Over the years I’ve had conversations with several people who just can’t seem to get beyond the term “classical” in education. “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?!” they exclaim – generally with more words and less pithily.
This is a question that has already been asked and answered, if we will listen and learn. Part of the spirit of classical education is respecting and seeking the knowledge and wisdom of the past.
The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being is a collection of the writings about education from Plato to the modern era, the writings that have informed the development of western civilization and classical education.
In this excellent book, I’ve read selections from the classical authors themselves and learned that many of the education issues we have today are not new at all – they are the same as those experienced for thousands of years. And now I’ve entered the Church Father period. Is there a clean break and a new approach? No. Rather, there is a sifting.
Clement of Alexandria in the third century is one of the first to wrestle in writing with the question of the place of Greek philosophy in Christian education. And he has some pretty decent answers.
God used Greek philosophy to prepare the world for Christ
And, to those who ask for a Hebrew rather than a classical education, I want to know, historically: which group more readily accepted Christ? Which preparation was most effective? The book of Romans has quite a bit to say on that.
Often, I believe, our understanding of the flow of history – of God’s purpose and direction in history from the beginning until Christ returns – gets in the way of our receiving the wisdom of the past. Will we learn from history? Or will we think we are something special and detached, a new thing and a new people, unrelated to the ancient or medieval world.
The classical tradition does not see itself as a new thing, but as part of the stream of Western civilization that started in Greece, grew in the middle ages, has suffered much recently, but still exists, particularly if we educate our children in its gifts and blessings and warnings. It is the culture of a people who sought truth, of a people then who met Truth, of a people who tried – though messily and often wrongly – to make truth the basis of their state and kingdoms, and always of a people who wanted truth more than anything else.
Today, people want to reject the very existence of truth. Classical education values truth, seeks it, and changes lives based on it.
Appealing to several Proverbs about seeking wisdom, Clement advises us not to prefer simple faith over educated faith – faith first, but then comes learning. And, for some, it is the learning that will open the doors to the answer of faith – because philosophy, learning, is a search for truth. There is only one satisfying end point for such a search: true Truth.
Virtue takes practice. It takes cultivation of the natural, but dormant and undeveloped, possibilities. God does not zap us with holiness, but gives us means and time. Education is one such means. And education comes to us from the Greeks. It’s just a historical fact.
We need divine revelation, and we need the discernment and wisdom to understand it. God reveals truth, but He does not zap us with instant holiness. In that we must grow intentionally over time and through discernment and learning.
We must learn how to question and refute in order to know truth from false and learn to love the highest things – and the art of dialectic, of reasoning and knowing, was perfected by the Greeks.
However, Clement is not offering a blanket acceptance of everything that comes from Greek learning:
No, we do not learn truth directly from the Greeks, but we do learn how to reason, how to think, and how to persuade effectively.
If we want truth, we want philosophy – a love of wisdom.
Clement also argues that if we take the skills and arts of the Greeks, use them without crediting or acknowledging that we have inherited them from others, we are robbers and liars. Instead of pretending they are our own discovery, we should take them with credit and gratitude.