Classical Christian Education, the latest, cutting edge curricular development in American education, was also the educational Gold Standard in the United States from the Colonial Era until after World War II. Critics arose, however, as early as the time of the Revolution. Some were radicals like Tom Paine, who wanted science to replace both the classical and the Christian elements of the traditional curriculum. Others were devout Christians like Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Rush argued that American education should promote Christian knowledge and morals and give Americans the practical training they would need to settle a new continent. Rush felt that engineering and science, not the classics, should be taught in schools and colleges.
The objections of Rush, Paine and their supporters were drowned out by the response of educators and political leaders. Thomas Jefferson defended classical education in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “The learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.” John Adams wrote to Rush, “I should as soon think of closing all my window shutters to enable me to see as of banishing the Classics to improve Republican ideas.” George Washington did not enjoy a classical education, but he made sure that his step-son, Jack Custis, did.
When the utilitarian assault on the classical curriculum was renewed in the 19th century, it was opposed by a wide spectrum of Americans. John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, for all their political differences, agreed about the importance of the classics. New England Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau left the church, but defended the classics. “We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. “These works of art have such an immortality as the works of nature and are modern at the same time as they are ancient, like the sun and stars.” The “Yale Report,” published by the President and faculty of Yale in 1828, cemented the place of the classical Christian curriculum in colleges and so in preparatory schools until after the Civil War. As historian Carl Richard has seen, “From the beginning, Americans had been a pragmatic and commercial people, but one who had simultaneously harbored a reverence for tradition, both Christian and classical, and who had seen in these theistic and humanistic traditions a crucial means of moderating their own penchant for utilitarianism and materialism.”
Recently there has been a revival of some of Rush’s ideas; not about teaching Christian truth and morals, but his call for science and engineering. Under the acronym STEM (“science, technology, engineering, mathematics”) educators and politicians have insisted that Americans are sadly uneducated in these subjects and have demanded that schools and even the federal government intervene to save the nation from an educational gap that will mark the end of American prosperity and plunge the United States into bankruptcy and ruin as it falls behind competitor nations, such as China and India.
This is not the first time that such appeals have been made. A similar hue and cry went up after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. A few days later Elmer Hutchinson, director of the American Institute of Physics told the New York TIMES (October 8, 1957) that unless the US revamped its educational system to emphasize science, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” Threatened with rapid extinction, the national government poured money into science programs, one aspect of the educational environment in which enrollments in high school Latin went from 728,637 in 1962 to barely 150,000 by the late 1970’s.
This significant change in the nation’s priorities in curriculum and funding was accomplished with remarkably little public debate. As we saw, earlier generations rejected calls to repudiate traditional classical Christian education, and America enjoyed 200 years of prosperity, creativity, and freedom. The success of the American space program in the 1960’s could not have been due to the money directed at what are now called STEM subjects in schools. The scientific and military leaders associated with the space program were all educated in the previous generation.
Classical educators recognize STEM as a modern version of the quadrivium, the second level of the Seven Liberal Arts, which consisted of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. Few would question that the arts of mathematics needed to be expanded in the modern period to include, for instance, algebra, calculus, chemistry, and the life sciences, to name only a few. On the other hand, those who have reflected on Dorothy Sayers’s classic essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” or observed the success of classical schools and classical home schoolers understand that the quadrivium follows and depends on the trivium, the arts of language, grammar, logic and rhetoric. They feel uneasy when they see educators and politicians rush forward with large-scale and expensive programs aimed at expanding the quadrivium at the expense of the trivium.
What T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney says about himself is true of the elite: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” In Real Education (2008), Charles Murray argues convincingly that “The tools of verbal expression… are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.” The inability of our leaders to think soundly and speak persuasively affects all of us. Leaders of a regime based on consensual institutions need the full panoply of verbal ability. Even science grant proposals must be written grammatically, logically, and persuasively.
Schools know there is a problem. Throughout most of the 20th Century, when classical education and Latin were still flourishing, poor writing was viewed by colleges as a deficiency to be corrected by taking remedial courses without college credit. Those days are long gone. Most colleges and universities have regular writing programs and even departments to teach remedial writing courses that receive full college credit. Too many students arrive without the requisite writing ability. Schools do not feel justified in denying credit for such common educational gaps. They are not gaps anymore. They have become the norm. This is a real educational crisis that requires curricular reform. There is only one viable curricular alternative that puts the arts of language at the heart of its educational vision and that is classical education and its trivium.
Another area where teachers perceive a problem is what educators call “critical thinking.” Many colleges and universities have instituted critical thinking requirements. Polls indicate that college teachers feel that improving their students’ grasp of critical thinking is the most important goal of a liberal arts education and are frustrated at the lack of achievement in this area.
My own anecdotal experience is that both teachers of writing and those committed to improving critical thinking share a common complaint. Time and again I hear them say, “It is hard to find time to improve students’ writing or critical ability, because I spend so much time correcting their grammar. They make so many elementary mistakes.” When I respond, “So you have come to think that teaching students a robust command of grammar would be a substantial aid to their ability to think critically and write clearly and persuasively,” they respond with a yes. These are not classical Christian educators. Most of them have not heard of this new movement. They have learned the hard way that grammar is fundamental for critical thinking and effective writing. As classical Christian educators understand, there is a connected hierarchy of language arts and grammar is primary and basic for a later command of logic and rhetoric.
A renewed commitment to teaching the arts of language does not involve undermining math and science education. On the contrary, the greatest figures in the Scientific Revolution were classically educated: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, to name only a few. They had studied ancient texts and could read and write Latin. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was very self-consciously a return to the ideals and even the texts of ancient science. Copernicus knew that he was reviving the heliocentric hypothesis of Aristarchus of Samos from the Third century B.C. The atomic theory Newton used in his optics was based on Gassendi’s brilliant philological recovery of ancient Epicureanism. Galileo quotes Plato’s Meno and Timaeus over and over again. The education of scientists remained classical through the time of Linnaeus in the 18th century and Charles Darwin in the 19th.
Skeptics object to the premises of this historical narrative. “Of course the greatest scientists of the modern age had classical Christian educations. All this proves is that they were educated. There was no serious alternative from the Renaissance to the 19th century. The case for vocational or technical training was made in the late 18th century by men like Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush. They argued that a relevant modern education can bypass the trivium and concentrate on an expanded quadrivium for a world in desperate need of the products of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
History does not usually allow us to study events with a true control group. There is an exception to this situation in 19th century Germany, where there were two distinct educational paths. One led from the old classical school, now with more Greek added, and culminated in the classical or humanist Gymnasium, from which students then went on to the university. The other path was devoted to math, science, technology, and a modern language (usually French) and led to the technical high school or Realschule, from which the student went on to a professional school or a job in industry. This critical mass of technically trained graduates working in factories protected by the tariff spurred German industrial growth in the generation that preceded World War I.
The decades on either side of WWI witnessed brilliant work in Physics: the concept of quanta, the theories of special and general relativity, and the development of quantum mechanics. One might expect that the most important work in these fields would be done by graduates of the technical school system. Nearly the opposite is true. Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr were classically educated. Einstein a ended a Swiss technical high school, but he had spent his first six years at a classical school, where his sister remembered his best subjects as Mathematics and Latin: “Latin’s clear, strictly logical structure fit his mindset.” Heisenberg wrote, “I believe that in the work of Max Planck, for instance, we can clearly see that his thought was influenced and made fruitful by his classical schooling.” Heisenberg insisted that his own insights into nature came from his classical education. Its combination of math and physics with language instruction led him to read Plato’s Timaeus in Greek. He was impressed by Plato’s rational appeals to understand nature mathematically rather than as a purely physical reality: “I was gaining the growing conviction that one could hardly make progress in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy.”
When we review the story of SAT scores from the high point in 1963 to a nadir reached in 1981, after which the verbal scores experienced only slight improvement, we may want to add one factor to those usually discussed. 1962, the year before the SAT high point, marked the year of the zenith of enrollment in high school Latin in the United States, when 728,637 students enrolled in high school Latin. The decline in Latin enrollments tracks the decline in SAT-Verbal scores. Latin has never regained its position as a “more commonly taught language,” just as SAT-Verbal scores have never go en back to their 1963 level. If the relation of high school Latin and SAT-Verbal scores is significant, we may note that the decline in measurable achievement was most striking in good students and it was precisely good students who tended to take high school Latin.
“Man is like the drunken peasant trying to ride a horse,” Martin Luther noted. “If you prop him up on one side, he falls off the other.” Luther could have been describing the educational establishment in the United States. A few years ago they perceived a crisis in writing and established writing programs in most universities. Now the STEM pipeline is supposedly drying up, and we need federal intervention to save our country.
Instead of careening from one crisis to another, our nation needs a curriculum that is balanced between the arts of language and the arts of mathematics. It should not be a recent fad; it should have been practiced for a long time, preferably for centuries. Its success should be demonstrated by wide acceptance in many countries for a long time. Its best graduates should be distinguished in a wide variety of areas, like literature, art, philosophy and political thought, politics and science, people like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Je erson and Adams, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Galileo and Newton, Linnaeus and Darwin. Where in contemporary education can we find a curricular alternative that meets these requirements?
We know the answer. Classical Christian education balances the arts of language and mathematics and so avoids the hysterical swings between crises in reading and science that have afflicted American education since the triumph of Dewey. Classical Christian education has flourished throughout the modern era in many European countries and the United States. Its graduates are widely recognized as the most successful and creative figures in history. It connects students with their past and prepares them for a free and creative future. To restore its prominence, the drunken peasant of American educational policy needs to sober up and start listening to the wisdom of the past and then face the challenge of teaching the classical Christian curriculum that created the modern world.