“Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education” by Douglas Wilson
This book, published in 1991, has become an incredibly influential book. In fact, an entire association of schools exists largely because of this book. In it, Douglas Wilson, a pastor in Moscow, ID, lays out his educational philosophy and a vision for Classical Christian schools. He relies heavily on examples from Logos School, which he founded in the early 1980′s to implement his educational philosophy.
The title of the book comes from a Dorothy Sayers essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning”, published in 1947. It is available for free online here. Sayers, disappointed in the direction that public education was heading in the 1940′s, wrote about the “classical” style of education, by which students had been taught for thousands of years. She compared this against the “modern” style of teaching in this way. In a nutshell, modern education focuses on teaching “subjects” (math, reading, science, etc) whereas classical education concentrates “on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning.” Rather than simply learning facts and charts, classically-trained students learn how to learn. Once equipped with these tools, they are able to more quickly and thoroughly grasp the subjects taught by modern education.
Wilson’s philosophy takes this a step further, using the biblical mandate for parents to teach their children as a foundation, and building upon that foundation using the classical “Trivium”, a system of teaching consisting of three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. The result is what he calls “Classical Christian Education”.
The book is divided into four sections. The first, called “The Failure of Modern Secular Education”, is an effective and devastating critique of public schools. Many of the statistics in this section are outdated (things are actually much worse twenty years after the book was written), but the concepts are the same. He also addresses many reforms suggested by both Christians and the secular establishment, and points out reasons why they won’t work.
The second section is called “An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education”. In my opinion, this is the strongest section of the book. Here Wilson shows from God’s Word the indisputable mandate that Christians have to educate the next generation — and specifically their own children — according to God’s objective standard of truth. Because all “true truth” is God’s truth, every possible area of study hinges on a proper understanding of the biblical worldview. There is no such thing as an education which is “worldview neutral”; children are either being taught to live and learn according to God’s Word, or they are being taught to live “by bread alone”. Therefore, education is truly a ministry, and something which Christians must take seriously, both individually and corporately.
One common objection to Christian education which Wilson addresses is the sentiment that Christians must enroll their children in public schools to be “salt and light” there. He argues first of all that, despite the fact that millions of Christians are in these school systems (and have been for generations), “we would be hard pressed to show that Christian kids are making a difference in the public schools.” It is not fair for children to be expected to contend for a faith in which they have not yet been sufficiently instructed, particularly when the entire system is formulated around a worldview that is antithetical to Christianity.
Section three is titled, “An Approach to Distinctively Classical Education”. Wilson expounds further upon Sayers’ essay, and explores and details the content and methods of teaching the Trivium. He addresses some specific problems that every classical educator must overcome, whether teaching in a private school or a homeschool. Things such as television, video games, and other social and cultural distractions keep students from their books and studies, contributing to an anti-intellectual society.
One of the most interesting problems he addresses is that of money. He points out that, because churches and Christian parents have for so long abdicated the responsibility of teaching to the State, there is a price to pay to begin to set things right. Since all citizens are paying taxes to support public schools, those wishing to give their children a Christian education must actually “pay double”. Wilson is optimistic, though, that once a “mature Christian school system” reaches nationwide prominence (essentially returning education to the free market) there may be an opportunity from permanent relief. He is adamantly against school vouchers or any type of government involvement with private schools.
In one final chapter from this section, Wilson shows why he believes classical private schools to be superior to classical homeschooling. The argument here revolves primarily around two things. First is a “division of labor”. It is rare that a husband and wife will be equipped to teach every subject excellently, whereas in a private school teachers can excel within their own field. A practical example: One teacher trained in Latin can instruct 20 students. For 20 homeschool students to learn Latin, 20 homeschool parents must first learn Latin.
Second is the social aspect of learning. Much of the dialectic and rhetoric stages of the Trivium depend upon students learning to debate, defend, and articulate their beliefs. These things happen best in a community of students in a classroom setting. Wilson does say that homeschooling is the second best option after a private Classical Christian School (i.e. – better than traditional non-classical Christian schools), and would have been his choice had a good private school not been available.
The final section of the book is labeled, “Conclusions”. This is basically a short summary of everything previously stated, with a few points of emphasis and clarification.
Overall, Wilson’s arguments are very well-written and persuasive. Many skeptics (and particularly homeschoolers) will say rightly that an extreme minority of schools fit this description; that Logos is an exception rather than a standard that can be matched. However, this is a tough argument to make against Wilson, who has shown in his own personal experience that, when no suitable educational option exists, one can endeavor to create one from scratch as he did. It’s certainly not easy, but when education is a priority, a parent will do whatever it takes to get the best possible education for their children. “The proof is in the pudding”, as they say. Not only has Logos thrived over nearly three decades, but the organization that grew from it — the Association of Classical Christian Schools — now has nearly 250 schools and continues to steadily grow!
This book ought to be considered a must-read for every Christian parent, but particularly those who are teachers in the public schools or those who homeschool their children. You may not agree with everything Wilson says, but he will definitely have you thinking about vitally important things you may have never considered before! Buy it here.