At the heart of classical education today, says David Hicks, is the tension between pagan humanism and Christianity. In the ancient pagan world, "man was the measure of all things," and this assumption led to an anthropocentrism only countered by the focus on holiness established by Christ's incarnation. As a result, the focus of a classical education isn't so much the curriculum as the methodology and training (both intellectual and moral) of students.
Initially published in 1981, Norms & Nobility remains one of the best scholarly works on the subject of education and education reform. This edition (updated in 1990) reflects Hicks' move away from a curriculum-focused to a values-focused educational plan. The purpose and nature of education, he argues, isn't simply to cram information or attitudes into children, it's to guide them toward maturity, morality and a certain kind of behavior. All education develops citizens of a certain kind—the duty of Christian educators is to develop citizens of the right kind.
Every chapter is a self-contained essay, though each should be read in order. The first eight center around the idea of a classical education, while the last four examine its practice. The last section (as would be expected) is far more practical, with a curriculum outline for grades 7-12, common questions and answers, and an explanation for the pace and content of a typical classical education. It is the first section, however, that is the more interesting read, as Hicks outlines his ideas and forms a philosophy of Christian education.
One of the main problems he sees in education today is its reliance on skepticism. Teaching students to question, deride and reject ideas before fully understanding them suppresses the imagination and values function over principle. The result is an education founded on artifice and mere appearances, and since it cannot equip students with the tools for objective creative thought, it reduces them (at best) to receptacles of information and (at worst) skeptics with no sense of morality or virtue.
Hicks, however, avoids a consistently negative tone. Most of this book's content outlines what education ought to be, and how we can improve it. Classical education is all about the Word, both in a literal and metaphorical sense, and he spends many pages illuminating this concept, showing why it is preferable to the scientific rationalism infesting schools, demonstrating how to achieve genuine education that enables students to think and act well and correctly. By far the most scholarly work we carry on classical education, Norms & Nobility is also by far the best.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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