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Why Blackburn Teaches the Classics
Note: The following letter was originally sent to Blackburn Study Center families and tutors in response to several queries about the study center’s literature selections.
December 11, 2001
Dear Blackburn Parents and Tutors:
Recently, a couple of families asked why Blackburn students read Greek mythology, or expressed concern about the moral content of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad in Black Ships of Troy. (e.g., the goddess’ vain striving after the golden apple and Helen’s adultery in chapter 1.) Those are valid concerns, reflecting an uneasy stance that some Christians have adopted toward pagan literature since the earliest days of the Church. “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked Tertullian (c. 155- c. 220 A.D.), a Carthaginian whose classical education consisted primarily of Greek and Latin literature.
We agree that it is appropriate for Christians to handle carefully works of pagan literature and scholarship. But we do not agree that Christians should avoid the Classics altogether. While much could be said on this subject, we will offer just a few thoughts:
First, Christianity is not an abstraction; Christ was born in Judea, in the heart of the Graeco-Roman world, during the reign of Caesar Augustus. As Douglas Wilson has said, “While the kingdom of God cannot be identified with western culture (and we do not seek even to try), that kingdom nevertheless has had such an impact on the West that the history of either since the time of Christ is incomprehensible without detailed understanding of the history of the other.”
This close relationship is particularly evident in matters of education. Christopher Dawson, a European historian and author of The Crisis of Western Education (1961), stressed that:
Christian culture was built from the beginning on a double foundation. The old classical education in the liberal arts was maintained without any interruption, and since this education was inseparable from the study of the classical authors, the old classical literature continued to be studied. But alongside of and above all this, there was now a specifically Christian learning which was biblical and theological and which produced its own prolific literature.
Until very recently, the Classics were part of any Christian education. In recent decades, Christians (like everybody else) have stopped reading the Classics, but not for moral or theological reasons. Therefore, while it may seem foreign for Christians to read the Classics now, that speaks more about our peculiar age than it does about anything else. At Blackburn Study Center, we are striving to “recover the lost tools of learning,” to borrow the title of Douglas Wilson’s seminal book. One of the first steps in that recovery is to restore the Classics to their former place in Christian education.
Second, there is Biblical and historical warrant for Christians to read the Classics. Paul knew his Greek language, poetry, philosophies and culture. Paul’s co-laborer, Apollos, was educated in Alexandria and considered an eloquent man. They were not condemned because of their classical learning; to the contrary, as Christians, they made it and every other thought captive to Christ. After the apostolic age, Christians continued to stay acquainted with classical writings:
- Jerome put away all secular books for a time because he became convicted that he was more “Ciceronian” than Christian, but he returned to the Classics later in life.
- Tertullian drew upon his knowledge of law, classical literature and philosophy to defend Christianity against the pagan state.
- In the Confessions, Augustine (a classically educated rhetorician of the first order) says that it was Cicero’s introduction to philosophy, Hortensius, that turned his own mind towards Christianity. In another book, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argued for the lawfulness of classical rhetoric.
- In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin quotes from Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Horace, Josephus, Juvenal, Ovid, Plutarch, Seneca and Virgil, among others.
- The English and American Puritans knew the Classics. The earliest American grammar school curriculum which has come down to us is that of the Boston Latin School. Entering students were taught Latin vocabulary and grammar. After mastering those rudiments, they learned Aesop’s Fables. As they grew older, the students read Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Juvenal and Isocrates.
Third, we are not interested in following tradition merely for tradition’s sake. But when the Church displays near unanimity on an issue over the course of two millennia, without apparent contradiction from Scripture, we are loathe to reject its example, and we reconsider with humility our own thoughts on the issue in light of that example.
Liberal education has aptly been described as a “great conversation,” in which we participate “as dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants.” We want our children to be able to participate meaningfully in that great conversation, and to take advantage of the learning and insight of previous generations. They will only be able to do so if they become familiar with the basic stories, names and vocabulary (i.e., the “grammar”) of classical literature, just as childhood familiarity with Biblical names, places and stories prepares them for a more mature understanding of profound theological truths.
Fourth, we do not read the Classics because we seek to emulate “Greek wisdom,” or because we wish to synthesize classical concepts with Christian truths. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). Our challenge, at Blackburn Study Center and as home schooling parents, is to handle pagan literature without teaching paganism. We strive to be Christ-centered, and to teach all subjects as parts of an integrated whole with God and His revealed Word at the center. That means bringing the Scriptures and scriptural truths to bear on every subject. We do that in our own homes, we have encouraged Blackburn’s tutors to do it in their classrooms (and they agree), and in light of the recent comments, we hereby repeat that admonition.
Finally, we reiterate our conviction that parents are and should be in control of their own children’s education. Blackburn Study Center is designed to be a useful service to families who wish to pursue classical and Christian education, but it is not intended to supplant your efforts or judgment. Therefore, just as with the tutors’ weekly home assignments, each family is encouraged to make its own decisions concerning curriculum choices, and it is expected that parents will add their own emphases to the curricula taught at Blackburn Study Center.
Please do not hesitate to contact the Holts, the Moyers or the Porters if you would like to discuss these or any other matters.
Your servants in Christ,
Blackburn Study Center