Part 2 - Piety and Poetic Knowledge - The Liberal Arts Tradition

A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education

Kevin Clark, DLS and Ravi Scott Jain

Piety: Proper Loves, Proper Fears


Piety is the central tenet of Christian classical education.

Piety is a word that is no longer used or even understood, but it is the exact word that is needed today. "Piety signifies the duty, love and respect owed to God, parents and communal authorities past and present. Furthermore, it connotes the cultivation of faithfulness in relationships and commitment to one's tradition as historically situated in place and time.

Piety formed the crucial foundation for Hebrew society. Classical Greco-Roman culture also expected respect for one's authorities and the divine. When we understand piety, it shapes our being and identifies who we are.

The Romans were concerned with piety even more than the Greeks. They saw piety as the virtue that admonishes us to do our duty to our country, parents or other blood relationships. John Calvin saw piety as defining what godliness looks like. He called piety the entire calling of the Christian life. He saw piety as a faithful devotion manifest in one's action. (In word and act). Thomas Aquinas wrote:-

"As by virtue of piety man pays duty and worship not only to his father in the flesh but also to all his kindred on account of their being related to his father, so by the gift of piety he pays worship and duty not only to God but also to all men on account of their relationship to God."

Piety is "the proper love and fear of God and man" This is the commandment Jesus gave to love God and love man. They were the two greatest commandments.

Piety is the foundation from which all virtues spring. Augustine defines virtue as "properly ordering one's loves". Love of God should always be first, and then the preference for family, church and others should mark self-denial.

When looking at children's education, the culture should educate the child as much as the curriculum. The foundations that children have should come from the home first and then the church, with the school supporting and developing this foundation. The ancients ensured loves were ordered correctly, and this foundation was what all moral and intellectual education hung. The school culture must then include or incarnate piety, virtue and grace. Developing a culture that teaches and shapes is critical.

Developing piety is essential for developing wisdom. "I believe that I may understand" is important here, and "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".

As piety shapes who we are and orders our loves, it clearly affects our relationships with others and our actions.

The way we view education now is not the way the ancients considered it. We see it as vocational training, but they say it is the process of one generation passing down its culture to the next generation. In Ephesians 6:4, we read "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." The current contemporary educational process that educates in a value-neutral way is not sustainable.

Quote, "Without the students internalising fundamental respect for God, their teachers, parents and elders, the entire process of education likewise fail. When it comes to the critical moral and ethical truths, a child must be open to submission if he is to learn anything. A child in a state of active or passive rebellion will never be enculturated in a way consonant with the tradition. Before learning can begin, there must be an education in love. It begins in the home and church but must b supported, nourished and not undermined in the school. For this multitude of reasons, therefore, Christian classical education must be grounded in piety."

Gymnastics and Music

In Plato's Republic, Gymnastics and Music provide training that plays a large role in the early, formative years of a child's education. In the current educational culture, there is an emphasis on critical thinking early in the curriculum. With classical education, poetic and moral education must precede analysis and critique.

With gymnastics training, the focus is on the entire physical conditioning of a child. It does finish with playing or competing in many different sports but must include the development of control over the child's body.

Music (inspired by the Muses - hence music!), includes music, poetry, drama, fine arts and literature. So much of the educational pathway of classical education included physical training, singing, memorising poetry, acting/imitating, drawing, sculpting, learning of the deeds of the great men of the past, reading great literary works, and experiencing and observing the natural world.

The reason the ancients spent so much effort cultivating music and gymnastics is profound and simple. It has enormous implications for Christian classical education. Children acquire moral and intellectual virtues through the disciplined physical training of gymnastics and the aesthetic, affective and emotional training of music.

The formative basis for all later education is:-

  1. Piety

  2. Gymnastics

  3. Music (Music, poetry, drama, fine arts, literature)

The Gymnastic Education - Training Bodies for the Good of the Soul.

To be human, we all have hearts, minds and bodies. Education, to be effective, must address each of these areas. (I would argue the soul should be considered here!).

Education cannot be just about feeding the intellect. God has created us as composite beings that are a combination of soul and body. Therefore a good curriculum must focus on the good of the whole person.

With gymnastics, the goal is not just for students to have a healthy and well-trained body. It also serves to educate the child's intellect and morals. "As reading is a work of the mind and body, the mental discipline and focus required in athletics have implications for the discipline and mental focus required for academic study. Physical discipline produces self-control, while perseverance through difficult activities produces patience and habits of hard work in attaining goals - virtues that are as invaluable in the classroom as they are in an athletic event" It could be argued that these are essential foundations to life. We need to have self-control so we can use our bodies properly. This is a central quality required for a healthy moral and spiritual life.

Music Education - Turning Heart so the Real

Music education is foundational for our classical pedagogues. Plato, in his Republic, said, "Musical training is more potent instrument than any other because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated gracefully, or of him who is ill-educated ungrateful."

As Christians, we understand that the Holy Spirit imparts grace; it is also important to realise that the songs we sing, the stories we read and the art we make and admire form our souls. These things go directly to our hearts and fasten mightily upon them, causing one the friend of reason.

In The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis argues:-

  1. Judgments about the good (ethics) and tee beautiful (aesthetics) are not merely descriptions of one's personal feelings but objective responses to reality.

  2. The ability to make these judgments is not something we learn the way we learn things such as math or science but is a function of intuition and imagination.

  3. These judgments are nevertheless reasonable because value judgments and even reason themselves are upheld by intuition and imagination.

  4. Imagination and intuition are enculturated - that is formed through the process Plato referred to earlier as a musical education.

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