Steadfast in Education: John Milton, Classical Christian Educator

One of the presenters at this month’s conference of the Consortium for Classical and Christian Education (CCLE) was Dr. E. Christian Kopff, whose list of accolades and qualifications to speak to such an audience is far too long to list. He presented a pamphlet written by John Milton in 1644, called Of Education. You might remember Milton by his epic poem Paradise Lost, or by the lament of how “boring” he seemed to Donald Sutherland’s character in the film Animal House. For the record, I have found Milton to be refreshingly straight-forward, even if a bit long-winded, and not in the least boring.

The pamphlet was written in response to a request from a Master Samuel Hartlib to give his thoughts on what comprised a good education. The whole pamphlet, which can be found here, is not long but contains a very dense treatise on Milton’s view of education (the website also contains helpful footnotes to explain archaic language and unfamiliar idioms). In short, what he advocates is what we would call a classical Christian education. I highly recommend you read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts to highlight what this looks like:

The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.

(nota bene: All these spellings are original.Milton acknowledges the problem of the Fall, and that its consequences affect the mind and our knowledge of God. Obviously, there was not the sharp division between church and state which we came come to take for granted. Also, public schools as we have come to know them are at this point still two centuries away.  That said, he believed that the knowledge of God is “the end of Learning.” Here end means the goal, or what is hoped to be accomplished.

And seeing every Nation affords not experience and tradition enough for all kind of Learning, therefore we are chiefly taught the Languages of those people who have at any time been most industrious after Wisdom; so that Language is but the Instrument conveying to us things usefull to be known.

Here Milton briefly lays out his reason for advocating the classical languages, namely, Latin and Greek. If education is about teaching students to pursue truth (both the One who is Truth, and the truth as revealed in creation), then the classical languages open up the world of those civilizations who best exemplified this pursuit.

And that which casts our proficiency therein [Latin and Greek] so much behind, is our time lost partly in too oft idle vacancies given both to Schools and Universities, partly in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of Children to compose Theams, Verses and Orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment and the final work of a headfill’d by long reading and observing, with elegant maxims, and copious invention. These are not matters to be wrung from poor striplings, like blood out of the Nose, or the plucking of untimely fruit: besides the ill habit which they get of wretched barbarizing  against the Latin and Greek idiom, with their untutor’d Anglicisms, odious to be read, yet not to be avoided without a well continu’d and judicious conversing among pure Authors digested, which they scarce taste, whereas, if after some preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory, they were led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short book lesson’d throughly to them, they might then forthwith proceed to learn the substance of good things, and Arts in due order, which would bring the whole language quickly into their power.

Here he is addressing a problem that came with medieval thoughts about education. Specifically, the trivium (grammar, then logic, then rhetoric) wasn’t being followed in proper order: rhetoric was being forced too early. Rhetoric is the art of expressing one’s self in a language. If, however, one is asked to express himself in a language he doesn’t yet completely understand, it is of little use. Expressing one’s self here does not mean something like asking directions in Spanish when you visit Cancun; it’s more like composing poetry and songs. Instead, Milton advocates a longer period of logic (think of the Catechism questions that ask “What does this mean?”) in order for students to have a firm grasp of language first.

I call therefore a compleat and generous Education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War.

This is probably the best summary of Milton’s writing on education. An education ought to be liberal (from the Latin libera – “free”) — that is, it is what a free man needs to know in order to be a good citizen, husband, and father, regardless of his station in life. Thus, both the farmer and the statesman ought to be able to consider what it means to live and die, recall and discuss the great works of literature, and speak in a persuasive manner about all sorts of important topics. This doesn’t mean that what we would call vocational education is not of value, but all citizens (and in our context, “citizen” has a much broader meaning than it did in Milton’s day) ought to be taught the liberal arts.

By this time, years and good general precepts will have furnisht them more distinctly with that act of reason which in Ethics is call’d Proairesis: that they may with some judgement contemplate upon moral good and evil.

Again, this is not merely about a high-quality education, but about training young people to become citizens. They must be able to weigh good and evil and make decisions according to a right understanding of ethics. This skill has become more important and less common since Milton’s day.

This would make them soon perceive what despicable creatures our comm[on] Rimers and Play-writers be, and shew them, what religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of Poetry both in divine and humane things. From hence and not till now will be the right season of forming them to be able Writers and Composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with an universal insight into things. Or whether they be to speak in Parliament or Counsel, honour and attention would be waiting on their lips.

For Milton, the well-educated citizen should, regardless of his career in life, be able to compose poetry and make persuasive oratories to Parliament. Interesting that Milton should say that, since he is known for having written epic poetry and composed well-known oratory to Parliament.

The full text is worth a read; even though he is writing to an audience far removed from 21st Century Western culture, he addresses many of the same concerns we still face today. The prose takes some effort to get through, but then again, few things worth doing are ever easy.

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