In my past two articles, and at our 2019 Fall Benefit, I addressed The Need to be Equipped. My goal was to unpack the inner logic of the first part of Clapham Schoo’s vision “to equip young men and women to intentionally serve Christ.” In particular, I continue to be inspired by biblical examples like Peter and the first apostles or Moses and Paul, all of whom experienced a long and deep educational equipping process for the service to which God eventually called them. While they might have seemed to be counter examples to this rule of the need for equipping, they actually prove it. Their examples should encourage us to model the Christian education of our children on their experiences, while accounting for the differences of time and culture.
When we turn to modern exemplars of service to Christ, like C.S. Lewis or William Wilberforce and his circle, the case is no different. They were equipped for the unique roles and tasks the Lord assigned them, often through a remarkable classical education. But more than just these individuals, what really excites me is the idea of the Clapham Circle as a hotspot for service to Christ, drawing from Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. You’ll remember his three keys to the talent code (Deep Practice, Ignition, Expert Coaching)—ideas that have obvious implications for why we do so much of what we do here at Clapham. But more significant even is the importance of a culture or atmosphere that inspires service to Christ. That’s something I think we need to work hard to cultivate more and more at Clapham to live up to our name.
In this article I’d like to put on paper some of the thoughts I shared at the 2020 Winter Curriculum night on the topic of discernment. You see, in my mind, being equipped to serve has a corollary requirement, and that is to get out of the way the obstacles and pitfalls likely to trip a young disciple up on his or her journey toward a life of service to Christ.
Discernment helps clear away the confusion from the path of life and prevent unnecessary byways from getting us off track.
Grandparents of the Classical Education Movement
I consider Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) something like the grandmother and grandfather of the modern classical Christian education movement.
Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay called “The Lost Tools of Learning” and presented it at Oxford in 1948. The essay was a major impetus for the modern classical education movement, when it was rediscovered and popularized in, for instance, Doug Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. In it she proposes a return to the medieval trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) as an antidote to modern educational woes. In a similar but perhaps less obvious way, C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man has had a major influence through arguing for a recovery of objective value, the belief in the reality of truth, goodness and beauty as more than issues of individual opinion or preference. Both these works are short but profound reads for any parent or classical educator today.
In them both Lewis and Sayers were concerned with the issue of discernment, and felt that schooling in the modern world was sadly lacking when it came to equipping students to discern good from bad, right from wrong, true from false, beautiful and noble from ugly and base. Mass marketing and propaganda, especially like that used in the lead up to and during World War II, made them very nervous about how much of an easy prey the populace in general and even Christians specifically were to the marketing an governmental elite.
Dorothy Sayers discusses this problem specifically:
“For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” From “The Lost Tools of Learning”
Notice her use of language. Armor points to the image behind equipping. There’s a battle for truth going on. Mass media, in terms of both print and film and radio, means we are constantly bombarded with input. We cannot escape it, even if we don’t ever pick up a newspaper or best-seller. Words assail us.
This leaves us with two alternatives as modern people, according to Sayers: either we will know how to “ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back,” or we will be a “prey to words in our emotions.” Isn’t that what’s happening to our culture now? The emotional power of modern rhetoric has us spinning, every hour of every day.
But she goes on:
“We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of ‘subjects’; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education–lip- service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.”
Just learning subjects in the standard manner of school, where the teacher dispenses information and the students blindly accept it and memorize it for regurgitation on a test is not sufficient preparation or equipping. Throwing more money at the school system, and building bigger buildings and offering more programs cannot solve this problem! According to Dorothy Sayers, students need to be equipped to discern through the lost tools of learning.
An Educational Model That Habituates Discernment
If Dorothy Sayers could worry about mass media and the problems with “words, words, words” full of propaganda and mass marketing, what would she think about today? We have devices in our pockets with more mass media and communication—and we’re giving them to our children!—more words and images than she could ever have imagined possible. The amount of skillfully crafted words and images that assail us today is an order of magnitude beyond what it was in the 1940s.
We can’t send our children out into this world unarmed, unable to grapple with the power of word and image, unable to discern the methods and techniques being employed to play with their emotions and instincts.
This drives home for me the importance of how we do education (pedagogy) and not just what we cover (the curriculum). We need a pedagogy that habituates our students in discernment. The model of education that involves simply accepting the reigning dogma spouted from the teacher in a PPT lecture will accustom students to a default mode of accepting whatever an authority figure tells them. Reading books all written in the modern era by textbook committees expressing the accepted view will not train them to discern. You see, we’re habituated beings. When we do something one way all the time, our brains go on autopilot. Do we want our children on autopilot to “memorize facts” or “discuss the merits of ideas”?
I think what I’m getting at here is biblical and uniquely Christian, not just a concern of classical education:
“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
-Hebrews 5:14 ESV
The process of Christian education toward maturity, toward service to Christ that makes a difference in the world, requires “constant practice” from an early age. Students need to be presented with content, and asked to listen careful and respectfully, and be sure they’ve got it right (narrate), but then they must be asked to discuss, to distinguish, to respond intellectually. For us at Clapham, that’s bedrock; that’s standard practice every day in the classroom. And it’s our hope that through that process our students will become mature servants of Christ who are not tossed to and fro by every wind or wave of teaching (see Eph 4:14), the mass propaganda and marketing that are all too prevalent in our world.