Around ten years ago, David Bentley Hart maintained a column at First Things wherein every Friday, he wrote about some issue which had little to do with his more well-known interests (patristics, philosophy) and more or less constituted a diversion, a flight of fancy, wherein some relatively trivial or mundane matter was discussed with a good deal of sophistication, but also with a very light touch. The typical Hart essay made known his thoughts on Origen or St. Gregory of Nyssa, but on Fridays, Hart commented on The Little Prince, The Matrix, or Renee Fleming.
Student: I wanted to talk about my grade in your class.
Gibbs: It’s too high, am I right? You want to protest grade inflation?
Student: Very funny. Actually, I just wanted to point out that I have an 89.2 in your class, but this is only because you counted the Modernism quiz we took last week as a quiz. Based on my calculations, if you counted the Modernism quiz as a test, I’d have a 92 in this class.
Gibbs: And if I weighted that quiz as classwork, you would probably have an 85.
Student: But that quiz was really hard.
A curious number of students at classical schools believe that history is “names and dates,” and this sad fact will be obvious to any teacher who has tried to teach history without using an 800-page McGraw-Hill textbook. Having taken a few standardized tests, classical students know that “the plain of Shinar” and “The Dutch West India Company” are the answers to “history questions,” and thus they get nervous when information about terms like these is not referenced during history class. When most students think of history, they think of a survey course, not a deep dive.
From a certain standpoint, classical education is just about the least faddish thing possible, because human beings have been reading Plato for well over two thousand years now. On the other hand, classical education is not simply “reading Plato.” Classical education is also sports programs, Land’s End uniforms, Spring formals, mission statements, and parent-teacher conferences, and it is from a position amidst all these things that the question, “Is classical education just a fad?” is a bit harder to answer.
I would like to argue the classical educators should own up to a common understanding of what the word “classical” and “classic” mean. Rather than explaining classical education in terms of Dorothy Sayers and three stages of learning— which makes Sayers out to be little different from Freud, Piaget, or any of the other 20th century theorists who were always reducing childhood to a sequence of stages— classical educators should happily admit that “classical” connotes “old things” and not be embarrassed by it.
Fellow on a train: What line of work are you in?
Junior: Look, I’ve heard all the reasons for studying Latin and logic, but I don’t see why this school doesn’t offer AP classes and or do something in the way of SAT prep. A little college prep wouldn’t kill anyone. Latin and logic and virtue are great and all, but at the end of the day, I need a job.
Gibbs: At the end of the day, you need a soul.
Junior: I already have a soul.
Gibbs: You already have a job, too. You bag groceries at Kroger.
Junior: I mean a good job.
Gibbs: I mean a good soul.
In upholding the idea that a good man is hard to find, classical education is poised to disturb most Christians in America, for American Christians can essentially be divided between those who believe a good man is easy to find and those who believe a good man is impossible to find. Those who believe good men are easy to find take it for granted that every baptized church attender is doing everything that God asks, thus the struggle for virtue is not necessary.
Teacher: What are the signs of a healthy classical Christian school?
In the same way the priest repairs behind the iconostasis to consecrate the bread and wine, so a celebrant of the birthday party repairs to the kitchen to consecrate the cake. The cake is ritually transformed into the body of the birthday boy or birthday girl through the lighting of candles. For every year the birthday boy has lived, one candle is lit. When all the candles are lit, the cake has become an icon of the birthday boy. The celebrant then ritually processes out from behind the iconostasis/kitchen toward the congregation of the party.
Student: Why do you let your kids read Harry Potter books?
Gibbs: Why not?
Student: St. Augustine would not have let his kids read books which made wizards out to be heroes. He would have burned those books just like the Ephesian Christians burned their books of magic in Acts 19.
Gibbs: Finally! A good argument against the Harry Potter series.
Student: What do you mean, “Finally”?