Combat Rules for a Canon War

The canon wars are back, in a new theater of operations. Once again, we hear voices decrying syllabi stuffed with dead white men–but with a change. When multiculturalists routed the Straussians during the 1980s and 1990s, they fought primarily over Western Civilization requirements at secular universities. In contrast, most of the combatants in the war today are secondary educators, and the battlefields are Classical Christian schools.

Backhandedly, I am thankful that Classical Christian educators can start their own canon war, for it demonstrates how strong the movement has become over the last few decades. Small, weak, diffident movements lack the time and manpower to devour themselves. But today, organizations such as the Association of Christian Classical Schools link hundreds of member schools; many blogs and journals are devoted to classical education; Classical Conversations is likely the most popular homeschooling curriculum; and Florida may soon adopt the Classic Learning Test in college admissions. Classical schools are one of the last institutions in the country that has not embraced identitarianism. A canon war was overdue.

As a Protestant and a former Classical Christian school teacher, I welcome good faith efforts to improve the curriculum. Semper reformanda. The foundational texts of medieval monastic education, for instance, had little in common with Mortimer Adler’s list of the Great Books, although both were classical and Christian. (Adler converted at the end of his life.) An eleventh-century oblate more likely learned his grammar from the Psalms, from schoolroom dramas, and from forgettable works such as Cato’s Distichs, Avianus’ fables, and the lascivious elegies of Maximianus, than from Horace or Tacitus—let alone from anyone Greek. Both the humanists and the reformers rightly objected to the old schools. Indeed, although not all Reformers were as anti-Aristotelian as Martin Luther, revising the inherited curriculum of medieval scholasticism was a central project of the Reformation. The preeminent educational reformer of seventeenth century, Jan Amos Comenius, was a Moravian bishop and the author of a Protestant devotional allegory (The Labyrinth of the World) that resembles The Pilgrim’s Progress. Periodic reshaping of curriculum is not opposed to classical Christian tradition; it is the classical Christian tradition.

But a canon war, like any war, needs rules of combat—iures in bello—to be fought justly. And procedural rules such as “avoid name-calling” and “do not strawman your foes” are not enough. We also need substantive rules, deriving from the theology that undergirds Classical Christian education. Therefore, to ensure that this canon war strengthens the classical Christian movement, rather than destroys it, I offer four substantive rules of combat.

Rule 1: Excellence as the Standard

Classical Christian education rests upon the belief that a guided encounter with key authors of the past enables children to develop wisdom and virtue. Reading is a spiritual discipline. “An education that trains the mind without training the moral sense is a menace to civilization,” observed J. Gresham Machen, perhaps the twentieth-century’s finest theorist of Christian schooling. The end of the Great Books is not students joining the scholarly discourse or acquiring marketable skills, thwarting communism or advancing social justice, but rather students loving the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Thus, Jessica Hooten Wilson—the best-known advocate for diversifying the classical curriculum—rightly insists that “we exercise the measures of goodness, truth, and beauty when we seek to find the books worthy to hand down.”

But as a result of this standard, inclusivity and representation for their own sake cannot be the reasons why any particular book is taught or untaught. Such rationales may be legitimate under other educational philosophies, but they are not classical Christian reasons. If, for instance, Phyllis Wheatley’s “To Maecenas” is to be added to a unit on the eighteenth century, this change cannot be because Wheatley was a woman of color. It must be because “To Maecenas” is an excellent poem: one that teaches students to love the Beautiful.

Rule 2: The Irrelevance of Influence

Alone, this first rule could tilt the battle too much in favor of the foes of curricular change. But a corollary of this rule balances it: a text’s minimal historical impact—that it was unread for centuries or inspired no imitators or barely appears in scholarship—cannot justify rejecting it. Historical impact does not correlate directly with excellence; it is only evidence of excellence, and weak evidence at that. The depraved human heart will not naturally seek out books that will drive it towards virtue.

Moreover, sin can blind whole generations to the merits of works, especially those created by social outsiders. The Book of Margery Kempe, for instance, went unread from the early sixteenth century, when Wynkyn de Worde published a few extracts as a standalone devotional work, until 1934, when the book’s sole surviving manuscript was rediscovered. Whether these four hundred years of neglect stems from Kempe’s gender, her heterodoxy, her grating (to my mind) authorial voice, or the overtly Catholic mysticism of her work in a newly Protestant England is debatable. But regardless of the cause, this neglect reveals little about the book’s goodness, truth, or beauty.

Rule 3: New Texts Must Be Classical

“Uniformity in education,” to quote Machen again, “is one of the worst calamities into which any people can fall.” Classical education is not for everyone. Different curricula, based on different educational theologies, may be superior for some children. There is space, in the broad church of Christian education, for schools that teach world literature or that focus on twentieth-first century issues or that exalt outdoor experience over ancient books.

None of those alternative curricula, however, could be called “Classical Christian.” There is no Classical Christian education apart from the classical tradition: the lineage of thinkers, artists, and statesmen who drew upon Greco-Roman and Hebrew cultures alike. Christ and his apostles have reconciled the best of Athens and Jerusalem—the New Testament and the Church themselves are that reconciliation. Thenceforth, this one localized tradition holds a special status theologically.

Indeed, a mark of classical education is its lengthy reading lists, drawn roughly evenly from over two millennia of Western writers. Adler’s booklist, for instance, contained 137 texts, from Homer to Solzhenitsyn. Nearly all Classical Christian schools integrate history and literature (often through a single “Humane Letters” course), so that students cover, for example, the classical Mediterranean, the Middle Ages, early modern Europe, and modernity over a series of four years.

Some texts—even masterworks such as Rumi’s poetry or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms—do not fit this curriculum, because neither Christianity nor the Greeks and Romans shaped their authors. Adding these texts would undercut the character of classical education. Hooten Wilson, for instance, has argued that classical Christian schools should “tell…the whole of history from the beginning of the world to now, from Japan and India to Africa and America; sharing the classics from Babylon alongside those of Greece.” Far from reforming Classical Christian education, that would abolish it. One might as well start chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go.”

Rule 4: Propose What to Add and What to Drop

Lastly, no one should propose adding any new text to the classical Christian curriculum without expressly stating what work should be dropped to make room. Class time is limited. If you assign students more pages than they possibly can finish, they usually react by reading none of the pages at all. It is absurd to weigh rival versions of the curriculum in the abstract. Let us be concrete. This book should enter, and that book should go!

I praise Hooten Wilson, on this point. Repeatedly, she has been willing to name names. For instance, she had advised “a substitution of Marie de France for Geoffrey Chaucer” because, although The Canterbury Tales “has had more influence in the English tradition,” Hooten Wilson believes Christian teachers would “be hard pressed” to not admit that Marie’s Lais more fully expresses the “good, true, and beautiful.” As it happens, I have taught both of these texts and half agree. Marie’s Lais certainly teaches easier than The Canterbury Tales and better introduces students to chivalry and the romance genre—although I judge Chaucer’s work to be the greater and more beautiful poem.

Regardless, though, how one arbitrates the Chaucer/Marie contest, a canon war ought to be waged at exactly this level of specificity. In the back of their minds, all instructors have a long-taught book or two they would like to tear out of the syllabus, and a personal favorite that they would like to insert. (Out with La Chanson de Roland for me, and in with Carmina Burana.) So, a just canon war could benefit everyone. Happy fighting.

Nathan Ristuccia is the author of Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History.


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