Tomorrow, I am speaking at the Southwestern Conference for Classical Christian Educators on the topic of Great Books. Below is my introduction to my speech.

“Due to neglect of our rich heritage in the West our civilization is crumbling. Powerful and seductive ideas have gripped the minds of the Western man and have caused him to worship the creation instead of the creator. Darwinism, utopianism and Freudian psychology, to name a few, have lured us away from pursuing a life of virtue in an intellectually and emotionally robust Christianity.

“Not surprisingly, these ideas have focused their attack on our educational system. What better way to radically change culture than to affect the hearts and minds of our young? Today, the standard approach to education assumes people do not have souls and that the highest end of man is to do a job well and fit in with the rest of society. The virtue most emphasized in our schools, therefore, is…tolerance.

“Our high school curriculum quite clearly reflects these aims. Health or wellness classes have replaced mandatory ethics classes (in which the men of old held the “odd” belief that you had to be an ethical person to pass them). The classes required pursue the less than bold goal of producing students able to function in our society. English for four years, math for a couple, sciences, social sciences, physical education, history and economics round out the disjointed path from freshman to graduate. Tolerance of others’ points-of-view is the aim in the humanities since the humanities deal with subjective values. The sciences, concerned with the business of irrefutable fact, staunchly preach Darwinian evolution and fight tooth and nail in court to exclude other approaches.

“Sadly, many of our Christian schools have unknowingly surrendered to the influence of modernity, adopting a form of education exactly as in the public schools but tacking on Bible as a subject and requiring attendance in chapel.

“I propose that as Christian educators we need to reclaim traditional western education that seeks to make students wise and virtuous by the means of the study of the Great Books – those texts that have come down to us through the ages because they most thoughtfully and eloquently examine the most important ideas in life.”

I didn’t write out the supporting arguments for these last claims because I wanted to give myself flexibility in my speech to adapt to the audience. I hope these thoughts stimulate further ideas on education from our readers.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Here are two questions you might get:

    (1) Isn’t the kind of education you’re recommending elitist?
    (2) Isn’t the kind of education you’re recommending based on pagan Greek ideas? (Variants: Isn’t it unbiblical? Shouldn’t we adopt a Hebrew approach to education?)

    Any thoughts on how you’d answer these? Best wishes on the speech.


  2. It strikes me as highly ironic that you claim to be advocating study of great books, while at the same time decrying their influence. Darwin’s most famous book is a part of any Great Books curriculum. I wager you’ve not read it.


  3. While edarrell probably lost the wager regarding The Origin of Species, he does raise another good question: what are the criteria for what qualifies as a Great Book?

    :: and I’m not attempting to open a canon debate, rather, there is probably a good, concise answer.



  4. Elliot Ravenwood June 28, 2006 at 12:05 am


    I don’t know if Andrew has read the Origin of the Species or any other works of Darwin. But he and I both graduated from an Honors Great Books program (at a Christian Liberal Arts University) where the Origin is firmly set in the curriculum, along with great works of Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre and others. (Those last four I know my friend has read, pondered, and carefully discussed for hours on end.)

    I think that part of Andrew’s point on Sunday would have been that an education based on the greatest literature in the Western Cannon (certainly including Darwin, Freud, et al) uniquely equips the student to incisively evaluate for herself or himself contemporary western culture–instead of simply accepting the dominant cultural paradigms of the day.

    Andrew, through the careful study of hundreds of Great Books–all of Homer, all of Plato, most of Aristotle, most of Augustine, much of Aquinas, all of Dante, most of Shakespeare, and many, many more–is able to stand high on their shoulders and survey our modern intellectual and cultural landscape.

    I don’t know your own educational background, edarrell, so I won’t wager on whether you’re equipped to stand up there with him.


  5. Elliot writes:

    “…instead of simply accepting the dominant cultural paradigms of the day.”

    Especially that spawned by Darwin.


  6. Burglar asks an important question ” (1) Isn’t the kind of education you’re recommending elitist?”

    The answer is simply “no.” Is there any reason to think it is?

    Here are a few reasons why classical education, of the sort espoused by the late Mortimer Adler, among others, and dealt with in Mr. Selby’s brief comments, is in fact the least elitist form of education available:

    1. It is flexible to the varying abilities, aptitudes, and levels of maturity of each student

    2. It is cheap

    3. It is enjoyable (as far as any bit of good hard work is enjoyable)

    4. It is not gender-specific

    The following comments are based on my experience engaging personally in thousands of hours of discursive group conversation (The small-group nature of this study being one of the hallmarks of classical education, along with careful attention to the greatest of human creations across all peoples and all time, such as philosophy and literature, and including painting, sculpture, music, architecture, technology, etc.)

    1. Organic group conversations of the time-tested sort naturally make room for and foster real education in learners of all varieties of levels of ability, maturity, etc.

    A personal anecdote: For the first two years of my college experience, especially, I found myself to be a low-level contributor to discussions. I struggled to make sense of the texts being read, and struggled equally with making my comments understood and accepted within the context of the classtime group conversation. However, this struggle was perfectly healthy and resulted in my increased desire to excel academically, and to learn what was needed to find traction in the Heraclitean flux of conversation. With time and effort and perseverance, and the patience and support of my classmates, I succeeded, and eventually became, not only a welcome participant in the conversation, but a main contributor and indeed a leader of my small group of twelve or

    From that point on, just as I continued to rely on the assistance of fellow students from other groups, students to whom I deferred because of their higher aptitude or maturity, so did I, as one of the informal leaders of my group, make it one of my main goals to assist the learning of each member of the group, even those who found themselves struggling in the same way I so recently did.

    Classical education does not pander to students in the way that, say, a first year calculus book does, hiding the real content behind a “safe” and misleading, (not to say false) layer of symbols, nor does it dryly summarize the sum total of human-held information we have collected over the last two thousands years, in the form of text books. Rather it presents the would-be learner with a work of eminent excellence, a work that challenges, and invites, that stimulates and demands full attention, that asks that the student to learn not only the content of the work, but how to engage the work in the first place.

    Some are more able to engage these works than others, such as my friends, many of whom write for this blog, who I consider to be my intellectual superiors, who are able to get more out of a text than I can, unassisted. But is there any real disagreement on this point? Aptitudes and the level of maturity for a given aptitude vary, and this fact of life is one to be celebrated, not suppressed.

    A rigid educational system, on the other hand, excludes learners of a variety of learning-styles and levels of intellectual development. A fluid, organic educational system not only interests a greater number of learners, but adapts itself, almost miraculously, in the context of an amiable community, to the maximal growth and development of each member.

    2. It is cheap
    “It is true that the wealthy are more likely to send their children to private schools that appreciate the importance of the liberal arts. But this argues for making them more, not less, accessible to all.”

    I spent three weeks this summer discussing one of the great works of western literature with friends. The cost of this excursion was $20, for the book (Theaetetus, by Plato), plus $100 dollars to rent a lounge at a near-by university, since our living room was too small. Together, with the help of an older, wiser guide who was willing to offer his company to us without reimbursement, we engaged in high-level academic discourse the likes of which puts many of my college courses to shame. Many of those who participated are either college students or otherwise living below the American poverty line. A similarly qualitative summer class at Biola, for instance, would have cost $2000 or more.

    Even while taking classes at Biola, though my tuition was high, the purchase price for an entire semesters worth of great books was about $220, compared to the $300, $400 or even higher for a set of science, psychology, and history text books.
    In schools, it is undoubtable that institutions from middle-schools on up can save thousands of dollars by switching to a curriculum of great books, and outside of schools, with friends and the great books, such as Plato, St. Paul, Shakespeare, Darwin, and Nietzsche, learning can take place for pennies.

    3. It is enjoyable (as far as any bit of good hard work is enjoyable)
    The rote memorization of facts is most enjoyable for computers, and the sort of mental conditioning that I experienced in high school must be certainly enjoyable for animals, but not so much for human beings.
    As St. Monica Academy puts it, “A classical education makes use of the natural intellectual development of children who have a natural desire to know (unless and until it is squashed by inappropriate teaching methodology or drained by a lifeless presentation of the subject matter).”

    The educated human beings learns facts, yes — Many more facts, in fact, than the programmed human being. But the educated human being learns facts along the way of learning logical propositions and logical questions, philosophy and science, astronomy and geology, aesthetics and ethics, art, language, and culture.

    Which is more interesting: What year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, or why Columbus sailed the ocean blue? If I say, “A man named Columbus sailed on a ship, looked for one piece of land and found another,” people fall asleep. But if my friend writes a screenplay that inventively portrays what it was like when Columbus realized his happy mistake, that passionately images the struggles of making an unsuccesful voyage across a viscous sea, that intelligently presents the insanity of life on a new land and the first communication with the native peoples of America, and that manages to present a series of interesting thoughts and images about what it means to be human, or to discover new things, or to relate to new people, or any of the the other issues relevant to that story… people sit up and watch. Art and philosophy (and real history) capture the attention, and the intellectual pleasure of the mind.

    The argument doesn’t prove that was in interesting is important, nor that what is uninteresting is unimportant, but rather that human curiosity, and the simple, accessible, and immense pleasure of learning, is in indication that classical education is more widely accessible than the present Deweyan system of programming meat.

    4. It is non-gender specific

    This needs no explanation. My classes were roughly fifty-fifty male-female, and they were simply better for it. Socrates knew (cf Republic Book III and IV, if memory serves) that women are no less capable of becoming educated and serving in the most important roles in society than men, and most classical (especially Christian) educators from most places at most times knew this, acknowledged this, and took advantage of the incredible benefit to society that is available by educating women as well as men.

    Hopefully this helps, Burglar. I’m curious to hear your thoughts in response, or anyone else who is reading and either agrees or disagrees.

    Education is unspeakably important, and these difficult questions must be resolved, both in America and around the world. The Deweyan experiment must be judged, and determined to be either successful or unsuccessful. If successful, then let the Great Books fanatics silence themselves on pain of death, exile, or estrangement, and let modern education reign without rival. If unsuccessful, then let the modern educational experiment be closed, once and for all, and recorded in the annuls of history so that men of future generations might avoid repeating it in further experimentation to improve society, and let us all, whether beginning grade school or finishing retirement, humbly resume the methods of our grandfathers and our grandfathers fathers, the classical methods of our founding fathers and of those great nations from which we first emerged, those of Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Russia, and Germany, and the rest of the members of the historical consensus that the higher purpose of education is not information, but human excellence; not head-knowledge, but happiness.


  7. Andrew Johnston July 8, 2006 at 9:04 pm

    It is ironic that educators would use a mechanistic view of human nature to justify removing authentic dialogue from schools when this type of learning is exactly what provides the soul with the capacity to contemplate its own nature.

    Darwin, Freud, and company were participants in a dialogue about human nature from which they emerged convinced that humans are machines and animals. Their ideas then helped shape an educational system that provides students with the capacity to be little else.


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