Why Classical Christian Schools?
I wrote here the other day about the English writer Paul Kingsnorth’s “Dark Mountain” project, and how I see clear parallels between it and the Benedict Option. Kingsnorth and his confreres, including Dark Mountain co-founder Dougald Hine, are environmentalists who have given up hope that the global warming catastrophe can be avoided. They believe that accepting this frees them to be creative in their response to the deluge. From a 2014 NYT Magazine profile of Kingsnorth:
Kingsnorth and Hine’s aspirations for their manifesto weren’t revolutionary, but neither were they nihilistic. Each man draws a distinction between a “problem,” which can be solved, and a “predicament,” which must be endured. “Uncivilization” was firm in its conviction that climate change and other ecological crises are predicaments, and it called for a cadre of like-minded writers to “challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality and the myth of separation from ‘nature.’ ”
This is their version of what I’ve been saying about the Ben Op: the civilizational crisis upon us now is not a problem to be solved, but a condition to be endured. The Dark Mountaineers focus on the environment; I focus on Christian faith and morals. Neither of us believe that what is coming, and what is here now, can be turned back, but only survived. More:
Hine compared coming to terms with the scope of ecological loss to coming to terms with a terminal illness. “The feeling is a feeling of despair to begin with, but within that space other things begin to come through.” Yet arriving at this acute state of “awareness of what’s worth doing with the time you’ve got left” isn’t always easy for Dark Mountain’s followers. “Some people come here,” Hine told me, “they get very excited by the fact that people are inspired, and they go: ‘Right! Great! So what’s the plan?’ ” He and Kingsnorth have worked hard to check this impulse, seeing Dark Mountain as a space to set aside what Kingsnorth refers to as “activist-y” urges.
… On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.”
This sounds about right to me, re: the Benedict Option: to establish and defend at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning and orthodox Christianity continue amid the fall. The idea is to build resilient Christian communities of families, churches, schools, and networks of all these, who hold to the older, traditional vision, and who are preparing themselves and future generations to live by this vision in a world that neither understands it nor is willing to accept it.
We are not called to the monastery, but if we are going to endure, we are going to have to develop monastic virtues, and allow them to permeate our lives and our institutions. A good example of the kind of institutions we have to build and support is the Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. I’ll be speaking there tonight (Friday November 3). This is the Catholic school’s first year. It’s a member of the Chesterton School network. From the Martin Saints vision statement:
Saints Louis and Zélie Martin were a married couple with a large family who were canonized on October 18, 2015. One of their daughters was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, famously known as “the little flower.” Louis and Zélie earned a living, faced challenges, and raised their children to know and love Jesus. Louis and Zélie raised children who knew that God was alive and active in their lives, that the created world is a sacramental world, a world of goodness, beauty and truth. If Louis and Zélie can do that for their children – if they found a way to become saints in the middle of the mess of family life – then with the help of God’s grace, with the help of the Church and each other, then we can do it too.
At Martin Saints Classical High School (MSC), we are creating a new high school in Oreland, a suburb north of Philadelphia. We want to create a community – a family of families – under the patronage and protection of the Martin saints, believing that we are all – parents and children alike – called to become saints in and through the challenges of ordinary family life. MSC will be a community of ordinary people who aim high.
We are starting MSC because educating children is an essential part of what it means to be a parent. School is not the only thing or even the main thing in family life, but teaching our children to know what is true, good and beautiful is part of every parent’s vocation. At MSC, teachers and parents work together to introduce our children to Jesus and the Church, and to seek excellence in our children’s moral and academic formation.
Many other families are entirely new to the classical model. If you are interested in learning more about the vision, then the national Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has a website that helps explain how we think. We warmly welcome families new to the classical model and are delighted to share its treasures with you. In brief, the classical model believes in the integration of knowledge. In other words, history class and math class, English class and biology class – all knowledge is connected and unified through our commitment to the Catholic faith. To borrow an ancient phrase, nothing human is alien to a Catholic. Whatever is good, true and beautiful – that is what we want to study. Whether it be Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, G. K. Chesterton and Jane Austen, Renaissance art and Gregorian Chant, or modern math and science – we want to learn from the best of the western tradition from classical times to the present. Committed to rigor and high standards, we are convinced that the Catholic faith provides the perspective to integrate the wisdom of our civilization.
In these post-modern times, with secularism and relativism apparently making more and more inroads into our culture, we believe it takes an intentional, focused commitment to pass the Catholic faith to the next generation. At MSC, we will have daily Mass and a rich sacramental life, with regular prayer, confession, and Adoration. We will co-operate with each other to discern how to thread the needle of life, and be in the world but not of it. Because of our Catholic faith, we love our world and want to engage modern culture and participate in contemporary society. But because of our Catholic faith, we also do not always conform to modernity: we want to discern carefully, and, when appropriate, be a community capable of pushing back against the individualism, materialism, and relativism that are trying to claim our children.
The school is tiny (only a ninth grade class this inaugural year) and very much in need of donations from visionary Catholics. But wow, look at this faculty! I found out about them because my friend Chris Roberts, an academic theologian (I cite his work in The Benedict Option) and ordained Catholic deacon got together with other Catholics who wanted to do something to defend and to pass on a love for God in the Catholic faith; love for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; and a sense of stewardship of Western civilization — all to the next generation.
I can’t speak for them, of course, but my sense is that they are not out to Save America any more than St. Benedict, in founding his monasteries, was out to Save the Roman Empire. Rather, they want to live in purposeful Catholic community right here, right now, and be as faithful as they possibly can be. The Martin Saints Classical High School is one result.
I’m reminded of something the Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby wrote as part of his case for the founding of the classical Catholic St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Md.:
Christian education, no less than public education, is also affected by this cultural situation though in different ways. In its Christian form, this fragmentation typically takes one of a couple of familiar forms.
First, many Christian schools, insufficiently rooted in an adequate anthropology and with an underdeveloped historical sense, often offer substantially the same education as secular schools, public or private, though with the addition of catechetical and moral instruction and a more wholesome Christian ethos.
Great good has no doubt come from these efforts. Even now these schools provide children the freedom to learn in environments less susceptible to some of the more pernicious elements of mass culture, and they remain vital for families where economic circumstances necessitate day-long childcare. In the Catholic context, the parochial school system served for a long time as the lifeblood of the geographical parish. It has transmitted the faith and assisted in the process of assimilation to American culture, a matter of no small concern for population attempting to emerge from the poverty of immigrant roots.
Yet in this latter, the system has succeeded almost too well, as assimilation by Catholics is one of a number of factors leading to a decline in the vitality and cohesion of the geographical parish. More fundamentally, the separation of religious instruction from the rest of an otherwise secular curriculum, devoid of beauty and impoverished in its understanding of history, does not foster the wonder and thus the eros for truth.
Moreover, it clouds the truth of the human person by inadvertently underwriting the prevailing assumption that Christian faith, like ‘religion’ more generally, is but one compartment of life and does not penetrate the meaning of nature and the world, culture and history, all the way down to the foundation. Thus when the attempt is made to make faith ‘relevant’ to life, the attempt is not compelling to experience or rational sense and must simply be accepted de fide.
The faithful laity cannot sit back and wait for Catholic (or other Christian) schools to get their act together. Schools like Martin Saints are Davids in a world of Goliaths. But they have faith and vision and hope — and they know that those questing for God in post-Christian America can’t depend on mere optimism. From The Benedict Option:
“Education has to be at the core of Christian survival—as it always was,” says Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and philosophy of science at Washington’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute. “The point of monasticism was not simply to retreat from a corrupt world to survive, though in various iterations that might have been a dimension of it,” he continues. “But at the heart of it was a quest for God. It was that quest that mandated the preservation of classical learning and the pagan tradition by the monks, because they loved what was true and what was beautiful wherever they found it.”
As crucial as cultural survival is, Hanby warns that Christians cannot content themselves with merely keeping their heads above water within liquid modernity. We have to search passionately for the truth, reflect rigorously on reality, and in so doing, come to terms with what it means to live as authentic Christians in the disenchanted world created by modernity. Education is the most important means for accomplishing this.
“Retaining the imagination necessary to see or to search for God is going to be an indispensable element in the preservation of true freedom and Christian freedom when our freedom under law becomes more and more limited,” Hanby says.
If you’re in the Philadelphia area, come out tonight to hear me talk at Martin Saints (details here), and meet the faculty and administration. They could use your support, and maybe you could use some of what they have to offer. If you’re curious about classical Christian education, come and see. These Christians are visionaries in the same way that St. Benedict and his early monks were visionaries. Much depends on the success of their efforts, and the efforts of those like them all over the West in the sunset of its civilization. These schools are arks, these schools are lighthouses, these schools are sanctuaries from the darkness.
Last month, I heard Sen. Ben Sasse tell an audience of Christian philanthropists that they need to put their time and treasure into local institutions and initiatives that help people endure this time of intense disruption. I agree. Support your local classical Christian school, which is keeping alive the cultural memory of Christian civilization. Check out The CiRCE Institute’s blog to go deep.
UPDATE: From the CiRCE website, a piece by Heidi White about a horrible Yale decision:
In response to a student petition, the Yale University English faculty recently voted to “decolonize the English department” by rearranging their course requirements to minimize exposure to, among others, Shakespeare and Chaucer. New course requirements mandate that undergraduate students choose three out of four core courses, in which only one includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, while another includes Milton.
In other words, students graduating with a degree in English Literature from Yale University may never read Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton in the course of their university educations.
Since all major works of English Literature from Donne to Shelley to Rowling descend from these three authors and their classical and medieval forebears, this is the equivalent of undergraduates in science erasing Galileo, Newton, and Darwin from scientific studies.
To borrow from Freud, who borrowed from the Classics, this is Oedipal. It is the violence of children against their fathers.
The question of whether or not our culture or its higher education can be saved is beyond us all, in spite of the many opinions on the matter, but I offer a humble idea: read Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. I am neither an alarmist nor a reformer, so I do not advocate running for the hills or attempting to save Western civilization. My aims are more prosaic. I am a mother and a Christian classical educator raising children and teaching students in this wasteland, and whether or not I will read and discuss Shakespeare with my children and my students is still within my power. David Hicks recently argued in the CiRCE magazine that a true Christian classical education is no longer possible in a secular world. I do not know if he is correct, but either way I am going to read and discuss Shakespeare (and Plato, Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Milton, and Eliot) with my children and in my classroom.
As we face into the wasteland, it becomes harder to feel hopeful, but Andrew Kern remarked in a recent lecture, “I have hope because mothers love their children.” This is a mighty truth. If our nation’s children are engaged in an Oedipal quest to “smash the patriarchy,” what is the hope? It is the hope of families. We build strong, connected families who harbor no desire to destroy each other. Whether these families read Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton is not the whole point, which is, of course, the gospel of Jesus Christ, but if we love these authors and believe in their legacy, we can no longer depend on higher education to preserve their heritage.
If personal responsibility is the healing of the anxiety of influence, then let us be responsible, not for reforming the culture, but for personal decisions. We can read our children’s versions of the great books to our students when they are young, transition to original texts as they get older, and engage in discussions along the way. Christian classical educators can speak into a complex problem by simply reading great books within the small spheres of influence we have. If and when we lose that freedom is another matter, and in the meantime, let us read Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Yes! This! Read the whole thing. This is the Benedict Option. This is what Martin Saints Classical High School is about, or so it seems to me: building resistance to the Occupation.