Most great human projects will need more than one generation to come to fruition. This means that real progress necessitates that older generations be capable of persuading younger generations that their projects are worth continuing. Otherwise, younger generations will simply tear down what already exists and begin again, their children will do the same, their grandchildren will do the same, and a cathedral which requires a hundred years to build will never move beyond the twenty-five year mark, even though the laborers continue for many centuries.
It is hard to explain classical education swiftly and accurately, though I think it is enough to say one or two true things about it that will intrigue people enough to look deeper. Here are four ways of explaining the gist of classical education, none of which is longer than a hundred words. If you only have a thirty second elevator ride to describe classical education, you need not persuade anyone to do anything other than take a second look at it later with sympathy and intrigue.
Despite their omnipresence and omnipotence, I believe that schools and universities are living through the last days of grades. Within a generation, I expect report cards and transcripts, numerical grades and letter grades, dean’s lists and honor rolls will be widely despised, disparaged, and moving hastily toward a summary demise. The abolition of grades will not be an isolated movement within the realm of education alone, but part of a much larger cultural trend which is already at work in the world.
A student opens a copy of Euclid’s Elements and a dark spirit emerges from the pages of the book.
Teacher-Genie: I am the teacher-genie. I will grant you one educational wish.
Student: What? Really?
Student: I can have whatever I want?
Teacher-Genie: That’s the deal.
Student: I want an A in Geometry class.
Teacher-Genie: It is done. You have an A in Geometry class.
Student: Whoa. Awesome. This is fantastic news. Now I’m at the top of my class.
Plato, Solomon, Blessed Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Edmund Burke… My favorite intellectuals died hundreds or thousands of years before I was even born. Teachers of classic literature do not often grieve the deaths of their heroes. The centuries have already grieved them for us. A man becomes aware of Plato with a little sadness built into his admiration. For stodgy traditionalists, backward-looking conservatives, and lovers of old books, a dry-eyed sadness eternally permeates our hearts. To put it simply, our heroes do not die, at least not on our watch.
What is it about teenagers? The joking and giggling. The chattiness. Their curious tendency to walk right into you.
After fifteen years of teaching, I have finally discovered the perfect metaphor for the teenage spirit. It comes from a passage in Rhetoric where Aristotle remarks of young people, “…nature warms their blood, as though with excess of wine.” In other words, young people exist in a state of perpetual tipsiness.
Gibbs: Could I ask you about something you said in your speech at the sports banquet last night?
Coach: Of course.
Gibbs: While speaking of the girls baseball team, you said, “I have never seen greater Christian maturity, self-sacrifice, love, courage, and determination than I saw from our young ladies on the field this year.”
Gibbs: That is remarkably high praise.
Coach: It is.
Growing up, I often heard it said, “Evangelicals do everything the world does— they just do it ten years later and ten times worse.” There is some truth to the idea so far as music and graphic design is concerned; however, having paid close attention to Christian culture and secular culture over the last twenty years, I actually think it more often the case that secularists are mugging evangelicals.
Teacher: I have heard that you don’t believe a book should be taught until it is a hundred years old. Is this true?
Gibbs: Not exactly. I don’t believe a book should be taught in a classical Christian high school until the author has been dead for a hundred years.
Teacher: What about World War II, though?
Gibbs: I take it you believe World War II should be taught in classical Christian high schools.
Father: I want to ask you a tough question. You can be honest with me. Please don’t answer as an employee of this school, but as a teacher. Is it too late for my son to become classical?
Gibbs: What do you mean “become classical”?