Cheryl Swope: Andrew, you have devoted much of your adult life to classical education. Why?
Andrew: When I started, it was because I smelled something beautiful. It sang to me. I thought, “That makes sense. That’s the kind of education I want for my children.” I think you could say I pursued classical education on faith; I believed in it. My life had really led me to that point. As I began teaching, almost immediately I saw the effect of it so profoundly and in so many ways.
How had your life led you to that point?
My parents met in a Bible college. Both of them loved the Scriptures, loved the Bible. My dad comes from an ancestry of what might be called backwater “hillbillies” of what was then Yugoslavia. His ancestors were poor, extremely poor for centuries, yet my dad loved the Greek language and had many books—lexicons, Strong’s Concordance, and such. I can remember standing beside the ping-pong table at twelve or thirteen years old in our basement when my dad said, “The English language is such an inadequate language, because in Greek they have four different words for love.” Then he explained those four different words to me. The main effect on me at that time was, “Wait a minute! Languages can be better than others in some particular way?” That kind of blew my mind, and of course modern people would say, “No, that can’t be,” but for a particular thing it can! That fascinated me.
My mother was German. Her genealogy traces back to the creators of an encyclopedia in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Some of my mother’s relatives married Wagner’s siblings. One was
Wagner’s sponsor when he went to St. Petersburg. I know this is a mixed boast (laughs), but it evidences the connection on my mother’s side to high culture and to people who were thinking hard. I had a Tante Frieda who rented a room to the novelist Kafka.
So, my mom comes from this connection to culture and careful, high thought, and my dad comes from this ancestry of poverty. My life’s task has been to ask, “How do I take those backgrounds
and harmonize them in my soul?” I can do that because of Christ the Logos and because of classical education. I see classical Christian education not as an elitist form of education, but as a human form of education. What has driven me from the beginning is that it’s for everyone. It’s human.
Tying into that thought, more than two decades ago, in an article in 1998, you said this: “I believe we may see some exciting developments in classical education, but they may not take place for some time. For example, one of my greatest desires is to see a classical Christian school for children with special needs.” What caused this to be one of your greatest desires?
My grandfather on my dad’s side suffered from an affliction that rendered his entire left side crippled. He lived in Wisconsin at the Christian League for the Handicapped, the name at the time. When I was young and we went to visit my grandparents, sometimes we would walk the hallways. My grandparents’ neighbor was wheelchair-bound. Another resident had been in a car accident in his thirties that left him with very little mental understanding. Others had what was then called “mental retardation.” As a child, of course, you don’t process this terribly well. You have a mixed feeling of “I’m so glad I’m better off than that person,” and “I hope I never have to go through that,” mixed with real, genuine compassion, especially when you get to know them. I remember when I discovered that one person with cerebral palsy, a movement disorder, did not have any problem with his mind, with his thinking. This was a stunning thought to a child. Seeing all of these disabilities implanted something in my soul.
These experiences eventually combined with my knowledge of Jesus and the way He welcomed everyone, the belief that classical education is humane, and the realization—the conviction—that
all of us are on the same continuum. All of us are brain damaged and soul damaged compared to what a human ought to be. In strictly intellectual terms, maybe I’m farther along than someone with intellectual disability, but the distance between that person and me is tiny. In terms of the joy we bring into the world, that person may be much further along than I am. Seeing that reality, and understanding classical education to be cultivation of the soul and not merely development of the intellect, led me to this desire.
You also said at that time, “I believe classical education is uniquely suited, for example, to teach a child with Down syndrome.” Why do you believe this?
Methodological approaches come at the child from the outside, as though the child is an object to be worked on. Nobody understands a child well enough to be able to do that. A child is not a dog to be trained, a pet to be disciplined; a child is a deep, mysterious soul.
Every human soul has, let’s call it a linguistic capacity, a miraculous linguistic gift. People with Down syndrome have it. People who are “deaf and mute” have it. Every human being has this in his soul. It needs to be aroused; it needs to be cultivated; it needs to be nourished. There is no other form of education that cultivates and nourishes that linguistic capacity in such a personal way. A classical education is a very personal education, noting those linguistic capacities in a student and feeding them, building upon them, taking what is there as data—Latin for “gifts” or “given things”— and not as a nuisance to a teacher’s objectives. We are personally seeking truth and learning disciplines and learning to see the world.
Classical education is especially suited to receive the student into the heart of the teacher. We all need this welcoming love desperately. Perhaps because of being out of step with the cultural norms, it may well be that people with Down syndrome, autism, or other conditions need more of that reception. That sounds absurd because everybody needs it, but I do think that students who are outside of these norms have a particular personal sensitivity and particularly benefit from it. I think classical education has a mode of teaching that opens a pathway, and it has the curriculum that is a pathway of interaction between the student and the teacher.
We see ourselves as much more than we are, and we see people who happen to have disabilities as much less than they are, and that creates a gap between us that just isn’t fitting. I believe classical Christian education should eliminate that gap. We must teach human beings—all of them—every single one that we can teach. The Lord Jesus is sufficient to this task.
We need the Word of God to be breathing into the way we teach. If your goal is to get your child, like James or John, to have his own name exalted, then you cannot count on the Father to help you with that. But if you want the name of the Lord Jesus exalted in your child, I promise you that you will have the help of heaven; you will have the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Miracles will happen. Nobody knows what they’re going to be, but they’ll happen all over everywhere.
Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your encouraging thoughts. Thank you, especially, for being such a good friend to Simply Classical.
Andrew Kern is co-author with Dr. Gene Edward Veith of Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America and serves as president of the CiRCE Institute.