Christian Classical Schools as Lifeboats?
I don’t know what comes to mind when you hear the word lifeboat. For me it’s mostly images generated in a Hollywood studio—capsized ships in raging seas, harrowing escapes from on-board fires, slow-motion disasters involving icebergs. I’ve only once been on a ship large enough to have a supply of lifeboats. It was a cruise ship. I recall being a little unnerved by the sight of all the boats attached to the ship. Of course, it wasn’t the boats themselves that had this effect upon me; I was quite glad to see that there was a means of escape if worse came to worst. Rather, as I looked down upon the water from the impossible height of the main deck and out across the gentle swell of shoreless blue sea, the thought of the circumstances that would make it preferable to take my chances on the open ocean on such a small vessel than to remain on board the cruise ship bore down powerfully upon me. The ship is always preferable to the lifeboat, unless of course the ship is going down.
I mention all of this because the lifeboat is a key image in an article by Ken Myers I read a few months ago in The Journal of the Society for Classical Learning. I wasn’t looking for additional reading when I ran across the article, but Myers drew me in with his title: “Is Anything True? Is Anything Lovely? Educating Heart and Mind in a Culture of Relativism.” Recognizing the nod to Philippians 4:8, I was eager to see what application Myers would make of this familiar passage. I was also intrigued by his language of educating heart and mind with respect to relativism. Could it be that the way out of the morass of moral relativism is a reconciliation of head and heart—and not simply the acquisition of critical thinking skills? I strongly recommend following the link above and reading the entire piece if you would like to find out. The goal of the current post, however, is more limited in scope: to consider briefly Myers’ controversial suggestion that Christian classical schools are best understood as intellectual and cultural lifeboats.
Myers begins his discussion with a personal story involving close friends of his, a married couple. He relates how they struggled while they were members of a church whose leadership was abandoning historic Christian orthodoxy at seemingly every turn. The couple loved their church, and desperately wanted to help it right its course, but they were becoming ever more aware of how futile their efforts truly were. “We might be on the Titanic,” the wife would say, “but even the Titanic needed chaplains.” This analogy lifted their spirits for a while; that is, until one day the husband recognized another and more salient aspect of the analogy: “What they needed on the Titanic,” he said, “were lifeboats.” Indeed.
The history of American schooling in the second half of the twentieth century resembles the history of the church to which these two friends belonged. It’s a story not of steady decline but of precipitous and radical change. Schools once supported and extended the moral formation of home and church, laid solid foundations in language, history, and mathematics, and provided a clear sense of citizenship and civic responsibility. By the end of the century, however, they were often centers of values clarification, illiteracy, historical revision, youth culture, and at times even violence. Though it was written thirty-five years ago, the Reagan administration’s famous report Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform captures the significance of this educational crisis in terms that are still relevant: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impress on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The renewal of Christian classical education in our own day began when parents stopped believing that they need to provide more chaplains for the sinking ship of American education and started looking for the lifeboats.
With the discussion surrounding books like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, I understand that this suggestion is controversial. Christians are concerned, rightly I believe, about the dangers of disengaging or retreating from American culture. Laying aside the question of whether such a withdrawal is what The Benedict Option is actually advocating, I would submit that the image of the lifeboat does not necessarily signify retreat or disengagement. Lifeboats are not simply or even essentially means of escape; they are means of preserving life. They are also an immediate and highly effective means of rescue. It seems to me that the most important question with respect to lifeboats is whether the ship is sinking. If it is, then lifeboats are not so much an option as a necessity for people who are truly concerned with preserving life. Myers introduces the metaphor of a lifeboat precisely to communicate the idea of life-preservation. He explains: “While some Christian institutions are providing spiritual comfort to a drowning culture and some are foolishly aiding and abetting the floods, Classical Christian schools are in a unique position to sustain a rescue and recovery operation.”
If Myers is correct, and I think he is, then it follows that Christian classical schools exist, not because Christian students need to be sheltered from the culture, much less because they need a valued-added option to the private or Christian schools available in the area. Christian classical schools exist because if a generation of young men and women are going to sustain a rescue and recovery operation for the life of the world, they are going to need lifeboats. That is, they are going to need centers of alternative intellectual and spiritual formation that will order their loves and renew their minds for service in Christ’s kingdom, wherever he may call them.
How are Christian classical schools in a unique position to conduct this kind of rescue and recovery operation? Why are they uniquely equipped to carry it out? I offer Myers’ answer in order to whet the reader’s appetite for reading the whole article. “[T]hey are doing this,” Myers explains, “by reorienting the hearts and the minds of thousands of young saints. They offer a framework and a set of practices that equip young people to know themselves, Creation, and their Creator properly.” In my next post I will seek to unpack this answer and also to consider Myers’ fascinating description of the well-educated person as someone who is “open to reality, receptive to truth, delighted by what is lovely.”