In this article, I interview Josh Spears about Christian classical education. Spears serves as Lyceum Director and Chair of Theology at The Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City, OK, which really means he gets to talk about nerdy things with dialectic and rhetoric students. He is also an adjunct instructor in the Humanities and Philosophy department of the University of Central Oklahoma. Spears is a husband of one and father of four, an elder at City Presbyterian Church, and an Enneagram 5w6. He’s rather fond of making things out of wood, chocolate in the 72-84% dark range, and the peaty export of the Scottish Islays.
Thank you to Josh Spears for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.
What is a “classical education”?
Classical education is an art devoted to human-making, the telos (i.e., purpose) of which is to produce wise humans, enabled by virtue, to live excellent lives.
Why should one pursue a classical education as opposed to another model of education?
I would say first that a classical education alone isn’t sufficient for a genuine education. Greek wisdom cannot be the ultimate telos of education. Nothing short of a robust Christological foundation will suffice (arguably, or at least as I understand philosopher Eleonore Stump’s reading of Aquinas, true virtue is impossible apart from the Spirit’s enabling work of shedding love abroad in the hearts of His people). Thus, I could not simply recommend a ‘secular’ classical education, though I would recommend it over a modern, non-classical one. The trouble with modern education, secular and otherwise, is that it has inverted what Christ commands, to wit, seek first the Kingdom and all the other will be added. To the extent that modern education’s goal is to produce, say, a work force, to the exclusion of virtue (theological or Aristotelian), it has failed as a viable model of education.
A pedagogy based on homo economicus (humans as economic beings) will fail to produce virtuous, flourishing humans. Recognizing that we are homo adorans (humans as worshiping beings) reorients both the means and the ends of education. We worship first and foremost, and our loves point us toward and shape our worship. Education is as much about training children to love the right things so they’ll worship aright. Attuned to love the Transcendentals, students will then be free to accomplish whatever vocation to which they’re called.
What kind of learning and what learning outcomes become more important in a classical education model?
I couldn’t speak to other classical institutions of education but my own demarcates four ways of being we hope characterize our graduates. Our graduates:
1. Humbly recognize their place in Christ’s story
2. Expectantly pursue and cherish all that is True, Good, and Beautiful
3. Graciously love their neighbor, especially the most broken and marginalized
4. Joyfully cultivate and embody a cruciform vision of all of life
The trouble, of course, is that these are not quantifiable in the traditional sense required by most evaluators of an educational program. In fact, we won’t know we’ve successfully meet these goals for our graduates until the end of their lives; how could we evaluate until then? ‘Our graduates die faithfully living for Christ their King through loving their neighbor and seeking the True, the Good and the Beautiful in all they do,’ of course, doesn’t fit well in a social media, sound-bite world.
How does studying the classics and the liberal arts shape students differently than an education which may emphasize STEM programs or other models?
Because STEM programs are aimed primarily at getting students into jobs via technology training, they’ll fail to shape students in the proper ways (in fact, there’s a movement to replace STEM with STEAM!). To be sure, all education is transformative, that’s not the question; the question is to what end students will be transformed. Science and technology work only with an imaginative accessing of reality. This imaginative access comes through narratives and poetry, the liberal arts. Ironically, the quadrivium of classical education contains the four mathematical arts; part and parcel of a classical education is what STEM programs are after. But modern education has put asunder what Athens hath put together. STEM makes sense only if it’s founded on the liberal arts. So, we might say that, if a bit melodramatically, STEM without the liberal arts gets you Hiroshima and Enron; scientists and mathematicians who wrought destruction in the name of defense and economic progress.
For people who want to pursue a classical education but either don’t have the finances or the geographical access to a classics school, what would yοu recommend to them?
This is such a good question and I wrestle with it all the time. The Classical Christian movement is overwhelmingly WASPy. On its own, there’s no shame in this; middle class white kids should have a good education. But so should all children. If only those with means are able to access this kind of education, then the Church is failing to provide what is most basic for the least of these. We need people willing to sacrifice their personal resources, we need churches to devote budgets to scholarshiping students, we need state and federal governments to untangle themselves from arbitrary and oppressive statutes that maintain an unfair educational monopoly. There are a number of schools who are attempting to do just this: West Dallas Community School-Dallas, The Oaks Academy-Indianapolis, and Hope Academy-Minneapolis. I serve on the board of St Paul’s Community School, a classical Christian school devoted to serving one of OKC’s poorest neighborhoods.
That said, I’d say to anyone in this situation to ask for help from their deaconate funds; to offer to work for the school to help defray the costs; to talk to schools about scholarships. If you live too far from a good school, there are a number of online resources to start either homeschooling or supplementing current schooling. Classical Conversations (https://www.classicalconversations.com/) is a great entry into the classical education world.
Thank you again to Director Spears! Follow my site to see when I post my next interview on how Josh became Presbyterian and to see more interviews and content.