The classical Christian educator and the progressive educator have radically different ideas of education. The two camps have virtually no real common ground concerning education’s means and ends—and the difference between the two is the difference between apples and arsenic.

If we reminisce about the days when PBS aired the Anthology documentary on The Beatles, we might be struck by the lyrics, “All you need is love.” It sounds a lot like what is said in most churches. How much difference could there be between John Lennon saying “All you need is love,” and St. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:8 when he tells us, “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another”? We might harken back to the ‘60s and realize that what was meant by the word “love” in popular culture and what the Church means by “love” are two very different things. The difference today is exponentially greater. Let us assert here that the difference between what the holy martyr St. Peter and the secular martyr John Lennon meant by the word “love” is the difference between “lightning and a lightning bug.” The equivocation is not always so obvious.

Unfortunately, we live in an age that regularly abuses speech, and most profligately in our public schools. We are now prone to and practiced at accepting equivocations as equalities and sitting comfortably in the contradictions. The confusion between the Church and the Beatles about “love” is similar to the confusion in the schools between the classical Christian educator and the progressive educator about key educational terms.

Sadly, those who desire to be classical educators are most often trained in universities steeped in progressive ideology. Words like “critical thinking,” “literacy,” “language arts,” “objectives,” “social studies,” and “assessments” are imperceptibly used in ways that are antithetical to the classical Christian educator’s mission. Typically, professional development for the public schools and classical Christian schools alike flow from the same progressive agenda. The classical Christian educator may come across words such as “grammar,” “rhetoric,” “logic,” “Socratic,” “mimetic,” or “music.” Unfortunately, even though these are vital classical terms, they are misused because of the progressive influence. How these words ought to be used is worlds apart from how the contemporary educator uses them.

The misuse of speech in our public schools does harm to the human person by distorting reason and deforming the will. Unfortunately, we were raised on the same misuse of speech, so these equivocations are as the air we breathe. We lack essential definitions upon which to fall back. It is reasonable to ask, “Don’t we all really mean the same thing when we use these educational terms?” “What difference does it all make?” “How are we to distinguish the one from the other?” “To what degree do they overlap and to what degree do they contradict?” Just as with the above example of the word “love,” the classical educator means something wholly different by the use of the same words as the progressive educator. We need not compare more than just two words, “student” and “education,” to begin to see that the difference between what the respective educators mean.

The student

The classical Christian educator and the progressive educator have radically different definitions of the “student.” It may seem surprising that the two camps would disagree so significantly about something so basic. It should be clear that if we don’t have a proper understanding of what the “student” is, then we can’t possibly develop an appropriate course of education.

The Christian educator believes the student is made in the image of the living God, endowed with intellect, free-will, and passions because he is a hylomorphic being—a being that is an enfleshed spirit, a composite unity of body and soul. As such, man’s powers are a reflection of the creator’s. Man is the pinnacle of creation, capable of perceiving reality as it is, conceiving eternal truths, contemplating the Creator, choosing the good freely, and attaining eternal beatitude.

On the other hand, the progressive educator says nothing of the above about the student. Such things are beyond the scope of what is knowable “scientifically.” Simply put, the progressive school of education sees man as a soulless ape with pants, differing from primates only in degree and not in kind. The Christian educator knows man has an eternal soul and differs from the apes in kind, not simply in degree.

Aristotle notes that man has many things in common with the brutes, including the five senses, instincts, common sense, memory, and imagination. The faculties of the intellect and free will that distinguish man from brute are excluded from the anthropology according to a progressive educator. An animal lacks the faculties of the intellect and free will and therefore cannot be educated. However, the brute can be trained, and so can the human, but training is not the same thing as an education.

The Christian educator knows that man reasons from sense experiences toward the intelligible essences of things. Furthermore, he is able to choose the moral good. Animals have no such capacity, and yet the progressive educator treats the student as if the immaterial intellect and free will do not exist. Not only does the progressive deny interiority, but he denies the soul itself.

The Christian educator asks, “How do we educate a soul to see into the essence of things? How do we educate a soul not just to look at things and describe them, but to look through them along the light cast by the agent intellect as the saint looks through an icon, into the splendor of the eternal artist? How do we teach a soul to read the grammar of creation? And how do we cultivate the moral habit of choosing the good over evil?” The progressive educator does not wrestle with these questions; he simply sees man as a kind of animal in need of training for society, not in need of an authentic education.


The difference between an authentic education and what the progressives call “education” is quite dramatic. Though all agree that man needs an education, the two camps have virtually no real common ground concerning the means and ends of a proper education. Elsewhere in this journal, we asked dozens of “top-tier” public school teachers “what is education?” The answers are an embarrassment if we are seeking an authentic definition.

In general, the confusion is a result of scientism and materialism. The modern notion of education is known as Outcomes Based Education. It is predicated on the assumption that education is grounded in purely material, scientific, and observable elements. The “experts” proclaim for their final causality to make “students” college and career ready. The reduced method is to precisely determine what skills are necessary for the desired outcome and to make those specific skills the goals of a kind of education called “standards based.” Once these “standards” are met and the student has acquired the requisite skills, demonstrated by a standardized test, a diploma is conferred upon him and he is “educated.” The authentic educator knows that skills are not ends, nor are they real standards, but simply means to ends as well as fruits of activity.

An authentic education begins with the question, “Why does man need an education?” The authentic educator believes man has an intended purpose imbued by his Creator to be perfected by the acquisition and practice of the virtues. The authentic educator also believes man is fallen and has a darkened intellect and weakened will. This necessitates instruction and practice in the virtues to subordinate disordered appetites to the right use of reason. The authentic educator presupposes an objective standard of truth, the Natural Law, and that man has a purpose in the created order. The progressive educator entertains no such thoughts.

The modern educator believes man is not fallen, but still man needs an education to become a good member of society. The consideration is purely social, political, and material. Man is used as a cog in a socio-economic-political machine. In the authentic education man is not an object to be used for political and economic progress by society but a subject to be edified for his own sake and the sake of the common good.

The authentic education cultivates the intellect to conform to reality and forms the will to love virtue and abhor vice. The goal is to transmit the culture of the Great Tradition such that our students are led from the darkness of error in to the light of truth. This traditional process is the best general preparation for the good life. It is principle-based instead of outcome-based. It is virtue- based instead of skill-based. There is a stark difference between what the authentic educator and the progressive educator would call “education,” and never the twain shall meet.

A living man and a corpse

The difference between the words used by a classical Christian educator and a progressive educator is truly the difference between apples and arsenic. Using words properly is edifying and helps form the human person. The misuse of speech is as poison to a soul. When words like “education” and “student” are corrupted by ideologies that necessarily lead to a reduction of concepts to percepts and to a word’s purely material concerns, the endeavor to educate is ruined. It might be instructive to reflect on what Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) had to say in The Art of Persuasion about two great men who used the same words but meant very different things by them.*

St. Augustine (354-430 AD) and René Descartes (1596-1650) both said “I think therefore I am.” Pascal suggested that Descartes may have learned this saying from St. Augustine. Although Descartes and Augustine use the same exact words, the difference between them is their respective set of beliefs and the premises that undergird their assertions. Descartes’ are dualism and methodological doubt, which for the modern educator has become a denial of formal and final causality accompanied by radical skepticism. St. Augustine’s undergirding premises were a form of Platonism and faith, “I believe it in order that I may come to understand.” He had faith in the revealed word, not credulity, not skepticism, not suspicion, nor distrust concerning self-evident first principles, revealed truths and the great teachers that preceded him.

Pascal compares how the two use words:

I know how much difference there is between writing a word by chance without making a longer and more extended reflection on it, and perceiving in this word an admirable series of conclusions, which prove the distinction between material and spiritual natures, and making of it a firm and sustained principle of a complete metaphysical system, as Descartes has pretended to do. For without examining whether he has effectively succeeded in his pretension, I assume that he has done so, and it is on this supposition that I say that this expression is as different in his writings from the same saying in others who have said it by chance, as a man full of life and strength is from a corpse.

Many modern philosophers repeat words of the ancients but do not mean the same things as they. John Dewey repeats some of Plato’s words, but the difference in meaning is like the difference between a living man and a corpse. The difference between what an authentic classical Christian educator and a progressive educator mean is no less dramatic when they use the words “educated” and “student.” The deformation and abuse of speech committed by the modern progressive educator applies to all the key terms concerning education. As a society, we ought to recover philosophical first principles that allow us to make and use proper definitions. In doing so, we might protect our children from the arsenic of the modern schools and begin to feed them the apples of an authentic education.

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* Pascal, Blaise. The Art of Persuasion. The Perfect Library, 2014.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Still Life With a Skull” by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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