Milton’s full curriculum and pedagogy is beyond the scope of a short essay, but his text, though dense, is not long. He delineates a strong course of study grounded in the humanities and languages, rounded out with science, mathematics, and athletics — including wrestling and swordsmanship! Intense reading, writing, and Socratic discussion are designed to form a critical, discerning mind. The teacher’s qualities are crucial: “he who hath the Art, and proper Eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual perswasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young brests such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men.” The teacher must be someone worth imitating in both life and thought.
Milton comes to the crux of his curriculum, however, with the vexed issue of significant texts containing good and containing evil. The truly educated Christian must neither remain provincial nor bask in filth. How to strike the balance? Areopagitica famously argues against censorship: all minds must be free to choose what they accept or reject as wise, true, and valuable; otherwise virtue, being unexercised, will wither. But in Of Education his tactic is somewhat different. Areopagitica is a recommendation for a grown-up world of ideas; Of Education is about preparing young Christian minds for service.
So, after leading the students through the best that has been said and thought, Milton comes to the dangerous arena of risky material: “By this time, years and good general precepts will have furnisht them more distinctly with that act of reason which in Ethics is call’d Proairesis: that they may with some judgement contemplate upon moral good and evil.” Somewhere around the age of 13 or 14, students are finally exposed to morally problematic texts: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; the plays of Aristophanes or much of Shakespeare; Dido and Aeneas in the cave; and most dangerous of all—the pagan philosophers and their views on matters of morality and truth. All of these cultural objects will deviate more or less from the tenets of Scripture, and, because they will do so interestingly, beautifully, and persuasively, the teacher must be extraordinarily diligent: “Then will be requir’d a special reinforcement of constant and sound endoctrinating to set them right and firm, instructing them more amply in the knowledge of Vertue and the hatred of Vice: while their young and pliant affections are led through all the moral works of Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Plutarch, Laertius, and those Locrian remnants…”
A child can be educated without experiencing the complex and often tempting moral dilemmas found in many “adult” texts; but an adult cannot be educated without grappling with these ideas at a certain minimal level. Children can be taught Aesop’s fables as well as the Biblical Proverbs. But they do not yet need to read Plato’s Republic or Euthyphro, or Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. They are incapable of the kind of subtle moral reasoning required for and created by reading such works. But the shift from puberty to adolescence changes everything. Education should produce adults by slowly and with great care walking them through the moral complexities of the fallen world. It takes mature judgment to contemplate evil and to reject it. But that is what virtue is.
The skill that is introduced and developed at this age is called proaeresis and is first found in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. It could be transliterated “divide before” and is etymologically related to the word “heresy.” Its semantic range includes the ideas of moral choice, will, and character. In Milton it means making moral distinctions regarding ideas, actions, or objects. It means dividing between good and evil by assenting to or rejecting what is at hand. This skill can only be learned by having the opportunity to make a mistake, or a bad decision. It is thus inherently dangerous.
How does the teacher develop proaeresis in the student without leading him or her into moral destruction? By the classical—and also biblical—method of comparative reading and discernment. Hebrews 5:12-14 reads: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of
the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” While the subject here—strong meat versus milk—is mature theology as opposed to infant theology, the principle of learning and discernment is transferable. Maturity comes not from remaining in an infantile state of cloistered seclusion from error but rather from learning to recognize it as error. The senses must be “exercised” in order to learn how to discern.
And what is the key, the necessary ingredient to rightly guide the impressionable mind of young adults as they learn to practice discernment in the real world? Milton’s reading program has its grounding, not in the pagans, though they make up a significant part of the curriculum by necessity. But after they study the works of man each day, all that they have learned is “still to be reduc’t in their nightward studies wherewith they close the dayes work, under the determinate sentence of David or Salomon, or the Evanges and Apostolic Scriptures.” In other words, read what men have to say—then compare it diligently with Scripture. Let the wisdom of Solomon, the worship of David, the hope of the gospels, and the theology of Paul “reduce” or “boil down” mere human texts to whatever truths the pagans may have produced. The word of God is a sharp sword (Hebrews 4:12), very handy for paring down the works of men, which are always shifting, irresolute, filled with attractive error mixed with some goodness and beauty. The Scriptures are instead called the “determinate sentence”; they are the final word, the ultimate arbiter of everything, the comparative text of the Absolute.
It is worth noting that proaeresis is always linked in classical thought and many early Christian theologians with the move from puberty to adolescence. This is not insignificant. Pagans and Christians have always noted a crucial change in moral awareness as a child becomes
an adult; our social and legal systems reflect this, as do personal expectations. I would argue that this spiritual/ psychological/ethical development is organically linked with the primary physical change of adolescence: our new ability to make fine moral distinctions parallels our new ability to make another human being, another imago dei. At this crucial moment, human accountability before God and man comes fully to fruition.
Cultivating the affections through wisely managed cultural exposure with an eye towards biblical-critical discernment has a significant effect on the moral compass. This is the end, the purpose of Classical Christian education. It is inherently risky. And there are no other options.