Navigating the Digital Oceans: The Benefits of Classical Christian Education for the Next Generation
Socrates, in his wisdom, observed a society on the cusp of an amazing technological change: from an oral culture to a literary one. However, he was not a fan of the novel technology of writing:
“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”
Of course, he was quite right. Socrates grew up in a generation where poetry, history, and stories were memorized and recited and passed on to the next generation. Homer’s Iliadconsists of over 15,000 lines, all of which, it is thought, were memorised and recited. Feats of memorisation like this are almost unheard of today. So Socrates was correct: this type of memorization was soon to be no longer necessary as these epics became passed down to the next generation in written form. What he had no concept of was how reading and literature would open up amazing worlds to readers, as well as increase communication and understanding between cultures. He also was not privy to how the written word would become an aid to contemplative thinking; the reader could chew over a text, bringing context, their own background knowledge, and even new insights as they developed the art of “deep reading”. The written word was powerful in ways Socrates could never imagine. Plato, his young prodigy, was much more open to this new technology, and in fact we know so much about Socrates because Plato, embracing this paradigm shift in society, recorded their conversations in detail.
We too are a generation at the beginning of a societal transition: from a literary to a digital age. The new technologies at our fingertips once again open up worlds of possibilities previously unseen. A blessing of this transition is that we have the opportunity to carefully study it, to investigate potential deleterious effects. Already it is well recognized that screen use plays on our distractibility, leading to reduced attentiveness. Our brains are hardwired to attend to the latest “shiny thing” that pops up on one of our devices, and we are conned into thinking we can multitask without any loss of focus. Programmers take advantage of this with the addictive nature of the devices they produce. Prolonged screen use seems to decrease our ability to read deeply, reducing the ways we make appropriate associations with other knowledge, diminishing quiet contemplation, with the resultant loss of insightful reflection. Some might say that these are inherently human characteristics that are being affected. This reduction in deep reading and thinking may make it more challenging to prayerfully discern what is really true whilst being tossed by wave upon wave of new information. This strange new virtual world, along with great wonders, holds dark and dangerous paths and temptations.
Most of the hard data we have supporting the above statements has been collected on adults, who grew up reading and thinking with books, pen and paper, but have transitioned into this digital world. We have yet to see the data for children who have not had this solid educational grounding. We have, however, already seen the harms caused by excessive use of social media and gaming in young children and teens.
What we should acknowledge is that, amid a sea of knowledge, there seems little intuitive gain for our young people to spend time committing much to memory, or even processing information, when these jobs could be outsourced to Google or an artificial intelligence like ChatGPT. So what is the role of learning, reading, memorising, and even thinking in this strange world our children are inheriting? Or maybe this is the wrong question. What is the role of education?
Or maybe we need to start even further back in the philosophical chain by asking what does it mean to be a human?
Until a few hundred years ago, the goal of education was human flourishing or formation; to produce the kind of person who showed the purest essence of humanity. Medieval Christians directed this quest towards Christian formation and flourishing revealing the Imago Dei, or image of God, in all aspects of the human person: intellectual, moral, physical, and spiritual.
Back in ancient Greece, Quintillian, one of the master scholars of his time, said that the purpose of education was to produce a good man who spoke well. He argued that if the moral character of the speaker was corrupt, they should not be looked upon as a good speaker. Their moral formation was foremost, and only then their intellectual formation. Echoes of this education continued down through history until just a few hundred years ago, when the educational goals shifted towards producing workers fitted for the more industrial society which was emerging. At this time more in society had access to education, but was it an education which produced freedom (the meaning of the traditional “Liberal Arts” education was to give freedom), or was it an education which bound people to be just workers in this new technological world?
At the turn of the 20th century, after having expounded the ennobling true purposes of education in his essay, “The Talented Tenth”, W.E.B. Du Bois sums up his argument:
“Education must not simply teach work, it must teach Life.”
In 1947, reeling from the horrors of the second world war, with the world still struggling to fathom how some of the most technologically advanced societies in the world could be led so badly astray by persuasive propaganda, Dorothy Sayers, wrote in an essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning”:
“....if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object….”
She went on to sketch out a model to return to these roots of a classical education as a means of enabling the next generation to preserve their intellectual freedom in an increasingly technical age. Unbeknownst to her, later in the 20th century, this essay became part of the fuel driving the North American resurgence in Christian classical education.
It is apparent almost 80 years later that this form of education is needed more than ever. In an age where we are even busier, more distracted, and less historically and morally centred than our parents’ generation, our children need an education which will give them the tools to not only learn and think, deeply and freely, but also to ground them both in our rich intellectual history as well as in Christian formation.
In order to navigate the new oceans of information at their fingertips in the online world, our desire is to ensure that children have progressed sufficiently in this formation, so that they neither drown nor get lost at sea. Temptations and distractions have always existed. This is why, traditionally, education touched all aspects of the human person: heart, soul, mind, and strength. This type of formative education is slow and painstaking, and may not always feel easy or comfortable. It does, however, equip a child, once they are mature enough to set sail, with the intellectual, moral, physical, and spiritual virtues needed to sail well on any waters, even totally uncharted ones.
None of us can fathom the world that our children will grow old in. We cannot avoid the societal or technological changes that will surely come. However, what we can do is listen to the wisdom of voices from the past, and strive to educate them in ways that will equip them to flourish, as human beings reflecting God’s image, whatever may come their way. Christian classical education not only ennobles a child to live life well, but also hones in them virtues and skills which may be specifically required to sail well through these digital seas to whatever lies beyond.
Dr. Jennifer Small, a UK-trained General Practitioner, is now in her sixth year of service as Director of St. Timothy's Classical Academy