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Volume 7, Issue 6: Repairing the Ruins

Recovering Cultural Soul

Douglas Wilson

"We have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists. . . . If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth." -- C.S. Lewis

Several difficulties beset anyone who wants to talk seriously about a recovery of classical learning in the context of classical Protestant culture. This should not be surprising; rebuilding anything is usually far more difficult than starting from scratch.
The first problem is the obvious one. The reason we need to rebuild is that we do not understand our heritage. We need to rebuild because of what we have lost; we do not know how to rebuild because we have lost it. The resultant problem demands constant humility from all who seek a reformation in education. Returning to the culture of the Protestant West is not something we know how to do. We may discover, by the grace of God, how to begin -- which is in a different category.
The second difficulty arises from this high level of cultural illiteracy which surrounds us and which afflicts the education reformers as well as everyone else. In the land of the blind, the man who knows he is blind does have an advantage. Because so few people really understand what is involved in classical learning, very little effort in the right direction will soon reward an individual with the mantle of an expert. The blind man who knows he is blind might come to confuse his knowing with seeing . To a certain extent this temptation is an inevitable result of the whole mess; our society knows excellence in violinists, wide-receivers, highway construction, etc., but we do not know excellence in belles-lettres ,neither do we know the classical education underlying such excellence. Even our modern "highbrow" publishers churn out the crap; reading an Oxford Press catalog is like hearing the London Symphony Orchestra play the greatest hits of the Bee Gees.
Given this void, and the pervasive ignorance, the temptation is to set up shop as "classicists" who are all pipe and no Latin or Greek, all hat and no cattle, all bombast and no decent metaphors. But everyone who is involved in this task of cultural reconstruction must acknowledge that we are all nothing more than a band of ignorant but powerful Visigoths, standing around at the base of a great aquaduct, wondering how they did it. We might figure it out, but not today or tomorrow.
Those modern Christians who want to rebuild a culture through the education of their children and grandchildren must begin with a confession that the modern church has no cultural soul, and that our situation is desperate. As evangelical Protestants we squandered our cultural capital, we spent our heritage, over the course of a century and a half. In no way will we rediscover the immense fortune we threw away. We did not misplace it; we spent it on painted ladies in beer joints. It is gone; if we want it back, we will have to earn it again. Consequently, a true recovery of cultural soul will not be accomplished readily or easily. Pretending to have it is easy enough, and requesting "the classical curriculum" from some company for $49.95 is also relatively painless. It is also relatively worthless. We must come to see that cultural restoration will be the result of hard, covenantal faithfulness over the course of generations. Attempts at posturing and purchasing serve only to provide this intense effort with some comic relief.
The third problem is our great enemy, egalitarianism. This is the pervasive envy that will not even allow us to acknowledge our ignorance and begin the task of restoring learning, without some sending up loud shouts of alarm. "Who do they think they are?"
As classical and Christian schools form around the country, one of the most frequent questions presented is, "Are you trying to be elitist ?" In case anyone was wondering, the expected answer to all such questions is, "No, we want to be just like everybody else." If you want to be different, if you want to be better , then you and your school are a menace.
This egalitarian machine has been so effective that sensible discussion of these issues is virtually impossible. Of course, the biblical pattern of education excludes haughtiness, pride, arrogance, and all the rest of it. And, of course, this disclaimer was made necessary because of the inevitable slanders directed at any attempts to restore cultural soul, classical learning, Christian character, and nobility of mind. Unfortunately, many of the slanders come from within the church.
However, like it or not, true biblical education over time will always result in a division between those Christians who build their cultural endeavors on a biblical foundation and who will prosper under God's cultural blessing, and those Christians who do not, and who remain in the cultural ghetto typified by a modern Christian merchandise shop. We once built great cathedrals; now we throw gospel frisbees.

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