A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education
"If classical Christian education is more than simply a refuge from troubled, dumbed-down, secular school systems, what is it? In his introduction, Joshua Gibbs offers a teacher's clear, concise, and thoughtful answer. Classical Christian education is a choice. Every parent ought to read this pamphlet before making it."
David Hicks, author of Norms & Nobility
What is classical Christian education? Classical Christian schools are full of people—faculty, staff, administrators, students, and parents—who don’t have a solid answer for this very basic question. Over the last thirty years, classical Christian education has grown at a rate which far outpaces real understanding of the movement, which means that many classical Christian schools are filled with people who aren’t on the same page. The bigger classical Christian education gets, the more problematic this becomes.
“A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education” is a short, readable pamphlet for parents and teachers which aims to combat this problem.
The recent Fox Nation documentary series The MisEducation of America has significantly raised the profile of classical education among conservatives who want safe schools where their children will not be taught evolution, critical race theory, and sexual deviancy. However, the fact that a religious and politically conservative family wants these things doesn’t necessarily mean that they want classical education, even though it may initially seem to be the educational answer to their problems. A classical Christian education also requires certain beliefs about tradition, virtue, discipline, worldliness, piety, and good taste. Such beliefs are increasingly rare, even among self-professed conservatives, and the fact that a family is conservative doesn't mean that they will be satisfied with classical education as the years go by.
“A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education” is has two parts: the first describes “classical,” and the second describes “Christian.” The descriptions of both the classical and Christian elements are not theoretical or abstract, but practical and full of common sense. It was not written for intellectuals or classicists but for everyone. “A Short Introduction” is a tool for admissions officers who need a concise but robust description of the classical Christian project to give prospective parents. “A Short Introduction” is also a tool administrators can use to educate prospective teachers and current teachers about classical Christian education. It is a document which can be handed out for faculty development sessions, read quickly, and which will prompt deep, meaningful conversations among the faculty.
There are a number of materials on the market which describe classical Christian education, but they tend either to be quite long and dense or to look like promotional magazines. “A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education” does not contain flow charts, quizzes, or colorful photographs. It isn’t flashy and fun. Most classical Christian schools now have enough applicants every year that they are less in need of advertising than they are of a significant way of sorting missionally-aligned families from non-aligned families. “A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education” will help schools find families that actually want a classical Christian education. It help will get teachers at classical Christian schools to a point where they approach their work from the same perspective, with the same goals in mind, and with the same convictions in their hearts.
When you purchase “A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education,” you will receive two versions of the pamphlet: the full 12,000 word version and the shorter 7,000 word version. The full version is better suited to faculty and the short version is better suited to prospective parents.
For more information, keep scrolling or click the links at the side.
"A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education" is available in two lengths (12,000 words and 7,000 words) as an easy-to-print PDF available in two formats: an 8.5 x 11 full-page document and a 5.5 x 8.5 folded booklet. If it sounds complicated, it’s not! After making a purchase, you will get four PDFs: the full-page document and booklet formats for the 12,000-word version and the full-page document and booklet formats for the 7,000-word version. Each license allows you to print one of these options after looking at all four versions and deciding which one(s) you need. Each of the PDFs can be printed on a standard copier, although the booklets will require folding and stapling.
Both versions of the PDF will be sent to your email address within 48 hours of making a purchase. Each license that you purchase grants you the right to print and distribute one copy of the pamphlet in whichever length and format you prefer (i.e., 20 copies could be printed as 10 long full-page versions for faculty and 10 short booklet versions for prospective parents).
Licensed copies can be purchased at the following rates:
20 licensed copies: $30
50 licensed copies: $70
100 licensed copies: $120
200 licensed copies: $220
500 licensed copies: $500
1000 licensed copies: $850
Licenses are granted on the honor system. We recommend printing all of your licensed copies at the same time for distribution and purchasing more licenses when your printed materials run out. For more information about printing the PDF, please see the FAQs.
To make a purchase, please use the PayPal link below. The PDFs will be sent within 48 hours to the email address that you provide during the checkout process.
Will this pamphlet work for my school?
The pamphlet is written with wide usage in mind, and the educational institution is always referred to as “this school." Because I have attempted to speak on behalf of any school that might care to use the pamphlet, the description of classical Christian education is painted with a wide brush and contains no reference to athletics, drama programs, or other offerings that vary from institution to institution. Whether a school favors the work of the ACCS, SCL, CiRCE, Veritas Press, or Classical Academic Press, the description of classical Christian education in the pamphlet will strike readers as apt, helpful, and provocative.
How do I use this pamphlet?
Of the copies that you license, I recommend including some of the short version in the informational packets which are handed out to prospective parents. I also recommend printing some of the long version for faculty development sessions - hand out copies to teachers and read it (or talk it over) during an in-service session.
Where can I buy the pamphlet?
“A Short Introduction” is only available as a printable PDF through Gibbs Classical. Buyers decide how many copies of the pamphlet they would like to license, pay for their copies through the website, and receive the pamphlet as a PDF via email.
What happens after I purchase the pamphlet?
After you purchase the desired number of licenses for “A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education,” four separate PDFs will arrive in your inbox within 48 hours: two formats for the full version, two formats for the short version. Please print your total number of copies in the format you like best. Purchases are made on the honor system, and I trust that everyone who purchases the pamphlet will only use the number of copies that you have purchased. However, I recommend printing off at least one test copy to check your paper and settings, which does not count toward the total that you have purchased. If a few copies don’t come out right and you have to throw them away, those don’t counter either. Assume that the person who is “keeping count” of how many copies you make is not some nit-picky bureaucrat.
After you know which format of the pamphlet you want to use and have worked out a test copy that is to your satisfaction, please print all the licensed copies of the pamphlet that you have purchased. When you run out, please purchase additional licensed copies.
How do I print the pamphlet?
The pamphlet is available as a PDF that can be printed on 8.5 x 11 paper on any school copier. There are two versions: one that is meant to be printed as a full-page document and one that is meant to be printed, folded, and stapled into a 5.5 x 8.5 inch booklet. You can print the booklet on a copier, but you may also wish to have it printed professionally and to add a cardstock cover with school branding.
Can I add my school's branding to the pamphlet so that it looks like "us"?
The PDF can only be printed as-is. However, schools are welcome to print a custom cover for the booklet or a cover sheet for the 8.5 x 11 printout that has your school's logo and branding.
Can I read the pamphlet before I buy it?
You can listen to the author read the entire pamphlet before purchasing it. The Classical Learning Test has partnered with Gibbs Classical and is currently hosting a full audio version of “A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education" read by Joshua Gibbs). To listen to a full audio recording of the pamphlet, download this episode of CLT’s Anchored podcast.
“A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education” is available in two versions: the full version (which is approximately 12,000 words long) and the short version (which is approximately 7,000 words long). After an introduction, the pamphlet is divided into two main parts: one section is about the “classical” part of “classical Christian education,” the other section is about the “Christian” part.“ Portions of each section are reprinted below.
Excerpts from Part One: Classical
Simply put, classical educators love old things. They love old books, old music, old paintings, old manners, old ideas, and old beliefs. A classical education is largely centered around old things. This sets classical Christian education at odds with modernity because modern people tend to despise old things. Modern people often characterize old things as superstitious, boring, backwards, outdated, irrational, sexist, racist, and primitive. The tendency to see old things in this way is not limited to modern secularists and atheists—many modern Christians don’t like old books, old music, or old beliefs either.
The first thing one must understand about the classical love of old things is that it is not a love of all old things. Classical educators don’t believe that all old things are better than all new things. They happily acknowledge that some old things are wretched and that some new things are quite lovely. So what sort of old things do classical educators love? And why do they love these things?
Let me answer these questions by explaining a concept which is more common than “classical” but which means something quite similar.
If you asked a hundred random people what the word “classic” means, many would probably begin by telling you it means “old.” Classic films are old. Classic cars are old. Classic rock is old. The word “classic” and the word “old” don’t mean quite the same thing, though. A classic is not just any old thing but a good old thing, an old thing which has held up over time. For example, Casablanca is widely regarded as a “classic film.” It came out in 1942, but people still watch it, enjoy it, and talk about it today. If you look at a list of all the films that came out that year, you will probably not recognize many titles. This is because very few of the films that came out in 1942 were very good, let alone as good as Casablanca. History has forgotten most of them because they were not worth remembering. Take Bullet Scars, for example, a 1942 gangster film which starred Regis Toomey and Adele Longmire. There’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of Bullet Scars or the actors in it, let alone seen it and contemplated it. The mere fact something is old doesn’t make it a classic: a classic is something that has been appreciated and handed down by many generations because it still deserves our time and contemplation. When I say that a classic has been “handed down,” I mean that it has a venerable reputation. You’ve heard Casablanca is good. You haven’t heard Bullet Scars is good. You haven’t heard anything about Bullet Scars.
Similarly, a classical education is devoted to books, music, paintings, and ideas that have stood the test of time. Not just any book that was around two or three hundred years ago is worth reading today. For classical educators, the question is not whether something is old, but whether it has lasted. When classical educators refer to “old books” and “old music,” they are using these terms as short hand for “old books that have lasted” and “old music that has lasted.” They are not vindicating every book, song, and belief which existed a long time ago, just the ones which have been faithfully handed down by our fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, and so on.
Tour any book store in the country, though, and you will find that the classics section is quite small compared to the selection of current books. There aren’t that many classics. Most things aren’t very good and so most things don’t last. Let’s consider motion pictures once more. You don’t have to go all the way back to 1942 to find the trash heaps of cinematic history; relatively few of the thousands of films that came out in the 70s, 80s, or 90s are still widely viewed and discussed today. For every Goodfellas or Fargo, there are thousands of films that no one ever wants or needs to see again. This is not only true of films, though. The average Goodwill in this country is full of books, DVDs, and CDs that were wildly popular just a few years ago but which no one finds all that interesting anymore. Plenty of things are only interesting because they are new, and there is no quality which fades faster than newness. A rather staggering quantity of what passes as “culture” these days simply doesn’t hold up for all that long.
By contrast, a classical education is concerned with things that do last because they are very good, and with helping people learn to understand and love them. Very good things ask quite a lot of us, and they are challenging, confrontational, and can be very draining. Developing a love for them is so difficult that very few people can do it on their own, especially when easier, sexier, and more pleasurable alternatives readily present themselves. Unless a child (or an adult) makes the effort to include old books and music in his life, he can easily go along with the flow of a passing, ephemeral, and banal culture. I’m not suggesting that we should only read Dante and listen to Bach, but a classical Christian school is one of the institutions which makes sure that someone is keeping old traditions alive and passing down a love of beautiful, truly good things to the next generation.
Deep Souls or Shallow Souls?
Why are some songs that were wildly popular just ten years ago not popular at all today? Conversely, why is the music of Beethoven still performed in symphony halls across the globe two hundred years later? Why don’t the most popular novels of the 1980s sell many copies now, while people have been slowly, steadily buying books like Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, and Frankenstein for hundreds of years? Why do we get tired of some things after just a few years while other things continue to hold our attention for centuries—or even longer?
Our interest in things which have lasted tends to be lower, and yet it never goes away. This year, Beyoncé will outsell Beethoven. This century, Beethoven will outsell Beyoncé. This is because the same qualities which make an artist the most popular this year also guarantee their unpopularity in fifty years. The sort of music which lasts is not catchy, clever, sexy, spectacular, shocking, or slick— at least, these are not words most people would use to describe the music of Brahms, Haydn, or Mozart.
Put another way, the sort of music that lasts for centuries does not appeal to us merely because it pleases our senses. We tire of sensual art rather quickly for many reasons, the chief of which is that it’s easily replaced by something even more sensual (and less spiritual, less intellectual). As Roger Scruton notes in the film Why Beauty Matters, what is shocking the first time is boring the second time. Again, movies make for a convenient example. The sort of cinematic violence that wowed audiences back in the 1950s now seems dull by comparison. What passed for alluring and seductive clothing in the 1950s could now be worn to church. It is fairly easy to make a new film more exciting than the last: it simply needs to be faster, louder, and have more explosions and shorter skirts than whatever came before it. These sorts of intensifications do not require a deep intellect or profound soul, even if they do produce a massive box office.
It is not difficult to make a dress more alluring, you simply lower the neckline and raise the hem. However, one cannot make a story more beautiful in the same sort of simple, mechanical way. Neither can one make music more profound by turning a dial. Things that last have qualities which cannot be acquired easily or quickly. The works of Homer, Augustine, Dante, Bach and so forth are not praised because they are exciting or clever, but because they are beautiful and wise. Beauty and wisdom are so rare that whenever and wherever we find them, we hold on to them with all our might. This is why people are still reading the works of Augustine, still listening to the music of Bach, and still traveling thousands of miles to see the paintings of El Greco and Caravaggio.
Unlike most new books, classics are not read once and then set aside forever. New books are generally written in such a way that one read is sufficient to fully grasp the plot, characters, argument, facts, and themes, which means that we usually don’t have lifelong relationships with them. But because classics exist for something other than pleasure, we can return to them across many decades. The boy who reads Paradise Lost at sixteen can read it again at twenty-six, when he is newly married, and find something more profound. The words on the page are the same but his adult experiences allow him to read deeper into the book and haul out more of its wisdom. The same wisdom which the book offers on a second read will allow him to get deeper still on a third read, years later, after he has become a father. This is truly a relationship. When people only read books once or only listen to music which is popular now, they do not develop deep loves. A classical education aims at producing students who love good things deeply. A deep love is not a new love. A deep love is a love which has endured over time, a love which has been tested and suffered, a love which has evolved and matured.
Excerpts from Part Two: Christian
What, you may wonder, is the word “Christian” doing in the expression “classical Christian education”? This is a fair question, because you have no doubt encountered many “Christian” things in the world and formed an impression of what the word usually means. There are “Christian” movies, “Christian” books, “Christian” painters, “Christian” radio stations, and so forth. It should be noted there have been Christian painters for many, many centuries, and it is only recently that we began using the term “Christian painters”—Rembrandt was a painter and a Christian, but we don’t refer to him as “a Christian painter.” Likewise, Mozart’s Requiem is music, and it was written for Christian purposes, but it is not often referred to as “Christian music.” If someone told you, “I enjoy Christian music,” you would not immediately assume they meant Handel, Bach, and Josquin des Prez. Rather, you would assume they meant Third Day, Lauren Daigle, and Chris Tomlin.
Similarly, we tend not to think of Jane Eyre or Pride & Prejudice as “Christian fiction,” or to think of Augustine’s Confessions as “Christian non-fiction.” So far as cultural artifacts are concerned, the word “Christian” now suggests a popular, fashionable style that tends to be personal, uplifting, emotional, suitable for children, and evangelical, which means it contains a simple declaration that belief in Christ’s death and resurrection saves a man from eternity in hell. Thus, Mozart’s Requiem is not “Christian music” because it’s not written in a popular style, it’s not uplifting, and it contains no assertion that listeners should say the sinner’s prayer.
When I say that most “Christian” cultural artifacts are created according to popular and fashionable styles, I mean that very few “Christian” books or songs are made to last longer than their secular counterparts. Just as secular pop songs come and go, so do “Christian” pop songs. Just as secular books come and go, so do “Christian” books. The “Christian” music which was popular thirty years ago sounds dated today, but this is true of secular music as well. The “Christian” self-help books which were cutting-edge bestsellers thirty years ago now clutter Goodwill shelves, and this is true of secular self-help books as well. A good many “Christian” things are meant to mirror their secular counterparts as closely as possible and vary only in terms of message. At their best, “Christian” things pass as secular things in the same way that the best zero-calorie sweeteners pass as real sugar. All the pleasure, none of the guilt. “Christian” culture comes and goes for the same reason secular culture comes and goes. We tire of it quickly because it is shallow and easily replaced, and while the thing which replaces it is not better, it is newer, and shallow people tend to pursue of novelty.
The fact that “Christian” now connotes such tawdry qualities raises the question of what is meant by “classical Christian education.” Is the “Christian” referenced in “classical Christian education” the same “Christian” referred to in “Christian fiction” and “Christian radio”? The classical Christian movement is around thirty years old, but “Christian” schools existed long beforehand. Are classical Christian schools a kind of “Christian” school? Did the forerunners of the classical Christian movement look at “Christian” schools, “Christian” music, and “Christian” culture and say, “This is all basically great, it just needs a few classical touches”? Or does the word “classical” radically alter what is conventionally meant by “Christian”?
Christianity vs. Classical Christianity
A classical Christian school is not “classical and Christian.” Rather, classical Christianity is a fundamentally different sort of Christianity than is referred to in contemporary terms like “Christian radio” or “Christian fiction.” The two sorts of Christianity have little in common. Classical Christianity is not a version of Christianity—it’s the other way around. The sort of Christianity suggested by “Christian radio” and “Christian fiction” is a cheap, commodified version of classical Christianity.
Classical Christianity predates the “Christian” genre by many, many centuries. It is the more beautiful, intellectual, stable, rational, mature ancestor of “Christian.” One is a cathedral that has been lovingly tended to for a thousand years, while the other is a billion-dollar football stadium which will look old-fashioned in nineteen years and accordingly be torn down and replaced with a nearly identical billion-dollar football stadium.
In saying all this, I do not mean that classical Christian schools are opposed to students listening to Christian radio or reading Christian fiction, but neither are they strictly opposed to students listening to Top 40 radio or reading popular secular books. I do mean, however, that a classical Christian education is not enhanced by listening to pop music, be it secular or “Christian.” A classical Christian education does not suppose that a steady diet of Christian radio and Christian fiction is good for the soul. While pop Christian books and music may have a good message, a classical Christian education has concerns for good taste, careful thought, and spiritual depth which transcend good messages.
In and of themselves, good messages are worth very little. Love your spouse. Play with your kids. Go to church. There you go! You just read three good messages which are unlikely to affect your behavior in any way—and why? Because they weren’t delivered in a way that you could take seriously. They were not delivered in a way that will linger in your memory or confront you in a moment of temptation. Of course, I do think you should love your spouse, play with your kids, and go to church, but persuading you to do these things isn’t the purpose of this pamphlet. So, too, many “Christian” songs and books and movies have a good message, but they exist primarily to entertain, encourage, amuse, or lead the audience through an intensely emotional experience which is vindicating, reassuring, arousing, sublime, or cathartic—all of which are pleasant (I suppose), but none of which help anyone grow in wisdom and virtue. If a man listens to simple, shallow songs with good messages, he is a thousand times more likely to absorb the shallowness of the style than the goodness of the message. Good messages pass through our minds relatively quickly. If a young child watches a loud, zany cartoon wherein some message about sharing is tacked on to the end, the child is far more apt to imitate the mood of the show (screaming, running around the house) than to offer the use of his toys to other kids.
Consequently, a classical Christian education does not vindicate every cultural artifact with a good message. The goal of a classical Christian education is not to get good messages into students’ minds, but to lead them to love and adore goodness itself, and only God is good.