Cover Story

That's a classic: by Doug Wilson

Four reforms and a radical curriculum. It takes energy and commitment to move these ideas out of the realm of the mind and into practice-but the satisfaction, upon accomplishment, is much greater ...

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

What course should we set in order to turn education around? Our hypothetical situation is this: Suppose we are dealing with a fairly large Christian school (500 students or so, K-12), the board of which has decided that the school is adrift and lacking in vision. The parents are in complete agreement with this, without one dissenting voice. They have called me up and have asked me to present a series of reforms to them, and what I say they will do. Moreover, I have good reason to believe that they will actually do it, and I will not be like Jeremiah trying to keep displaced Israelites from heading off to Egypt. The student council at its last gathering decided that everyone is tired of sneakers and blue jeans; they think 15 minutes of homework each night too little; and they want a change, too. And in addition, mirabile dictu, none of the reforms I have in mind violates any existing federal or state laws, or UN declarations on human rights. Now what? As I present my suggested reforms to this school, I do not at all assume that everything going on is wrong. Many of the school's course offerings should of course be retained, but the standards in them raised. The school has algebra courses and it should keep those algebra courses, albeit somewhat beefed up. But first, the school needs to acquire a confessional identity. When we consider what we are up against, a broad and generic evangelical approach availeth not. The school must adopt a confession of faith that is in line with the confessional commitments of historic and classical Protestantism. (Of course, many Catholic schools lay legitimate claim to the word classical in education as well-but their take on the worldview applications will differ in some key respects.) Pop evangelical sentiments, diffused in their normal gaseous way, are utterly inadequate for resisting the spirit of our age, which seeks to seep into the unsuspecting school through every available crack. The school must be supported by one or more churches in the area that share the same Reformational zeal, and that are willing to preach, teach, administer the sacraments, and to discipline in those terms. Apart from reformation in the church, reformation in anything else, especially in schools, will come to nada, zilch. Second, the school must make a genuine countercultural statement, through the transformed appearance of the student body. The students would be required to wear uniforms (of a non-dorky variety), and all forms of cultural outlandishness would be banished from the premises. Gone, but not missed, would be purple hair, body piercings, baggy pants, portable CD players, and tattoos, along with every other form of pop culture that enables young people today to slouch around looking disgruntled. This would not be done because every form of popular culture is evil (it is not), but because pop culture generally is a distraction from the work of classical and Christian education. The fact that much of the banished kultursmog is sinful simply provides us with an added bonus. Third, I would raise tuition so that at least the parents would pay for 85 percent of the cost of the education being offered. The remainder would be covered by the school's very capable development office. A wisely run school will have a robust scholarship program for those families committed to Christian education that have a hard time with tuition. The teachers in our hypothetical school would be paid at a significantly higher rate than most teachers in Christian schools receive today. At the same time, we would not take the salary schedules of the government schools as the normative standard. This is because the teachers there have lost a tremendous amount of vocational prestige because of their unionizing approach. The laborer is truly worthy of his hire, but at the same time, honor and respect in the community are a large part of the intangible rewards teachers have traditionally received. I would want our teachers to be highly respected, paid decently, and at the same time not to be dismissed by the public as mere hirelings. Fourth, I would want to keep the school free of all governmental entanglements. This is not because tax support for education is inherently wrong. Rather, I would stay away from such entanglements because our current government is pluralistic (the theological name for this is polytheism). Therefore, I do not trust it to keep its alien faith from interfering with the Christian faith being promoted in the school. He who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man. I would steer clear of all government-aid packages for education that could be categorized as "vouchers." Tuition tax credits, on the other hand, are not in the same class, would not go to the school, and would not bind the school in principle. The structure for the curriculum that I would propose is that of the medieval Trivium, as developed and applied by Dorothy Sayers. She noted that children grow naturally through three stages, each one corresponding to the three elements of that Trivium: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. In the elementary years (generally), the students occupy what she called the Poll-parrot stage. They love to chant, memorize, and recite. If they are not given things to chant, memorize, and recite, then they will make up their own. This corresponds to the grammar stage of the Trivium. At this point in their education, the kids would memorize vast amounts of information-presidents, kings, mountain ranges, rivers, multiplication tables, battles, catechism answers, psalms, and so forth. In doing this, the school is cutting with the grain. The children enjoy taking large amounts of information on, and so we will gladly accommodate them. They do not yet have it all sorted out, which is fine. That will come at the next stage. From this point, the children grow into what Miss Sayers called the Pert stage. This matches the dialectic stage of the Trivium. This is the point where they begin to question and dispute. They wonder why they are being made to learn all this stuff. They wonder why they can't listen to a portable CD player during lunch hour. They wonder why, how, and how come? They develop a natural disposition to argue, and so, continuing to cut with the grain, we teach them to argue. This is why they will take a course in symbolic logic and argumentation in the eighth grade. In their other courses, they are learning to relate all the various facts they have already accumulated. This stage corresponds generally to the junior-high years. They reach the Poetic stage in their high-school years, corresponding to the rhetoric stage of the Trivium. This is the age when the young people are very concerned with their appearance, how they are coming across. Consequently, this is when the school should teach them how to present themselves in a rhetorically winsome way. They will take rhetoric during these years, along with all their literature courses. In Bible, they should be offered apologetics. Instead of a prom, they should be trained in manners and etiquette in preparation for various "protocol nights," where they attend different cultural events as a class-for example, dinner at a classy joint, and then a night at the opera. But I am afraid I would be unsatisfied with this mere skeleton of the Trivium. I would want some fat on these bones, and would want much more than is available in many of the traditional course offerings. As such additions are considered, the old "how-many-hours-we-have-in-the-day" problem arises, but that can be dealt with in principle. I would begin instruction in Latin no later than the third grade. Once the course of Latin instruction has begun, all students would take Latin through the 10th grade. At this time, they would have the option of continuing their Latin for two more years, or of switching to Greek or Hebrew for their junior and senior years. Of course, there is room for modern languages-but this should be in addition to the Latin, not as a substitute for it. I would require that all students acquire musical literacy. At a minimum, I would offer a half-hour of musical instruction a day, and this instruction would include sight-reading, singing, and working with basic instruments. The students, once musically literate, would be taught to sing through the vast library of psalms, hymns, and great choral music, which is an essential part of the church's heritage. Particularly in the higher grades, I would want to integrate the subjects they are studying as much as possible. For example, they should be taking classical literature the same year they are taking ancient history and Old Testament survey. In another year, they should take American history, American literature, and civics together. This is done so that we prod them into thinking, not just in the classrooms, but also in the hallways. Something must be said about instruction in phonics. Although many Christian schools do instruct their little ones to read by phonetic means, the "whole language" approach has still had a corrupting influence. I would want to ensure that all the teachers who taught reading in the lower levels were purists on the question of phonics, and that no student would leave the first grade without knowing how to read. I would increase the number of particular extracurricular activities (above what most Christian schools today offer), and would dramatically raise the GPA requirement to participate in any of them. These activities would include things like drama, choir, and athletics. The GPA required for participation would be 3.0. This means that all participants in such activities would be doing so as student scholars, and would find that these activities, far from discouraging their central interest in academics, would be a great stimulus and encouragement to them in their academic calling. Such educational experiments, conducted in the airy regions of the mind, cannot last. The daydream ends, and we look around sadly, wondering if the thing is possible. Certainly it is not possible to accomplish such things in such an easy and frictionless way. But it can be done, and has been done. Numerous schools around the country are undertaking the work. And when the thing is accomplished on the ground, in the real world, overcoming unbelief and apathy, the gratitude and satisfaction are much deeper.

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