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The Difference Between a Mediocre Classical Education and an Excellent One

Recently, I’ve been wrestling with myself (really with God) about what an excellent classical, Christian education should look alike. This tinge of skepticism comes from a lack of evidence in seeing our students change in their relationship with God, because that is the goal of Veritas: to make disciples who delight, discern, and display the glory of God in Jesus Christ. This wrestling was quiet but intense. I know that our students and parents generally appreciate the education of their children at Veritas. But are our students truly delighting in Christ? Can they critically discern between good and evil, and between the ways of God and the ways of man? Do they have such convictions of God’s grace and gifts in their lives that they can confidently display God’s glory before others?

A positive answer came to me in a quiet but intense way through two means. The first was in my close reading of C. S. Lewis’ biography, Surprised by Joy. There are several turning points in Lewis’ conversion story, and the first one goes as follows:

Turning to the bookstall (at the train station), I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a Faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. . . . That evening I began to read my new book. The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perceptions of change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. For in one sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense, all was changed. I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. For the first time the song of the sirens sounded like the voice of my mother or my nurse. It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side. . . . Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert. But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. . . . All this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.

Up to this point in his life (first year in college), Lewis experienced “Joy” (God’s love and grace) only sporadically and distantly, whether in nature or in books. But now, in reading George Macdonald’s Phantastes, Lewis realized that God’s presence was near him and all around him.

It is this direct experience of God through reading (or other common things that we do) that became the first major turning point in Lewis’ life, although it took him a couple of more years to become a believer. I believe this is the hallmark of an excellent classical Christian education: Seeing the light of Christ through the light of common things (nature, books, or even other people).

Of course, the challenging part is how can we, parents and students, experience that? I believe this experience is ultimately given by God, as Lewis states, but the optimal condition for that experience can be established by another person (parent, teacher, friend, or an author) with that perspective. In the case of Lewis, it was George MacDonald, who wrote a story in which the light of God shined through the real world in a permanent way. This perspective in life was new to Lewis. But gradually Lewis came to know that this perspective was the most real one, and that he had been resisting it all along.

To me this is the difference between a mediocre classical education and an excellent one. The former has all the aesthetically awe-inspiring, intellectually satisfying, and even morally uplifting quality of a secular classical education. The latter has everything the former has, except that they only serve as prisms that reflect the full glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, what Lewis calls “Joy.”

As I was contemplating about this experience of Lewis, I noticed that the Joy that Lewis experienced was rubbing off on me, in a deep and lasting way. But a definitive confirmation of this difference came last night, at the Senior Rhetoric Banquet, where each of the eight seniors presented their “Synthesis Paper” to the audience of all their parents and secondary faculty and a few guests. In Synthesis Paper, students draw from all that they have learned in the past 4 years and write about how they have grown. I will write more in detail about this experience in the next newsletter, but I felt that each of the eight students had and were experiencing what Lewis experienced: the presence of God’s Holiness in their search for meaning and joy. This is the sign of an excellent classical Christian education.

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