Review of Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning

Certain books start movements.  As in chemistry, the culture reaches a critical mass—a boiling point, as it were—and then, just at that moment, the right catalyst is added, to speed up the reaction and to bring about a change.  Douglas Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning operated as the catalyst for many Christians in the early 1990s, and the result was a renewal movement in classical education, institutionalized in Moscow, Idaho through a pilot school (Logos) and across the country through the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS).

When I first read this book in the cold and snowy Minnesota winter of 1995, I was galvanized.  Government education has failed, claimed Wilson, and parents need to reclaim their God-given right and obligation to educate their own children.  But what should that education look like?  Using an essay from British novelist Dorothy Sayers, Wilson laid out three stages of childhood development: the grammar stage, when children enjoy parroting information; the dialectic stage, when children enjoy arguing; and the rhetoric stage, when children enjoy looking good in front of their peers.  Grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric—this ancient “trivium” of memory, logic, and speech—represent the basic “tools of learning,” which enable any student to learn for a lifetime.  I was sold, and began immediate preparation to educate my children in a classical way, convinced that I should give to my children the education I never received.

Since those snowy days of winter reflection, I have come to learn a few things more about classical education in general, and about Douglas Wilson in particular.  First, it seems that classical education is a broad category, with many practitioners differing among themselves as to what it really is.  For example, the good folks at Memoria Press insist that Latin must be present for any education to call itself “classical.”  Others have insisted that the Trivium does not represent temporal stages of learning, as Miss Sayers quixotically described it, but should be incorporated throughout the education.  (For a good survey of the opinions, I am indebted to Dr. Dan Coupland, who recommended to me Veith, Kern, & Phillips, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America.)

Second, I have also come to better appreciate Wilson in his strengths and weaknesses.  Like C. S. Lewis, Wilson is almost always thought-provoking and entertaining, but (as with Lewis) he must always be read with care.  As a friend pointed out to me several years ago, his logic is often specious.  He is a self-proclaimed generalist, who loves to make sweeping generalizations based on incomplete research.  Theologically, he is part of an ultra-covenant group of Reformed thinkers called “Federal Vision”, whose views on the gospel have been called into question.  In tone, he is often “snarky” (to use one of his own words), which is one reason why he entertains.  All in all, I have appreciated the many insights into culture and education that I have received through Wilson—and I thank God for them—but I am no longer “sold”, as I said earlier.  The following points enumerate where I agree and disagree with Wilson’s particular program of classical Christian education.

(The numbers in parentheses mark the page numbers in the first edition of Wilson’s book.)

Points of Agreement

First, as a method, Wilson’s version of classical education is both historically and psychologically prudent—cutting with the grain (92).

Second, the three distinctives of Logos School—method, love, and order—accord well with Scripture in its sequence of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom (see Proverbs); in its stress that the teacher himself will mold the students (Luke 6:40); and in its view that discipline lies behind all true learning (Proverbs 19:27).

Third, Wilson’s understanding of classical education as a “conversation with the past” (85) fits the Bible’s emphasis on understanding history (e.g. Psalm 78).  Even mathematics and the sciences should somehow incorporate a stronger awareness of the human side of the discipline, and of its historical progression and (at times) regression.  Moreover, primary sources should form the bulk of high school education.

Fourth, I appreciate Wilson’s denial of the authority of Western Civilization (83).  He rightly notes, “We must resort first to the Bible and secondly to select old books” (86).

Fifth, as for educational habits, work is truly essential to learning (89; cf. Proverbs 2:1-4).  Conversely, too much entertainment, whether video or audio, hinders true education (105-109).

Sixth, regarding home education, which we practice in our household, I was happy to see Wilson’ general agreement on two points: first, division of labor is prudent as education advances (127, 141); and second, all biblical education necessitates heavy parental involvement (102).  Personally, I believe that around age twelve, a child should enter a school, just as Jesus sought input from outside His home and yet remained submissive to His parents.  Before age twelve, for many children, full homeschooling will be the best choice, due to the time with parents and the opportunity to gain habits of independent learning, especially reading comprehension.

Points of Disagreement

First, classical-Christian schools run the risk of aiming for everything and hitting nothing.  For example, medieval schools emphasized logic, the Renaissance emphasized rhetoric, and the classical-Christian schools aim at both.  The old grammar schools in essence only taught ancient languages and literature.  Now, with the rise of modern learning (especially in mathematics), a classical school cannot afford that earlier luxury.  With God, nothing is impossible; but the risk still exists of spreading oneself too thin.  Fundamentally, I am concerned that the curriculum remains focused and slow enough to allow for absorption, before rushing on to a new subject.

Second, in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers emphasized tools over content.  This emphasis may reflect a medieval reliance on human reasoning to ascertain truth.  As a son of the Reformation (let alone the Bible), I am skeptical of the power of logic to ascertain truth.  Luther called such “reason” a whore.  Modern presuppositionalists would also certainly question Sayers’ underlying premise that giving children the proper tools of learning will suffice.  In contrast to Sayers, the Bible emphasizes the role of content in acquiring wisdom (e.g. Pslam 19:7; 119:97-100, 130).  The fear of the Lord is gained through treasuring up the sayings and commands of the Bible (Proverbs 2:1-5).  It seems that Wilson agrees (78, 85); however, will those who implement Sayer’s method inadvertently adopt a reliance on tools over content?  The goal of scriptural education is not reasoning ability, but wisdom.

Third, a thorough immersion in Scripture is a certain prerequisite to the so-called “biblical worldview.”  Personally, I remain leery of the phrase “worldview”, not because I do not believe in the unity of all truth—there is only one God!—but because I fear that our biblical philosophy will subtly replace our duty to rely on “It is written.”  A biblical worldview is not the same thing as the Bible itself.  Without wanting to pass judgment, I fear that thinking Christians often pass too quickly from the words of the Text to its principles and “biblical reasoning.”  If mature Christians do this, how much more are children prone to rely on reason or authorities other than the Bible?  For example, how can high school students really ascertain the providential hand of God in church history without first thoroughly digesting the ways of God with His people Israel?  The prophets are God’s official interpreters.  Learning the patterns of God’s ways from them, we can then sense His ways in later history too, by His grace.

Fourth, spiritual concerns include the temptation of idolatry.  As I mentioned earlier, there was a time when I was enthused about giving my children a classical education in large part because I myself coveted one and wished that I had received one.  Wilson himself mentions this motive, but without its sinful attitude (86).  Our children are God’s alone.  Perhaps not all of our children were created for linguistic sophistication.  Another concern is the problem of tempting children with pagan literature and ungodly philosophies (cf. Romans 16:19; 1 Timothy 4:6-8).  Exposure can inoculate or kill.  May God grant us all wisdom in pointing out to our children the folly of the age without thereby tempting them—or ourselves (cf. Proverbs 7; Galatians 6:1)!

Fifth, I remain troubled by the postmillennial underpinnings of the ACCS movement (143).  While I appreciate Wilson’s aggressive courage (I myself often lack boldness), I nonetheless strongly disagree with a postmillennial understanding of the Great Commission, that we are somehow to discipline the nations, thereby Christianizing the cultures of the world.  In contrast, Jesus Christ called us to make individual disciples.  As for the nations, Jesus Himself prophesied that all nations would hate us (Matthew 24:9).  Yes, we should call both individuals and nations to repent, but God has only promised that one nation will someday be saved as a whole: Israel (Romans 11:26).  Consequently, my goal is not to transform Western civilization, which will ultimately continue from bad to worse, but to evangelize and disciple individuals and to promote a holy culture within the local church.  Since education has always been influenced by the larger cultural goals of its founders, postmillennialism will infect the vision of ACCS, tending to replace Scripture with literature, the church with family, and evangelism with education.  These are tendencies of postmillennialism historically, and they remain a danger in circles influenced by Douglas Wilson.

All in all, I gladly confess that I owe a large debt to Douglas Wilson and to others at Moscow, Idaho.  This movement has exposed me to aspects of history, culture, and education that I continue to incorporate into my own home and into my work at Spring Branch Academy.  May the Lord Jesus sift out the chaff and the retain the grain!  Is that not the hope for all our efforts?

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