Inventing the Wheel

Understanding the Core Elements of Classical Education

DAVID SEIBEL

You have probably been sitting in a meeting when someone says, “Well, let’s not reinvent the wheel here.”

This phrase traces back to the 1970s and was frequently used in business and advertising settings. To reinvent the wheel means to waste one’s time trying to solve a problem that has already been solved by someone else. An invention already exists, so expending resources on a solved problem is a waste of effort.

          The invention of the wheel changed the trajectory of human history and really got things rolling for mankind (pun intended). But the wheel also serves as a useful way to describe an education, more specifically a Classical Christian Education (CCE). I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, but I would like to use the parts of the wheel as a means of progressing you, the reader, in your understanding of CCE. The components: the hub of enculturation, the spokes of curriculum, and the rim of school atmosphere.

The Hub

Education is enculturation in the truth, not behavior manipulation.

One’s beliefs about the nature of education and the nature of a child will determine the direction and delivery of the entire educational enterprise. These core beliefs form the hub, the central part of the wheel that attaches it to the axle. If the hub breaks, progress becomes impossible. Likewise, if you get this part of the educational enterprise wrong, you have poisoned the well, and those who drink will be infected.

          As John Piper says, we study the great books in light of the Great book for the Great Commission. As we study Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle, we put them in conversation with Peter, Paul, and the other apostles. The Scriptures are the measuring rod by which we evaluate the entire range of human experience in the world. An education that does not admit to using a measuring rod is one that sees man as his own measure.

          In CCE, we believe that any society that sees man as his own measure is preparing to disintegrate. We do not see children as pencils to be sharpened, bags to be filled, or blank pages to be written upon. In the most profound sense, a child is an heir of the King and ought to be treated as royalty – created for glory, fallen in Adam, redeemed in Christ, perfected in eternity.

          Our view of the child, our biblical anthropology, guides CCE in all educational decisions. Behaviorism sees children as animals to be conditioned by punishments and rewards for societal gain.

          CCE proposes an alternative. We constantly ask how something will affect children. For example, instead of utilizing apps and cardboard traffic lights to track good and bad student behavior, we purposefully train our students in the habits of the heart: attention, obedience, respect, and responsibility. As Christian educators, we believe that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Thus, real change must travel through the pathway of the heart.

In the most profound sense, a child is an heir of the King and ought to be treated as royalty – created for glory, fallen in Adam, redeemed in Christ, perfected in eternity.

The Spokes

What you teach, how you teach, & how you assess strengthens the mind, awakens the heart, & equips the whole person.

The spokes of the wheel connect the hub with the outer rim, providing structural integrity. Similarly, all schools have a curriculum (what’s taught), a pedagogy (how it’s taught), and an assessment strategy (how it’s measured). The school is not ultimately judged by what the teachers teach, but by what the students learn. To say you have taught, but the student has not learned, is like saying that you have sold, but no one has purchased. Teachers ought to have a passion for their subject and compassion for their students.

          In modern education, the curriculum, instruction, and assessments are perfectly designed to atrophy the imagination, waste away all sense of wonder, and euthanize a love for learning. Behaviorism drives this destruction. This theory that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, is structurally integrated into all curriculum decisions. As an example, when one compares a modern reading list for middle school students to one from 1908, three current priorities immediately emerge: popularity, political interest, and accessibility. Consider the first paragraph of a modern historical fiction book Nothing But the Truth from 1992:

“Coach Jamison saw me in the hall and said he wanted to make sure I’m trying out for the track team! Said my middle school gym teacher told him I was really good! Then he said that with me on the Harrison High team, we have a real shot at being county champs. Fantastic!!!!!! He wouldn’t say that unless he meant it. Have to ask folks about helping me get new shoes. Newspaper route won’t do it all. But Dad was so excited when I told him what Coach said that I’m sure he’ll help.”

          Compare this excerpt to the first paragraph of Longfellow’s Evangeline from 1847:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms. Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

          The differences in these paragraphs illuminate the difference between the priorities of classical versus modern education. The first paragraph from 1992 is simple, casual, and directly connected to the student’s world, while the second paragraph from 1847 is complex, formal, and requires the student to enter the author’s world to understand. One approach is controlled by what is popular and expedient, while the other is controlled by what is true and good.

“Modern education is perfectly designed to euthanize a love for learning.”

The RIM

The atmosphere of a school can strengthen or weaken virtue.

The rim is the outermost part of the wheel and supports the rubber tire wrapped around it. In schools, this is the atmosphere of the school.

          By marginalizing faith in the public sphere, government schools make Christ irrelevant, Christian living immaterial, and virtue formation invisible. With CCE, the atmosphere motivates students to enjoy order and appreciate beauty. For example, rather than developing one’s own style through clothing, CCE challenges students to develop their own style in less superficial manners and prioritizes the community over the self through school uniforms. Moreover, CCE students are expected to serve, not just be served. Most CCE schools have guilds or a house system where they are grouped with students from all grades. The older students read books to the younger students in their guild or do service projects with them. This develops mentors within the student body that the younger children learn to imitate. Guilds, uniforms, and many other mechanisms deliver the core beliefs of the CCE school into the daily atmosphere.

          Think back to your most impactful teachers from school. Mine was Dr. Jaen-Portillo. She made me believe I could speak another language, even though I was from a rural community. She had a presence, an atmosphere, about her that was contagious to her students. Her beliefs, behaviors, and values impacted me in subtle ways. I have forgotten much of what she has taught me, but I do remember her impact on me. In CCE, the teachers are the living curriculum. We hire teachers that are effective not just in scholarship but also in cultivating an atmosphere of Christian discipleship.

“With CCE, the atmosphere motivates students to enjoy order and
appreciate beauty.”

Reinventing the Wheel

So now we come to the tire itself, the ultimate result of the components working together. According to modern educational models, the tire is the specific applications of education, the real-world job skills that make money. In CCE, these specialized skills represent the icing on the cake. They are the final application of the body of knowledge that has been learned. Although they are not central, they hold an important place in the curriculum. At the end of the day, CCE students may be the most well- equipped to move the wheel forward!

 One’s beliefs about the nature of education and the nature of a child will determine the direction and delivery of the entire educational enterprise.

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