Homeschooling and Classical Christian Education
TOS chatted recently with Gene Edward Veith Jr., popular author, WORLD Magazine columnist, and new Academic Dean of Patrick Henry College. Dr. Veith shares his thoughts on Christian life, homeschooling, and classical education.
TOS: So how did an English professor come to be the cultural editor at WORLD Magazine?
GEV: Marvin Olasky had been the general editor of Crossway’s “Turning Point”series relating Christian WORLDview to different areas. I’d written about Christianity and the arts, and Francis Schaeffer, so Marvin approached me to contribute to that series. When Marvin became the editor-in-chief at WORLD, he invited me to write about cultural issues for that magazine.
TOS: And now you’re the Dean at Patrick Henry College?
GEV: Two years ago I had a chance to go with WORLD as full-time cultural editor. But I was an English professor. It was great to work for WORLD fulltime, but I realized that I am an academic at heart. I missed students and the classroom and missed having colleagues. So when the opportunity arose at Patrick Henry, I decided to go with that. I’m still keeping up my column for WORLD. I’ll be doing something for WORLD at least once a month.
TOS: What are your general impressions of the homeschooling movement?
GEV: When I was a professor and first encountered homeschoolers, typically the homeschool students were so much better prepared than the students from public schools, even Christian schools. They tend to have read books, and they’ve read the great books. Typically, my other students really hadn’t. The homeschool curriculum is typically much more solid and traditional and heavy in “the great works”than is typical in most schools today.
TOS: That’s encouraging to hear!
GEV: The homeschool students just seem to be better adjusted than many of those who come from regular schools. The critics say, “Homeschool kids are sheltered and lack interaction with the culture,”but I notice that homeschool kids tend to be able to talk to adults in a way that other students (who have only been with kids their age) sometimes are not able to.
Some of the homeschool students are very nervous when they come into college, but the problem a lot of them have is that it’s too easy! They’ve already done this; they’ve already read that. When they look at the assignments, they are already far beyond most of their peers. While that’s good, it can be bad! I’ve had some homeschoolers who are very bored in regular college.
TOS: So homeschoolers really are impacting the university establishment?
GEV: Christians are a big part of an educational reform movement, and this is, I think, their most important and successful effort. Christians fight the culture wars. Some persons put their hope in politics, but that doesn’t seem to do much, even if you elect Christians. A lot of Christians are doing things with the arts and film, and I salute all those efforts. But the effort that is the most dramatically successful is what Christians are doing in education. And the homeschoolers are really leading the way in that.
If Christians become more educated than non-Christians, if they become the people who can use their minds and develop their talents, who can write, read, and have knowledge … if those are the Christians, while the non-Christians in many cases are functionally illiterate, who’s going to be the leaders and the culture makers of the next generation? Homeschool kids give me great hope for the future, that we may come back to where Christians are the influential culture makers once again.
TOS: What other benefits do you see to homeschooling?
GEV: One of the good things of homeschooling is that the benefit of having your own personal teacher is enormous. In a classroom discussion, a few of the students will talk and participate, but most of the students will sit in the back row and never say a word. Homeschool kids don’t have that luxury. They can’t escape the attention of their teacher. It’s a very good way to teach since the students are more involved in their studies than [they would be] in a typical classroom.
Homeschooling has another effect that is very important culturally, namely that it requires parents and their children to spend a lot of time together. Every anthropologist, Christian or non-Christian, agrees that the family is the basic unit of culture. I think a lot of problems in our culture can be traced back to weak families. Of course our culture is torn by divorce, single parenthood, and children growing up without a strong family foundation. Family closeness and parental involvement with the kids is huge for a culture. Homeschool families have some very good interactions and talk about some very important issues. If you want to bring back a culture, you’ve got to bring back the family, and that is another great benefit of the homeschooling.
TOS: Let’s talk about Patrick Henry College. PHC is known for being a “homeschool college.”What are your thoughts in general, and do you see any prospects for other colleges being founded on this model?
GEV: There are hundreds of Christian colleges that are fine in what they do, but they’re not really part of the current alternative educational movement. But Patrick Henry is designed around that. However, Patrick Henry concentrates only on a few majors and fields, especially government and law, so as to equip people for service and leadership in the public square. Every one of our applicants from Patrick Henry has gotten into law school. We have more White House interns than any other college, including Georgetown and the other big DC colleges.
While we have a strong focus on government, we also have a classical liberal arts program, along with general history and journalism. There are students who don’t want to go into those areas, so I wish that there would be other schools to take up the slack. We’re planning to start a business program, for example, and economics, and we’re going to be adding some other majors. But if a student is interested in science or engineering, that’s beyond what we offer. It would be good if some Christian schools would get into some of those areas.
TOS: What sort of academics are you looking for in potential students to Patrick Henry?
GEV: Well, our average SAT score is 1300, which puts us way up there, almost with the Ivy League schools. When students apply to Patrick Henry, the homeschooling parents give the record of the work, but we also look at papers they have written, and we ask them to write essays on different topics. Then the faculty picks out the students we want to have, outside the regular admission process. The faculty review the work of the students and select those who would be good. The standards are high, and yet the majority of people who apply are accepted. We pick different kinds of students that show different kinds of talents and abilities. The bright, talented homeschooler who loves to learn … that’s the kind of student we are looking for.
TOS: Does PHC have any special success stories?
GEV: We have won the national moot court competition two years in a row. And both times we beat Oxford University. In one case when it was at Oxford, it had to be under British law, which is different from American law. And so our students had to master British law for that particular case and beat them at their own game!
TOS: That’s wonderful! We should challenge them to cricket next! Let’s talk about the classical program at Patrick Henry. As the incoming dean, what is your vision for the classical program in particular?
GEV: One of the problems with the classical Christian school movement is there is no real source for teachers. Schools have to hire teachers and teach them classical methodology, which often means unlearning everything they learned in their college education courses. I would really love to see Patrick Henry become a source and resource for classical Christian educators, including homeschoolers, to carry on as teachers, writers of curriculum, and publishers of resources and all of that.
TOS: Everybody in homeschooling has their own approach, and I think the classical approach is often misunderstood. Can you tell me in your own words what we mean by “classical education”?
GEV: Classical education means going back to our educational heritage in western civilization. That’s what’s “classic”about it … some things haven’t changed. That is basically what’s called the liberal arts. Some conservative people say, “Well, we don’t want to be liberal.”But it’s called “liberal”because that word has to do with freedom—a kind of education given to people to be free.
If you go back to the Romans and the Greeks, there were basically two kinds of education. Slaves were taught to do their job and do it well and only know what to do to contribute to the economy. But the other education was for the free citizens of the Greek democracy or the Roman republic. For those free societies to work, the citizen had to take part in the decisions that were necessary, to weigh the facts and analyze problems, to plan a good course of action. One had to have a certain kind of education to be a citizen equipped in the running of the country. Citizens had to be able to use their minds, think clearly, have a knowledge bank, and persuade others of their ideas. To develop leaders and other cultural contributors, the objective was to cultivate every part of the human mind as much as possible.
The liberal arts were put together into a system by Christians in the early church. There was the trivium, meaning the three ways… grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This was designed to train someone to think and use language well. Every subject has a “grammar”—basic rules and laws and facts that you just need to know. But it’s not enough to just know a bunch of facts; you also need to be able to think. So after grammar comes logic, where you learn to understand what you’ve learned. That’s not enough, either. Rhetoric is the ability to creatively express and apply what you’ve learned.
So the trivium embraces three ways, or three dimensions, of learning. Some people talk about going “back to the basics”— that’s grammar. Others talk about “critical thinking”—that’s logic. When people talk about “creativity,”that’s rhetoric. The point is, to be fully educated you need all of those, not just one or the other. The classical education gets at all of those dimensions.
Anyway, that’s the trivium. There was also the quadrivium of astronomy, music, arithmetic, and geometry. These arts really come down to mathematics. Even music was looked at in terms of music theory—the mathematics of music. But taken more broadly, you see the other areas of human capability of music, the aesthetic dimensions. This is very important for young people to learn, especially today, for so much of their values are shaped by the music they listen to, and music teaches them to be discerning about other things of the culture in the aesthetic realm.
Astronomy teaches empirical observation, and geometry, the spatial realm. For a classical curriculum to be integrated, it will include all of these different dimensions, tied together with everything related to each other. Other elements of classical education as we do here at Patrick Henry focus on going to the sources. Instead of reading a textbook about something, read the original, read the people who have come up with the ideas that are being discussed in the textbooks.
TOS: You can either read the sources or something written by someone who has read the sources and told you what they said!
GEV: Yes. Usually the primary sources are much better written, more fun to read, and more interesting than the less gifted person who writes about them!
GEV: The Reformation and the Renaissance, that great period of cultural flowering, came out of a period when a new classical education was implemented, when people went to the original Greek. In religion, they went back to the source, namely the Bible, instead of reading the commentaries of the theologians. Going back to the source, going to the Bible and reading that directly, is what gave us the Reformation, which grew out of a classical Renaissance university in Wittenburg. The Reformation was very much a part of the classical education revival back in the sixteenth century.
TOS: That’s very interesting. A lot of Christians today of the evangelical flavor are very suspicious when one says “classical”because they think you want to take their little baby and teach them to follow heathen mythology and a bunch of hocuspocus. Could you speak to that?
GEV: Well, that’s just not what classical education is. There is an insight in Christian classical education that God is sovereign in every sphere of life. So if you read a work even by a non-Christian, when looked at through the lens of Scripture, you observe something that is valuable, something that is true, then that is already part of the truth of God’s WORLD. It’s interesting that this was the kind of education the Puritans had, which included reading Greek and Latin writers, even the ones that were not Christian. This is the education our Founding Fathers had. This was the education of the Reformation saints— Luther and Calvin and all of those.
The current kind of worry about paganism is really a new thing. It’s interesting to me that the Puritans, who were so strict about so many things, never were strict about that. They recognized that this was literature, this is part of our civilization. When you read Homer you do not want to be a pagan! When you read Homer you see the cruelty of their gods, the unhappiness of the people. That religion makes you appreciate all the more the true God. It makes you understand why the ancient Greeks, when they heard the gospel from the Apostle Paul and others, thought that it was such good news—literally—as compared to what they had.
Again, this is not a pagan kind of curriculum; it is classical Christian curriculum with a focus and an integration point of Christianity in all things. But that does not mean we can’t read things from the past or from other writers, because our Christianity is bigger than they are. And they can even help us to understand our Christianity better.
TOS: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with our readers. In closing, can you share with our homeschool parents what they might do to prepare their students for the program at Patrick Henry College?
GEV: The main thing is, we want students that read and read widely, and read real books. That’s a great preparation for any college. That background will especially serve them well at Patrick Henry. Cultivating a love of learning in your children is so helpful in college. That’s often the difference between a true student and someone who just does the work that is put before them. Once students get a taste for learning one thing, that makes them want to learn something else. That’s the kind of student, someone with the academic gifts from God, with an academic vocation, that we really want to work with at Patrick Henry.