What’s the Big Idea?

The driving impulse of the CiRCE Institute is to figure out what Christian classical education is and to learn how to apply in it ever more complete, authentic, and integrated ways. In my studies and reflection, one astonishing thing has become astonishingly clear to me.

Christian classical education is the education of the idea, whereas conventional education is something else. I’ve been struggling with what on earth that something else is and I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it is simply power. I’m not content with that idea, because it doesn’t really parallel the idea of the idea, so it might not serve as an ordering principle. But if I go on any further down that track, you won’t want to read any more so I’ll stop and try to explain what I mean.

Ideas are what we think about and they are what we think with. Idea is a Greek word, and at least one Latin word for Idea is species. In the classical world, the best educators believed in ideas and they believed that ideas were transformative. They argued about what an idea was (understandably so) and where an idea existed, but the best all agreed that ideas were real things. So far as I can tell, the sophists did not think they were real, but that existed only in the mind.

Conventional education is not coherent, so one department of a university will have very different ideas about ideas than another and one teacher in a grade school will have very different expectations of students in regard to ideas than another. As an abstraction (what conventional thinkers would call an idea) that is fine. At least theoretically, you want a lot of ideas flowing around an educational institution.

But as a practical matter, what you think about ideas will determine everything that follows. Because education has to have something to do with thinking and when we think we think about ideas. So an educated person is a person who is skilled at handling ideas.

At least it used to be that way. But in conventional thought, Christian and secular, there is an overwhelming tendency to believe that ideas exist only in the mind if they exist at all. Once we come to believe that, understanding ideas simply doesn’t matter as much. The inner drive to understand ideas so that we can understand reality is weakened. A couple of generations of education like that will produce students who can’t think and, worse, can’t see the point of thinking.

Unless there is some other reason to think than to understand an idea.

Well, let’s think about that. Why would a person think if his goal isn’t understanding or knowledge? Ah! I think I’ve got it. Influence. To get a job. To impress people. To be able to change something. In a word: power.

What we have seen happen over the last couple generations is a gutting of the intellectual life of our culture. Many causes have brought about this effect, including the entertainment industry. But at the root of the change is the unconsidered, unreflected, assumption that ideas are not worth thinking about unless they have a practical benefit.

Practical rarely means that it will make a person more virtuous or a better person. It usually means that it will give the person power of some sort, however petty or trivial.

If, therefore, we want to follow the Christian classical renewal, we need to go back to thinking about ideas. There’s no use talking about teaching kids how to think if we don’t mean we are going to teach them to think about and with ideas. There’s no use trying to decide what curriculum we’re going to use if we don’t know how to judge whether the curriculum will help a child think about and with ideas. There’s no use learning new teaching techniques if we can’t determine whether the technique will help or hinder the child’s capacity to contemplate ideas.

If we separate practice from ideas we are simply Pragmatists. If you want to be a Pragmatist, you are free to do so. But don’t convince yourself that you can also be a Christian classical educator. Pragmatism on the one hand and Christian and classical thought on the other are very different ideas.

In a way, the goal of Christian classical education is to learn how to think about Christian classical education. That would be time well spent and it would be much more practical than Pragmatism. What I have just written might seem very theoretical. In fact, it is one of the most practical things you will ever read.

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7 Responses

  1. With all the pressure on schools (even Christian classical schools) to explain their curriculum goals and objectives how do you communicate integrate the neccesity of teaching ideas into a language they understand? How would you define curriculum? I feel this is an issue about there is much disagreement. Help clear my foggy thoughts by shedding some light.
    I really am curious to hear how others define curriculum.

  2. I’m jealous of your freak of nature friend! He probably has an amazing capacity for focused attention.

    I certainly agree with your application: we remember what we use and apply. Along with enjoying something for its own sake, there probably aren’t many better ways to seize an idea into our minds.

    I’m working to help teachers apply that to the classroom so their students can remember more and so that classes can spend more time focused on really important thoughts.

  3. The point I always make with this video is that you remember what you use and apply. That’s why we don’t remember a lot from classrooms. If you learn a foreign language, you need to be in an environment where you speak all day long to really become fluent.

    That’s unless your like a friend of my who taught himself three languages one summer. Two of them were Greek and Latin. But he was kind of a freak of nature.

  4. Nice! That pretty well sums things up doesn’t it?

    Of course, the great thing about humor is it lets you say things that people need to hear without them having to know they heard it. So the more serious side is, what do we do about it?

    The problem isn’t as simple as doing away with memory work. That’s already been done in the grade schools.

  5. I suggest you talk a look at the world’s best education video. It’s a lot about how we teach. If nothing else it’s very funny.

  6. I agree with what you are saying, especially in our current circumstances. What I’m suggesting is that we need to close the gap between how we teach and how children learn.

    It’s true that children have preferred styles. Even so, what they are doing when they learn is still the same thing: contemplating an idea. We can’t be neutral about how preferences and technologies impact that.

    The idea removes the conflict between what and how we teach: what is how and how is what.

  7. I’d have you consider that there is usually a gap between how you were taught versus how you learn. A curriculum approach is the standard school model because it’s easy to organize, seems logical and allows teachers to specialilze. In other words, it’s easy on teachers.

    But consider how you really learn to get good at something. It’s not so neat and clean and organized especially if you’re trying to go beyond remembering facts. Learning starts when you are able to make connections between different ideas and concepts and you are able to apply them in unique and different ways. Learning also takes a lot of practice and experience.

    We also have preferred learning styles. Reading works for some people and not for others. The same can be said for video and interactive media. How you structure things can make it easy or hard to learn. And don’t forget our new generation with all it’s digital learners. Maybe it’s not a book but Facebook instead.

    Focusing on what you want to teach is important, but the fastest way to get there is to focus on “how”

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