Doug Wilson’s The Case for Classical Christian Education is almost a one-stop shop for Christian parents trying to grapple with educating their children in a secular age. The book ranges from discussion of secular and governmental education, to the definition of education, to the practical running of a Christian school.
Even though Wilson helpfully makes the case for the kind of curricula that is both Christian and classical, some of his most valuable insights come in the form of describing the incarnation of Christian education in a school or homeschool environment. Humans are not brains in vats, and education is not abstract ideas floating in the aether. Christian education has particular look, smell and sound at 9:18 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Christian education needs to be instantiated, fleshed out, and put into practice. And it is here that many a Christian school or homeschool utterly fails.
Thinking that selecting “the right books” will magically turn the pumpkins of sinful children into the glittering carriages of noble Christlike humans is either terribly naive or just laziness coated with optimism. Your choice of curriculum is vital, but it is no magic wand. Instead, what will shape children just as much (if not more) than the information imparted, is the environment that they are told is a “Christian classroom”. For here they will learn what Christians think of authority, knowledge, order, sin, and a litany of other matters that inevitably rise to the surface during a normal school day. If the classroom is antinomian, or gnostic, or libertarian, or legalistic, or Pelagian, or fatalist, then this will certainly be the most dominant influence on their thinking. Worse, it will skew the meaning of the Christian books they are reading into an un-Christian mould.
Many homeschool parents or Christian school teachers would be shocked to be told that their classroom was antinomian or graceless. But if we installed a CCTV camera in their classroom and played back hours of children sinning against each other with no repercussions, showing irreverence towards their authorities, basking in their laziness, or parents or teachers exhibiting ungodly anger, permissiveness, or apathy, the point would soon be made. The classroom might be Christian in name, and the curricula Christian in content, but the everyday experience in that classroom is far from biblical.
Wilson reminds us that education begins with worship. That is, not merely that the day or lesson begins with family worship or prayers, but that the whole endeavour is God-centred. Learning is part of growing into the image of Christ. Knowledge and wisdom are gifts from God. This means that the church is a kind of model and example of what learning is to be like. No Christian school or homeschool will survive if disconnected from a healthy local church. Children don’t have to be saved to have a reverence for church and for gathered worship. A similar kind of respect can be present in the classroom. They are there to learn truth, and it deserves attention, honour and effort. They don’t have to pretend to like it, but no Christian classroom tolerates scorn, apathy and disdain for learning.
Similarly, the Christian classroom is built upon submission to authority with respect. Obedience and respect to our instructors is part of fearing the Lord. Parents that homeschool have to wear two hats, but the uniting factor for both of those roles is that children are commanded to honour their parents and their authorities and teachers. A classroom with backchat, insolence, disobedience, snickering groups is not teaching the Christian understanding of honouring those that teach us. Where the rod of correction is absent, children are being left to themselves, and Scripture warns that this will bring their mother to shame.
Along those lines, the Christian classroom prizes order. Whether this is the cleanliness of the classroom, the noise levels, the permission to move about, answering out of turn, punctuality, keeping to a schedule, these all incarnate the godliness of order. Many a homeschool classroom resembles the counter-culture’s refusal of all rules, standards, or disciplines, in the name of “the love of learning”.
Keeping this order means the Christian classroom practises the gospel. Classrooms get physically dirty with use, but they also get spiritually dirty. Children sin against each other and against their teachers. Sin that is left unrebuked, unconfessed and unforgiven, becomes like accumulating dirt in the room. Children have to be taught the gospel that sin must be confessed (publicly, when the sin was public), and that because of Christ, there is cleansing and forgiveness. When homeschools or Christian schools do not keep short accounts, sin accumulates and eventually brings destructive consequences.
The Christian classroom honours the roles of men and women. Boys and girls are different, and just as the differences between men and women are to be honoured in corporate worship, so there are equivalent ways for these to be honoured in the homeschool or Christian school classroom. Boys should show chivalric respect for girls and for female teachers. If uniforms are worn, they should be distinctively masculine and feminine. Male and female teachers should act appropriately both to the opposite sex, and to model manhood or womanhood to boys and girls respectively.
To this, we could add the Christian view of sports and competition, daily routines and rituals, traditions, mottos, and so forth. All this amounts to the the “culture” of a the school or homeschool. It should seem about halfway between church and the home, with the reverence, order, discipline, and loving correction of both.
Christian education is more than ideas. Christian education extends to the form those ideas take: the very shape and texture of how those ideas are taught and fleshed out.