The Blessing of a Classical and Christian Education
The following is the text from the talk given at Bradford Academy’s 2023 Baccalaureate Service on Thursday, June 1st, 2023. It was delivered by Mrs. Mary Lou Dovan, a graduate of Grove City College (B.A.) and New Saint Andrews College (M.A. in Classical Christian Studies). Mrs. Dovan has taught at Bradford Academy and now serves on our Board of Directors. Both the staff and students were blessed and encouraged by these words!
It was in the second semester of my senior year of high school when some of my frustrations with my education reached a boiling point.
This was the year we studied American government. The course was mainly taught by the HBO mini-series called John Adams which had been released the year before. I recall that we illustrated the 27 amendments — we colored them. We occasionally would have a surprise quiz grade based on whether we brought our textbook (which we did not use) to class. On Presidents’ day, my teacher brought pretzel sticks and cotton balls so that we could use our 45 minutes together to make Lincoln log cabins with the pretzels and some sort of Washington wig with the cotton balls. Remember, I was 18 years old.
I was hungry for learning, and it was not to be found.
Months after the pretzel incident, as I headed off to college, I realized how much of a disservice my education had been compared to my peers who had received a classical Christian education. My professor talked about Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson as if we had heard of them before. My classmates could quote lines written by people other than Shel Silverstein. I think Homer had maybe been a vocabulary word at one point, but I certainly hadn’t read The Iliad or The Odyssey.
You can imagine the shock I experienced when I took a class called Civilization and The Arts. We used our hour together to behold the greatest works of the western world. Our eyes focused on the details of paintings by Raphael, Botticelli, and Rembrandt. We also studied musical movements composed by Haydn, Bach, and Beethoven. The beauty was astounding. My professor, full of gusto, would jump onto a table and flicker the lights to accompany the stormy moments of the musical pieces.
I had been released from what felt like serving my time to a true education. My professors were laying a feast of truth, goodness, and beauty.
I remember walking through campus one day and spotting the arts professor about 50 yards away, standing still on a sidewalk, not moving for the entire time I was approaching. As I got closer and eventually walked past, I realized he was intently studying the movement in the tree next to him – a squirrel’s vertical scurry, the leaves dancing in delight, the bark’s gray and mossy grooves. He had been teaching us to pay attention to art, to what man had created in order that we would be prepared to give our full attention to what God had created. If we could learn in the space of a canvas of true technique and beauty, if we tuned our ears to the nuance of pieces from the Baroque period, we would more readily recognize what God was speaking through his creation. My teacher writes: “Though the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen in the things that are made, some people are especially gifted at observing them…just as preachers use words to talk about God’s word, so artists and composers use works to talk about God’s works.”
On the final day of class, we had made it to the works of our own era. We listened to a symphony called 433 by composer John Cage. If you are unfamiliar, you might consider looking it up. The conductor signals to the orchestra and opens his hands, and the musicians just. sit. there. One of the most celebrated pieces of the 20th century is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. For the composer John Cage, any auditory experience was music. The audience shifting in their seats, the creaking of the floor: this was what Cage had to offer.
As part of the postmodern study, we also considered contemporary architecture – big boxy government buildings that slump in their gray exteriors and seem to suggest “this is the best we can do.” And one of the great landmarks of Philadelphia – a giant clothespin sculpture. How could these works be remembered alongside Vivaldi’s Spring? Michelangelo’s David? It was an atrocity. The modern ethos of the art proclaimed: nothing really matters. We have nothing to say that is true. Goodness is not worth fighting for. And we don’t care about beauty. I left that day of class in tears. And I realized the same casual “anything goes” mentality that calls a giant clothespin art had also tricked my high school teachers to think that a full gradebook constituted an education.
As I began to understand the principles of a classical Christian education, I felt like I was stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. This was the world of living ideas I suspected was out there and had begun to notice through my college courses. This was the world where truth triumphed, where history was not slain by textbooks, where music and art were not subjects to be mastered but objects that would master me, where the student was understood to be fully human – mind, body, and soul – in the image of the living God, where one generation would praise God’s works to one another. I was putting classical glasses on my Christian worldview and soon wouldn’t be able to see without them.
If you are sitting here and you have read Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the book of Genesis, if you know something about Monet, if you’ve seen the Maker’s fingerprints in your science class, if you’ve taken comfort in the fixed laws of math, if you’ve been loved enough by your teachers to have been challenged, you have been given a gift that is far more precious than the cost of tuition behind you or any college or job acceptance letter on the other side. You have been given an inheritance. And if you have presented a senior thesis, I believe that is the classical Christian school’s way of saying, “we’re ready to hear what you have to say.” It’s your turn to begin investing and multiplying that inheritance.
I don’t think most people are trying to steal the dignity of our minds with pretzel sticks and deny the existence of our souls through silent symphonies. But most people – regrettably – have not been taught to see the world as a narrative where all things hold together in Christ. Most people have not been told the pillars of the ancient world, the workings of the feudal system, or the consequences of the industrial revolution.
So will you have the courage, when a world-renowned pianist takes his seat and sets a timer for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, to call the bluff? When the love you share with your family is reduced to chemical reactions rather than an echo of the Trinity? When children are asked by the sloganeering of big box stores if they are boys or girls? Will you speak the truth? Will you call out: “The emperor has no clothes!”
What is at stake if the world keeps moving forward without ever looking backward? What is at stake for a world whose greatest heroine is Elsa from Frozen? Whose meaningful ways of connection depend on well-chosen emojis and TikToks? We know that God sometimes gives people over to their foolish desires, and so classical Christian education you’ve received is a mercy. You have been welcomed to restore forsaken wisdom.
Jeremiah 6:16 says:
Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
The hope is that you will walk in it. You have engaged time-tested narratives, and Lord-willing have gained a worldview that transcends yourself. When C.S. Lewis reflected on his experience of reading literature, he wrote: “I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself.” Rather than absorbing ideas merely to live the “unexamined life,” students who sincerely engage the great books of a classical Christian education are invited to a deepened self-awareness and other-awareness.
Most modern students imbibe the message that their ideas are original and their desires are directives. Without an historical, objective worldview to contextualize the self, the self expands to become the worldview. The liberal arts set students free from this smallness of thought, training students to see themselves as entities to be conformed rather than the conformers of all things. The liberal arts cultivate the mind, will, and affections. We can’t leave behind all that you’ve learned in the classroom or in the papers you’ve written. Your education was always intended to transfer out of thought-life and into real living.
Not long ago, the classical Christian movement was an idea. But the years you’ve spent at Bradford are what make it a reality. Whether or not this classical Christian recovery will transform into a lasting tradition depends on today’s students. What will they do with the bounty of blessing they have received?