At about high school age, students start to crave something more complex than merely absorbing virtue and beauty and working out thinking puzzles in classroom exercises. As they read more and more of the great minds and learn more and more of the great truths of the universe, they will want to actually engage and join the great conversation. This is when students are ready to truly speak, not for the sake of a classroom exercise, but for themselves.
We can tell a student is ready for this final piece of the classical education when she starts to become aware of how all the ideas and information she is encountering are affecting her own worldview.
For Lewis, this happened perhaps most poignantly when he began to realize that the atheism that he clung to stubbornly for much of his young adult life was being slowly chipped away by the authors he was drawn to:
“I…thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive ‘apart from his Christianity.’ …I thought…that Christianity itself was very sensible ‘apart from its Christianity’….And nearly everyone now (one way or another) was in the pack; Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself. Everyone and everything had joined the other side….All said, in the last resort, ‘It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?’” (Surprised by Joy)
Lewis writes that these authors took him out of himself, pointing him to something higher than his own heart and his own mind; the “inherent dialectic of desire” pointed him towards the truth, goodness, and beauty that can only be found in Christ.
Soon, of course, Lewis realized that the truths he was seeking were most fully realized in the Christian faith. And like every rhetoric stage student who has firmly established his beliefs, he naturally wanted to proclaim them. We need only look to the body of Lewis’s work to understand how he made use of this natural desire. Lewis is one of the most prolific Christian authors of the modern age, and his image-bearing ability to speak (and by extension to write) brought a wealth of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty to a broken world.
Perhaps Lewis’s most applicable advice for the student in this stage comes from The Abolition of Man, when he compares the old (classical) way of educating with the new pragmatic way of educating:
“Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for the purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.”
If we are to follow Lewis’s advice, then in the rhetoric stage we must teach our students how to fly.
To do this, we challenge them to bring their own questions to class discussions and to confidently and thoughtfully critique ideas they believe to be wrong. We challenge them to puzzle through new information and consider its implications for their worldview, whether that new material is chemical properties or blank verse poetry. We challenge them to respond to false philosophies, and to consider the most loving and winsome ways to challenge untruths.
In all of this, we are returning to an old, time-honored teaching methodology, one that values the propagation of truth, goodness, and beauty enough to train students to use their mouths to pass on the inclinations of their hearts and the conclusions of their minds.
The True End of a Classical Education
Though Lewis’s own education was very piecemeal, it was in some respects very classical. He did not become a Christian until he was in his twenties, but it’s clear from his autobiography that certain aspects of his education were intricately wrapped up in his testimony, even though he did not realize it at the time.
Similarly, in a Christian classical education, we recognize that everything that we do is ultimately supposed to help students live the Christian life. A poetry copywork exercise might not have an immediate cosmic influence, but it does train your child’s heart to recognize the beautiful, and later he will more easily recognize the divine source of all beauty because of that training. A classroom debate about uniforms versus casual clothes certainly isn’t going to change your child’s entire worldview, but it is training her mind to recognize a sound argument, and that will point her towards truth, and the divine source of all truth. A big speech, like keynote or senior thesis might seem only to wrack your child’s nerves, but it is really training his mouth to speak winsomely and compellingly and to uphold goodness, and the divine source of all goodness, to the world. All of these subjects are ultimately working together to equip your student to be a loving, thinking, speaking image-bearer of Christ.
In Surprised by Joy Lewis gives us his version of the “true end” of education. All elements of a worthwhile education, he says, are worthwhile because, ultimately, they help us live the good life, a life centered on Christ: “The true training for anything whatever that is good always prefigures and, if submitted to, will always help us in, the true training for the Christian life. That is a school where they can always use your previous work whatever subject it was on.”
Aubry Myers is the Director of Classical Education at Granite Classical Tutorials.