Portland’s Chinatown is home to one of most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. According to garden’s operators, it is a replica of the kind of traditional, urban retreat that Chinese officials and scholars sought from busy city life. Taking up a city block, the garden attempts to recreate a natural, secluded feel in the city by mixing buildings, covered walks, courtyards and private spaces, a small lake, stone, trees and plants. In places like this the residents, although compelled to live in the city, would have been able to have glimpses of the ideal of isolation from the world of everyday affairs, where they would be free to write poetry, practice calligraphy, read, and generally practice the pursuits of scholars without interference from the outside world. This ideal, though perhaps appealing on its surface, is ultimately contrary to what the Christian is called to. Classical, Christian education seeks to supply young men and women with the ability and the resources to live in the world, though not of it, using the considerable talents and tastes that God and their education has given them to work for the kingdom of God amidst the turmoil of a fallen world, not as an unfortunate necessity, but in faithful service to Christ.
The guidebook from the Chinese garden describes the ideal of the isolated scholar: “Scholars aspired to be hermits in the mountains, surrounded by nature. Since affairs of state and family required living in the city, nature was brought to them—on a small scale.” This ideal has been an enticing one historically in the West, as well, from the medieval hermit to the Romantic poet seeking inspiration in lonely, blasted landscapes and twisted trees. And, of course, there is no denying the God-given appeal of nature. Man was originally made to live in a garden, and the end of Revelation describes the New Jerusalem as a kind of garden-city full of trees and rivers. (For more on this I would refer the reader to David Hegeman’s Plowing in Hope.) Many of us have backyard retreats, more or less wild, intentionally or not depending on our skill or diligence, and I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to live in isolated areas or to seek solitude in nature. But as Christians our ideal is not to try to escape from the world. The hermit in the mountains is not our model, whether as scholars or not. We are meant to live as people among people, exercising our gifts in faith.
In Veritas’s Portrait of a Graduate, our description of the ideal elements of a graduate, we assume an active, faithful engagement with the world. Part of this picture includes our desire that they will “demonstrate godly discernment in all their dealings with the world”, and “honor Christ by leading in their communities through their individual callings”. We also aim that they will “submit joyfully and eagerly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.” We want our graduates to be equipped for action in the world, while always maintaining an independence from it.
Classical, Christian education is not a retreat from society. This education desires to equip students with the personal, intellectual and spiritual tools to engage in whatever capacity God calls them. If we, assisting families, truly cultivate wisdom, virtue and godliness in our students (as our mission calls for), then they will go out from us ready to serve. Far from being a denial of the reality of the fallen world around us, classical, Christ-centered education is an embracing of the full purpose for which we were created, to fill the world with the knowledge of, and obedience to, the Creator in every corner, in every human endeavor.
The Protestant educator Johann Sturm put it very well in his Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters in 1538. Although written a long time ago, in a very different place, the goal of education that he describes is much the same as it has always been for God’s people:
For although the goal of our studies is a knowledge of the physical world…if life is separated from teaching and letters, what usefulness does elegant and liberal education have? Accordingly, let piety and religion be set forth in schools and let the youthful spirit be trained for this through the cultivation of letters.
The purpose of education is not just to learn in order to serve our own interests or even for our own personal enjoyment. Rather, it is to prepare young people for life, that is, to be ready to live in the world God has made. The best means of doing this is through a classical education with the Scriptures always at the center. Through it we fix our minds and hearts on the goodness of God, on the true, good and beautiful, so that we become attached to, and desire, his kingdom above all else. The “cultivation of letters” that Sturm speaks of is not a pragmatic acquiring of immediately marketable skills, but an intentional, deep meditation on the things that God has done and made, and that his image-bearers have done in reflection of that image.
Service to God through our various callings, far from being a necessary evil, is really what we are made for. While we need rest, and nature, and retreats from the busyness of life, the classical, Christian ideal is not that of the isolated scholar enjoying the wonders of the best things that God and man have made. We learn to love God and his good creation, and, ultimately, to serve him faithfully and wholeheartedly, wherever he has placed us.