Climbing a Different Mountain

Lily on the summit of Mount McLoughlin, elev. 9,495 ft

Every parent wants their child to become educated. Every school, whether public or private, secular or Christian, also aims to educate. Homeschoolers, for various reasons, choose to educate in the home and its environs. Christian schools and Christian homeschoolers aim to provide a Christ-centered education. Regardless, can we not say that all of us (Christian, secular, school, homeschool) are aiming at the same essential goal, but by different means? I say no. The Christian classical homeschooler seeks a different (perhaps radically so) end state than is commonly pursued in most schools, and even by many Christian schools and homeschoolers. In short, Christian classical homeschooling is not merely an alternate route to a common goal, it is a different journey altogether, with a different path and a different destination.

How should we define Christian classical homeschooling? This is not a new task, and others better than I have given it a try. If you’ve ever heard Leigh Bortins speak on Christian classical homeschooling you’ve heard her say the ultimate goal is to know God and to make Him known. Following are some additional insights from Bortin’s book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education:

The purpose of a classical education is to strengthen one’s mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything. (p. 15)

Thinking critically is not inherent in humans. It needs to be practiced repeatedly by comparing memorized ideas with new ideas in a logical manner. Internalizing a critical mass of words and ideas is the first step to thinking well. (p. 24)

Since the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, teachers believed the purpose of education was to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty and to develop wisdom and virtue. (p. 35)

Classical education encourages us that we are capable of becoming an Oxford don who builds bicycles, or a plumber who read Milton, or a business owner who spouts theology. The classically educated are not defined by their occupation so much as by their breadth of knowledge and understanding. (p. 40)

Not only does a classical education instill in us the tools of learning, it also allows us to evaluate both the follies and the wisdom of the past in comparison to the predicaments and the challenges of the present so that we will be less likely to make costly mistakes in the future. […] Rather than abandoning us to the moment, the classical model immerses us in the great classical conversations of mankind so that we can hear the voice of experience, discuss our present options within our community, and make choices with confidence that we have really done our best. The classical tools allow us to include classical content in our decisions. (pp. 214-215)

I will also hazard something angling towards a definition of Christian classical homeschooling by way of a list of foundational ideas:

  • God, not the child, is at the center. Thus education should not be “child centered” but God centered.
  • A student is a human being who has a human nature and a soul. Human beings are not merely complex machines that need training, but creatures imbued with the breath of God and who need truth, goodness, and beauty.
  • Human minds do not function like computers but grow like gardens. Thus teaching is a matter of cultivating in light of God’s design.
  • Learning is primarily a matter of attentiveness and contemplation.
  • The contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty is fundamental to becoming truly and fully human.
  • Knowledge rests upon the idea that all areas of study are, in fact, interrelated and expand in richness, grow in meaning, and increasingly fascinate as one explores that interrelatedness.
  • All truth is God’s truth.
  • Parents are ultimately responsible to teach their own children. This does not preclude the use of tutors, but it does contrast with public education which places the responsibility on the state.
  • The student is responsible to learn. Thus, educating one’s children is more about giving them the tools to educate themselves and fostering their characters such that they become excellent learners than it is to impart facts or ideas.
  • For the young, the intimacy of the home is the best place for education. We are designed to learn in an environment that is both loving and connected to real life.
  • Next to a loving home environment, being in nature is the second best place for education. Nature is not the same thing as a playground.
  • Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.
  • Loving God is the goal. This includes knowing God and making Him known. We love God with our minds as well as our hearts.
  • The trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium provide the methodological structure that has guided classical studies for centuries. I put this last because it is common for proponents of classical education to go here first, but method is first a servant of the principles and goals of education. The trivium and quadrivium flow from (or are implied in) the list above.

At this point I want to use an analogy: Educating one’s children is like climbing a mountain. It is arduous and, at times, dangerous. Climbing a mountain can be a difficult and beautiful journey at the same time, and so can Christian classical homeschooling.

I have always loved the mountains. God seems very present in the high peaks. And I love climbing mountains, though I’m better at reading about mountaineers than being one. One thing I have learned from climbing mountains is that the route is critical. The summit is a long way off when one is at the bottom of a mountain, and the journey will no doubt be difficult and tiring. It is best to have clear idea of how one is to proceed, of what path one will follow, and to be prepared for the dangers that will inevitably appear. What I want to propose is that Christian classical homeschooling is not merely a different path up the same mountain everyone else is climbing. It is, in fact, the climbing of a different mountain altogether. Christian classical homeschooling is, for many, a radical and difficult shift from familiar ground to new and perplexing terrain. In fact, it can be nearly impossible for us to change course, especially if we feel we are experimenting on our children.

I see three basic reason we might hesitate to try Christian classical homeschooling:

  1. We bring our own experiences and knowledge with us. We often make decisions based on previous experience rather than critical thought. We follow “our gut.” If our own experiences do not include Christian classical homeschooling, then we might balk.
  2. We follow the crowd. If everyone else is public schooling shouldn’t we? It can’t be all that bad surely. But is this a good enough reason not to do something different?
  3. We feel pressure from outside, including parents, friends, and our culture. Christian classical homeschooling is as foreign to others (maybe more so) as the parent considering it. Parents and friends often want what is best for us and our kids too, but they have the same hesitations as everyone else when it comes to what they don’t know.

But I’ve learned some things from mountaineering:

  1. If one is on the wrong route, pick a different one.
  2. If one must backtrack, do it now, do not linger.
  3. If one has the wrong map, get a better one.
  4. And most important: know what mountain one is climbing. If you’re climbing the wrong mountain, get off the one you’re on and start climbing the right mountain, even if changing is hard.

In his book Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, Tracy Lee Simmons argues for a return to classical studies, specifically the study of Greek and Latin and their corresponding ancient cultures. To the classical mind to “climb Parnassus” was code for striving (doing the hard work) to become what man ought to become, to become “his better, divinely inspired self.” (p. 15) “The hard, precipitous path of classical education ideally led not to knowledge alone, but the the cultivation of mind and spirit.” (p. 16)

I would further Simmons’ thinking by stating that a Christian classical homeschooling education pursues the cultivation of mind and spirit by placing God at the center and Christ as our example. Two statements from the Apostle Paul are worth considering at this point:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Education begins not with the methodology, but with the goal. What are the things we will think on? For what prize are we running? What mountain are we climbing?

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