My students have a midterm exam on Monday. They have to be able to account for Roman history from Augustus through the fall, church history from the beginning through the seven ecumenical councils, English history through the establishment of the seven kingdoms, and French/German history through the split of the Holy Roman Empire into the Kingdom of Francia and what is now called Germany.
My students will not only have to recall the details of the Roman dynasties or the Church Fathers, but they will also have to demonstrate that they can think about the significance of those things.
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I was robbed in my education. What I did learn that was worthwhile was either in a handful of good AP classes I took in high school or was learned in my independent reading for leisure or for the debate team. Even my time as an undergraduate English major at ACU, my education was hardly systematized. I did not have someone walk me through the time periods or through the classics or anything like that; I was, instead, given option upon option upon option. The result was that I left undergrad with neither a broad nor a specialized knowledge, just with a smattering of things across the curriculum. When I did my MA at ACU, there was barely a foundation on which to lay the specialized knowledge I was receiving. I was expected to conduct original research when I had never read much of Homer or Virgil or Dante or of Plato or Aristotle or Cicero?
Oh, sure, individual professors and certain courses were gems. And I certainly got to practice thinking and writing. But what I missed out on was a systematic ordering of knowledge. There was no beginning and no ending, just one big messy middle. And while there might be some value to this kind of education (just let the students figure it out on their own!), it is a kind of education that results in a) lack of attention to the depth of ideas and texts, b) lack of systematic ordering of ideas in relation to other ideas, and c) the partial absorption of ideas which is the breeding ground for all kinds of philosophical, moral, and aesthetic errors.
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The point of the class I’m teaching isn’t really for the students to learn all of the details, though learning details and having a grid for understanding history is extremely important. Rather, it is for the students to think through important ideas of their cultural and religious heritage and to imagine how their cultural and religious ancestors felt. The point of the class is to draw students to the human and spiritual connections between literature and ideas and culture and history; it is to get them to ask “what, then, does it mean to be human?”
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And perhaps that is my biggest lament about my education. My undergraduate and graduate educations were, in large part, consumed with hyper-modern political and cultural concerns. We read texts in large part to see our pet theories (most of them twentieth-century novelties) at work. To that end, we loved texts much like the wolf loves the lamb. Driving the kind of education I received was the myth of progress, the myth that we are becoming better than we used to be. Oh, to be sure, progress is certainly true in some disciplines. The sciences, for instance, rely on building knowledge on past knowledge. And to the degree that that model ensures our increasing understanding of languages or time periods or manuscript traditions, then the humanities benefits greatly. But when that model gets applied to the Big Ideas, to the themes and values that make the humanities the study of humanity, then we’ve got a big problem. Because we are no better, no better at all, than the barbarians that came before us.
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My hope and my prayer as I teach history and literature and theology to 8th graders is that they will truly begin to wrestle with what it means to be human in this broken and fallen world. And my hope is that this classical education will be a guiding light for the rest of their lives.