The word classical is derived from the Latin word classis, which means “a fleet of ships.” Let me, therefore, touch on some of the ways in which classical Christian education can be likened to a ship.
Like an old three-masted ship built of wood and powered by the wind, classical education sailed around the globe for many centuries as the dominant form of education. In fact, from about 500 to around 1900, classical Christian education was simply referred to as “education” because there were practically no rival methods. This is the kind of education that produced the great leaders of history. Athanasius, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, Alcuin, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Newman, Newton, Jefferson, Adams, Edwards, Lewis, Tolkien—they all traveled on this ship.
This ship was built and refined over the centuries, and improved and enhanced by regular maintenance and renovation. While it was always made of wood and powered by wind, it was gradually equipped with larger sails, better rigging and ropes, and other assorted equipment.
What happened around 1900? The ship hit the rocky shoals of modernism, progressivism, and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. The ship broke up in the water, and we have been floating on its fragments ever since.
This means that classical education never really disappeared; it merely fragmented. Its pieces are still present in various forms of modern education, for its materials proved too valuable and durable to be completely destroyed. In the early eighties, however, a concerted effort was begun to recover classical education or to reassemble and rebuild the ship. After more than thirty years of renovation, the ship has come back together and is once again setting sail.
How else can classical Christian education be likened to a ship? Well, first, it takes us on a voyage, as the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom always does. It is also communal, since we can sail our three-masted ship nowhere alone. Classical Christian education (CCE) depends on the wisdom of those who have gone before us, who have achieved the virtue, understanding, and eloquence that we need so much today. For this undertaking, we need the community of those who have preceded us, as well as our friends with us in this present moment.
There are some other ways we may extend this analogy. CCE has its own rudder, destination, mast, and sails. The destination that CCE seeks is the attainment of wisdom, virtue, and eloquence, values that are chiefly located in the great books, which contain the best that has been thought or said. If there is a harbor for CCE, this is it. To seek this wisdom is to seek after Christ himself, who is the treasury of all wisdom, the Truth behind all truths, and the source of all that is beautiful.
What might we say is the rudder of CCE? It would be the collection of the seven liberal arts, for it is these arts that keep us on a course toward wisdom by giving us the capacity to access and understand the wisdom contained in the great, living books of the past and present. These arts are called “liberal” because they liberate and give power, capacity, and freedom to those who have been cultivated by them. These arts enable us to master language (grammar, logic, rhetoric), number, measurement, and assessment (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music).
What of the mast and sail? The mast we may see as Christ Himself, even as the mast and crossbeam remind us of His cross and our redemption. Jesus, as Savior, Lord, and the Logos made flesh, rightly is placed at the center of our education, just as a mast is planted prominently in the center of a ship. All learning is ultimately a learning of Christ, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (see John 14:6).
The sails, fastened and held by Biblical teaching and Christ Himself, catch the wind that moves the entire vessel forward with vast, quiet power. What is this wind but the Spirit and love of God? Classical Christian education is animated by the Holy Spirit, Who must be the Teacher and Illuminator in our midst. Augustine, in particular, emphasizes this concept, but this is also the regular testimony of Christian educators through the centuries.
We might add that the rigging and ropes of the ship indicate various pedagogies and teaching practices that we discover and use at various times in our journey. There are many traditional practices that have persisted, but new ones are often found to be useful to help us master the liberal arts, understand the great books, and cultivate wisdom and are therefore deployed as well.
Classical Christian education is the liberal arts and the great books, and the Greatest Book—the Bible. Through the study of the liberal arts and the great books under the Lordship of Christ and His Word, and illumined by His Spirit, we grow gradually in wisdom, virtue, holiness, and eloquence.
This kind of education, like sailing, will include much activity but also seasons of rest and delight. Occasionally, on the open and calm sea, we enjoy moments of restful contemplation of exquisite beauty and light. We might call this scholé—undistracted time to contemplate the true, good, and beautiful.
Why do we call this kind of education “classical”? Well, because like a fleet of ships, it is well-ordered, organized, and ranked—just as a naval fleet must be when it sails into battle. Each ship must be ordered as well, in shipshape condition. The word classis also came to mean “of first rank” or something of enduring excellence. Thus, we have “classic” literature and “classical” music—books and songs of abiding excellence. Classical Christian education has endured for centuries as a result of the distinction it has displayed, all on account of the astonishing sacrifices and labor of your brothers and sisters who have preceded you.
This is a seaworthy vessel, deserving of your travels. Your ancestors have built it for you, and they invite you on board.
Copyright 2018, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Spring Supplement 2018 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.