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The Benedict Option for Education

Being familiar with some of Rod Dreher’s other works like The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and How Dante Can Save Your Life, I was excited to read his newest book, just out on Tuesday, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. While the whole book is both accessible and informative (see Scott’s review here), I was, unsurprisingly, most interested in Dreher’s assessment of “Education as Christian Formation” (chapter 7).

Dreher first discusses the importance of a rightly ordered education, one that teaches Scripture and the Western tradition. He says, “To compartmentalize education, separating it from the life of the church, is to create a false distinction…Benedict believed that discipleship was a matter of pedagogy, training both the heart and the mind, so that we could grow beyond spiritual infancy” (148). He further states, “The deeper our roots in the past, the more secure our anchor against the swift currents of liquid modernity” (152), noting the interconnected history of Christianity and the Greco-Roman West.

He then argues against both public education and modern traditional Christian education. He compellingly challenges Christians sending their children to public schools, stating,

Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the pubic school system. If those reasons weren’t already enough, the corrosive effect of the toxic peer culture found among students in many public schools (as well as private ones) would confirm the case…Plus, public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture. (155)

He continues,

Some tell themselves that their children need to remain [in public schools] to be “salt and light” to the other kids. As popular culture continues its downward slide, however, this rationale begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child. Parents may try to counteract the effects of secular education with church, Sunday school, and youth group, but two or three hours of religious education weekly is unlikely to counteract the forty or more hours spent in school or school-related programming. (157-58)

Of modern traditional Christian schools, Dreher says, “Don’t kid yourself…The trite theological education many received at Christian school will serve more as a vaccination against taking the faith seriously than as an incentive for it. Pull your kids out” (158-59). Being myself a product of modern traditional Christian education of the 80’s and 90’s (as is Scott), Dreher’s assessment is both spot on and yet not an entirely fair representation of modern traditional Christian schools (at least many in conservative evangelicalism with which I’m familiar). He’s exactly right that “in many Christian schools, Christianity is a veneer over a secular way of looking at the world” (158). This is true, if not necessarily of the teachers and administration, at least in great part of the student body and their families–though many, undoubtedly, would not admit that they have fallen prey to the secular culture. However, what Scott and I received (at different Christian schools) was not a trite theological education. In fact, our seminary educations in theology seemed simplistic compared to the deep theology we learned in our Christian high schools. Evangelical Christian schools following a Kingdom Education approach as presented by Glen Schultz or, even better, following the approach outlined in Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission by Ron Horton may be more aligned with Dreher’s proposal than he realizes.

Why then, have Scott and I, like Dreher, instead chosen classical Christian education for our children? In part because, as Dreher points out, secular culture is permeating even Christian schools (whether or not they teach trite theology) and in part because (as Dreher states in the next section) we believe that classical Christian education both pedagogically and curricularly teaches more fully the True, Good, and Beautiful than does modern traditional Christian education.

Therefore, having indicted both public and modern traditional Christian education, Dreher turns to classical Christian education–both in K-12 and the University–as the alternative. “Classical Christian education,” claims Dreher, is “built by marrying the Greco-Roman ideal that the purpose of education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom, to the traditional Christian worldview” (160). This education is rooted in the transcendentals and the Western tradition.

While I heartily agree with Dreher’s conclusions about classical Christian education, I have only to wish that he had not limited his definition of classical Christian pedagogy to the Trivium-As-Stages model, stating,

Classical Christian education…[uses] a medieval structure called the Trivium, which, as Dorothy Sayers argued in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” (the founding document of the current classical education movement), corresponds to the mental capacities of young people at certain ages of development. Typically, a student’s classical school career begins with the Grammar school, in which she learns and commits to memory basic facts about the world. The second part of a child’s experience is the Logic school, which corresponds to the middle school years. This is when students learn how to reason and analyze facts and discern meaning from them. The third and final stage is the Rhetoric school, which focuses on abstract thinking, on poetry, and on clear self-expression. (160)

I lament the use of this paradigm, not because it isn’t one legitimate model of classical Christian education (and likely even the most predominant one thanks to proponents of Sayers’ essay like Doug Wilson and Susan Wise Bauer early in the classical resurgence), but because the more robust paradigm that has been articulated in more recent years would greatly aid Dreher’s argument and, indeed, fits quite nicely with monastic education and the Rule that Dreher articulates.

While Sayers’ essay is certainly the “founding document of the current classical education movement,” as early as 2006, Society for Classical Learning leaders Littlejohn and Evans argued pointedly against the Sayers interpretation of the Trivium as stages of child development, providing an altogether different paradigm of classical Christian education. Most recently, classical education proponents like Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain in their book The Liberal Arts Tradition (2013), Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute, Stratford Caldecott in his Beauty for Truth’s Sake (2009) and Beauty in the Word (2012), and others have articulated a more contemplative and beautiful classical Christian education. This version of classical education does not poll-parrot facts in Grammar school and save poetry primarily for Rhetoric school. In fact, poetry comes first, at the earliest ages. Fill the mind of the youngest children with True, Good, and Beautiful ideas and language, not lists of facts, to form and order their affections–to train their loves. If one must have a “peg” of knowledge (in Sayers’ words) on which to hang further education, let it be something worth contemplating, something that will shape the love of the child.  Clark and Jain argue that piety, music, and gymnastic should shape the Grammar school years. Caldecott says of the Grammar school years, “By speaking of Memory or Remembering we are really speaking of the foundations of attention, of the integration of the personality, and of the road to contemplation. We are also speaking of ‘conscience'” (51, Beauty in the Word). Caldecott further argues,

If the spirit of tradition is to be preserved and revived, liturgy is going to be the key, for this is the school of memory, the place where we recollect ourselves, where we learn how to relate to each other in God. This is where we learn to accept the past and existence itself as a gift calling for a response of gratitude. Prayer and worship are therefore not extraneous but should be a central element in the life of the school or family. As we pray, so shall we be. (48, Beauty in the Word)

In keeping with Dreher’s chapter on “A Church for All Seasons” (chapter 5) in which he argues for liturgical worship, the most recent incarnation of classical Christian education argues for a reflection of liturgical worship in the school day. This has been most popularly called “Morning Time” by Cindy Rollins of the now defunct Ordo-Amoris blog and writer and speaker for the CiRCE Institute, but she and others (like Jenny Rallens in her excellent talk “The Liturgical Classroom and Virtue Formation”) have rightly defined this as a Christian liturgy–an ordering of the school day around a worship liturgy, including such elements as a Christian greeting, hymn singing, confession, prayers, and benedictions.

While keeping in mind that this is not a book on education and therefore cannot devote too much ink to one topic among many, had Dreher used this more recent articulation of classical Christian pedagogy rather than the earlier Sayers interpretation, I believe it would’ve strengthened his argument that “one of the most important pieces of the Benedict Option movement is the spread of classical Christian schools” (146)–an argument with which I enthusiastically concur. Classical Christian education is the best “Benedict Option” (or Christian option) not only because it is grounded in transcendental ideals or because it systematically teaches the Western canon but because, through use of the historic church worship liturgy, it forms and rightly orders the loves. If we are to “be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs” (3), then we must educate the next generation in love for that church, in everyday habits of prayer, repentance, and worship that are integrally connected to all learning. After all, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat…of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.”


About Becky Aniol

Becky holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and music, a master's degree in Christian education, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian education. She taught classical upper school grammar, literature, and history and lower school composition and grammar for two years, elementary school music for one year, and Kindermusik classes for four years before the birth of her children. She now loves staying home with her four children, Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline and homeschooling them classically.