In the fall of 2018, I spoke at Mars Hill Academy, a classical homeschooling co-op in Lexington, Kentucky. It began in 1995 and offers classes in Latin, Western civilization, rhetoric, and worldview, as well as English, math, and science. A cynic might have warned me that I would be greeted by insular families trying to protect their children from secular culture, a rigid Bible-only approach to learning, a legalistic mindset, and a withdrawal from civic engagement.
What I found instead were parents, students, and teachers with a shared vision of an educational program steeped in the Great Books and committed to glorifying God, freeing the mind from the marketplace of idols, and shaping virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in many of the classical Christian schools I’ve spoken at—with some startling moments. Once, while explaining to an attentive group of teachers and students that the classical virtue of courage represents the Golden Mean between a lack of courage (cowardice) and an excess of courage, I asked what Aristotle might have meant by an excess of courage. A nine-year-old boy in the front row with white hair and a piercing glance shouted “bravado.” This young man had already begun to absorb the classics.
As in most schools I’ve visited, Mars Hill’s curriculum balances pagan (i.e., Homer, Aristotle) and medieval Christian (i.e., Dante, Chaucer) authors with major authors from the last 500 years of European and American literature (i.e., Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Faulkner).
In contrast, Western society today is increasingly eager to cut itself off from both its Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman roots. America’s elite universities, and increasingly non-elite ones, have rapidly jettisoned requirements for courses in Western thought (in 2011 the pro–liberal arts group National Association of Scholars documented the “near extinction” of Western Civilization from core curricula at top colleges). If the seeds for this wholesale abandonment were sown in the protests of the 1960s, the anti-Western flame became a wildfire in 1988, when protesters at Stanford University famously chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.”
In his 1995 bestseller, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill argued that many of the pagan (pre-Christian, Greco-Roman) classics were preserved through the Dark Ages by a most unlikely group of people: Irish Catholic monks living in a remote corner of the civilized world. If the country is preparing to enter a type of second Dark Ages devoid of classical thought, another unlikely group of people is arising to preserve the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition: conservative evangelical Christians.
Fundamentalists and Paganism
In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.
As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist worldview, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).
This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom. What could Christians learn from writers who denied the Christian revelation? As for the pre-Christian classical writers, though they might be excused for their ignorance of the Bible, their acceptance of such practices as idolatry, infanticide, and homosexuality rendered them off-limits.
This was the predominant attitude of evangelical Christians in the 1950s and 1960s. Conversely, today Mars Hill Forum is one of a growing number of evangelical homeschooling co-ops that want to raise up a generation of Christians who know the Bible and who live virtuous lives, and who are also firmly grounded in the pagan classics of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Roman Catholic classics of the Middle Ages. I’ve spoken to a number of such groups across the country and have found in each the same contagious atmosphere of learning and desire to be salt and light in the wider culture.
So what caused conservative evangelicals to reverse themselves on the classics?
It started seven decades ago when, in 1947, Dorothy Sayers presented an essay at Oxford titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Sayers, a friend of C.S. Lewis and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, was a lover of all things classical and medieval. In her essay, she offered her own psychological-pedagogical spin on an older method of education that was grounded in Latin, the classics, and the formation of reason and discernment. That method, the trivium, offered what Sayers labeled a “coherent scheme of mental training,” one suitable to arm citizens against the “massed propaganda” of the modern world.
Latin for “three paths,” the steps of the trivium—grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric—were used primarily as a method of language acquisition. Sayers’ savvy move was to link those three ancient steps to the three modern stages of child development. Thus, in the grammar stage (roughly kindergarten through 5th grade), students memorize the building blocks of various disciplines; in logic (6th through 8th grade), they learn how to construct those building blocks into organized, fallacy-free arguments; in rhetoric (9th through 12th grade), they gain the crowning ability to articulate, defend, and persuade others of their worldview.
Fast-forward three decades to a pastor, author, and speaker who was concerned about the state of public education in America. Happening upon Sayers’ forgotten essay, Douglas Wilson put her suggestions into action and founded the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, in 1981.
Dorothy Sayers thought it highly improbable that her proposals would find a following. But she wasn’t aware of the impact her friend C.S. Lewis would have on American evangelicals.
The Lewis Effect
In response to the legalization of abortion in 1973 and the troubled presidency of Jimmy Carter, many of whose policies alienated the Southern conservative Christians who helped put him into office, evangelicals slowly moved out of their bubble to engage social and political issues. Others took up the challenge of “infiltrating” secular universities with the gospel. To guard their faith during their sojourn in Babylon, they joined groups like InterVarsity and Campus Crusade and steeped themselves in the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, John Stott, and C.S. Lewis.
Increasing numbers of evangelicals found that they could not stop with Lewis’s Mere Christianity. They followed him as he took them to places they had previously avoided: to fantasy lands populated by wizards and talking animals, to a Catholic Middle Ages that was anything but dark and superstitious, and to the pre-Christian works and virtues of ancient Greece and Rome. Scattered pockets of evangelicalism criticized Lewis for his propensity for cigarettes and alcohol, his embrace of magic, and his avoiding biblical inerrancy and penal substitution, but most allowed Lewis to nudge them in wider directions.
Lewis helped unlock in the evangelical soul a longing for things of which they had been taught to be suspicious: tradition, hierarchy, liturgy, sacrament, numinous awe, and literature that was not specifically Christian. In both the medieval Catholic and classical pre-Christian world, evangelicals began to find works that stimulated them to ask the big questions. (Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?) They realized that by wrestling with the classics, they could gain a more holistic vision of how God has worked in history and thus become more effective ambassadors for Christ in a modern and postmodern world.
In some cases, this tectonic shift in the evangelical world has led significant numbers of conservative Protestants to become Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican—not only out of a longing for liturgy and sacrament but because the classics brought with them a re-encounter with the early church fathers. And yet most evangelicals who cross the Tiber, the Bosporus, or the Thames maintain much of their passion for the Bible, the Cross, and the spreading of the gospel. Many stand at the forefront of a new conservative ecumenism.
A related shift happened among conservative Reformed Christians, many of whom were held back from the classics by an excessively dark view of unsaved human nature, believing it was nearly impossible for Christians to learn things of lasting value from pre-Christian writers like Homer, Plato, and Cicero.
But as Mark Noll noted in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Reformed scholars and presses ironically became major movers and shakers in calling evangelicals to pursue a broader life of the mind. It has been the Presbyterians and other Calvinists who have lit the way in classical Christian education. (A large number of classical schools bear names like Geneva, Providence, Covenant, and Grace.)
In particular, a more careful reading of Calvin and the Bible made the difference. The opening chapters of both Calvin’s Institutes and the Book of Romans (1:18–19, 2:14–15) make a foundational distinction between general revelation—the way God speaks to all people through creation, conscience, and reason—and special revelation, which is found only in the Bible, the prophets, and Christ. This distinction is vital to classical education, for it allows even unbelievers who lived before Christ to arrive at truths that are compatible with Scripture.
Because they lacked access to the special revelation of the Bible, neither Homer nor Virgil, Plato nor Sophocles saw as clearly as Augustine or Aquinas, Dante or Milton. On account of the general revelation vouchsafed them by God, however, they did see something, and that something is worth studying and wrestling with. The virtues championed in Aristotle and Cicero may lack salvific power, but they do have the power to guide students on a path of living that is pleasing to our Creator and that will help restore the soul of our nation.
God did not ignore 99 percent of the human population before the coming of Christ. He poured out love and knowledge on the Gentiles, sending down rain on the righteous and the unrighteous and using their poets to prepare the pagan world for the coming of the Messiah. Paul says as much in his speech on Mars Hill: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23, ESV). So Paul promises and then goes on to substantiate that promise by quoting two pagan poets (17:28) as sources of truth that can and should point Greek philosophers to a Jewish savior.
From Vision to Movement
This intellectual ferment was happening as Wilson penned a game-changing book that combined scholarly analysis with practical directives. In Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education, Wilson first diagnosed the problems with secular (and generically Christian) education and then presented a vision for a new-old educational system that was both classical and deeply Christian.
From there, things moved swiftly as parents and educators across the country yearned to emulate Logos School and to embody Wilson’s vision.
In 1994, Wilson founded the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS), a group that assists and equips parents and educators to start classical Christian schools, and accredits them as well. Twenty-five years later, the ACCS has 250 member schools with a combined enrollment of over 50,000 students.
Similarly, groups such as the CiRCE Institute and The Society for Classical Learning (SCL), which was founded shortly after the ACCS, have their own annual conferences and produce their own resources and scholarly publications. These groups have fueled the growth of classical Christian education across the country, with the leading edge of that growth arguably happening now among co-ops and other home educators.
Many Christian co-ops form themselves into university model (UM) schools, where parents teach their children at home three days a week and then have them take classes two days a week from classically trained teachers. Such schools are multiplying dramatically. According to the University-Model Schools International website, the number of UM schools in their network increased from just 12 in 2002 to 71 in 19 states by 2013. Currently, the site lists 89 schools. Of those, “nearly one half … identify themselves in some form with the classical educational community.”
The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that homeschoolers rose from 1.7 percent of the student population in 1999 to 3.3 percent in 2016. Overall, homeschooling figures are difficult to come by, but conservative estimates put the number of at-home students using classical Christian programs at well over 100,000.
Christopher Perrin, founder and CEO of Classical Academic Press, one of many classical publishing houses that have emerged, says that the growth of classical homeschooling has outpaced that of classical schools: “We estimate that there are twice as many students being classically homeschooled than classically schooled. What’s more, classical homeschools are really classical cooperatives or communities that are becoming cottage schools and then becoming schools. It is a continuum.”
Today the movement has gone public and expanded toward the secular sphere, with large charter school groups such as Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies and Dallas-based ResponsiveEd embracing classical education. While they do not preach the gospel or proselytize, they still aim to provide a classical education grounded in the Great Books and in traditional, Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian virtues.
Christian colleges and universities have also taken up the classics afresh, from the diminutive New Saint Andrews in Moscow, Idaho, to Southern California’s Biola, to Michigan’s Hillsdale, to the University of Dallas, to Houston Baptist University, where I have taught since 1991.
Criticisms of the Movement
The classical Christian movement has grown swiftly and steadily and in numerous directions, but it has, like homeschooling itself, garnered criticism, often from classical education insiders themselves. A common and practical concern is that the amount of time devoted to the humanities leaves less time for STEM classes, leaving concerned parents worried that their children will be left jobless in our modern, technological age.
Classical education leaders rarely argue that the chief end of education is gainful employment, but they do insist that an emphasis on thinking and reasoning carries over in any discipline. Martin Cothran, editor of Memoria Press’s Classical Teacher magazine and director of the Classical Latin School Association, told me about his sons. Both have received a classical education and neither received a STEM degree in college. Today one owns a software company and the other is a front-end web developer for a sports data firm.
Another strong critique of classical Christian education has come from advocates like Preston Jones. In a 2002 article inCritique, he took the ACCS to task for being anti-Catholic as well as denominationally separatist. Jones is also one of many who criticized ACCS founder Wilson for his utopian views of the Old South, as outlined in a 1996 pamphlet he co-authored. Though the pamphlet condemned racism and said the practice of Southern slavery was unbiblical, critics were troubled that it argued US slavery was more benign than is usually presented in history texts.
In fact, the classical education movement in the last 17 years has become less identified with Wilson as such and now embraces Christians of various denominations, including an increasing number of evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Anglicanism. The movement still tends to be culturally conservative and reformist, for which its leaders make no apologies.
Billy Henderson, headmaster of Kentucky’s Mars Hill Academy and pastor of Lexington Christian Fellowship, put it this way to me: “My own state’s failure to shape the souls of our citizens, a failure shared across many other states, has led entire generations to drift away not just from the immense wisdom found in the Great Books of the Western tradition, but from genuine relationship with the living God and the peaceful communities that follow. A true education must be one that nurtures souls to faithfully seek after the good, the true, and the beautiful, a journey that inevitably leads to the source of it all, the Son of God himself.”
Others, even classical education champions, are concerned about elitism. Brian Douglas, a teacher at The Ambrose School in Boise, Idaho, wrote in a 2012 article in First Things, “The bigger our schools grow, the more respected a faculty we attract, the better we implement a Trivium-based curriculum, and the more accomplished our graduates become, the more we will be tempted to slip into something of a prep school mentality.”
If, as another critique goes, classical education’s reliance on the Great Books has left it to overly favor dead, white, male authors, that does not appear to have stopped the movement from widening its reach into multicultural urban centers. Classical schools such as Hope Academy in Minneapolis and Logos Academy in York, Pennsylvania, are among a growing group with significant economic and ethnic diversity in their student bodies.
The movement is also spreading internationally. According to Perrin, the missions-focused Rafiki Foundation has started nine classical Christian schools in Africa and aims to start a thousand more in the next decade. Classical schools and homeschooling communities have sprung up in Canada, Europe, Central and Latin America, Australia, Indonesia, India, and South Korea.
No Turning Back
Paul addressed his pagan audience from Mars Hill, and in a sense all classical Christian education, whether Protestant or Catholic, takes place on that hill, on that dusty crossroads where pre-Christian Greek poetry came together with biblical prophecy to offer a unified witness to Christ. Hundreds of classical schools and classical presses are aiming to raise up a generation of young people who embrace and practice traditional virtues and who are equipped to defend the Christian worldview and make it appealing to a fragmented, relativistic society.
My own enthusiasm was solidified when I met a petite, bubbly mother who had born five children, the eldest of whom was 18. After trying homeschooling, public school, a traditional denominational school, and a classical Christian school, she settled on the final option. It was there, she said, that she saw her children come to life intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. When her children began discussing classical literature at the dinner table, she was hooked. When she began reading those classics along with them, there was no turning back.
Louis Markos is professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. He is the author of 18 books, including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP Academic).