Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson

Since I am on a Classical education kick, I read another book by Douglas Wilson. This one mirrors Dorothy Sayers essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” and is called “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education.”

Wilson starts off with the need to reform all education. The book was written in 1991 and at that time, he is declaring that “Time is short. If only half of theses reformers are right, we have a monumental task in front of us and very little time accomplish it.” (p. 42) He agrees with many of the reforms suggested, but finds them inadequate. Even Christians seem to be ignoring the fact that before any true reform can take place, we need to recognize that the foundation is fundamentally flawed. 

Too often, Christians have not lived up to their God-given responsibility to direct the education of their children. Wilson goes onto to state, “Christian parents must take into account three things as they consider their obligation to educate their children. The first is the instruction that children would live in an environment dominated by Scripture…Obviously, instruction on Sunday only is not enough. A thorough Biblical instruction can only be provided when related to all of life. Teaching must occur when we walk, drive, sit, and lie down…. The second thing we must remember is that we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our minds…. The command to teach children all the time is not limited to religious instruction…Not only are parents responsible to oversee the Biblical teaching of their children, they are also responsible to see that their children don’t receive false teaching…A Christian parent has two options. The first is to neutralize the false teaching, which means the parents have to spend at least a few hours every night countering what the children learned in school. The is difficult because the parents don’t know exactly what the children leaned that day… The second option is a private school.” (p. 48-51)

Wilson goes onto assert that all knowledge will and must be aligned with a particular worldview. A pervasive belief in God can unify all knowledge or it will be unified under another system. “Education is a completely religious endeavor. It is impossible to impart knowledge to students without building on religious presuppositions. Education is built on the foundation of the instructor’s worldview… It is a myth that education cane nonreligious — that is, that education can go on in a vacuum that deliberately excludes the basic questions about life. It is not possible to separate religious values from education.” (p. 59)

To begin to explore what education should look like, we must first begin with a Biblical perspective. We start when we begin to understand the true fallen nature of children. “One result of fallenness seen in children is the aversion to work, and natural curiosity is not sufficient to overcome that aversion.” (p. 73) A Christian education will not save the child any more than a secular one will. Rather a Christian education takes into account the fallen nature of the student and offers space for the grace of God to work. As that grace manifests itself in the teacher and the student, a love of learning and of knowledge will develop because it all points back to a loving creator. A loving teacher who truly loves his subject, can impart that love to his students.

It starts with Latin. What? As Wilson lays out his program for a “distinctively Classical education,” he begins with a chapter discussing why Latin is the foundational class. Classical education is the entering into of the Great Conversation. And this conversation was largely held in Latin. If we want our students to have something to add, they need to be able to know what has already been said. He lists some of the benefits: 1. Better understanding of English. 2. Better appreciation of good literature. 3. Better perspective of our societal timeline. 4. Better training in the essentials of the scientific method. 5. Good foundation from which to study other languages.

Next he presents the Trivium as the Classical organizing principle. Students progress through a grammar stage, logic or dialectic stage, and finally to the rhetoric stage. Once they are able to effectively know how to present what they know and what they are learning, they specialize in different aspects of the Quadrivium (math, science, art, music). “It is at this point that the educational process begins to bear real fruit. It is sad that because so many Christian parents have reacted to public schools, they are content with basic literacy. But this basic literacy can be accomplished in the first grade. This is not education; it is the first step. We cannot say that our job as educators is done until the children have been taught how to learn for themselves and how to express what they learn.” (p. 96-97)

Unfortunately modernity provides obstacles to even Christian Classical education. For one thing, the children are less disciplined, the culture actively works against the goals of the school, and the cost of a private education. He even dislikes vouchers as a method for funding these schools because the money is still state-controlled and always comes with strings attached. Students today want to be entertained. School is boring when they are surrounded by a culture drenched in entertainment. Classical education can bring joy, but it is rarely what one would call “fun.”

He reiterates his desire that Christians engage in what he calls “intellectual piety.” Too many times our Christian students can feel that their faith is at war with reason. Christians can shun the idea of “intellectual elitism.” However the Puritans and Solomon give us examples of devout people who pursued the Lord with all their minds.

He writes a brief chapter on homeschooling. While he believes it has much to commend it, he places a higher value on a quality Christian school. He believes these places provide a wider range of knowledge and expertise than a single parent or set of parents can. He neglects the myriad options out there for homeschool kids when the parents are inadequate to the task. In addition, he glosses over some of the benefits of homeschooling, claiming they are available in a traditional school as well, while also glossing over the downsides to traditional school. This chapter was not very effective reasoning in my opinion. 

Next, he reminds Christian parents that public schools should be called “government schools.” They are fundamentally state controlled and suffer from the same defects as other government-run institutions. “The various critiques of intrusive government have demonstrated that inefficiency, corruption, product shortages, and so forth are all endemic to this approach. They are not corruptions of the approach, they are manifestations of it.” (p. 135) In short, while in theory government-run schools could do a great job, there is no reason for them to do so and no way to get them there. 

The last chapter summarizes the whole book: “From a Biblical perspective, effective reform of such an educational system cannot be accomplished because reform can only be effective if it is blessed by God. In a pluralistic society, how can the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ be acknowledged in the public schools? And if He is ignored, dare we expect His blessing?” (p. 142)


While he makes a strong case for Christian Classical education, I continue to believe that Classical elements can be implemented in public, charter setting. I’m also far from convinced by his anti-homeschooling argument. Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of children are not going to attend a Christian Classical school. So we must try to reach them where they are and at least make sure they get a decent education. They are Americans after all and our country needs educated citizens. 

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