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Why Read the Classics

A fair question for a Christian family to ask of a provider of classical education is this: "Why should my child spend significant time studying non-Christian works of literature?" Another way to phrase the question might be, "Aren't these non-Christian writers a bad influence on my child?"

Mere Christianity

As parents, one of our foremost duties is to protect our children from harmful influences. Just as we closely monitor the places our children go, the children with whom they associate, and the media to which they are exposed, we must also pay close attention to the nature of their studies. It is this concern that causes many families to determine that public schools are not the right educational fit for their family. One reason some families become homeschoolers is the opportunity to afford the child a Christ-centered education.

So why would a Christian program like Equip Education include so many non-Christian works of literature?

Three reasons: first, great literary masterpieces have traditionally been thought to have a normative effect on human consciousness. What do we mean by "normative"? The word "normative" is defined thus: of, relating to, or prescribing a norm or standard. The idea is that classics are classics because of what they reveal to us about ourselves. The reason a particular work of literature becomes a classic is because it deals in some way with permanent things and therefore outlasts its own time. As Russell Kirk says,

"the end of great books is ethical – to teach us what it means to be genuinely human…that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things…the very phrase 'humane letters' implies that great literature is meant to teach us what it is to be fully human…so pure poetry, and the other forms of great literature, search the human heart, to find in it the laws of moral existence, distinguishing man from beast."
Plato's Republic

Reading literary masterpieces is the price of admission to a great conversation that exists among secular humanity. How do we apply the Scriptural injunction to be in but not of the world? We build the tools necessary to engage the world on a foundation of God's Word. This is exactly how many of our greatest leaders and thinkers were trained. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis all possessed a mastery of the classic literature available to them. C.S. Lewis was Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University in England for almost all of the last nine years of his life and wrote extensively on the importance of reading the classics. Augustine of Hippo said it this way:

"…all branches of heathen learning…contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God's providence…These, therefore, the Christian…ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel."

Second, as Christians, it is not necessary to fear any idea. At Equip Education, we bring the ideas, philosophies, and thinking of the classics into His wonderful light. In many cases this will be through a direct comparison of a passage in a non-Christian work with the wisdom of God's Word. This is how we prepare our children to do battle in the arena of ideas. We present a non-Christian argument in the author's own words and proceed to show through logic, example, experience and Biblical foundations how and why God's truth is superior to man's "truth".

Paradise Lost

Third, students much prefer the classics to textbooks. We don't want to send our children into the world having no understanding of Greek mythology or the plays of Shakespeare. Therefore, they can be taught one of two ways: the literary works themselves or textbooks discussing the works. As Allan Bloom said, "But one thing is certain: wherever the Great Books make up a central part of the curriculum, the students are excited and satisfied, feel they are doing something that is independent and fulfilling, getting something from the university they cannot get elsewhere."


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