Dan Olson: "Classical Education Enlightens Our Story"

“Implicit in the word “character” is a story.” —James Davison Hunter 

        In the fall of 2015, a runaway sheep named Chris was discovered in the Australian bush. Un-sheared for years, Chris was unrecognizable and in grave danger. He could barely walk or see, was about to overheat, and was likely full of concealed infections. To make matters worse, due to isolation, he was terrified of people.

        A gateway drug (sedative) was needed to save his life. While Chris was under the enchantment of sedation, champion sheep-shearer Ian Elkins could remove layer upon layer to enlighten Chris’s body and restore him to health and to the care of a shearing shepherd. Classical education is a universal shearing that enlightens our story. Let me explain.



The Invisible and Universal Great Books

        First, God made and sustains an invisible world that is incomparably larger, more beautiful, and more real than the visible world we inhabit. Life’s journey is an adventure toward the infinite happiness found in this invisible world, but our fatal wound is an original fallenness that blinds our path to infinite joy. Like Chris, we are prone to wander and lose our place in our own story. We need a champion sheep-shearer to enlighten us.

        Johann Alsted (15881638) taught that Providence, divine judgement, and life make up God’s invisible books (“a book that He himself has and solely reads”), while human enlightenment comes from three visible books: sacred Scripture, nature, and our mind/conscience (the universal books … that [God] gives us to read”). The universal enlightenment of classical education is seeing our brokenness in Scripture, nature, and conscience—and how God himself restores. Classical education is the daily re-enchanting of the adventurous journey for everyone. To quote Alstad again, “This triple book of God … is universal … in an open and sunny place for countless people: the book of Scripture for all who are called into the kingdom of grace, the book of nature and the book of conscience or our mind for every single man.”[1]

 Educational Boats in a Braided Stream

         Alsted’s most famous pupil, John Amos Comenius (1592–1670), is today celebrated as the Father of Modern Education. He labored for ecumenical unity and started schools across Europe to teach all things to all people in all ways” and to restore peace amidst societal collapse. “According to Gods design,” Comenius writes, “this world to which we were sent at birth, should be Gods school, full of light, Gods temple, full of piety, Gods kingdom, full of order and justice.”[2] In other words, the visible world is Gods theater of re-enchanting vocations in image-bearers designed for infinite happiness.

        The last 400 years of educational history are like a braided stream of Comenius influence. Every school or educational model is a boat floating in some tributary of his educational revolution. To every school leader today, though, Comenius himself would ask regarding the students: Are they becoming see/sea-worthy? (full of light); Are they becoming temple-worthy? (full of piety); Are they becoming realm-worthy? (full of order and justice). In short: are students becoming whole and holy people?[3]    

A Gateway Drug for the Marooned and Cocooned

        Today, our way of seeing is blurred by a myopic romantic utopianism.[4]  Like Chris the unshorn sheep, nearly all of us are marooned, cocooned, and blinded by deceptive modern incantations with their own mythic power: the myth of progress, the denial of fallen nature, the marginalization of God, and an intoxication with material immanence, expressive individualism, and excessive consumer contentment.

        Classical education is an en-lightening process. Goodness, truth, and beauty are the shearing instruments to reveal—through light, justice, and piety—our true condition. We are fallen ruins with a glorious destiny. Educational holiness in community kindles a longing for the healing of this cosmic rupture. C.S. Lewis called it Sehnsucht—a gateway drug to God’s invisible world. When we experience it, we begin to “carry the fire” together.

 The Paradise of the Heart

        At the end of all this shearing, then, what will we find?

        In Comenius’ classic of Christian spirituality, The Labryrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, Christ himself enters the heart of the pilgrim and there shares the purpose of liberal learning:

Let the highest point of your learning be to search for me in my deeds, to see how wonderfully I guide you and all things…In place of all libraries, I give you this book [the Bible] in which you will find contained all the liberal arts. 

            Your grammar will be the contemplation of my words; 
            your dialectics, faith in them;
            your rhetoric, prayers and sighs;
            your science, examination of my works;
            your metaphysics, delight in me and in eternal things; 
            your mathematics, calculating, weighing, and measuring my blessings on the one hand, and the ingratitude of the world on the other.
            Your ethics will be my love, which will provide you with the rule for all your conduct toward me and toward your neighbors.

You will pursue all this learning not in order to be seen [by others] but rather that you might draw nearer to me. And in all of this, the simpler you become, the more learned you will be. For my light illumines simple hearts.”[5]

   May the same be said of the classical education on offer today.

 [1] William Alsted, Theologia naturalis, II.242, quoted in Petr Pavlas (2023): Up to Five Books of God: The Metaphorical and Theological Background of Herborn Encyclopaedism, Reformation & Renaissance Review, DOI: 10.1080/14622459.2022.2160686.12.

[2] Quoted in Jan Habl, The Restoration of Human Affairs.

[3] Thanks to my friend David Hoffner for this phrase.

[4] Some of the language in this section is inspired by Anonymous, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age (University of Mary, 2020), see especially pp. 65-88.

[5] John Comenius, The Labryrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, The Classics of Western Spirituality. Translated and Introduced by Howard Louthan and Andrea Sterk. Preface by Jan Milic Lochman. Paulist Press, 1989, 191.

Dan Olson, MATS, CFRE, directs the Spreading Hope Network, spreading remarkable God-centered education for children of the city, and is managing director of Anselm House, a center for Christian studies at the University of Minnesota. He the author or illustrator of many books for children including The Runaway Sheep and Oh, The Treasures You’ll Know! [He currently serves on the boards of Hope Academy (Minneapolis), the Regent College Foundation, and the Baylor Center for Educational Leadership. He and his wife and four kids live in Minneapolis and are members at Hope Community Church.]

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