For many, the words “classical education” bring to mind medieval images: candlelit libraries with soaring ceilings enclosing shelves full of ancient (and dusty) leather-bound volumes; strange tales of ancient wars and mythical gods; deep philosophical treatises by Plato or Aristotle; or the ruins of antiquity in Athens and Rome.
With the resurgence of classical Christian schools over the past 30 to 40 years, a new generation is learning to appreciate both the beauty and the practical wisdom that arise out of these images that can be discovered through a classical education.
And yet the tenets of a classical education feel increasingly at odds with our modern approach. The “ed-tech” sector has been booming for the past two decades. It has never been easier to find engaging content from the comfort of our virtually connected homes, but where does a classical education fit in this evolving framework of education?
Gone are the shelves of ancient volumes, replaced by pages of sponsored links displayed by the ubiquitous search engine; and increasingly, mediated by artificial intelligence engines which convincingly present summaries on any topic. Innovation, a word whose very etymology shouts “new!” is everywhere. What does an educational model rooted in antiquity have to do with “new?”
Charting a New Path: Online Classical Education
There are now almost 500 member schools in the Association of Classical Christian Schools. Each has its own particular approach to implementing a classical Christian education, but with one exception, they all share one thing in common: a physical space within which education takes place.
At Wilson Hill, we are the outlier, offering 100% live classes with master teachers in all 50 U.S. states, several Canadian provinces, and more than a dozen other countries through the magic of the internet.
We clearly believe the internet can be effective as an educational medium. We also remain convinced that the classical Christian education model is the best way to raise students who delight in beauty, goodness and truth.
To resolve the supposed incongruity of those two statements, we need to stand back and take a look at a key hidden assumption: the notion that technological innovation is somehow antithetical to education.
The Longstanding Role of Technological Innovation in Education
Education has always benefited from technological innovation. Once the oral tradition was replaced by written languages—an innovation—we were able to learn from those in previous generations or distant lands much more easily. Technological advances in the material sciences gave us cheaper and more durable options, replacing clay tablets or cured sheepskin. Technological advances in transportation resulted in ever wider distribution of ideas. Printing presses, and especially the invention of moveable type, continued that expansion of influence; the volume of available materials continued to grow as the cost continued to fall.
These kinds of innovations led to the establishment of the great “universities” of Europe—centers of learning intended to cover the universe of truth. More recent advances in book binding, phototypesetting and now the “e-book” are just continuing this trend. So, if anything, education is among the chief beneficiaries of technological innovation.
“Technological innovation is not antithetical to a classical Christian education.”
The Danger of Too Much Innovation
That said, there certainly are threats to education within all of this innovation. G.K. Chesterton once said, “I can trust the uneducated, but not the badly educated.” And with all this innovation, there are plenty of opportunities to become badly educated these days!
According to HealthIT, there were 1.9 billion websites on the internet by August of last year. It is easy to see how the wisdom of the ages can get lost in that noise.
Here is where the essence of a classical education shines forth. One of the classics of the modern resurgence of interest in classical Christian education is Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In it she advocates for a “tools approach” to education—teaching students how to think rather than what to think.
Teaching a Classical Education as Christ Followers
But to address the implied challenge of the original question, how can we successfully combine “online” and “virtual” with “classical” and “Christian” when it comes to education?
For us at Wilson Hill, this is not a difficult question. We go about that task just as faithful Christian educators have done for centuries. We love our students. We love our subjects. And most of all, we love our Lord.
We are merely leveraging technology as we do that, enabling master teachers to engage effectively with students regardless of location, and to guide them as they seek to gain wisdom from those who have gone before us that can apply to the challenges God brings our way in the future. And as with previous technological innovations, the internet allows us to deliver this education much more broadly and at a much lower cost.
A classical Christian education is not focused on reclaiming the glories of the past great civilizations, but rather on preparing third-millennium Christians, both this generation and those to come, to live faithfully in the present. And that “present” includes not only our present version of technological innovation, but other innovations that we can scarcely now imagine.