The Academy of Classical Christian Studies was, in large part, born when the norms of life and society in the West are recognized by her founders as confused and chaotic. The nervous model of progressive education that looks over one’s shoulder even as it claims its vision of the future was no longer an option, and the “faithful presence”—a term coined by James Davison Hunter—of the serene timelessness of the classical Christian culture of eternity was once again seen as just that. Our theology of cultural engagement suddenly looked an awful lot like families remembering.
A Call for Marshaled Support
I have appreciated the poetic essays of Suzanne Underwood Rhodes over the years, finding unusual talent in her ability to somehow access the déjà vu of the soul even while using stories I’ve never heard. In reading them I feel things once felt. I hear echoes of ideas once thought. One story in particular illustrates the kind of character and memory loss for which we are the worse as a society. Rhodes writes of a friend who has found the long-forgotten gown of a grandmother she never met; I will include the concluding paragraph of this essay, “Her Grandmother Lillian’s Gown”:
She confided that she’d worn the gown to bed the night before as if to slip into the skin of the grandmother she’d never known but whose sturdy mending was a clue to her selfsame resourcefulness. I imagined her waking that morning in the old-fashioned gown with its gussets and buttons intact, more truly herself in the flow of everlasting white, more certain of the future as we all are when we find our strongest thread.
Stronger sentiments regarding the value of heritage could scarcely be found, nor could they be more apropos to the basic shape of a classical Christian education. Let me elaborate:
1) The teachers and students of The Academy “slip into the skin” of grandmothers and grandpas we have never known every time we open one of the great books of Western civilization and find our “sturdy mending.” But the process of apprehending the wisdom of God found in the study of history will come all the more readily when students spend time with their own grandparents and hear their own stories of God’s remarkable providences. This kind of investment in the lives of our students grants them the proper sensibilities about learning from those gone before them. These sensibilities always include knowledge, but are never quite the same thing as knowledge.
2) Psalm 78 includes a brief theology of grand-parenting, as it were:
He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would; put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands (Psalm 78:5-7, NIV).
Rhodes describes her friend as “more truly herself in the flow of lasting white” when in her grandmother’s old gown, a fitting illustration of the Psalmist’s exhortation. The testimony in Jacob is accomplished and applied. Done. That is who the people are—it is a part of their identity and inheritance. But clearly, they must tell the next generation, that the children and grandchildren can be “more truly themselves.” That is the shape of The Academy’s educational philosophy, curriculum, and vision.
3) Finally, Rhodes portrays her friend as “more certain of the future as we all are when we find our strongest thread.” The future that lies ahead of Providence Hall students will need all of the marshaled support of the Christian testimony and witness of their grandparents in their lives, for as Psalm 78 teaches us, our “telling” is directly connected to our children and offspring “hoping in God.” Parents and grandparents are their strongest thread.
Andrew Frisardi has recently translated Sonnet 40 of La Vita Nuova, written by the famous Italian poet, Dante Alighieri—another who looked longingly out over a city:
Oh, pilgrims walking by oblivious,
your minds, it seems, on something not at hand,
can you have come from such a distant land—
the way you look suggest as much to us—
that you’re not weeping, even as you pass
right through the suffering city, like that band of people
who, it seems, don’t understand
a thing about the measure of its loss?
If you’ll just halt your progress now to hear the tale—
I swear it by my sighing heart—
your eyes will fill with tears before you leave.
For she who blessed the city is nowhere in sight:
what words about her we impart
have force enough to make a stranger grieve.
The unrest of this poem probably captures the mood of any thoughtful parent looking out over the landscape of the world in which their child must grow—an unrest that could only be born of love for the good gifts of God. While our own loss differs greatly than that of Dante, the rebuke is nevertheless fitting. So what is to be done? We cannot have a reintroduction of classical Christian education without a high culture or without excellence. We must begin setting apart those things which are not merely utilitarian and infuse them afresh with the mysteriousness with which they were created—family, education, art, liturgy, and our common life as the people of God. The Academy is a very public recognition that schools are one of the carriers of cultural assumptions; but rather than be downstream from the corrosive effects of the spiritual and moral disorder of a nation, why not campout at the headwaters of the next generation, and teach a biblical worldview to four-year-olds?
G.K. Chesterton has written, “A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.” The Academy exists to make good on the obvious implications, and we covet the support of grandparents and parents in reacquainting ourselves with the life worthy of immortality.