by Dr. George Grant
The students in America’s earliest schools, academies, and colleges were educated according to the great traditions of the Christian classical heritage. They were the beneficiaries of a rich legacy of art, music, and ideas that not only trained the extraordinary minds of our Founding Fathers but had provoked the remarkable flowering of culture throughout western civilization. It was a pattern of academic discipleship that had hardly changed at all since the dawning days of the Reformation and Renaissance—a pattern though that has almost entirely vanished today.
Indeed, those first colonial Americans were educated in a way that we can only dream of today despite all our nifty gadgets, gimmicks, and bright ideas. They were steeped in the ethos of Augustine, Dante, Plutarch, and Vasari. They were conversant in the ideas of Seneca, Ptolemy, Virgil, and Aristophanes. The notions of Athanasius, Chrysostom, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Abelard, and Wyclif informed their thinking and shaped their worldview.
The now carelessly discarded traditional medieval Trivium—emphasizing the basic classical scholastic categories of grammar, logic, and rhetoric—equipped them with the tools for a lifetime of learning: a working knowledge of the timetables of history, a background understanding of the great literary classics, a structural competency in Greek and Latin-based grammars, a familiarity with the sweep of art, music, and ideas, a grasp of research and writing skills, a worldview comprehension for math and science basics, a principle approach to current events, and an emphasis on a Christian life paradigm.
The methodologies of this kind of classical learning adhered to the time-honored principles of creative learning: an emphasis on structural memorization, an exposure to the best of Christendom’s cultural ethos, a wide array of focused reading, an opportunity for disciplined presentations, an experience with basic academic skills, and a catechizing for orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy.
The object of this kind of classical education was not merely the accumulation of knowledge. Instead it was to equip a whole new generation of leaders with the necessary tools to exercise discernment, discretion, and discipline in their lives and over their callings. Despite their meager resources, rough-hewn facilities, and down-to-earth frontier ethic, they maintained continuity with all that had given birth to the wisdom of the west.
It was the modern abandonment of these classical standards generations later that provoked G.K. Chesterton to remark:
“The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from the past was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack of Rome, the triumph of Attila, or all the barbarian invasions of the Dark Ages. It was lost after…the coming of the marvels of technology, the establishment of universal education, and all the enlightenment of the modern world. And thus was lost—or impatiently snapped—the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking.”
Sadly, it was the church that actually provoked that modern abandonment. It was its new emphasis upon personal experience over and against the time honored traditions of education that induced it to emphasize immediate things rather than invest in permanent things. Those early students in rugged frontier schools were among the last generation to receive that kind of comprehensive intellectual and spiritual training. And thus was lost—or impatiently snapped—the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking. Much of the tragedy of the days that followed may well be attributed to the fact that men and women entered onto the battlefield bereft of shield or spar.