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Less is More

One guiding principle of classical education is a commitment to cultivating not just knowledge and skills, but wisdom and understanding of the “deep springs of our culture,” that is, the big ideas and abiding truths that have shaped our civilization. Author Andrew Campbell explains this principle in terms of a Latin phrase articulated long ago by Pliny the Younger, “Multum non multa,” or “much, not many.” Our faculty read and discussed this article this week, and it is well worth the time and attention of parents also.

It is all well and good to talk about traditional classical education, but how do we put it into practice today? Don’t we have far more history to learn other than classical history, not to mention science, modern languages, and common school subjects like health and driver’s ed.? After all, we’re not preparing our children to be Greek philosophers, Roman orators, or (most of us) British statesmen. We have practical matters to consider: government requirements, standardized tests, college admissions.

Yes, all that is true, at least to a certain extent. But we can still derive some important principles from the history of classical education. One of these principles was articulated by Pliny the Younger; that principle is multum non multa: not many things (multa), but much (multum). Formal education should not merely introduce us to many things, the “multa,” which can, by necessity, lead only to superficial knowledge, but should encourage us to drink deeply at the springs of our culture. Much, not many.

How does this play out in the classical curriculum? First, the number of subjects is limited to a few key disciplines. We are accustomed to schools expanding their offerings to include vocational and technical subjects such as home economics, wood shop, and computer keyboarding. In the wry words of Jacques Barzun, we expect our schools to turn out “ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars.” The classical curriculum, on the other hand, insists on a limited number of demanding subjects taught in depth. Moreover, formal study of certain subjects, especially science and modern languages, is reserved for high school. As we’ll see, this is actually an efficient use of the student’s time and effort.

Second, whenever possible, subjects are taught in relation to one another and in the context of broader intellectual concerns. For example, as the student gains proficiency in Latin translation, some historical, literary, and theological readings may be undertaken in the original language. The student doesn’t just read a chapter about Julius Caesar or Cicero in a history textbook; she reads Caesar’s and Cicero’s own writings in Latin. The study of selections from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is at once a lesson in Latin, logic, history, and theology. Further, one of the key “intelligences” is lateral thinking, the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate fields and ideas, and the classical curriculum encourages this skill. In all subjects, students should be led to ask big questions: What is Man? What is the good life? How, then, should we live?

Third, the core readings in English and history (Classical, Christian, and Modern Studies) consist of a very few representative masterpieces that the student reads slowly and studies in depth. Does such a pared-down program sufficiently prepare students for college work, let alone life?

The verdict of history is yes. The great Renaissance educator Vittorio da Feltre assigned only four authors to his young students: Virgil, Homer, Cicero, and Demosthenes. (These were, of course, read in the original Latin and Greek.) The traditional classical model emphasizes the slow, careful reading of a small corpus of great literature, especially the epic poets.

Contrast this with the typical approach of contemporary American schools. One cannot help but observe the trend in modern schools to substitute light “escape” reading for the more difficult classics. The practice is defended in the name of getting students to read. The assumption is that because students learn to read by reading, schools must provide books that students will want to read, books that will not overtax their patience, their limited vocabulary, or even their more limited education. A corollary to this assumption, as we have seen, is that students cannot enjoy reading serious classics with their demanding styles and remote contents. Clearly, the classical academy rejects this thesis. Not only does it refute the notion that classics are inaccessible or unenjoyable to young readers, but it reminds us that the purpose of learning is discovery, not escape. Substituting the literature of escape for the classics is not education, but an attack on learning; it is not intellectual, but anti-intellectual. It represents a capitulation to the adolescent appetites of our students and our race.

In his book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, Tracy Lee Simmons minces no words on this subject:

“Most public schools in America now strive to be cut rate educational malls for the intellectually lame, whether or not students first darken the school doors that way, so most of them leave, while even some private schools pose as little more than colorful felt boards for the earnestly shallow, commonly confusing pious or patriotic piffle with real education.”

Unfortunately, this trend is noticeable even among homeschoolers. While truly “good books” are an excellent and necessary preparation for the Great Books, in most cases they may most profitably be read independently or within the family circle, not as part of formal schooling. Later, students are rushed through the whole Western canon in a few years of Great Books, with reading lists based on those of university programs. For example, the formal reading list for the seventh grade presented in one popular guide includes a dizzying twenty-one books, ranging from Don Quixote (an abridged version is permitted) to Pilgrim’s Progress to the Grimms’ Fairy Tales to Pride and Prejudice. And this is only for English! Another publisher’s recommendations for the same year include eighteen titles, taking the student through Genesis in a week and the whole of the Iliad in five. At the same time, the students are also reading a work of theology, a study on ancient cities, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a challenging adult novel by C. S. Lewis.

By contrast, Simmons reminds us that “schools of the best kind have always aimed high while keeping feet to the ground. They didn’t try to do too much; they tried to do the most important things.”

The core readings suggested in The Latin-Centered Curriculum focus on those “important things” the few truly enduring and representative literary monuments of the past 2,500 years. Ample time is given for students to read, reread, and “live into” their schoolbooks. As will be seen in the following discussion, the ancients possessed an effective method for approaching their great classics, which were no easier for the schoolboys of A.D. 100 than they are for our daughters and sons. The difference is that the grammarians and rhetors were highly selective in the texts they placed before their students. These works were models both of style and of their culture’s aesthetic and moral norms. We would do well to take seriously their approach.

Does this mean that students will go through thirteen years of schooling never cracking an English novel? Are we denying our children the pleasure of floating down the river with Rat and Mole, bursting with excitement when Almanzo wins first prize for his milk fed pumpkin, or pushing past a row of old coats to step into the Narnian winter? Of course not. What it does mean is that we apply the principle of multum non multa in selecting schoolbooks. The streamlined classical curriculum leaves plenty of time for other pursuits, including reading for pleasure and discovery. It is in these hours that students can sail the seas to Treasure Island, sit in the drawing rooms of Austen and Trollope, thrill to the daring escapades of the Scarlet Pimpernel, march with the Roman legions in Eagle of the Ninth, circle the globe with Phileas Fogg, or experience the angst of modern dystopias in 1984 and Brave New World.

In addition to studying the core readings in depth, the student is expected to read independently everyday, and families are strongly encouraged to read aloud for at least one hour three times a week. Daily is better. If time does not permit parents and children to read together regularly, high quality audio books and dramatizations may prove helpful. Independent and family reading is linked to schoolwork and enriches it, but should not be considered part of the formal school day. Rather, this time introduces the student to a wide range of English literature and foreign works in translation, establishes the habit of daily reading, and draws families together.

The advantages of the multum non multa approach are many. Eliminating busywork, workbooks, redundant curricula, excessive “escape” reading, from the school day cuts the student’s work time tremendously. Rolling subjects together, Latin and logic, Greek and geometry, history and literature, further reduces wasted time and mental energy. The time savings may be applied to the student’s own interests and to enrichment subjects such as sports, dance, or cooking. Parents will find that their preparation time is much reduced as they eliminate redundant subjects and learn alongside their children. Parents may also enjoy considerable savings on formal curricula, perhaps freeing funds for music lessons, building a quality home library, or other family needs.

The principle of multum non multa, which could be translated, “less is more,” has been subordinated in recent years to what may be termed multum optimum in se -“more is necessarily better.” The educational well-being of our children may depend on which approach we, as parents and educators, choose.


Still Waiting

The month of December has begun, which means that it is the best time of the year. But what does it mean for us as Christians to approach Christmas? Is it just an endless rat-race of shopping, decorating, and partying? Dr. Robbie Crouse of Knox Seminary reminds us that approaching Christmas means learning to wait by entering into the story of Advent. Whether you are part of a church that follows the church calendar or not, his words are a helpful and stirring call to enjoy the season to its full.

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Our culture has a waiting problem. I think we all know it. We live with instant gratification at our fingertips. Our inability to wait even infects our celebration of Christmas. I saw Christmas decorations at most stores the day after Halloween. I guess we’d rather start our Christmas shopping than pause for Thanksgiving.

With this way of celebrating Christmas, it’s no wonder that we’re tired of Christmas by December 25. The secular calendar of Christmas runs from November 1 -December 25. On December 26 we start to see the Valentine’s Day decorations come out.

Does it seem like there might be a better way? I think there is.

Some American evangelicals are surprised to hear about the older tradition of Advent and Christmas from our Christian past. It doesn’t quite match the way we celebrate it now. Traditionally, Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25, and it is a season, not a one-day event. Remember that song, The Twelve Days of Christmas? The “twelfth night” is another major celebration that brings us to Epiphany (January 6), the feast of Christ’s revelation to the world as the Divine Son, represented by the visit of the Magi and Jesus’s baptism. In many places around the world, January 6 is the day of exchanging gifts (in honor of the magi) and a bigger celebration than Christmas Day.

Before Christmas is the season of Advent. Advent marks four Sundays before Christmas and is quite distinct from Christmas itself. In other words, it’s not about celebrating four weeks of the Christmas story. Many of us are familiar with Advent wreaths and Advent candles, but some funny recent traditions have come in that take away from that earlier meaning of Advent. There’s nothing inherently wrong with naming the Advent candles (“Faith,” “Hope,” “Joy,” “Love” make some sense), but naming them after characters in the Christmas story (“the Shepherds candle,” “Mary’s candle,” “Joseph’s candle) seem to take away from the whole point of Advent as a preparation distinct from Christmas.

So what is the point of Advent?

“Advent” comes from a Latin word meaning “coming.” It’s about the coming of Christ, and that makes sense to most of us. What is less known is that Advent looks primarily at Christ’s second coming, or his “comings” to us now in all kinds of ways. The tone of Advent is one of waiting, longing, expectation, anticipation, preparation, even repentance. John the Baptist’s cry “Prepare the way of the Lord!” is probably the best summary of Advent.

On the one hand, in Advent, we enter again into the situation of Israel waiting for her Messiah. A number of Advent hymns pick up on Israel’s exile and God’s promise of a glorious future. “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” follows Isaiah’s message that judgment on Israel is coming to an end and God’s return is on the horizon. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” uses a different prophetic theme in each stanza with an address to “ransom, captive” Israel “that mourns in lonely exile.” It’s still dark out, but the night is coming to an end.

The purpose of this reenactment of Israel’s longing is to remind us that, although our Messiah has come, we still wait for the consummation of His kingdom. The other aspect of Advent is a theme of Christ’s return in glory. And it’s not focused solely on joy either. There’s still pain the world, but the coming morning will swallow up the mourning. There is a note of repentance and watchfulness in Advent. The parable of the Ten Virgins, a common theme in traditional Advent observance, teaches us to be vigilant and not unprepared when the Master returns.

Advent is the perfect reminder that we are between two appearings of Christ. We can be confident about his second coming when we remember God’s faithfulness to Israel in bringing her Messiah. Because God has been true to his covenant promises in bringing salvation near, we can be equipped by that grace to wait patiently for the fullness of our redemption.

Advent is an exercise in delayed gratification. Does that seem like something American Christians need? Yeah, I think so, too. Following the church calendar is not a commanded obligation by any means. But it is helpful. It teaches us that God works for those who wait on Him. Just as it helps us build anticipation for the joy of Christmas, we can (hopefully) increase our eagerness for Christ’s kingdom to come afresh, in our lives now and on that final day.

Amen, come quickly Lord Jesus.


Recognizing Our Limits

Here, in an article called “Can You Really Just Do It?” is a great Christ-centered reminder for us from author and speaker Paul David Tripp. I hope it’s an encouragement to you!

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If you want to live productively in this fallen world, it’s absolutely critical that you humbly admit your limits as a human being, and then proceed to live within them.

You won’t get much encouragement from the surrounding culture. In fact, think about all the branded slogans, advertising campaigns, or inspirational Instagram quotes that encourage you to deny or even ignore your limits:

  • Just Do It
  • I Will
  • If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It
  • Be All You Can Be
  • Impossible Is Nothing

While the Bible is filled with verses about the importance of discipline and hard work, the limits on our abilities are extensive and profound. When we consider a typical day, we’re confronted with how little is actually under our control. When we reflect on our life, we see a trail of weakness and deficiency.

We can only be in one place at a time, no matter how hard we dream. We can’t tell gravity that impossible is nothing. We can’t just do it and be all we can be without oxygen, food and water. Which, by the way, we don’t supply for ourselves.

We can’t remove our words and actions from history or redo a situation. We can’t know the details of tomorrow, let alone know where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing in five years.

We can’t accurately read the desires or predict the actions of someone else, and certainly not control them. We can’t make our acquaintances respect us, and we can’t assure that our family members will treat us with love. We can’t change our spouse or force our children to have faith.

We can’t avoid natural disasters or protect ourselves from suffering. We can’t ward off disease and sickness or keep ourselves from aging. We can’t defy the mortality of our humanity.

Discouraged? Don’t be, and don’t panic; reality is a healthy place to be.

Think about this: only when I humbly embrace my weakness, humbly admit my limits, and humbly recognize how small I actually am, can I begin to reach out for the help of the loving, powerful, and gracious Redeemer who is the true source of my strength, wisdom, and hope.

Only then can I begin to function as an instrument in his powerful hands, rather than being in his way because, in forgetting who I am and who he is, I have been trying to do his job.

You don’t have to fear your limits. They were designed by the God who is the definition of everything that is knowledgeable, understanding, wise, and true. Your limits are not a flaw in his creative plan. They are the product of his wise choice and the fulfillment of his intentions. God made you limited, in exactly the way you are.

Your limits are meant to drive you in humble and worshipful need to your Lord, who has promised never to turn a deaf ear to the cry of his children (Psalm 34:15). He has welcomed you to cast your care on him (1 Peter 5:7). He has said that he will never leave you by yourself (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Admitting your limits is not a sign of weakness; it’s an essential ingredient of mature faith.


“None sweeter or better …”

The Pumpkin
by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!


With Foresight and Courage

The mass shooting in Sutherland Springs is too horrific for most of us to imagine. The tragic deaths of 26 people and at least that many wounded, gathered in a church to worship the Lord God, no less, at the hands of a bloodthirsty, evil man bent on destroying as many men, women, and children as possible, leaves us all shaken and disturbed. The headline has become all too common, and the locales are etched in our memories: Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Aurora. Churches and schools should be safe places, yet, in a world we feel hardly able to recognize, they have become dangerous places.

One of the reasons parents send their children to Regents Academy is so that they will be in a secure environment. Parents want their child’s mind, soul, and relationships to be safe; a Christ-centered school offers the promise of these types of safety. But parents want their child’s physical safety to be guarded also. Ultimately, of course, no place is perfectly safe. The reality of a sin-sick, fallen world means that evil men bent on doing harm will do their harm, despite our precautions. Living in a free and open society means that we take the risk of people abusing their freedoms with perverted purposes.

The board and staff of Regents Academy know that our school’s parents care deeply about the safety of their children. We take it upon ourselves as a sacred trust to secure and guard the students throughout the school day to the best of our ability. We have many safety precautions and protocols in place: safety plans, security cameras, locked doors, lockdown procedures, 911 buttons, and others. Ultimately, our best safety feature is our teachers themselves, who carefully shepherd their students, watching for threats and staying ready to take action if the need arises. Vigilance is their byword.

Threats do exist, and no multiplication of plans and protocols can prevent all dangers. Ultimately, we pray for the Lord’s watchcare, and we trust Him to be our strong tower. “He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved” (Ps 62:6). God does not promise that no harm will ever come to us. Indeed, His sovereign purpose for us often includes danger, hardship, and suffering. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Yet the Lord calls us to exercise prudence, to fulfill our duties with foresight and courage. Please know that it is our purpose at Regents to do so to the best of our ability.

Together, we trust the Lord, and we ask for His mercy on us, our children, and our grandchildren. And we pray for the hurting folks in Sutherland Springs, who have been asked to drink a bitter cup we hope never to drink.


A Vision for Scholar-Teachers

I minored in history in college, and one of my professors was, um, memorable, in his own way. The class was called “The Age of Reason,” and we were supposed to be learning about the Enlightenment in the 18th C. However, this professor had dedicated his scholarly life to studying 18th C. French gardens, and that was all – I mean all – he lectured on. He assigned three books (all about French gardens), and gardens were all he appeared to care about. In fact, it was obvious to me that while he loved his subject, he merely tolerated his students (oddly, he hardly ever made eye contact with us). Did you ever have a teacher like that?

Arthur Holmes, in his book Building the Christian Academy, wrote,

If we consider the art or science that is taught, then it is a contemplative life devoted to the truth; but if we consider students and their needs, then it is indeed an active life engaged in the affairs of this world for the common good. It is not a choice between the two, for with a duty to both the discipline and the student, the teacher should in reality be a teacher-scholar.

So which is it: should teachers love their subject or their students? If Dr. Holmes is right, the answer is “yes.”

In the classical Christian vision for education, the teacher is a not simply a technician who has studied the science of pedagogy. Rather, the teacher is a scholar who leads “a contemplative life devoted to the truth.” Should the teacher be skilled in the science of pedagogy? Absolutely. But a teacher’s greatest trait is a love for learning and for truth (historical truth, mathematical truth, language truth, etc.). She shares that love for learning with her students. She is first and foremost a pursuer of truth and of the One who is the Truth.

And of course a classical Christian teacher doesn’t just love his subject; he loves his students. He leads “an active life engaged in the affairs of this world for the common good” – and what greater good is there than training children to live for God? Students are image bearers of the Triune God. They aren’t pupils filling desks, with teachers filling their pockets by filling the students’ heads. Teachers are called to give themselves away to their students, to invest in them, and to approach them as dearly loved children.

Teachers who love their students but don’t love their subject can never lead their students to love learning. Teaching is always incarnational, and teachers are called to model their love for truth before their pupils in order for them to be transformed into their teacher’s image.

Teachers who love their subject but don’t love their students will be distant, harsh, and self-involved. Learning is drudgery when it’s about the teacher grinding through his pet subject or it’s merely about checking off the stuff you have to do to fulfill the class requirements. That drives students away. But love draws them. Relationships are powerful things.

I can still remember those long periods sitting under my French garden professor (I struggle even to remember his name). But let me tell you about Mr. Grove or Mr. Orlofsky or Dr. Lea. They were passionate for their subjects, but they loved me, too (somehow – I don’t think I was very lovable back then).

Teachers at Regents Academy aim to properly balance passion for our subjects and love for our students. The vision for scholar-teachers, with “duty to both the discipline and the student,” is a worthy vision. It is one we are committed to.