Taking the Trivium to the Marketplace

As Christians, we are directed by Christ to take the gospel to all the world. It is intuitively obvious how the “Christian” part of classical, Christian education supports our obedience. Do we understand, however, what a powerful tool the “classical” part is in furthering the Great Commission?

Several years ago, David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility, spoke at the SCL summer conference. He argued forcefully that our students should study the classics and perhaps only the classics so that they can understand the depth of the truth of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes that, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Our culture not only neglects history, we exult in our belief that history holds no relevance to the modern man. Twenty first century man only looks forward, straining for the “next new thing.” We live in a “new age.” We have a “new economy.” Every boom is the result of a first-time creative insight and every bust prompted by some never before experienced event.

For example, our headlines today scream about the hundreds of billions in bailouts necessitated by the real estate market, which has increasingly left behind the basic understanding of supply and demand. Speculation fueled an exponential rise in home prices when there was no parallel rise in incomes. This real estate market bubble was further exacerbated by a mortgage industry that ignored common sense and 90 years of mortgage practice with respect to the level of debt that could be sustained by any given income. Individuals took advantage, hoping against rational belief that the spectacular increase in real estate prices would continue indefinitely and save them from any imprudence. We are told that what made this volatile mix finally combust, however, was not the age old effects of unbridled greed but the “new” sophisticated financial instruments called mortgage backed securities. These hitherto unknown investments were “too new” and “too complex” for anyone to appreciate their destructive potential.

The overwrought headlines bring to mind some background work my eighth grade literature students did when we read Alexandre Dumas’ Black Tulip a few years ago. In the early 17th century, the tulip bulb was introduced to Holland from the Ottoman Empire and quickly became the rage. Demand for the tulip bulb increased so rapidly and so consistently for several years that fortunes were made. As more and more people entered the tulip market, speculators looking for even greater profits introduced a new, complex financial instrument, the tulip future. Tulip-mania became so pervasive that, as one 18th century commentator writes, “even the dregs of society entered the tulip market.” Between the months of February and May 1637, the bottom dropped out of the tulip market. People were left holding virtually worthless securities whose risk they had not appreciated at the time of purchase. Though modern historians debate the depth and breadth of the impact of the crash the parallels are striking.

So, there really is nothing new under the sun.

But our culture needs more than economic insight. Last October, the Pittsburgh diocese of the Episcopal Church became the second diocese to leave the church, a reaction, in large part, to that denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Other dioceses are expected to leave as well. As I listened to Bishop Katharine Schori lamenting the split in a radio interview, the argument was familiar: biblical statements on homosexuality cannot be literally applied to our modern culture. The Bible is an ancient document to which our reason must be applied in order to keep it relevant. Of course, the conservative response was simply that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. It cannot be altered to suit modern whims. It struck me that in this exchange two lines were drawn in the sand. There was no basis for any further discussion. One group asserts its “belief” in the proper way of reading the Bible. The other group asserted an opposing “belief.” No one was pleased but the moral relativists who are perfectly happy to let us each entertain our own private “beliefs” as long as we don’t presume to have any actual facts.

What answer might a classically trained student offer? A student whose analytical thinking skills had been honed along with his understanding of history and literature might ask simply, “How?” How does our cultural situation differ from the culture of biblical times on the issue of homosexuality? Modern man, divorced from any depth of historical understanding seems to have a vague notion of all morality pre-dating Woodstock as a cross between Victorian prudery and 1950s conservatism.

The classical student, however, might recognize that the ancient and classical worlds were far more comfortable with homosexuality than even our culture today. A student of history or literature might recall that of the first ten emperors of Rome, only one, Claudius, was believed to be exclusively heterosexual. He might also recall the famous defenders of Thebes, a military regiment exclusively populated by homosexual couples renowned for their valor. A reading of The Iliad might raise an eyebrow. In the Bible itself, Sodom and Gomorrah hardly seem to be homophobic societies. Even a student’s exposure to the bawdy side of Chaucer and Shakespeare would suggest that for centuries before the modern era, sexuality was viewed quite liberally. The assertion that our higher level of comfort with homosexuality justifies reinterpretation of the scriptures seems far from self-evident.

There is still nothing new under the sun.

But what good to the culture is our students’ historical foreknowledge, analytical thinking and insightful ability to connect the lessons of history or literature to today’s headlines? Are we simply raising students with the academic superiority to brag, “I told you so”? Do we believe that we can intellectually badger someone into accepting Christ, or even Christian morality?

There is one more tool that a student gifted with a Christ-centered, liberal arts education should possess: the heart of Christ broken on behalf of the lost. The arrogant belief that we are a new man in a new time no longer subject to the old rules opens a door to deception, oppression and destruction. The classically trained student with a heart for the lost has old tools, long forgo en, with which to open the eyes and build up the defenses of those around him. He is not only willing, but eager to enter the debates even when he isn’t certain in advance that he can win. He knows that the pleasure of pursuing truth is greater than the pleasure of winning an argument, and he invites those around him to join him in the pursuit. He also believes Christ’s words, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” So he knows that those who join his pursuit of truth, in whatever arena, pursue Christ, whether they recognize it or not.

Can Good Government Save Us?

I think the poet Catullus is noted first to have said, “The government that governs least, governs best.” Paine, Jefferson and Thoreau each followed with their own versions of the sentiment, though each also with their own intent. As a principle, I tend to agree, but in the current climate, I’m not sure anyone else does.

We do rely on our governments, though. In times of war or economic disaster, where else would we turn for protection or assurance? In the modern era, governments both reflect and shape the values of the governed. Even in an age of disenfranchised democracy, we hold up our own government as a symbol of who we are, what we really believe.

In this issue, several contributors discuss the importance of civic life and responsibility to our schools, our students, and the education we provide. By historical standards, citizens of modern liberal democracies possess a great deal of power to influence the people and mechanisms by which we are governed. The more knowledgeable, the more spiritually grounded, the be er equipped with relevant skills, the greater the influence our students might have in their lifetimes. And if they understand themselves to be both citizens of heaven and this world, their civic contributions will be means by which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

In many ways, schools are no different than nations. When I look carefully at the schools which many admire for their commitment to educational mission, their confident Christian identity, their institutional prosperity, and their consistent impact on graduates, I find one consistent characteristic: good governance. A school improperly staffed or inadequately designed may not be rescued from failure and insolvency by an active board, but trustees who govern within a culture of goal-oriented planning provide good schools with the energy and resources to achieve their potential. A good board can’t save a bad school, but a good board can lead a good school to greatness.

Conversely, in his article for this edition of The Journal, Bill McGee describes the detrimental impact that a poorly functioning board can have on even the best schools. He also proposes steps that can be taken to help the boards of promising schools to improve their performance and the prospects of the schools they govern. This is timely, because the trend in Christian schools seems to be that their governance is getting worse, not better.

One indication is that the average tenure of heads of school has dramatically decreased over the past twenty years. According to one source, the average tenure of a head of school twenty years ago was eight years. Today, average tenures are less than half that. That’s half the time to envision, to nurture, to build. Half the time to bring families and students along in partnership with the school’s mission. Half the time to establish a faculty culture of loving expectation. Half the time to fulfill the expectations of families who have entrusted their most valuable possessions to our care.

The financial poverty that the current recession is exposing in many Christian schools is another indicator. One prominent Christian school leader recently told me that he expects as many as 20% of Christian schools in his association to fail— shut their doors, lay off their staff, sell off their desks and football pads—in the next two years. Not only is this tragic for the students and families left without a Christian schooling option, but it is a tragedy for our culture. As John Seel asserts in his article for this edition, Christian schools have never been needed more than today.

Can all of this be blamed on poor governance? Certainly not. There is plenty of blame to go around, from consumer demands to hide bound administration to teachers who just punch the clock. Still, it is also true that no group of stakeholders is more prominently positioned to either move a school forward or to hamper progress than its governors, the trustees of the school’s mission. It is a sacred trust, deserving the best effort, the best information, and the undivided a ention of every board and every board member.