A Short History of Classical Christian Education’s Recovery

By David Goodwin, ACCS President

Originally published as the foreword in

The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Classical Christian Education (Third Edition)

By Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain

In 1992, the book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson was released. Its thesis was simple: Something important was missing from school. The public schools were godless, and Christian schools were shelters. Neither seemed to teach students to think well or see the world from a Christian view. Wilson, a pastor and father, based his book on an essay written in 1948 by Dorothy Sayers, an Oxford graduate, mystery author, and friend of C. S. Lewis. The essay was titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” The book and essay launched a movement: classical Christian education.

In the essay, Sayers laid bare the problem—modern pseudo-educators had distanced “school” from Christ: “Theology is the Mistress-science, without which the whole educational structure will necessarily lack its final synthesis. Those who disagree about this will remain content to leave their pupils’ education still full of loose ends.” Wilson believed this distance was evident both in secular and in Christian schools because of the progressive influence. C. S. Lewis echoed Sayer’s point in The Abolition of Man, another influential book in the modern renewal of classical Christian education.

Sayers also addressed the danger of education that failed to teach students to think.

By teaching [children] to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio [and now the internet], we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects… We have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

Wilson’s interpretation of this essay not only led to his book, but also launched the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, in 1981.

In 1980, another important book was published that has influenced the renewal of classical Christian education. David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility became increasingly popular in the renewal, contributing to the restoration of classical Christian education through its educational prescription based largely on the Greek term paideia.

Also in 1980, just a year before the Logos School was started, a small group of Christians in Topeka, Kansas, founded the Cair Paravel School. Cair Paravel took its name from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and sought to create a school based more on Lewis’ writings than the essay by Sayers. In 1981, another group of ecumenical Christians in South Bend, Indiana, started Trinity School at Greenlawn.

These three schools—Logos, Cair Paravel, and Trinity—all started independently of one another and almost at the same time. Each school provided an early impetus to the renewal of classical Christian education that now dates back 40 years.

The first generation of over 100 classical Christian schools emerged between about 1992 and 2000, most of them based on the Logos School model. The ACCS was founded to shepherd this burgeoning movement in 1994.

First Generation ACCS Schools: Sayers and the Trivium, c. 1982–2000

The first generation in the renewal of classical Christian schools was based in Sayers’ particular interpretation of the first three medieval liberal arts, called the Trivium. Sayers was a master of seeing patterns and finding hidden but profound truth. Her prowess with this skill probably explains why many consider her to be the best mystery author of the twentieth century. Sayers used her skill to observe something novel about the Trivium.

The Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—is ubiquitous in historic Western education as three of the seven Liberal Arts. Across Europe, light still shines today through medieval stained-glass depictions of the Trivium and Quadrivium. These seven liberal arts are etched in stone on colleges and cathedrals. But it was Sayers who noticed that the Trivium also aligned with the ages of students. The grammar phase for young children was natural—they could memorize and recite facts with ease. Adolescents were prone to argue, so they should be taught logic. And, young adults (about high school age) desired to present themselves well, so teach them rhetorically. This view of the Trivium was novel, and it provided to the first generation of classical schools a framework onto which Latin, history, literature, writing, and other subjects could be laid to form an excellent education. This three-part model shaped the classical Christian movement throughout the 1990s.

About 100 schools were founded in this early phase.

Second Generation ACCS Schools: Integration and The Great Books, c. 2000–2008

The second generation of the classical Christian movement emerged around 2000 and continued until about 2008. The leadership of Trinity at Greenlawn and other thinkers within the movement, including Wes Callahan, Andrew Kern, Ty Fischer, and the publisher Veritas Press, popularized the integrated study of history, literature, philosophy, theology, and art based in Western canon. Roundtable discussions of the Great Books of the Western World in classrooms became a more prevalent hallmark of classical education. Philosophy made up a bigger part of this second generation of schools. Art, literature, and theology grew in importance.

Latin and Greek also gained new importance, not as agents of logic or scientific language, but as a path back to the source, or ad fontes. Studying original works, read in as close to the original language as possible, provided the purest and most potent form of education. Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and to lesser degrees French and Anglo Saxon became a path to more fully appreciate texts, rather than solely providing practical outcomes. Many second generation schools moved to more rigorous attempts at fluency in classical languages using language programs such as Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina.

At the end of this phase, a group of scholars from within the movement led by Dr. Christopher Perrin of Classical Academic Press began to deepen the recovery of classical Christian education. This group, called The Alcuin Fellows, contributed to the formation of the third and the fourth generations of the classical Christian renewal. Alcuin emphasized the ongoing study of historic expressions of classical Christian education, noting the importance of embodied practices that cultivate affections, the role of scholé or restful learning, and the restoration of beauty and aesthetics throughout school life.

By the end of phase 2, the ACCS had about 200 school members.

Third Generation ACCS Schools: Virtue and Training the Affections, c. 2008–2018

Rediscovery continued to define classical education, now using more ancient sources. This brought a new phase to the movement from about 2008 to 2018. Schools turned to the fourth-century bishop St. Augustine. Augustine, in his work on Christian education (De Doctrina), said of its objective:

Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally.

Augustine’s “rightly ordered affections” became a definition of virtue for the movement. David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility from 1980 was promoted by Andrew Kern’s CiRCE Institute in the early 2000s, resulting in a stronger focus on paideia. Paideia is the ancient Greek idea of education that cultivates arete in students—or the education of a man or woman who rightly orders his or her affections (virtue). Dr. David Naugle articulated this early in the 1990s, but it was reignited in 2009 by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom.

These influences drove ACCS schools to consider the pathos and ethos (desires and environment) of classical education. A renewed focus on beautiful school decor and student communities took hold. Traditional music, particularly as worship, also grew in prominence. Both of these had been part of the first generation, but now, with a new emphasis on school culture (ethos), they played a more central role. House programs, which had previously been intramural sports programs, were converted to provide student peer leadership toward “loving the good.” In other words, obedience is not out of duty, but out of love for the good. These house programs often enveloped activities such as protocol dinners, dances, travel, assemblies, and service projects into a single mission—drawing students to love what is true, good, and beautiful in community.

This generation of school also has a newfound focus on virtue. Rather than moral behavior, this older understanding of virtue was connected to the desires of the soul, shaped to imitate Christ. The seven historic Christian virtues, dating to the early medievals, are frequently at the center: Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, Faith, Hope, and Love. Other virtues surround these. “Stories,” valued for their influence in shaping virtue, shifted toward the older “fairy tales” in the grammar school. In upper school, narratives from the Great Books canon found new importance. The original focus on Great Books by Adler was rooted in the development of philosophical ideas. When updated in the 2nd edition, Adler had discovered the value of great stories to shape a culture, regardless of their contribution to the canon of ideas. In all, this third generation of schools is intentionally formative to the souls of students.

By the end of this phase, a total of about 300 classical Christian schools were in the membership of the ACCS.

Fourth Generation ACCS Schools: Seven Arts, Three Spheres, c. 2018–present

More than forty years into the classical restoration, the underlying foundational framework of classical Christian education presents a challenge. This fourth generation seeks to restore a lost vision—that classical Christian education is not to be viewed as a “classical education” with a “Christian overlay.” Rather, classical Christian education is a unified educational project of Christianity through the ages. With the current popularity of “classical education,” many forms are emerging that seek to adapt pieces from the past to today’s models. Only classical Christian education seeks to fully restore.

Between St. Augustine (c. 390AD) and the Enlightenment (c. 1750), Christian monks and scholars transformed the seven liberal arts into the foundation of Christian education. These arts were originally inspired in imperial Rome and hellenistic Greece. But, like planets with no sun around which to orbit, these arts had previously lacked telos, or a central purpose. With Christ in the center, the seven arts found unification in the medieval period. So “classical Christian” does not mean “classical and Christian.” It refers back to this medieval construct so unique in human history: humanity and nature united in and for the glory of Christ.

Previously in the movement, classical educators had adopted the general framework of subjects common to progressive schools—science, math, language, history, literature, etc. A few new subjects such as rhetoric and logic were added, and many such as social science or political science were removed. Fourth generation schools present a new challenge to this fragmented, subject orientation to education. They seek to improve understanding of the Trivium, reveal the depth of the Quadrivium, and deepen our understanding of the integration of these arts. Here, the integrated study of the seven liberal arts reflect the intellectual practices that make up an educated person.

For centuries, classical education was this integrated study—holistic, grounded in revealed truth in the Word and the world, beginning in wonder and leading to wisdom—all governed by the “mistress science” theology. We, in our time, can renew this tradition—which is our inheritance—as we work to “make all things new” in education.