I would not be surprised by the “Huh?” reaction to a number of books on this list. After all, they are not “how-to” manuals on education. Instead, each of them represents one major aspect of what comprises a Christian education. This is why all of the authors or the books could be substituted with similar books or authors saying the same thing. This is the case with the fifth book in our series, Cultural Literacy, by E. D. Hirsch.
For busy homeschooling parents or school administrators, this is not a book you need to plough through from cover to cover, though you’ll likely benefit if you are able to. The first chapter and the appendix will, however, give you the main idea. Hirsch’s thesis is simple: to function in society, people need background knowledge that we absorb from our wider culture. Sayings, mottoes, proverbs, quotes, aphorisms, place names, historical events, abbreviations, prominent people and places and dates, fables, works of art and many other items of knowledge are not learnt alphabetically from an encyclopaedia. They are taught when a culture imparts its traditions to its young over many years.
Without this background knowledge – this literacy in one’s own culture – one is a stranger in your own home, a foreigner in your own country. Educated writing and discourse will go over your head, because you lack the cultural literacy to decipher all the background knowledge that is present in the terms.
Consider this sentence: “Covid has brought about an Orwellian scenario, where the raison d’être of government has devolved from a Jeffersonian ideal to a Machiavellian one”. Background knowledge of Western philosophy, political theory, 20th-century literature, and borrowed phrases from French is necessary to make sense of that sentence. Hirsch argues that this kind of cultural literacy is declining, and with it, much breakdown in communication and mutual understanding.
Just as there is a broader cultural literacy, so there is a Christian cultural literacy that all Christians should possess. A similar kind of background knowledge should explain the meaning of terms such as justification, Incarnation, imputation, post-exilic, the diaconate, or posttribulationism. You cannot make sense of Scripture or the Christian message unless this background information is given to you. Beyond biblical and systematic theology, Christians should know their own history. Names and events such as Athanasius, William Carey, the Council of Nicaea, Textus Receptus, and The Downgrade Controversy should be part of their mental furniture. And beyond that, Christians should be immersed in their knowledge of their own worship. No Christian should be ignorant of terms and names such as expository preaching, Isaac Watts, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, metrical hymnody, Ambrose, or plainchant. Devotional works such as Confessions, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Practice of the Presence of God, The Knowledge of the Holy are part of this literacy in Christian worship and affections.
Furthermore, Christianity shaped the cultures and civilisations wherever it spread. What is called “Western Civilisation” is really a multi-ethnic, cross-continental civilisation that was birthed in Israel, fed by Greece, Persia and Rome, and developed for over two thousand years in Africa, Eurasia and the New World. The history of Western Civilisation is, at least partly, a history of the fulfilment of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.” The people of Western Civilisation, the places, and their poeima (their works of art or craft) should be studied.
All of this is the patrimony of the young Christian. For shame, that young Christians should graduate from Christian schools, homeschools or private schools and yet be basically ignorant of their own culture. What kind of education would have the audacity to call itself Christian if its graduates have only the faintest grasp of Christian doctrine, history, or worship, and if they feel no loyalty to the civilisation that bequeathed them most of the blessings they now enjoy? And indeed, how much must be going over their heads as they sit in church, simply uncomprehending of much that comes at them, musically, poetically, or rhetorically.
A Christian education uses the study of theology, history, music, literature to immerse Christians in the people, beliefs, and works of Christian culture. In that sense, a Christian education is an education within a canon. It has a canon of works: books, music, and artworks that are widely considered to be the best that has been thought and written. Of course, there is a legitimate debate over which works qualify or don’t. Books like Susan Wise-Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind and The Well-Educated Mind give great lists. Adler’s How To Read a Book has an appendix of works, and many appear in Hirsch’s appendix. These days it is not hard to Google and collate lists from educated people of a canon of works that best represent and communicate literacy in Christianity and broader Western Civilisation. Some of the better Christian classical curricula have done just that.
Here I insert my aversion to the homeschool approach that seems to be the educational equivalent of experimental, slapdash cooking. “Let’s try this today!” seems to be the educational motto. Continual shopping for new curricula, quirky eclectic choices, and plenty of homespun material are the hallmarks of this method. The result might seem to be a very thoughtfully curated collection to the homeschooling parent, but what is glaringly obvious to onlookers is that the child is not being immersed in a Christian tradition. He is being inducted into a novel concoction of books, activities and subjects that don’t represent Christian culture. The child is himself an anomaly as far as Christian culture goes: he is not receiving much from the past, nor does he represent the continuation of Christian orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy beyond himself. No one in Christian history has had to study his combination of prescribed materials (and likely no one after him will, either). Small wonder that the children upon whom these educational experiments are performed often feel and behave so oddly. They have no cultural identity, no solidarity with anyone besides Mom, no anchor in a world that already shuns Christianity. Their adult choices will be to rubber-hand into the culture of secularism, or to try to find a tiny niche for the odd-ball culture their education gave them.
Christian education worth the name educates within a tradition: its own tradition. It educates and immerses its pupils in Christian culture: Christianity’s doctrine, people, places, achievements, philosophy, music, art, and worship.