In a 2013 article on ‘Christian Schooling and Racial Realities,’ Hunter Baker concluded that while “the racial unification of the American church might best begin in the Christian schoolhouse” he lamented that it is a “mission … awaiting a champion and a movement.”

Today, nine years and one pandemic later, parents of millions of school-aged children of all ethnicities are leaving public schooling — at a pace of 6-10% per year — to opt instead for in-home and community-based educational models.

One of the fastest growing alternative movements — Christian classical education — has identified some new champions: Anika Prather and Angel Adams Parham.

In their new book The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature (Classical Academic Press, 2022), Parham and Prather share their journeys into classical education, and together champion a vision for classical Christian education for all — with a specific emphasis on the Black experience in America.

Black Minds Matter

Rather than dismiss the classics, the authors demonstrate how diverse writers have engaged with the great texts of the Western tradition.

In the prologue, Parham notes the book’s core argument: that “any education that is committed to truth, goodness, and beauty will achieve only a pale vision of this commitment if it fails to engage the writings of Black intellectuals in a serious and substantial way” (2).

Or to put it simply: Black Minds Matter.

To make their case, they take, in turn, a scholarly (Parham) and practical (Prather) approach.

Parham, an award-winning scholar of historical sociology and race, contributes three chapters to recovering truth from the slavery and freedom narratives of (among others) Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784), and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895); wisdom for the good society in the writing of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964); and beauty from the poetic imagination of Toni Morrison (1931-2019).

Prather, for her part, spent years teaching the classics to black students and “came to see that reading these texts were an integral part of black history” (139). She provides extended commentary on some key educational writings of Anna Julia Cooper, who taught classics at the famous M Street School (later renamed Dunbar High School) and also served as President of Frelinghuysen University.

An Education Fit for a King

Two aspects of the book are rich for all involved in Christian education, especially in American cross-cultural settings.

First, Parham demonstrates the Christian classical shape of the social vision of key Black leaders. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, embraced an ancient approach to the great question of means and ends in the civil rights era.

Parham shows King’s “dialectical reading” of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, and the thought and social vision of Mahatma Gandhi in India.

King, through “sifting and winnowing,” retrieved ancient Christian wisdom in his approach to nonviolent resistance. King concludes:

[Nonviolent resistance] makes it possible for the individual to secure moral ends through moral means. This has been one of the great debates in history. People have felt that it is impossible to achieve moral ends through moral means. And so a Machiavelli could come into being and so force a sort of duality within the moral structure of the universe… And this is where nonviolence resistance breaks with communism and with all those systems which argue that the end justifies the means, because we realize that the end is preexistent in the means. In the long run of history, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.

Prather, on the other hand, recovers Anna Julia Cooper’s “middle stance” between Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise — pursuing skills and trades vs. political and intellectual progress — and W.E.B. DuBois’s defense of elite classical studies for Black Americans. Cooper preferred a path that celebrated both. She wrote:

The only sane education, therefore, is that which conserves the very lowest stratum, the best and most economical is that which gives to each individual, according to his capacity, that training of ‘head, hand, and heart,’ or, more literally, of mind, body, and spirit which convert him into a beneficent force in the service of the world.

Like King’s nonviolent resistance and Cooper’s ‘head, hand, and heart’ — Prather and Parham find in Christian classical education a moral means to achieve moral ends.

If all children were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then this sort of educational means is a ‘creative protest’ to achieve this glorious end.

“The Daring Faith of Christian Men and Women”

Parham and Prather demonstrate that Christian liberal arts education as creative protest has historical precedent in the Black community.

In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, ‘Lincoln’s Heaven’ is the name of a Black family farm. Parham shows how Morrison means it to symbolize the unrealized hope of the Reconstruction era (1863-1877). After this brief period of equality, land and legal rights were stripped away under Jim Crow.

Amidst this injustice, however, the seeds of freedom were being sown through Christian classical education — a story with lessons for today.

Writing in the late 19th century, W.E.B. DuBois celebrated the hundreds of Northern white missionary teachers who heroically “trained 2,000 men in Greek and Latin and mathematics” after emancipation.

“Within a single generation,” he writes, these teachers trained “thirty thousand black teachers in the South … who taught the alphabet to millions … and wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land.”[1]

Most of today’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities were founded in this ‘single generation.’ In 1960, King’s mentor and President of Morehouse College, Dr. Benjamin Mays, lauded “the daring faith of Christian men and women” who “believed that, given a chance, the sons and daughters of slaves could master the upper reaches of knowledge like any other people.”[2]

The End of Education

Fast forward to 2022.

Today, secular theories of race and ethnicity threaten to divide and alienate. The Black Intellectual Tradition, however, strikes a tone of unity amidst lament; hope amidst brokenness. Parham and Prather invite educators to join the resistance — reviving the ancient wisdom of truth, goodness, and beauty instead of revolting against it.

Parents are waking up to the many forms of mis-education on offer today. The chronic learning deficits resulting from school shutdowns are just the latest sign that the education of Black and Brown youth is the new front lines of the civil rights movement.

In his final speech before his assassination — I’ve Been to the Mountaintop — Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And … the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

He ends this speech with a line from the Civil War song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

King is certainly evoking the unfulfilled hope of Lincoln’s Heaven, but, more importantly, though, he invokes a more cosmic reality when “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will be crying out with a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10 ESV).

In looking for answers to the urban education crisis, Christian classical education is rarely suggested as a solution.

In reading Prather and Parham’s book, I’m reminded of Nathanael’s response to Philip, who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophet wrote.”

Surprised, Nathanael asked: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”’ (John 1:46)

Prather and Parham book is a welcome addition to the great conversation that for millennia has echoed Philip’s reply:

“Come and see.”

Footnotes

  1. Quotes in Education of Blacks in the South (1860-1935), James D. Anderson (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 242.
  2. Mays, The Significance of the Negro Private and Church-Related College, The Journal of Negro Education, 1960. Pp. 245-251.
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Posted by Dan Olson

Dan Olson is Managing Director at Anselm House, and leads the Spreading Hope Network, a movement of urban Christian schools. He studied communications and English literature (B.A) at Wheaton College (IL), and completed an M.A. in Christian studies at Regent College.

One Comment

  1. […] “An Education for Lincoln’s Heaven.” Dan Olson finds much wisdom in The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature by Anika Prather and Angel Adams Parham: “Like King’s nonviolent resistance and Cooper’s ‘head, hand, and heart’ — Prather and Parham find in Christian classical education a moral means to achieve moral ends.” […]

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