In one of the early chapters of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins and his posse of dwarves were tempted to veer off toward a hypnotic fire on a distant hillside after a disappointing series of days in unforgiving elements. Unfortunately, the fire belonged to a group of trolls desirous of a change in diet. With the help of Gandalf, the dwarves and their token hobbit escape with their lives and find the trolls’ lair in the nearby foothills. Leaving most of the spoils behind, their plunder included a chest of gold and three swords—obviously powerful, but equally mysterious. Not until they arrive at the house of the great Elrond, is the true identity of each sword revealed, an identity hidden even from the wizard Gandalf.
It was Elrond alone who knew the ancient languages and writings, and his nobility was fit to match that understanding: commingled into a profound wisdom which earned him the reputation of venerable sagacity among the peoples of middle earth. With his help, the swords are named—the present mission made clear by the past. Unable to know or study the future, the riches of history made present in the mind of Elrond bring clarity, purpose, and renewed courage to the resolve of the elves in their present undertaking.
D.B. Hart is not the only cultural prophet to point out the suspicion with which youth of America now approach the world. We are witness to a new “despondency,” he writes, “induced by an ever more cosmopolitan and ever less hospitable, imperial civilization” made all the more pronounced and formidable by what he describes as the “dissolution of local cultures.” It should come as no surprise that even the parents of America now have a “pervasive sense of religious rootlessness” that only adds to this growing alienation—a marginalization from the natural world (and correspondingly the spiritual world) that so often defines modernity. Children who grow up with “air conditioners, split atoms, industrial waste, biological weapons, the dissolution of any natural sense of space and time in the fluent instantaneity of modern communications,” and “entertainments that relentlessly cretinize” find their sense of place and purpose in this world as fragmentary at best; highly skeptical more often than not.
Unfortunately, the public school system appears to be one of the vehicles of this devastating societal change. Unable to even comment on the existence of a soul, they militate against the natural sensibilities and human identity of every child by convincing them that humanity is but the sum total of his parts: a complex organic machine composed of bundles of cells whose primary control comes through a computer-like brain. Thinking is merely electrochemical—a sterile and juiceless word perfectly illustrating the sterility of secular intellectuality. Even the words of secular education disconnect, displace, and disembody the life of the mind. Is there a type of education that can rehabilitate and ennoble the inspiring moral narratives of our past?
That it could have been anyone else. That the public schools would’ve remembered Aristotle’s dictum that education is nothing if not a training of the affections toward ethical ends. That the burgeoning preparatory schools formed during racial integration would’ve remembered that education is nothing if not a training of the affections. That the patriotic Christian schools of the Midwest would’ve remembered that education is nothing if not a training of the affections. Alas, too many thought it the avoidance of rationality—of rigorous thought. Others thought of it as the embrace of a disqualified and misguided Greek past.
But the Christian mandate of “faith working through love” is hardly the sidestepping of rationality; it’s the humbling of rationality. As humans take to their studies, they should do so with an imagination that remembers it cannot create light or love, it can merely place itself in the pathway of the light’s beam and stand ready to reflect that which is true, good, and beautiful wherever it may be found. The apostle Paul’s hermeneutic of love can and should be applied to every aspect of education—its curriculum, its mentoring, its cultural posture, and its generational promise, making the cardinal aspiration and consummation of the educational process to be a refined love. A highly nuanced notion of love is the only sufficient mindset in which to study anything, returning us to the primacy of moral formation as the highest goal of education. Unfortunately, classical Christian schools are the only schools postured to embrace those goals and provide a curriculum to that end. Unfortunately, classical Christian schools are among the few who realize that education is a joy unto itself for all students who are taught to love learning.
Where will we find such a curriculum? In the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen, in condemnation of his murderers, is delivering his epic interpretation of the Old Testament as it leads to Christ. After a careful emphasis upon the patriarchs of Israel, he moves to the Exodus and declares the following: “And Moses was learned (paideo) in all the wisdom (sophia) of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22). Moses was the unique recipient of an education both in the Hebrew God of his fathers—a qualification necessary for the writing of several Old Testament books; as well as an education steeped in the best books, wisdom literature, math, arts, and science of the pagan Egyptians—yet another qualification for the distinctive calling upon his life.
Crucial to his critical engagement with the world and his careful leadership of God’s people was his ability to properly benefit from the philosophical and intellectual heritage of the Egyptians brought into perspective by the one true God of Israel. Unlike the a-historical approach of modern textbooks, science labs, and fine arts conservatories, Moses was steeped in the age-old wisdom of the collective efforts of the many sons of Pharaoh come before him. This immersion into the classic heritage and studies of Egypt postured Moses to address the challenges that lay ahead as nothing else would, even as he brought each of those thoughts unto the obedience of Christ. Had Moses withdrawn from his studies of this ancient wisdom, his retreat would be from history itself—a denial of place and providence. The basket bearing Moses across the deadly waters of the Nile was not rescued by a woman from historical, educational Switzerland (a.k.a. neutrality). She was the daughter of the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
Let us propose the same. Public schools are utterly unprepared to acknowledge a soul, unwilling to read from the great classical philosophical heritage of the West, or to even make a simple value judgment apart from “science = good.” Therefore, the students graduating from them will struggle to be “mighty in words and in deeds,” as Stephen describes Moses. At the most, public secular institutions will expose students to only the most recent, popular-level ideologies that will permanently ensure their captivity to the bitter, unforgiving winds of present cultural climates. Far better to drink deeply of the Christian past and to enter into critical engagement with the vast ocean of historic pagan and even secular writings within loving parlors of thoughtful discipleship than to suffocate in the educational deserts of the ever-present present. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see.”