EDU511: History of Classical Christian Education - New Saint Andrews College

EDU511: History of Classical Christian Education

classical ed

Spring Term 2019
Christopher Schlect


Course Description:

Today’s classical and Christian education movement is a grassroots phenomenon that was born out of the culture wars of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. That era witnessed a generation of ardent Protestants who mobilized around family values and a strident critique of mainstream American culture. This mobilization took varying forms: some sought to reform American culture through political and legal channels, and others set about the task of building countercultural institutions. In education, the former impulse introduced new battles over curriculum, vouchers and charter schools, and the latter led to a dramatic rise in homeschooling and Christian school startups. New Saint Andrews College is one important example. Wanting to avoid problems that many perceived in mainstream education, Protestant parents and educators searched the past for inspiration and models. The search gained traction in the 1980s when Christian educators read and circulated Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 address, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Sayers directed her readers to the medieval trivium. As helpful as Sayers’ insights are, too few Classical, Christian educators have followed her lead and studied the bygone education whose renaissance she advocated. This course introduces such a study.


The course focuses on writings from the late antique period, when the monastic school curriculum solidified into seven liberal arts. Preeminent among these late antique writers are Martianus Capella and Cassiodorus, whose writings will feature prominently in this course. Also important are the Roman writers who preceded them as well as some of their medieval successors. We will bring these writings into conversation with popular contemporary interpretations of “classical, Christian education” as we examine the ways in which today’s movement adheres to and departs from medieval precedent. Thus the course fosters a fruitful conversation between today’s educators and those who lived over 1,000 years ago.


Course objectives:

1. Students will read and interrogate primary texts in the western educational tradition, including selections from Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria and Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, and unabridged readings of Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Murcury, Cassiodorus Senator’s Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning, and Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon. For each work, the student will identify their authors’ context, concerns, and insights; and form their own assessment of the authors’ achievements;

2. Students will compare these historic works to one another and also to contemporary works on classical and Christian education as they evaluate the contemporary movement’s claims to tradition. Specifically, students will discuss these questions:

a. What were the objectives of the medieval trivium? Were there any prerequisites to the trivium?

b. Was the medieval trivium essentially curricular, pedagogical, both, or neither? If the trivium was curricular in nature, did it compass all subjects, or just certain subjects in particular? Or is the very notion of subjects unhelpful or misleading in an exposition of the trivium?

c. How did our authors understand the relationship between the three elements of the trivium? (e.g., Are they stages that students pass into and out of? Is one prerequisite to another?)

d. What was the relationship between trivium and quadrivium?

e. How do contemporary presentations of classical education compare to the medievals on the issues mentioned in a through d above;

f. Where would modern-day disciplines such as “biology” or “history” fit into the trivium—or would they even fit at all?

g. Where would modern-day distinctions such as “fourth grade” or “high school” fit into the trivium—or would they even fit at all?

3. Students will consider how medieval education might inform the education delivered in today’s classrooms;

4. All students will engage the readings through regular and active participation in online discussion forums, and in a written final project. In addition, resident students will assert their viewpoints through prepared presentations and spoken interaction in seminar discussion.


Stay connected.

Sign up for the newsletter.