John Mark Reynolds: Finding the Fitting Canon

There are three standards that have proven practical, which I discovered while observing wise people with limited access to the credentialing part of education.

Papaw was a graduate of “Goose Creek University,” or so he was proud to claim. Mom made him a diploma for his time in this one-room schoolhouse that served students up to the eighth grade. Papaw was a very good student, so they let him go twice. He sat every day with that most beautiful of translations, the King James Bible, and a dictionary, supersaturating in the language and speech patterns. He read the “Democratic” and “Republican” papers, though, as a West Virginian whose grandfathers had served in Mr. Lincoln’s army, he had his biases. Up to the day he died, he could quote from memory the start of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and he knew a good bit of Wordsworth and Longfellow like most of his peers.

Papaw longed for more schooling and toyed with correspondence courses, but the education he had received gave him access to language, the civilization around him, and the roots of that civilization. He was, by the time he died, an educated man, though he would have denied it. He was not, after all, a credentialed man.

When I am asked how to choose a curriculum, I hear my grandparents voices, among others, speaking to me from the past and helping me answer the question. When I attended graduate school to study philosophy, my Nana was proud but cautioned me “not to forget the folks.” I have tried not to do so.

Injustice denied my grandparents access to education, a pattern that my family experienced for almost four hundred years in North America. Yet thankfully, the education they did receive was at least the start of an education that could liberate them and lead to higher things: love of neighbor, family, the laws, country, and God. In that respect, they were better off than other groups who were denied any education at all. I was taught to hear those voices by great thinkers like Frederick Douglass or W.E. Dubois. How could I forget?

What is the education fit for a person created in the image of the good God and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Douglass taught that enslavers hated literacy because readers could communicate with voices in different spaces, places, and times. The tyrant, Plato suggests in Republic IX, fears any man free from slavery to his passions. The immediate concerns of today cut a person off from the calm wisdom of the past that would allow him to carry forward. Reading has the promise of opening other possibilities not visible in the great waves of immediate care.

There is a greater problem: Death comes for us all and increases our loneliness. This is a wound that we try to ignore but that grows harder with time. My grandparents are all gone now. I cherish the written words I have from them, even a signature, because though they are dead they can still speak in those words. My Nana wrote poems and hymns. When I hear them, I hear her, the only licit necromancy. I am less alone.

So, when I began to consider what we should read as a community, there was an immediate consideration: can we hear the words of our ancestors? Can I learn to read with comprehension what the dearly departed have said? This is why any canon, any rule of reading, must include representative voices of the readers and students. If one is in Ethiopia, one must look back to the voices of Holy Aksum, if in Russia, to the saints of the caves and wilderness. As Americans, we look to our own past, even if that past is short by comparison. As Americans, we might read Twain or Ellison where other nations might not, because they are important voices of our ancestors. This is not due to some misguided political theory, but from the piety a man owes his ancestors. Our schools and college read Wheatley, Longfellow, Lincoln, Douglass, Hughes, and other Americans, because they shaped our present selves. We are intellectual descendants of Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King. We do not forget our folks.

The first rule of reading, in forming a canon, is to trace our ancestors back to the great conversation of all of humanity and read the texts that enabled them to join that discussion.

What is the great conversation? It is the web of discussion that connects Plato to the lands of the Indian sub-continent. It is Thomas Aquinas responding to Islamic sages. The great conversation is finding reflections on Greek philosophy in Dostoevsky or Homeric heroes cropping up in a console game.

The great conversation is the discussion that began with Eve and Adam and was fruitful and multiplied high civilizations. The great conversation advances humanity toward the truth, is good, and creates beauty. There are many good books, but a book that must be read is one that has been referenced in many cultures, places, and times. It is a text that is so deep in time that many ancestors can claim it. What are the texts that allowed our own American nation (and other nations) to connect to the human experience of discovering the scientific methods and experiencing the revelation of God in Christ? These great texts will shape the truth, physical and metaphysical. Those are the texts we must add to our reading.

The second rule of reading, in forming a canon, is to read the texts that helped humanity find physical and metaphysical truth.

The scientific methods were discovered, and they are so true, good, and beautiful in their practice that all men receive a gift when they hear of them. What are the texts that helped bring about these discoveries? How did we develop hospitals? What led to the primacy of mathematics, not itself a science, as the language of science? All students must read Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, the great thinkers of the East and West, and the fathers of the scientific revolution. We must learn what this science is and the limits of all physics.

Much of what most call the canon of readings in a classical school will flow naturally from a combination of the deep connection of the folks to the great conversation and to science. One cannot understand science and how mathematics was privileged in Christian science without a dose of Plato’s Timaeus and the views of Copernicus. This will be true in any land with a nuclear reactor, automobiles, or hospitals.

Yet science, by nature, cannot give many human necessities: ethics being the most obvious. Know all that “is,” and one still has not come closer to what “ought” to be. We know what the birds and bees do, but based on that what should we humans do? Basic ontology also cannot be found in science alone. Is the world matter alone? Ideas alone? Matter and ideas together?

We need a metaphysic to go with our physics, sufficient to produce it, but also capable of answering the questions physics cannot. Christianity, which helped created modern science, is certainly capable of doing this work.

Those persuaded by reason and revelation that Christianity gives the best picture of metaphysical reality must read the texts that shape Christianity. The Bible, Hebrew and Greek, must be read carefully as should seminal thinkers of the early Patristic period. The rule, the canon of reading, delves back into the roots and development of Christianity and up to our own folks. A Christian school in a scientific culture and in a particular nation will have a canon almost complete simply by these first two rules, but there is a helpful third.

The third rule of reading, in forming a canon, is to determine the works that most shaped the language in which the student thinks and lives.

My grandparents were given hope, even in their limited opportunity at education, by a deep familiarity with the language of the King James, classical English texts in old primers, and an exposure to the language of the Book of Common Prayer. If all a man in an English-speaking world is given is the King James, the Book of Common Prayer, some memorized classical poetry, bits of Shakespeare, and a good dictionary, then he can eventually read anything his intellect will allow. He has been given a start. Abraham Lincoln shows that such an education in the hands of a world-class genius given a chance there is no limit to what can be done.

My grandparents were more eloquent than many more credentialed people I have met because they had a deep understanding of the roots of the language of power in their region: English. As Appalachians, they might have their own sound, rhythm, and grammar, but this common English education made them capable of understanding much that might otherwise have been foreign to them.

The rule of reading for a particular school will look to the roots of language, to the development of that language, and will delight in the mastery of the mother tongue. Naturally, for a Christian in the English-speaking world, this will suggest some study of Latin and Greek. These are root languages for our words, our physics, and our metaphysics.

These three rules have produced the bulk of the reading lists and curriculum at the Saint Constantine College and Schools. The lists will vary a bit with location and language, but the commonality is startling.

The most remarkable thing about a classical education guided in this way is that the more I learn, the more connected I become to Papaw. I am finding the roots of what he knew. I am learning the language he spoke. I am remembering the songs he sang. A good canon has helped me never forget the folks.

John Mark Reynolds, PhD is the President of Saint Constantine College and The Saint Constantine Schools based in Houston, TX. He is also a senior fellow in the humanities at The Kings College and a Fellow of the Center For Science and Culture at The Discovery Institute.

Dr. John Mark Reynolds

President of Saint Constantine College

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