something above all of this. In other words, the permanent things matter. The transient things only matter to the extent they are connected to permanent things. C.S. Lewis once said, ‘All that is not eternal is eternally out-of-date.’ ”
Wilson also goes on to say, “Jesus taught us, bluntly, that man shall live according to every word that proceeds from the mouth of God because man does not live by bread alone. Now what’s more practical than getting bread? [But, as Jesus implies, bread, as the end result, is not enough.] If you’re just equipping your kids to find bread and not equipping them to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, you’re not equipping them for life.” Wilson is certainly not advocating incompetence in our students or graduates. He is just lamenting that liberal arts education, for the most part, was rendered useless in our country today when it was dragged into the vocational education paradigm. Liberal arts education originally had a Christian base and was meant to be something very different. Wilson advocates that classical Christian education should seek to challenge the current paradigm. The goal with classical Christian education is not just to provide another option within the current paradigm that we see in education in our country today, but to challenge the entire thing.
The vo-tech paradigm that he speaks about blurs the line between education and training. It becomes training people to train people to train people. What is the end purpose? Is it to just get a good paying job so we can pay for a good education for our children so they can get good paying jobs? Training is not wrong; as Wilson states, it is simply different than education. Wilson goes on to ask hard questions that challenge parents and educators, such as “What are we here for?”, “What are people for?” and “What should we be doing?” We should want our children, our students to be Christians first; thoughtful, reflective and educated second; and, employed third. As Wilson says, “We want all three, all three are important; but, we should want them in the right order.”
Wilson challenges us as educators and parents to not just raise the bar for our children, but to raise the bar for ourselves. As he says, “You ought never to raise the bar on anyone under your authority if raising that bar does not simultaneously raise it higher for yourself. Otherwise, you’re like the Pharisees who bind heavy burdens on others that you’re not willing to lift a finger to help carry out yourself.” In a classical Christian education setting, we should be trying to do something different than the world is doing, something with an entirely different goal at the end. Wilson says all of this should be directed towards a particular end—training students to lead. We want to train our children and students to think, train them to live, and teach them to take their role leading as they grow up and leave our homes. Wilson says we want to teach students “to be able to take things apart and put them back together and ask the basic fundamental questions in light of a full-orbed, robust Christian worldview.”
Wilson doesn’t discount students being trained for certain fields that require very specific training such as practicing medicine, et al. He is simply advocating that a true Christian liberal arts education is invaluable as a foundation for our children. He reflects on history and the time period when Great Britain was building her empire, and she did so with two universities, Cambridge and Oxford. That historic system was a liberal arts system that trained cultural leaders. Three hundred years ago, as Wilson mentions, when someone went to Oxford or Cambridge, they didn’t graduate with a degree in political science so they could go to Parliament. They received a liberal arts degree and were trained for cultural leadership so they could lead wherever their calling might be. At the beginning of the 19th century, we began to abandon this model. We now have, here in this country, hundreds of universities. As C.S. Lewis talks about in his book, The Abolition of Man, the current system was set up, directing people into a particular realm and that realm was slavery. Wilson states, “If you look at our culture around us today, if you don’t see chains being forged in every legislative session, then you are not paying attention. If you don’t see chains being forged everywhere you look, every time you open a newspaper, then you’re not paying attention. We are a culture that is descending deeper and deeper into slavery. We were once a free people, we are being enslaved as we speak.” Where are our cultural leaders? What, as parents and educators, are we called to do?
Wilson makes a strong case for the chains our society is putting on people because we have abandoned the true liberal arts education model in the U.S.—a model that was originally Christian at its core. He says, “If you want your children to stand free, they cannot stand free unless you educate them to be free. And you can’t educate them to be free if all you care about is them getting a job and being a good worker bee in the hive. There’s more to it than that.” When a child is taught to read and taught to think about what they read, they have been given the freedom to discern what is being said. That is why it is so important that our children learn the history of the world and how it fits biblically. It is why it is important to study literature and read the classics, it is why it is important to integrate the Scriptures and the Gospel into everything our children are being taught. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 says,
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
“In our culture today, because we have lost the principle of integration, because the prior principle of integration our culture had was Christ—we have abandoned Him, we have walked away from Him,” Wilson says. Wilson also talks about flak that can come from embracing something so completely different. “The reason why you have taken so much flak as you have is you’re doing something fundamentally different. What you’re doing is, your school is a representative of a different kind of civilization, a different kind of culture. And, a different kind of culture is a threat to this kind of culture.”
Wilson sums up his address by saying that what we need to be committed to is an understanding that education is inseparable from culture building and if you want a Christian culture, you must have Christian education. Secular education builds secular cultures. Christian education builds Christian culture. And self-consciously, Christian education is more than just studying history and English and math with a Bible class attached. What Wilson is talking about is a rigorously Christian education which is classical Christian education. The Scriptures are at the center—all subjects are taught as part of an integrated whole with this in mind. As Wilson ends, “That kind of school leads to that kind of civilization. This kind of school leads to this kind of civilization. That divergence of the ways, that parting of the ways, explains why there is so much hostility, often times that hostility is instinctive and nobody can really articulate it—the people who are hostile sometimes don’t understand why; and, you don’t understand why you’re catching it. It’s because you’re representing a different way of living. A different way of being human. A different way of living before God.”
Pastor Wilson’s address is challenging and humbling at the same time. We’re challenged as parents and educators to bring up the children entrusted to our care in a way that is pleasing to the Lord and in line with what He has commanded in His word. We’re humbled because the task is monumental and impossible without Him. May He be at the center of all we do and strive for as we parent, educate, and live out our days on this Earth.