Classical Education: In It for the Long Haul

by Emily Price

We’ve just celebrated the birth of Christ, and as swiftly as it approached, the season of Christmas has concluded. Many weeks of preparation and anticipation through Advent have culminated in the Nativity of Christ. We have feasted, and now we look ahead to the next season. In the Christian Church, our lives are shaped and oriented by the rhythm of the church calendar. This is true for each of us to some degree, regardless of the tradition in which we participate; Christmas and Easter punctuate our years and constitute major seasons, even in the secular world. Some Christian traditions particularly emphasize the liturgical calendar, and joyous celebrations are preceded by periods of fasting and spiritual preparation. I have heard it called the “breathing pattern” of the church.

I am new to the practice of fasting, and I find it both meaningful and very difficult. Throughout Advent this year, I began to think about what it means to be “in it for the long haul.” After all, the liturgical calendar—with its inhales and exhales—will come again next year, and the next, and the next. When it occurred to me that I’ll be fasting, on and off, for the rest of my life, I realized I would need to reorient my thinking about spiritual growth.

I am a fairly decent sprinter, metaphorically speaking. I enjoy taking on new projects and working hard to see them take flight. Give me a task and I’ll devote myself to it 100 percent. But I struggle with sustaining longer efforts—labors that span many weeks, many months, many years. For example, Homer’s Iliad: I am embarrassed to admit I’ve begun this worthy read nearly a dozen times, but in each case I’ve failed to sustain momentum long enough to reach the end of the lengthy epic. The task is much too large for the mindset of a sprinter. So it is with spiritual growth. Our souls are not shaped in a day. Faithfulness in prayer is not cultivated in a week. I cannot cross “fasting” off my list after Advent this year. The process of sanctification requires devotion over a lifetime—and even then, we will fall short of the ideal.

The same is true of the journey of classical learning—it is a labor of a lifetime. When you catch the vision for classical education, it’s difficult not to want to sprint. Let’s teach our children to love what is lovely. Let’s read Homer and Augustine and Shakespeare and all the Great Books! But three books, or two weeks, or twenty minutes in, you realize it’s just not that simple. Your enthusiasm gives way to the sobering reality of the long—though worthy—journey ahead.

In Dr. Perrin’s “Introduction to Classical Education” course on, he offers brief reviews of his “Top 55” book recommendations for classical educators. To read each of his recommendations is an ambitious goal in itself. But after he concludes his fifty-fifth and final review, he recommends a lifetime reading plan comprised of entire collections, such as the Harvard Classics and the Britannica Great Books Set. At first blush, my type-A, get-it-done personality is deflated at the thought of a lifetime reading plan and the years of faithful, sustained study it would take to make a dent in one of these collections, with almost no hope of reaching the finish. The goal seems altogether unmanageable, too lofty. But as I step back and consider the breadth and depth of the classical tradition, I find its enormity engenders a sense of rest and peace rather than of panic.

If I could sit down and plumb the depths of the great conversation in a few short years of study, it would mean the depths are actually quite shallow. It is much better that “the classics” be so vast and so deep that in a hundred years I could only conceivably scratch the surface. The moment that I admit my own smallness in the face of this task is the same moment I can rest in the knowledge that I’ll be journeying my entire life. It’s not a job for a sprinter. On a journey of a thousand miles, there’s no point in trying to reach the finish line by nightfall. There will always be “further up and further in,” as C.S. Lewis says in The Last Battle, without any hope of exhausting the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. And so, in education, as in fasting, our task is to be faithful today. And when—not if—we misstep and fall short of the ideal, we need not throw in the towel and give up altogether. Instead, we repent, ask for mercy and accept grace, and take the next step on the journey to which we have been called.

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