Classical Christian Education and the Secular University

E. Christian Kopff explains why a Christian Classical education in the liberal arts is the best preparation for the challenges of the secular university.
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Classical Christian educators often ask for a description of “some aspects of the preparation, academic, spiritual, social, etc.” needed by our students to help them prepare for the secular university. These requests are sincere and well-intended. The problem I have with them is that today’s secular universities are so thoroughly secularized, so completely opposed to the culture, philosophies and institutions that gave rise to them that no “aspect” of Classical Christian education can be omitted when discussing the preparation students will need when they arrive at these schools.

Classical Christian education rests on a balanced teaching of the arts of language (trivium) and the arts of mathematics (quadrivium). In the quadrivium arithmetic leads to geometry and then to astronomy and music. We see there are other subjects both directly and indirectly mathematical that can be taught, studied and learned on this basis. The other pillar of our curriculum is the trivium, the arts of language: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Throughout most of the history of Classical Christian education, whether we trace it back to Dorothy Sayers, Martin Luther, Alcuin and Charlemagne or Saint Augustine, grammar has been taught through Latin.

The seven liberal arts understood as the arts of language and the arts of mathematics are the foundations of education in Europe and America, but there is an even more essential element, an atmosphere and an environment rather than a curriculum, which has nourished education ever since Plato formulated the first curriculum based on both language and mathematics. I am speaking of a commitment to the reality of the transcendent as wise, benevolent and above all good, which then was developed in the ancient Roman Empire and was most fully realized in the Christian faith.

Medieval, renaissance and early modern universities were founded in part to train professionals in important skills, such as medicine, law and theology. In recent years this aspect has expanded to include engineering and business. It was soon clear, however, that the knowledge of the seven liberal arts needed to be taught and developed on the university level as well as earlier. The goals of university education for a thousand years have depended on deepening and developing students’ command of the liberal arts so that they could ultimately take full advantage of professional schools and other vocations.

Universities were founded to educate Christians in the liberal arts so that they would be adequately prepared to live out their vocations as believers, subjects and later citizens and, lastly, as trained professionals. This is still the only explanation that can begin to make sense out
of the enormous and enormously expensive educational system of the United States and Europe. For these historical reasons, Christians educated in the traditional liberal arts are the students best equipped to take full advantage of universities.

Universities, however, have sometimes forgotten their original mission and, in many cases, have systematically worked to root out and eliminate the traces of that mission in the life of the institution. Their excuse is research, especially research in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. They often boast how many jobs and how much money has been “generated” by education directly and indirectly by the discoveries and patents of their researchers.

Actually research does not pay for itself. Universities and colleges make money, when they do, from tuition. In the secular university I know best administrators admit, when pressed, that 70% of the operating costs of the university come from tuition.

Tuition is money paid for teaching by parents and students, who earn the money or borrow it. Although universities love to put on their webpages stories of undergraduate students participating in research, most students do no research and many who do are engaged at
a relatively elementary level. Most students do take classes, however, and many of these classes form part of distribution requirements and requirements for majors.

What goes on in these classes? We can answer these questions in many ways. There are many large lecture classes, where information is given with the help of PowerPoint presentations and checked with the use of clickers and multiple-choice examinations. These classes are very profitable for the institution. Unfortunately this kind of course has produced the idea of the MOOC, “massive open online courses,” where similar lecture courses are offered to large numbers over the Internet. If the idea of the MOOC catches on, we sometimes hear, almost everyone will have the opportunity to enjoy the advantages of university-level lecture courses at little or no cost. We hear less often what those advantages are supposed to be. One department at a state university I know has invested heavily in large lecture courses taught with PowerPoint and clickers. Its latest program review revealed an interesting parallelism. Based on its research it was ranked #10 among public university departments in its area, while it was ranked third from the bottom of its university’s departments on the basis of student evaluations of its teaching.

Much university teaching is still in smaller classes where students’ work is evaluated on the basis of papers, examinations with longer or shorter essay answers and even oral reports. Courses in foreign languages, philosophy and mathematics will often encourage class participation
in discussion and debate. Students of the trivium and quadrivium are well prepared for success in such classes, where they will also enrich and improve the skills in language and mathematics they brought with them to the university.

There is another side of the intellectual atmosphere of American universities, however. At a recent open meeting organized to “kick off” the program reviews of departments in the social sciences, representatives of various departments offered insights on what makes their department or program special or successful or, at least, worthy of additional financial support from the administration. The spokesman of one department opined that, along with all the research and outreach to the non-academic community that other departments were boasting of, “Let’s face it, folks. It’s not just about research in an academic subject. We are here to change our students and change the world.” She then went on to note that students in her classes, especially freshmen, begin by rejecting the ideas that she taught, that they were the beneficiaries of an unjust and racist power structure that unfairly privileged their acceptance into a good school and later into obtaining a good job. Soon, however, they learned and by the end of one semester they accepted what they were taught. A discussion and question period followed the brief departmental presentations and I waited patiently for someone, anyone, to stand up and say, “In my department we teach an academic subject that we believe is interesting and important. I do not consider it my mission to turn our students into an ideological Mini-Me, who spouts my views.” I waited until we broke for coffee. I am still waiting.

Classical Christian educators have a dual mission. They teach their students subjects in the context of a traditional and balanced curriculum. This curriculum is the course of study for which universities were originally founded in the Middle Ages and for which they were founded and maintained throughout the renaissance and modern world. Universities still need and usually want students equipped with this education because they can profit from what universities have to offer and can contribute to universities on every level, but especially in their core mission of teaching. Classical Christian educators, however, have a further goal: preparing their students for their vocations as citizens of their earthly country and their role in the heavenly kingdom of transcendent truth and moral absolutes ruled by a just, merciful and loving God. This worldview has been sensed by many people and is most clearly revealed in the Bible. This goal our educators once shared with professors and teachers of the universities of Europe and America.

University professors, however, no longer share this goal. There has been a dramatic change in the object of university education as seen by professors and the public school teachers that train (though they scarcely educate) future students for universities. Their current goal is to liberate students from the traditional attitudes they have learned from their parents and teachers, often unconsciously, but with the students in our schools, quite consciously. Plato in Republic VII talked of teachers who see themselves as putting sight into blind eyes. Our university teachers see their students rather as glasses and their mission as rather emptying those glasses of the filthy water left there by society in general and their parents in particular, cleaning out those glasses and pouring in clear water unpolluted by the dead hand of the past, traditional morality and Christian faith.

Plato rejected this idea of teaching. For him humans have the capacity to see and understand truth, if educated in the arts of language and mathematics. The teacher’s vocation is to turn students, not just the eyes or head but the whole person, body and soul so they can see the real world, appreciate and love it. This is not the reductionist world of materialism and physical and chemical forces, but a world where beauty, justice and truth are real, the soul is real, and where God is real, in fact the ground of all reality.

On one level university professors want morality and justice. They do not want their students to cheat or elections to be rigged or the stock market and social security to be ponzi schemes, where the clever and ruthless succeed while the innocent and naïve suffer. Still they teach their students about such a world. With only materialism and the Darwinian war of all against all, what else can there ultimately be? Their students will be “in the know”, although they may decide it is wiser not to spill the beans to their fellow citizens.

Classicist John M. Rist has written on this theme. His book Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002) begins with a memorable excoriation of the hypocrisy of academic philosophers, who want to retain the social advantages
of religion and morality while building careers on undermining their intellectual foundations. In Plato’s Moral Realism: The Discovery of the Presuppositions of Ethics (Catholic University of America Press: Washington DC, 2012) Rist surveys Plato’s dialogues. His conclusion is modest
but challenging. “What I have tried to argue is not that moral realism can be defended, but that Plato believed— and I agree with him—that only some version of the transcendental moral realism he developed over time offers any possibility of an honest defense against moral nihilism, whether explicit or logically implicit, whether that of Athens in the fourth century B.C. (which he specifically tried to defuse) or of twenty-first-century Cambridge, Boston, or Mecca.”

The tradition-challenged nihilism of the academy has seeped down into the ethical thinking and practical morality of ordinary citizens and politicians and has affected university teaching on many levels. Classical Christian educators are not only teaching students important subjects in a meaningful curriculum. You are standing up for and teaching your students to stand up for the worldview that makes sense out of every subject, of education as a whole and of every human life. This is your mission, if you choose to accept it.