Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education, by Douglas Wilson

Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, ISBN 0-89107-583-6
reviewed by Andrew Haylett

In this book, Douglas Wilson presents his vision for a distinctively Christian curriculum based on the "classical model". As a founder of Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, a Fellow of Philosophy and Classical Languages, and the father of three children, he is well-qualified for his task, and this book is a stirring call to Christian parents to consider carefully the practical implications of God's commands in the education of their children.

The structure of the book is straightforward. It is divided into three sections. The author first offers a critique of the modern state education system, focussing particularly on its inability to equip children even with basic skills and its a priori commitment to secular humanism as an undergirding philosophy. He reviews the likely effectiveness of proposed reforms to state schools by secularists (structural and curricular reform) and Christians (moral reform) and, while acknowledging that each of these approaches has its merits, argues that such proposed reforms are fundamentally reactionary rather than visionary. Even withdrawal from the state system to private or home schools, if it is based merely on the visible symptoms rather than the root problem (the lack of a thoroughly Christian worldview), may be reactionary. Naturally, these chapters are written from the American perspective, and it may be felt that the state education system in the U.K. does not manifest so many problems. However, the basic problem of the failure of secularised education remains. An appendix provides a brief historical sketch of education in North America.

In the second section of the book, Wilson deals with the distinctives of a thoroughly Christian education. First reviewing the Biblical data, he establishes that the true ministry of education is simply to provide for our children an environment conditioned by the Word of God. This fundamental insight conditions his entire approach to education. A stimulating discussion then deals with the nature of knowledge, and shows how our beliefs condition our views of such diverse subjects as biology, history, mathematics and ethics. Finally, the author shows how we are to understand the nature of the child and the purpose of his education in the light of the Biblical doctrine of original sin. We are to have a Biblical understanding of the student, and not just a Biblical understanding of the material. He states cogently, "Christian education must never be considered a substitute for grace...Nevertheless, is a preparation for those students who have not yet received the grace of God, and it is godly instruction for those who have." He summarises the purpose of education, and introduces the main section of the book, as follows: "Not only has [the student] received the tools of learning, he has acquired the desire to use them."

The third section of the book, entitled An Approach to Distinctively Classical Education, offers perhaps the most food for thought to those already committed to Christian education in principle. The author describes his vision for the reconstruction of the classical curriculum, and maintains that classical study, including the languages and literature of the past, can alone provide a true education, rooted in the past and refined in the present. His conviction is that a classically-trained student should have little problem in subsequently mastering any number of subjects. Wilson maintains that modern education reverses the proper order of things; it teaches individual subjects without first teaching the basic tools of learning, arguing and expressing conclusions.

As far as the progression of education is concerned, the writer takes as his starting point an essay by Dorothy Sayers, classicist and novelist, The Lost Tools of Learning (this essay is reproduced in an appendix). The basic structure proposed in this essay revolves around the mediaeval Trivium, a broad-based three-part programme consisting of three parts: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. These three stages are matched to the development of the child. Grammar involves learning by rote, something at which young children excel. Dialectic, the study of logic and argumentation, makes use of the child's growing propensity for questioning and debating, while rhetoric is associated with the poetic or creative stage of development and would involve learning how to express what one thinks.

Perhaps the main strength of this book is the fact that the principles set forth in it have been tried and tested with a large measure of success, in a real school founded fifteen years ago. Drawing from his practical experience in helping to found Logos Christian School, the author offers valuable insights into some of the issues confronting those who would seek to develop a similar vision. One matter to which he gives considerable emphasis is the vital necessity of parental involvement in their children's education, a common failing in Christian as well as secular schools.

Finally, the author takes the bull by the horns, as it were, and engages in a constructive critique of home-schooling. He is concerned to avoid an adversarial tone, and first commends Christian home-schoolers for their vision in seeking to provide a thoroughly Biblical education for their children. He gladly concedes that if a good Christian school were not available, he and his wife would readily home-school their children. He also concedes that some may not be able to afford the costs associated with a private Christian school. In his response to a critique of Christian schools by the well-known author and home-educator Gregg Harris, he allows that several valid criticisms may be made of many Christian schools, particularly in the field of discipline and parental involvement, while at the same time maintaining that such failings are avoidable. He identifies the problem of burnout, or inefficient division of labour, as his main concern with home-schooling; many parents have to learn many different subjects in order to teach them to their children, rather than delegating the teaching of a specific subject to one person. To the charge that such delegation is not permitted in principle, he argues that, by making use of curricula prepared by others, and by establishing informal teaching co-operatives, home-schoolers already implicitly acknowledge the permissibility of some level of delegation.

It may be that some will disagree with the author's critique of home-schooling; some may feel that he does not give sufficient credit to the idea of personalised instruction that is a natural benefit of home education, or does not make sufficient allowance for the different learning styles of children. In addition, for many in the UK at least, it will be an academic point; good Christian schools are, currently, not numerous. However, this is precisely the challenge offered by this book. There will be many who, while awakened to the need for a thoroughly Christian education, do not feel able to commit to home-schooling, for a number of reasons. There will be some who, while they are prepared to home-school in the earlier years, feel the need for help in various subjects at higher levels. The principles and practical insights presented by Douglas Wilson in this book may, with God's blessing, help to develop a vision amongst His people for a restoration of rigorous, Christ-centered and truly useful education.

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning is available in the UK from Transplant: Christian Education Resources

Copyright © Family Matters 1997