The Glory that was Zulu, the Grandeur that was Papua

Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”
— Chanted by Stanford University protestors in 1988

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What has Western Civilization ever done for the world? — Question posed by a poster produced by

If an essay on the essentialness of teaching Western Civilization is needed for Christian classical educators, the ramifications may be too much to bear. Nevertheless, even if this preaching is for the choir, defending the need for instruction in Western Civilization should still prove profitable for as Elizabeth Kantor states, if “you had to name one thing that the vandals who’ve seized control of our college campuses don’t want their students to learn, it would be Western civilization.”1 Sadly, parents must now assume that freshman studies, if it includes Western Civilization at all, will do so only in the form of criticism, denigration, and blame. Therefore, if the precious gifts bequeathed to this generation by their forefathers are to be retained, elementary and secondary educators across the country have a lot of work to do. As such, let these words serve as an encouragement to fulfill duty and these facts as some defense against the postmodern barbarians that wish to dismiss Western Civilization altogether.

Arguing to abolish such courses, historian Page Smith actually provides a valuable working definition of “Western Civilization” that encapsulates its precious nature. He wrote in 1990 that the Classical Christian Consciousness was the fruit of two thousand years of a fascinating and intricate process. At its center was, first, a set of deeply held convictions about man and society and man’s relation to the gods held by the Greeks. This culture may be said to have virtually invented abstract thought. It was followed by the “driving force of Western Civilization,” the medieval Church, the Renaissance, and, most important of all for an understanding of the modern world, the Protestant Reformation. To put the matter as succinctly as possible: when you agitate for Western Civ programs, you are asking the Secular Democratic Consciousness to teach the Classical Christian Consciousness, and that is, obviously, a losing proposition.2

Smith goes on to say that “if our ‘Western Civilization’ advocates were to be more candid—and more accurate— and offered their course as ‘Western Christendom,’ they would find far fewer supporters.”3

As Page Smith knew even in 1990, the assumptions of contemporary higher academia run counter to the idea of teaching Western Civilization. As such, waning since the late 1960s, required Western Civilization courses have now essentially disappeared.4 Philosophical relativism inspired the attack, demanding the removal of Western Civilization for two primary reasons. The first and most referenced revolves around so-called “Eurocentrism” – the critique that European culture should not be celebrated because all cultures are equal and it is therefore inherently offensive, particularly to people from other cultures, to do so. More subtly, relativism stands opposed because the teaching of Western Civilization inherently supposes a fixed, rather than evolving, nature of man. In other words, the concerns of Socrates, Cicero, Paul, Dante, and Shakespeare are important today because the fundamental nature of man does not change with time. Even more notably (and more offensive to the relativist) is the assumption that the truths discovered by Socrates, Cicero, Paul, Dante, and Shakespeare are equally valid today because truth does not change with time.

If one rejects relativistic assumptions, removing Western Civilization from a core curriculum loses philosophical merit. Nevertheless, practical concerns, which may or may not reflect relativistic assumptions, might remain. The argument here, particularly in the United States, is that in the 21st century, the United States has been filled with non-Westerners and thereby a broader cultural milieu should be learned and appreciated. Moreover, the “shrinking” of the world through technology might demand a more multicultural approach. Therefore, the typically proposed course of action is not merely to drop Western Civ but to replace it with something better. That “something better” is almost always World History.

These practical concerns can appear quite convincing and perhaps the most compelling argument for a World History course even stems from a Christian perspective. Considering Smith’s description for instance, the Christian is not interested only in “Western Christianity” but the whole of Christianity – God’s unfolding redemptive plan, not just for Western man, but all of mankind. Furthermore, the teaching of Western Civilization and World History are not mutually exclusive so teaching both may be the best route. However, since time precludes schools from covering all of history, priorities must invariably be set. The argument here is that when in conflict, an American school, and particularly one bearing the names of Christian and classical, ought to grant precedence to Western Civilization over World History.

The flawed nature of teaching “World History” begins the proof of the superiority of Western Civilization. As has already been indicated, World History courses (and, very importantly, the textbooks that support them) are generally designed to endorse relativism at best and undermine Christianity at worst. World History courses almost invariably devolve into a collection of cultural snippets where evaluation is abjured. This fact is interrelated with the other endemic flaws of teaching World History and that is the impossibility of narrative; the subject is simply too abstract and unwieldy. How can one tell the disparate story of the entire world? And, if there is no “story,” there is no “hi-story.” World History by its very nature devolves into a hodgepodge collection of “they did this, these others folks did that, and who cares?” This pedagogical nightmare structurally embodies relativism while snuffing out interest in actual history by burying narrative in a mountain of meaningless happenstances. Henry Ford actually would have been right if he had just said World “history is just one damn thing after another.” Successful history courses need an organizing narrative and World History typically cannot provide one. In fact, that very reason was why Western Civilization courses began at the beginning of the 20th century as educators attempted to reform the failure of World History at both the secondary and undergraduate levels.5 At the end of the 19th century, World History had already proven itself to be pedagogically untenable. How ironic that the academy seems to have forgotten its own history and is now seemingly doomed to repeat past mistakes.

Even if World History was not deeply flawed in its very nature, the strengths of teaching Western Civilization would still demand its predominance. The uniquely valuable nature of history is that it is the one discipline that can unite and encompass all of the others. Just as snippets of past events cannot hold one’s interest without an organizing story, scraps of subjects lose their potency when learned in isolation. A weakness of modern schooling (deserving far more attention and concern) is the breakdown of knowledge into artificial specialties. Students learn math, language arts, science, art, theology, and music in intellectual vacuums rather than seeing the interconnectedness of it all. While it might require an impossible reorganization of schooling to ensure students fully understand the interrelations of these disciplines, within today’s commonly used structures, a strong sense of history is the only hope students have of seeing how art, science, philosophy, and theology all developed alongside one another. Christian classical schools have committed to teaching the theology, art, literature, and science of the Christian and classical world (and this journal is exploring the wisdom of such a commitment). The teaching of Western Civilization is the way for students to see how their subjects interrelate. In other words, not only can Western Civilization be taught narratively, but it provides a narrative into which all the other subjects fit.

Though taboo to say, another crucial reason Western Civilization should have priority is because it is the best civilization. As R.V. Young writes, this fact ought to be self-evident to any disinterested observer whose vision is not warped by ideological astigmatism. Any rational, impartial evaluation will judge the material comfort and prosperity characteristic of the modern era, along with the rule of law and administrative prowess that make them possible, to be unique achievements of Western civilization. Moreover, their emergence in the West are not fortuitous, random phenomena: the sheer physical fact of triumphant modernity is directly attributable to the convergence of Greek thought and Judeo-Christian revelation in the formation of European culture. Imperialism, slavery, oppression, and violence – the sins with which the West has been saddled – are common to all civilizations; the industrial revolution, scientific medicine, the symphony orchestra – these benefits and countless others are exclusive creations of the West. To ignore this manifest reality requires a credence in coincidence verging on superstition.6

Though obviously not perfect, Western Civilization has proven itself the greatest civilization to stride the earth and thereby deserves veneration and study.

Even if Western exceptionalism is rejected, Western power cannot be ignored. On a purely pragmatic analysis, Western Civilization must be studied because it has become the dominant civilization of the world. E.D. Hirsch Jr. has spent over three decades proving the essentialness of “cultural literacy” especially to the disadvantaged.7 The international language of business is English and the culture spreading across the globe is Western. For better or worse, for the foreseeable future, those fluent in the West have advantages over those not conversant in it. It would be yet another painful irony if the children of the West were actually the most illiterate of it.

Perhaps the West’s greatest trait is its willingness to be self-critical. Its harshest critics seem to always miss the paradox that their freedom to criticize the West, while living in and enjoying the West, would generally not be tolerated anywhere else. Nevertheless, to protect Western Civilization, to improve it, to fulfill its promise will require love, and love requires time, thought, understanding, and exploration. Anthony Esolen bluntly describes the contrary designs evinced in a multicultural World History approach. He writes:

The very purpose of what is miscalled multiculturalism is to destroy culture, by teaching students to dismiss their own and to patronize the rest. Hence the antidote to love of this place is not only a hatred of this place, but a phony engagement with any other place. Multiculturalism in this sense is like going a-whoring. Pretending to love every woman you meet, you love none at all. Nor do you genuinely get to know any of them, since it never occurs to you that there are any depths to learn to appreciate.8

A legitimate and necessary role of school is to develop the lover of place. This lover of place, this patriot, is not the one who ignores faults, but is the only one who will do the hard work of improving and defending a place, a culture, a civilization. In contrast, the craven, the ingrate, and the abuser all operate on the fundamental assumption that one place is as good as another.

Twenty-first century American children need to learn to appreciate the unique blessings that they benefit from if their children will have any hope of enjoying them too. If the unique nature of the West is not understood, these blessings will be lost from both erosion within and attack without. The benefits of the West are not automatic, as so many sadly assume. Samuel Huntington explains All civilizations go through similar processes of emergence, rise, and decline. The West differs from other civilizations not in the way it has developed but in the distinctive character of its values and institutions. These include most notably its Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and rule of law, which made it possible for the West to invent modernity, expand throughout the world, and become the envy of other societies…. Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.9

There are few more important lessons for teachers to teach today than Western Civilization. As Niall Ferguson argues, “at its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation…the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”10 that all Christian classical schools should naturally recognize.11 As Western Civilization courses sadly disappear from almost all course catalogs, it is all the more crucial that Christian classical schools step once again into the breach to provide, not the trendy education, but the needed one.

The Formula Heard ‘Round the World

Revolutions tend to be noted for radical breaks with tradition and bold new courses set. However, the term “revolution” can also mean a return to an earlier position. Perhaps then, the most radical of revolutions combine elements of both by rejecting the cult of the new, spurning assumed progress, and breaking from the path not for new frontiers but a wise reclaiming of older customs and timeworn wisdom. Revolutionary or not, at the very least, if one finds himself on the wrong path, the only wise course is to simply turn around. The Christian Classical school movement is just such an example. American schooling has been on the wrong road for a very long time, and classical and Christian educators are attempting to turn around and return to wiser approaches to education. In this effort, a formula known as the Trivium has played, and continues to play, an essential part.

Surveying the physical and cultural destruction of Europe in 1947, popular author Dorothy Sayers composed and presented at Oxford her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which shockingly argued that for Western Civilization to truly advance in education, it needed to return to the Medieval Age.1 Her essay emphasized the failings of modern education in preparing people to think and to learn. The abandoned tools of education to Sayers were encapsulated by the medieval commitment to the Trivium. Comprised of grammar, logic/dialectic, and rhetoric, Sayers believed the Trivium held the key for reviving an effective and proven form of learning. Though powerful and persuasive, Sayers’ essay and revolutionary formula would require several more decades before her advocated return gained much traction.

In 1991, Douglas Wilson published the book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and thereby effectively launched the contemporary Classical-Christian school movement.2 At the time of its publishing, Wilson had already worked to apply insights from Sayers’ essay into the private Logos School in Moscow, Idaho. With the publication of his book, many more would look to advance their own children’s education by returning to “old ways.” The Trivium as a formula for education was about to start a revolution.

Revolutions depend on revolutionaries; and, both Sayers and Wilson are essential to this revolution’s success. However, true revolutions are not ultimately defined, controlled, or contained by even crucial individuals and the Classical-Christian school movement is no exception, so it must be understood at the outset that Classical- Christian schooling is not restricted to the thoughts of Sayers or Wilson.3 Likewise, revolutions rarely respect history, even ones inspired by it. Here again, the Classical- Christian school movement follows this revolutionary law. Consequently, exactly how “classical” or “medieval” the movement actually is historically is up for significant debate. Socrates and Aquinas, just to name a few, would not necessarily recognize all that goes on at “classical” schools or even claim them as their own. Nevertheless, history, through the modern interpretation of Sayers and Wilson and others, has provided a very attractive formula for education, which has been enthusiastically adopted in a large and growing number of private schools. And so, to understand what is taking place at these classical academies, one should be aware of how the Trivium is being applied for it arguably remains the distinguishing mark of the contemporary classical school.

Interestingly, the Trivium as applied by schools today has actually taken three main forms. The most obvious and least surprising way is their embrace of the three official subjects of the Trivium. While it would be rare to find a modern public school labeling a course, or perhaps even a lesson, as grammar or logic or rhetoric, one will find all three at contemporary classical schools. Mastering the construction of sentences, memorizing logical fallacies, and effectively using words orally are not only skills emphasized within familiar classes on history or science, they are entire stand-alone courses, oftentimes taken at multiple grade levels, at classical schools.

The second way the Trivium is typically applied at a classical school is far more interpretive. Here, the Trivium is used as a formula for learning any subject. In other words, mastery of a topic will always need to move through three ascending stages of mastery represented by the subjects that comprise the Trivium. If one is to master U.S. history or biology for instance, one must begin by learning the “grammar” of the subject. This grammar is the basic facts, terms, formulas, and language needed to ultimately understand and converse on the topic. Once students have mastered the basic facts, they move to the “dialectic” phase that concentrates on grasping how these facts interrelate. Ideally then, the student moves from a base, or even rote, knowledge to understanding. Finally, mastery requires a concluding step, rhetoric. Here, students progress from understanding a subject for themselves, to being able to effectively communicate the subject to others. For anyone who has ever taught even the most rudimentary of skills, it is obvious that it is one thing to “know” something for yourself, but quite another to be able to explain it effectively to another. The rhetoric phase is an acknowledgement that true mastery of a subject requires that final step of ability. Furthermore, rhetoric at this level also means applying the knowledge (grammar) and understanding (dialectic) already gained across disciplines into practical life. Thereby, the Trivium, applied to any subject, can mark the crucial transitions from ignorance to knowledge, from knowledge to understanding, and finally from understanding to wisdom.

The final way the Trivium is regularly interpreted in contemporary classical schools is as a formula for child development. Simply put, this belief holds that the typical child goes through grammar, dialectic, and rhetorical stages on the road to adulthood. Implicit in this application is that both the teacher and school ought to work with, rather than against, these natural stages of life and learning.

In this child development interpretation, the child begins in a grammar stage that roughly corresponds to the elementary school years. The fact that elementary school used to be widely called “grammar school” is not considered coincidental. As noted above, to master subjects students need to know basic facts about the subject. Conveniently, young children have proven to be outstanding at memorization. Even more remarkable, young children like memorization. Even nonsense words can be mastered with ease and enjoyment by elementary age children, particularly if put to music or chants. For the modern classical educator then, such an opportunity is not to be missed. In contrast, the typical contemporary school philosophy assumes that elementary school students will have plenty of time to learn basic facts in the future or will just naturally learn them through time. Consequently, most elementary schools embrace “play” as the activity de jure for their charges. The classical school instead capitalizes on the young child’s affinity for memorization and gives him a solid diet of significant material on which to work. While unfairly and inaccurately derided as “drill and kill” by advocates of the “play” approach, classical educators seek to have students leave elementary school with a substantial amount of invaluable knowledge stored in their memories. Both history and now contemporary classical schools have more than proven that this knowledge can be mastered in an effective and even pleasurable way especially since the elementary years are the ideal times in which to do it.

In considering the dialectic phase, it perhaps helps to start with a cultural fact: junior high kids are insufferable little wisenheimers. Put more generously, one notes middle schoolers’ propensity for argumentation, contradiction, and verbal gaffes. While educators throughout time have frequently been tempted to deal with this phase by locking them in their rooms until humans can stand to be around them, the contemporary classical educator takes a different course. Though an obviously dangerous act, the classical educator insists that if one wants to argue, then at least one should argue well. So, this “dialectic” stage at the classical school is characterized by instruction in logic, reasoning, and argumentation. While undoubtedly parents must at times regret the arming of these young madmen with more effective verbal weapons, the child’s personality merely demonstrates that the time is developmentally right to do so. Not incidentally, if these young debaters have been brought up with the Trivium, they already have a vast store of valuable knowledge to consider, which makes their verbal wrangling much more palatable and productive. In contrast, their public school peers, who have played their way through elementary school, while still determined
to verbally joust, have nothing to tilt but pop culture windmills.

Finally, according to the developmental approach to the Trivium, after passing through the challenging dialectic phase, young adults arrive at the “rhetorical” phase. In sum, the mark of teenagers is their desire to “express” themselves. However, as one can sadly witness in every mall in America, they are not very good at it. This truth remains despite the fact there are few items that fire the hearts of the typical American public school teacher more than self-expression. However, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, most high school instructors, though enthusiastic, are unknowingly urging the geldings to be fruitful.

Having never given or demanded knowledge of their charges, much less clear thinking in earlier years, most youth, have, like, you know, little to say. In contrast, the classical educator is not left with empty pleas to “express yourself,” since the student brought up in the Trivium has been given the knowledge and understanding along the way necessary for the development of wisdom worth professing. And, here again, the classical educator looks to work with, rather than against, the grain. With students eager to communicate, instruction at classical schools in these teen years focuses on effective expression through, among other things, the spoken and written word. As with the dialectic phase, if a student has been educated throughout in this Trivium model, this focus on expression is potentially delightful because the child actually has a vast array of knowledge and understanding to articulate. While the modern’s obsession with self-expression reflects the fact that essentially all educators desire to produce rhetoricians – wise, eloquent adults – it is the classical Trivium model that actually provides a workable and proven formula to produce them.

In considering the Trivium as a formula for learning and child development, it should be noted that these ought to be understood as broad, general categories not rigidly fixed lines. All courses at all age levels typically would contain grammatical, logical, and rhetorical elements, assignments, and emphases. Again, the Trivium approach argues that mastering any subject necessitates going through these three stages of learning so newly introduced subjects will always require grammatical essentials even for adults. The Trivium is a useful formula, not an inflexible one. Much of the Trivium’s revolutionary power lies in its simplicity and clarity, but also its versatility. Thereby, those seeking to be classical in contemporary times should not feel compelled to follow narrowly a fixed formula to qualify.

When considering accurate labeling, the Trivium has also served to justify the very naming of classical schooling. However, while certainly historically rooted, the Trivium as an organized system of learning is far more medieval than classical. However, no one needs a marketing department to tell them that calling for a return to medieval times proves a much more difficult sales job, so “classical” was, not surprisingly, adopted instead. Since the overwhelming percentage of classical schools are first and foremost Christian schools, this accommodation to modern sensibilities is at least mildly lamentable for it is the medievals who attempted to build a civilization infused with Christianity rather than the ancient pagans of Greece and Rome. Furthermore, while all truth is God’s truth, there is nothing inherently Christian per se in the Trivium especially if your emphasis is on its classical origins which again would mark it as the product of pagans. Nevertheless, because almost all classical schools in the United States are Christian, the terms“Classical-Christian,” or now the more appropriate “Christian-classical,” have become so conjoined that they easily roll off the tongue. Thereby, perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters of medieval times will forgive our snub, if our efforts to provide a truly Christian education to our children run true. And, applying the medieval Trivium to the specifically Christian nature of Christian-classical schools offers one final area of potential application.

Author Stratford Caldecott’s 2012 book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education argues that the Trivium actually reflects the triune nature of God, and he challenges Christian, and particularly Catholic, schools to incorporate this understanding into their schools’ organization and curriculum. Caldecott implicitly criticizes the “tools” metaphor both Sayers and Wilson associated with the Trivium by making the “central idea” of his book “that education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’
in the conventional sense…. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of the word).”4 Caldecott’s work suggests the Trivium’s value as a formula could easily surpass the three primary ways described above by helping students and adults
alike understand the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Caldecott, in fact, offers the following “eight threes” inspired from the Trivium for educators to consider and apply:

Mythos Grammar Remembering Music/Dance One

True Given Father

Logos Dialectic Thinking Visual Arts True

Good Received Son

Ethos Rhetoric Speaking Drama Good Beautiful Shared Spirit5

A detailed account of Caldecott’s argument for these “eight threes” is beyond the scope of this brief essay, but at a minimum Caldecott’s work demonstrates that the revolutionary power of this “simple” formula known as the Trivium shows no sign of losing its potency or applicability. As committed Christians continue to mine the wisdom of the past and the Trivium’s formulaic potential, the prospects for truly Christian education to flourish only brighten.6 As a productive revolution, the Christian-classical movement, with the help of authors such as Dorothy Sayers and Douglas Wilson, has helped many parents and concerned citizens recognize that American education is hurtling down the wrong path. Thankfully, the Trivium has served as a simple but powerful formula of return to a better and more proven course. Through the insights of Caldecott and others, the Trivium should continue to provide an even more robust vision of an education worthy of creatures made in the image of God.

Viva la Revolucion!