Douglas Wilson is the founder and leading light of the Classical Christian Education movement, which is playing an increasingly significant role in religious and homeschooling education. The minister of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, he is the author of numerous books, including The Case for Classical Christian Education, Reforming Marriage, What I Learned in Narnia, and a printed debate together with Christopher Hitchens called Is Christianity Good for the World? He also starred in a documentary with Hitchens titled Collision. He serves on the boards of both Logos School and New St. Andrews College. He and his wife Nancy have three children and fifteen grandchildren.
Rev. Wilson, you have been enormously influential in the Christian evangelical world. You are a pastor, theologian, professor, writer, debater, public speaker, etc. You wear many hats. Can you tell us something about each of these hats and how they fit together in your life?
The three main hats are those of pastor, writer, and educator. I have been the minister of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho since 1977. My first book was published in the early nineties, and I have been writing ever since. And I got involved in education as a concerned parent — we had three kids who needed an education, and Nancy and I did not want them to get the kind of education we had received.
At SuperScholar we are particularly interested in education. You came on our radar through your work promoting Classical Christian Education. In plain English, what is a “Classical Education” and what does the adjective “Christian” add here? Can you describe your own education? In what ways did it match up with the form of education you are now promoting?
My own education the standard-issue government school education of the fifties and sixties. My closest acquaintance with any kind of classical Christian thinking came through C.S. Lewis, in whose books I was steeped as a child. Classical education refers primarily to two aspects — one is the methodology of the Trivium, and the other is the “great books” approach to content. The Christian component means that theology is treated, as it was in the medieval period, as the queen of the sciences. With classical education there is a lot to integrate, and we believe that Christ is the great principle of integration.
Classical education, traditionally, was based on the trivium and quadrivium. What are these and how important are they to a classical curriculum? Logic is a component of the trivium. Do you focus on the logic of Aristotle and the medieval scholars or does your treatment of logic take into account advances in logic from more recent scholars like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Kurt Goedel? Similarly, the quadrivium includes astronomy. Does your treatment of astronomy take into account advances in astronomy due to Albert Einstein, Edward Hubble, and their successors? What do you think of the Big Bang?
The Trivium consists of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. We treat these serially, as Sayers urged in her seminal essay The Lost Tools of Learning. Grammar is taught in the elementary years, logic or dialectic in the junior high years, and rhetoric in the high school years. The students learn classical logic, but they are also taught some of the more recent advances. The formal logic course is taught in 8th grade. The school does not develop the Quadrivium, except to the extent that we have some of the standard courses you might expect to find in a high school. The students are taught what the contemporary science is, but they are taught it within the context of a Christian framework. The Bible is authoritative. We would make the latest science textbooks authoritative, but they keep changing them.
In a classical education, the study of Latin and Greek looms large. How important do you see these in the classical curriculum? Given that so many ancient manuscripts have been translated into English, why is it important to have students spend so much time on these languages? What benefit do you see coming from this study of Latin and Greek? Do students learning Latin and Greek within a classical curriculum merely learn to read these languages or do they also learn Latin and Greek prose composition (as at English public schools a century ago)? Have you done any longitudinal studies to see how many of students who complete a classical education continue to keep up their Latin and Greek five or ten years down the line?
There are many reasons, but two basic ones come to mind here. One, there are a great many more texts to be translated, and we will need translators to do it. But granting that most of our students will not keep their Latin and Greek up, we teach these languages to them as a form of mental discipline, and as a way of establishing them in English. Their Latin might revert to zero, but their English will never be the same.
Tell us about New Saint Andrews College. What is its origin and how did you decide on the name? Can you give us an overview of the curriculum? What sort of students are attracted to it? Does one have to go through a Classical Christian Education before attending New Saint Andrews College? Once students get their bachelor’s degree from New Saint Andrews College, what opportunities are open to them? Can they go on to graduate school at places like Stanford, the University of Chicago, or Vanderbilt? If so, are they nonetheless limited in their fields of study? Have you had any graduates go on for advanced degrees in the natural sciences or do they tend to go into the humanities? How many go on to professional schools, such as law, business, or engineering? What about medicine?
New St. Andrews is named after St. Andrews, acknowledging the importance of the Scottish Reformation to the advance of Protestant Christianity. We started the college because it was becoming apparent that the graduates of our classical and Christian K-12 schools were all dressed up and no place to go . . . my oldest daughter in particular. No, a classical Christian education is not prerequisite, although it helps. We have had our graduates go on to graduate schools like St. John’s, serve in the military, go to law school, etc. Our grads do gravitate to the humanities, and we have not been around long enough to have longitudinal studies tell us much. But we are getting to the point where we should be able to do that.
How does Classical Christian Education relate to the homeschooling movement? Is it possible for parents to homeschool their children and provide them with a Classical Christian Education? If so, what curriculum would they use? If homeschooling parents intent on giving their children a classical education themselves received a conventional education, are they even in a position to provide their children with a classical education via homeschooling (what if the parents don’t know Latin or Greek)?
Yes, quite a number of homeschoolers are pursuing a classical Christian curriculum. Two of the main programs I would mention are the Omnibus program published by Veritas Press. I am one of the general editors of that project, and many homeschoolers use it. Another good program that helps homeschoolers with this is Classical Conversations. Online courses are available for particular courses when the parents are in over their heads.
Is a Classical Education (leaving aside its Christian or religious orientation) for everyone? If you could completely revamp the educational system of the United States, what would you do? Would everyone be given a classical education? Would you allow alternatives? What alternatives would you consider as reasonable?
My goal is not to have absolutely everyone receive a classical Christian education in all its rigor. But I would like a classical Christian school, of the high standards variety, to be available to everyone. I do think the classical structure of the Trivium would translate well to all forms of private education, even if they didn’t go full tilt into the Latin, for example.
How well does a Classical Christian Education equip students to understand the role of science in society? How much does your classical curriculum emphasize mainstream science? Do you use standard physics, chemistry, and biology textbooks? What, in particular, do you do with Darwin and evolution? Is what’s known as “theistic evolution” an option within Classical Christian Education?
I think they are very well equipped to understand the role of science in our society, even though we don’t use the standard texts. The students who go to state universities are prepared for what they will get there. We are able to do this even though we think Darwin is a joke. Though we don’t believe it, we know what it is we don’t believe. A university professor from a nearby state university (he was a microbiologist) spoke at a New St. Andrews event, with virtually all our students in the room. He asked how many had read Darwin’s Origin, and virtually every hand in the room went up (it is part of our curriculum). He commented on how odd that was — he taught in the Temple of Darwin, where everyone believed it, but no one had read it.
Surveying the American educational landscape, what do you see? What do you like and what don’t you like? Now narrow the focus on Christian education, both K-12 and higher education? Again, what do you see? What do you like and dislike?
The American school system looks like a helicopter that tried to land sideways. I like the fact that the top ten percent of American students remain competitive with anyone anywhere in the world — but these are the kids who can teach themselves to read off of cereal boxes. The 90% who need a teacher are hurting. The private Christian response has been an outstanding initial response. I don’t like the fact that some Christian schools determine success by being better than the government schools — that bar is too low.
Leaving aside New Saint Andrews College, can you list ten colleges or universities to which you would feel comfortable sending graduating high school seniors who have completed a Classical Christian Education? Can you say something about each of these schools and why you would recommend them?
I don’t think I can list ten. But schools that are very much like NSA would be Patrick Henry College near DC and New College in Franklin, TN. Schools that still have a strong liberal arts program and are friendly to Judeo/Christian civilization would include places like Hillsdale and Grove City.
How well do students who go through a Classical Christian Education do on objective measures of aptitude and achievement? Compared to the population at large, are they doing significantly better? If so, by how much? And do such gains persist as students get older? Assuming you had to sell a Classical Christian Education simply on pragmatic grounds, how would you do it?
This is a hard one to answer without sounding boastful. But keeping in mind what the Bible says about us not having anything that wasn’t given to us as a gift, let me put it this way. The students at Logos School are scary, and some of the classes verge on being spooky. We average between 4-6 National Merit students a year, with a class size of approximately twenty. One year we had a three way tie with two other Idaho schools in this, but they had a graduating class of about 500. Our school board reviews the results of our standardized tests annually, and the majority of our students are consistently in the highest quartile.
How does a Classical Christian Education advance your vision of Christianity in the wider culture and society? What is that vision? How widely is your vision of Christianity shared among other Christian believers? How closely are you able to work with traditional Protestant denominations (such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians). How far does your influence through Classical Christian Education extend to Roman Catholics?
This is not meant to sound snarky, but we are Christians who believe the Bible and everything in it. There are numerous communions out there that have made various accommodations with secular thought, which we are not interested in doing at all. But among conservative Christians, our movement is pretty ecumenical.
Tell us about your “road show” debates with atheist Christopher Hitchens and your movie with him (titled “Collision”). As a debater, he seems formidable and, at times, virulent. And yet, you seem also to have made a personal connection with him. How is he in person? Are you still in touch with him, especially now that he has been so sick (with esophageal cancer)? Have you made any progress in deconverting him from atheism?
Christopher Hitchens and I hit it off on a personal level quite well. We get along great. Yes, I have been in touch with him since the diagnosis, and of course I believe that he needs to hear and believe the gospel. But beyond that I would prefer to not share what we have discussed.
Briefly, what are the three most controversial theological positions you’ve taken? How has the secular world responded? How have fellow Christians responded? Were you right to take those positions? Have you modified your views in these matters?
One is a controversy called the Federal Vision controversy, which the secular world doesn’t really care about — nor should they. It is kind of an “inside baseball” controversy that involves a lot of Presbyterian history, jargon, and name-calling. It largely has to do with . . . oh, never mind. The second is that I have argued that the South was right on all the constitutional issued involved in the War Between the States, which some have used in an attempt paint me (unsuccessfully) as a racist. There were other issues involved in that one as well. The third would go back to the time when I left my upbringing in modern evangelicalism to adopt the historic Reformed tradition. I am, sad to say, not sorry about any of them.
Tell us about your journal Credenda/Agenda. What did you hope to accomplish in founding it? Is it meeting your expectations? How large is its readership? It seems in that journal that you are not always keen on maintaining “civility” or “collegiality” as these might be defined in a politically correct culture. Indeed, in your book A Serrated Edge, you make a point of not dancing around controversial topics. Explain your approach to controversy.
Credenda had a print run of twenty years, and has been enormously influential. It has surpassed by expectations, even if it did nothing else. The web publication has about 6,000 unique readers a month, and so it continues its influence. We are in the process of restarting the hard copy, which should be available again in a month or two. With regard to controversy, we do not want to be mean-spirited. But at the same time, we do not want to be anemic and boring. There is a type of satire that has a certain tang to it, and which can be used to deflate religious pomposity — which Jesus used to do a lot. But there is no need to use a baseball bat.
What websites, books, and resources would you like readers of this interview to be aware of? With each of these items, please provide some annotation.
I would recommend the web site of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (www.accsedu.org), as well as my own web site (www.dougwils.com). In addition, there is a lot of material at Canon WIRED (canonwired.com), as well as at Canon Press (canonpress.com). And Logos School has a web site also (logosschool.com). For books, I would recommend three I have written — Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, The Case for Classical and Christian Education, and The Paideia of God. The first two are published by Crossway, and the last one by Canon Press.
What do you see as the future of Classical Christian Education? Will it revolutionize education in the United States? … among American Christians? In what ways might Classical Christian Education “evolve” in coming years? What do you see as the broader impact of Classical Christian Education on society and culture?
I see the future of classical Christian education as being pretty bright. There are well over 200 schools in the United States now, and the movement shows no sign of slowing down. I pray that it will revolutionize how we think of education. And I hope that our graduates move on to positions of great cultural influence . . . as some already have. We believe that the culture wars should be fought culturally in the first place, and not politically in the first place.