We are writing resumés backwards.
Whenever I have to update my own C.V., I always notice that the things at the of top the list—recent employment, graduate degrees—have not defined me nearly so much as the thing which is at the bottom: a little classical Christian grade school called Good Shepherd in Tyler, Texas.
It was that tiny K-12 school that taught me how to write. That may sound elementary, but one can’t take it for granted any more. When I was studying for a Master’s degree later at Southern Methodist University, I was astonished to find that nearly every graduate course included a paper assignment intended to “teach us how to write.” Apparently, a typical high school or even undergraduate degree no longer confers that ability.
Good Shepherd also taught me how to argue constructively. In my teen years, I once overheard two of my friends wrangling about whether rap music “is really music.” The dispute dead-ended quickly in a cul-de-sac of yes-it-is, no-it-isn’t. But with some training in classical rhetoric, my friends might have realized that their argument was a disagreement over terms; the real problem was that they each had a different definition of music. Armed with that insight, my friends might made some actual progress at understanding each other’s ideas. As it was, they only made each other angry.
Classical education at Good Shepherd also taught me that learning is about more than accumulating facts. Years later, in my undergraduate studies at the University of North Texas, I suffered through countless lectures which presented history or economics as a jumbled pile of facts—no narrative, no value judgments, no story. Such an omission is not confined to academia. How many experts do we see debating theories of political science or biology or medicine on television without having learned this basic lesson—that mere facts do not speak for themselves, that they must be construed by thinking human minds?
One of the greatest treasures that classical education bequeathed to me was its cornucopia of stories—the greatest stories that the world has known. From Homer’s “Odyssey” to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” these tales link great minds across the ages, connecting thinkers as diverse as Plato, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Winston Churchill. To step into this world of literature is to overhear the greatest conversation of all time—one which spans centuries and continents.
Both of my parents teach at Good Shepherd. Cumulatively, they have spent 80 years in the classroom, not to mention their years in school administration. The last 46 of those years have been devoted to the classical model of education. It says a lot that before they took jobs at Good Shepherd, they disenrolled us kids from the school where they were teaching. Not until they made the switch to the classical model of education did they want us to attend the school where they taught.
They transitioned to working at a classical school because training an academic elite wasn’t enough; they wanted to give students a lifelong love for learning. It wasn’t enough to have a classroom of “A” students; they wanted to see children grow up with well-formed hearts, minds, and souls. They wanted not just a new generation of productive consumers, ready to thrive in a national economy, but a new generation of stewards ready to care for God’s world.
My parents didn’t switch for the money, that’s for sure. Our school never had as much cash as the nearby public or private schools. When I was competing in high school debate, I remember that we hosted a training camp on our campus and invited many debaters from public school. Polite though they were, I still remember them smirking at the tattered carpet, the frayed basketball nets in our school gym, and the lack of computers in our classrooms. But they knew our teams were winning debates, and that our tiny high school of 14 students could go toe-to-toe with schools that were graduating 700 in a class.
Of course, enrolling us in private school meant that my parents paid for our education twice: once with their tax dollars, and once with whatever they had left over. Teaching isn’t a lucrative profession to begin with, and no doubt my parents had to give up a lot of comforts in order to put five of us through private school. But they believed in what we were getting.
They weren’t the only believers. Fourteen years after graduating from Good Shepherd School, I returned to teach humanities and choir at my alma mater. I’m a musician and composer by training. But something nagged at me in the decade and a half that I was away from classical education. It was this: No matter how good the music I write might be, no matter how many outstanding concerts I might give, the real cultural transformation was happening elsewhere, wherever children were being taught what to love.
Transforming a society, I realized, doesn’t come about merely by producing great works of craftsmanship. The best fine art in the world will wither on the vine if no one has been educated to appreciate it. I learned that if our world wants to see great men and women in the next generation, it must teach them to love the good, the true, and the beautiful.