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Classical Education?

By R. J. Rushdoony
September 01, 1997

An absurd notion, much too prevalent in Christian and non- Christian circles, is that what our schools need is a return to a classical educational curriculum. This makes about as much sense as a return to Greco-Roman religion in order to have a true revival of religion.

Classical education, in all its forms, Greco-Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern, is essentially and radically humanistic. Do we want this?

In 1935, I found a local library that carried the works of the older Bohn translations and the new Loeb texts of classical writings, and, determined to educate myself, I began, systematically and omnivorously, to read these works. I soon realized how wayward and evil the older schooling had been. These classics were simply the body of thought setting forth the paganism of old and its adoption by elements within Christendom. (I learned years later that Otto Scott had come to a similar conclusion.)

Consider the writings of the Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripedes. What is their essential message? It is a simple and evil one, namely, that man’s fate is a perverse one because the gods have stacked the decks against mankind. A man, like Oedipus, is an innocent victim of the gods, who use him perversely to bring evil upon evil on him. If you want to hear the spirit of the Greek dramatists today, listen to juvenile delinquents and adult criminals justify themselves as the innocent victims of fate. That is what Greek drama was about.

In perpetuating these classics of old, not merely as documents of a failed culture but as timeless and enduring treasures of thought, the West has taken poison into its kitchen and fed itself with evil. The rebels against Christendom have been happy to center education on classical literature because thereby they have made a thoroughly anti-Christian force basic to education. To add to this, Latin has been studied rather than Hebrew and Biblical Greek, although the contribution of the latter two has certainly been very great.

There is a place for classical literature if we face it realistically for what it was—the culture of humanism, of cruelty, of slavery, of evil. We need to challenge the old assumptions also, i.e., that Ciceronian Latin was better than medieval Latin. Why? Each was best adapted to its purpose, and church Latin had a greater subtlety as a philosophical and theological language.

Education is always future-oriented or it is dead. What faith and what ideas do we need to command the future? It was to John Dewey's credit that he substituted a living, twentieth century humanism for an ancient and less relevant one. It is absurd to go back to what Dewey had the sense to discard. What sense was there in learning the names of the Greek and Roman gods and the histories of their silly escapades? And what value is there in a curriculum designed in terms of a Greco-Roman culture? Is it not stupidity to adopt a curriculum which even our humanists had the sense to discard? What pretentious nonsense is it for a church to boast that its Christian school is given to a classical curriculum?

A curriculum must provide a course, a highway, for life and action. It must relate the faith of the school to the life of its times. If it does not make that connection, its students will in time lapse into the evils of modern popular culture as they encounter it on all sides. Is it happening? A graduate of a large Christian school, attending the twenty-fifth-year reunion, found the faith of most to be marginal. They had received a superior grounding in basic education, but the Christian context was not there except as an altar call at special services. What they had received was at heart a conservative version of Dewey!


Topics: Culture , Education, Philosophy

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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