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Book Review: Norms & Nobility

How often do we stop and truly ponder why we are pursuing classical, Christian education? The Bible tells us that “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18, KJV). How often do we stop and renew our vision for our homeschool—the vision of classical, Christian education? David Hicks’ book Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education provides ample moments for contemplating how to educate the whole child—mind, body, and soul.

As the title suggests, Hicks proposes that we look back to a time in which the society as a whole had a unified vision of the person education should produce (norms) and the way this person should act (nobility). In this brief, but densely packed work, Hicks describes the ideal classical schoolmaster, outlining the educational goals and practices of ancient classical education. He closely examines the idea of education as preparation for virtuous thought and action. He contemplates the connections between classical education and democracy and then closes with suggestions for a classical academy.

Hicks, a Rhodes Scholar and classical school headmaster, describes the goal of a classical education thus: “the cultivation of the human spirit: to teach the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, and to recognize that in this knowledge lies that responsibility” (13). An education focused on teaching the young to know what is good, stands in marked contrast to modern education which is focused on vocational training. In plainer words, the ideas of virtue, truth, goodness, and beauty are antithetical to a modern education. In fact, contemplating and discussing these ideas has been banned.

He eloquently describes how the effects of a “value-less” modern education are damaging to our democracy, to our freedoms: “the state often peddles preparation for the practical life to our young as the glittering door to a life of pleasure, but by encouraging this selfish approach to learning, the state sows a bitter fruit against that day when the community depends on its younger members to perform charitable acts and to consider arguments above selfish interest” (23). In fact, our Founding Fathers protected freedoms so assiduously because they depended upon having an educated populace who would deny self-interest in favor of protecting the greater good.

As Christian parents, we should reject the notion of education as preparation for a life of pleasure. If we wish to emulate Christ, we want to raise children who would be willing to lay down their life for others. As such, we have something in common with the ancient schoolmasters who strove to educate ‘the ideal Man:’ First, he knew exactly what kind of person he wished to produce. He shared with his contemporaries a prescriptive understanding of man inherited from the past . . . this lent considerable agreement in substance when it came time to tick off the items on the list of what every educated man should know” (39). Parents share this interest with the ancient schoolmaster. We wish to pass down a traditional heritage of knowledge and wisdom to our children so that they will make wise decisions as adults.

Notice that understanding the end goal is what allows us to choose the content or knowledge of the education and to structure the methods of their education. For centuries in the western world, the body of knowledge expected of an educated person did not change because there was agreement about educational goals, about what kind of person education should produce.

Hicks goes on to explain how dialectic enables children to make sense of themselves and of the world around them and of their place in that world. He offers questions which modern educators have ceased to ask:

  • What is the purpose and meaning of human existence?
  • What are man’s absolute rights and duties?
  • What is good, and what is evil?
  • What is morality if every quality of life is reduced to what is convenient or to what brings the greatest pleasure?
  • What is truth if all knowledge derives from the scientific analysis of physical data? (p. 103)

It is important that our children ask these questions and search for answers to them, in Scripture and in the writings of people who have gone before us and have wrestled with these same questions.

In Chapter 8, “The Promise of Christian Paideia,” Hicks demonstrates the differences between the ancient pagan classical education and a classical, Christian education. Many of the points in this chapter are thought-provoking and even convincing, but he writes about Christianity with a certain amount of distance, like a philosopher reflecting upon an important idea rather than as a devoted follower of the ideas.

Although Norms and Nobility is not a quick, easy read, there is much food for thought as we contemplate our reasons for pursuing classical, Christian education. It is refreshing to think once more about nurturing our children’s souls by asking and attempting to answer questions that are common to people in all times and places. It is encouraging to contemplate how we can educate our children to be noble by living wisely and virtuously in service to God and to others.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education

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