Wisdom & Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning

Matt Vest

C.S. Lewis once wrote that "it is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." This quote from Lewis is no off-handed ditty that evokes nostalgia for all things ancient. At the root of his sage advice is a principle that teaches us how to balance the past with the present for the future. Without the foundation of our forefathers and the wisdom of the past we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past--perhaps with greater consequences. And of all things in need of the past, education is certainly one of the greatest.

Littlejohn and Evans look to St. Augustine of Hippo (especially On Christian Doctrine) to conclude that wisdom and eloquence are the "essential qualities" of a graduate. These twin pillars are the purpose of Christian education. Wisdom comes through discipleship and yields to us an "eternal metaphysical benefit." Eloquence is a more "practical benefit" that equips us to utilize wisdom so that we continue giving what we have received. Together, wisdom and eloquence are balanced parallels pointing to man's citizenship in the City of God and to man's mission in the City of Man.

These are lofty ends of education that surely sound foreign to many in the twenty-first century, yet Littlejohn and Evans are careful to explain how they arrive at wisdom and eloquence. The first chapter ("The Purpose of Education: Wisdom and Eloquence") highlights three presuppositions about classical education. First, the classical, or "liberal arts tradition," positions "faith in the center of human identity." Admittedly, the liberal arts tradition that has passed through the Greeks, Romans and beyond does not suggest Christianity as the Faith, but that is not the point. Religion is at the heart of the liberal arts tradition which posits that "to be a person meant one is inherently religious." In other words, faith is a necessary part of learning.

Second, differing greatly with many modernistic views, the liberal arts tradition posits that human nature is "immutable." Against evolutionary psychology or any other "flux theory," Littlejohn and Evans argue that the wisdom gained in 2000 B.C. is "wholly relevant" to today. Lastly, the authors presuppose a basic absolutism. Again, contesting modernism (and postmodernism), the liberal arts tradition recognizes truth, beauty and goodness to be absolutes. While the definitions may be debated, their objectivity is not.

These three presuppositions are worth highlighting because they form the core philosophy behind the liberal arts tradition that leads to wisdom and eloquence as the end goal of education. Furthermore, these core tenets from the past cannot be ignored in the context of today's educational philosophy. William James, Charles Peirce and John Dewey have laid the recent foundation for today's educational philosophy of "progressivism," which the authors argue usually leads to a "dualistic compartmentalization"--separating the sacred from the secular. Littlejohn and Evans are right to emphasize these grave philosophical differences. While the structure of Christian education may take many forms (upon which authors are wisely silent), the philosophy of our education is an issue of great import. If all education is a form of discipleship, who is discipling our children?

Moving beyond these opening presuppositions, we quickly see what distinguishes Wisdom and Eloquence from most of the other books in the literature of classical Christian education. I find that Wisdom and Eloquence posits three "new" ideas:

1. 12-K Strategic Planning: planning curriculum and pedagogy should be from the "top down"

2. Trivium Updated: the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric is curriculum, not pedagogy

3. Eloquence: rhetoric is the most helpful of the three elements of the trivium for today

"12-K" is the inverted-slogan the authors use to call schools to a heightened purpose and intentional planning. Littlejohn and Evan's experience as Heads of School, national speakers and consultants to colleges and schools clearly has made them passionate about strategic planning. In their words:

"This may, in fact, be the most radical notion set forth in this volume. Unlike in the business world, the idea of strategically planning the educational process is foreign to modern educators. But planning the curriculum and pedagogy from the top down is, in our opinion, the only way to ensure the outcomes we intend for our graduates." (p. 40)

Advice and examples showing how to implement 12-K planning are scattered throughout the book, and an appendix (C) is set apart to handle this in detail. Incidentally, the book's structure displays this top down principle as well--everything flows from and fits under wisdom and eloquence.

If the first "new" idea is the most radical, perhaps the second (the Trivium Updated) is the most controversial. The resurgence of classical Christian education - though barely a quarter of a century old in evangelical circles - has accrued a great deal of the momentum from Dorothy Sayers' speech, "The Lost Tools of Learning" which posits a view of the trivium that is followed in many classical schools. Littlejohn and Evans respectfully, but flatly, differ with Sayers (and her followers) on the trivium.

Sayers' role in classical Christian education probably needs little introduction. Her now-famous speech given in 1947 at Oxford lamented that the "tools" of learning were lost in modern education and that modern students were ill-equipped, even unequipped to "teach themselves how to learn for themselves." Sayers sees the medieval-scheme of education, called the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), as the key to a quality education. Sayers holds that the trivium is primarily pedagogy while the quadrivium comprises the subjects, or curriculum of good education. Littlejohn and Evans argue against Sayer's claim that the trivium is pedagogy. Rather, they, " with the ancients" hold that the trivium is primarily content, subjects for education. Littlejohn and Evans care for pedagogy, but leave that sphere primarily to qualified teachers.

This debate over the trivium may seem insignificant to readers outside of academia. Perhaps it is an in-house debate for academics. Admittedly though, the book is written primarily to professional educators (p.15), and for them this "updated trivium" is significant. Much in the daily life of a school is at stake and many of the authors' points on the updated trivium resonated with my personal experience as an educator.

The third "new" idea is that eloquence, or rhetoric, is the most helpful of the three parts of the trivium--for today. To demonstrate this point, Littlejohn and Evans appeal to cultural relevance, pointing out in a Dylanesque incantation that "things keep changing." Rhetoric is the key to meeting these changes. Defining rhetoric as "persuasive public discourse" the authors argue that "though we live in an age of fragmented communication, characterized by media-focused sound bites, the necessity of genuine eloquence for cultural influence has not diminished." (p.20) Teaching rhetoric meets the needs of today's postmodern culture that does not highly value reasoned argumentation (logic/dialectic). Conceivably, in another age, logic would be the discipline to emphasize. In chapter eight ("The Rhetoric Curriculum") Littlejohn and Evans provide a cursory historical overview of the ebb and flow of rhetoric from antiquity (oratory flourished) to the Renaissance (deductive, authoritative argumentation flourished) to the twentieth century when many Western standards are deconstructed. Gone are "the traditional forms of discourse." Perhaps even more troubling (Neil Postman would agree) is the lack of mental discipline necessary to follow inferences and to grasp nuances inherent in true philosophical discourse. According to the authors--"enter rhetoric once again."

Littlejohn and Evans walk a fine line by prescribing rhetoric to combat the "anti-rationalism" of today. The ever-present danger is that rhetoric becomes sophism, simply pure flattery. To walk this fine line the authors again appeal to Augustine, surmising four principles for a character-focused rhetorical program: 1) the primary obligation of oratory is to truth; 2) classical principles of rhetoric are dependable and useful; 3) successful oratory is largely evaluated by its persuasive effect; 4) the most persuasive element of rhetoric is the orator's good life (p. 137).

As an educator, I found that the three significant points described above separate this book from other books on classical Christian education. Yet there is much more to Wisdom and Eloquence beyond these three points, and often the side tangents are the most helpful. For instance the authors clarify what they mean by the liberal arts--they mean the liberal arts and sciences, a redundant statement in medieval times, but a healthy clarification for the classical Christian school movement that which often bears the reputation for devaluing the mathematics and sciences. Another side point I could not agree with more is the authors' recommendation to require "music for every student every year."

These interesting side points are numerous, and thus may be both engaging and frustrating. Many issues are brought up that could be developed more. For instance, while the book accurately summarizes the history of the liberal arts tradition, historians of education will be disappointed with the brevity of those passages. Additionally, I found some of the most significant discussions in the book (e.g., is the trivium pedagogical?) cursory. On the other hand, it is easy to sympathize with Littlejohn and Evans since the corresponding cost would be to lose the accessibility of this relatively short book (213 pages). This is no heavy criticism, however, since at the authors' own admission, the book is more apologetic -"sometimes historic" and "sometimes how-to" - than it is scholarly (p.15).

Below is a summary outline of a liberal arts curriculum that should tempt you to read further to follow similar side trails.


Language Arts (The Trivium Updated)     


        -Reading, writing, spelling and vocabulary
-English grammar
-History (historic literature)
-Foreign and classical language
-Computer navigation




        -Persuasive speech
-Theatrical performance
-Thesis writing and defense

The Mathematical Arts (The Quadrivium Expanded)    


        -Elementary math through algebra
-Computer Science


        -Plane geometry
-Solid geometry
-The Visual Arts (painting, sculpture, architecture)

    ·Astronomy (expanded to the natural sciences)



-Sport (gymnasia)

The "True Sciences"



In short, Wisdom and Eloquence is a balanced summary of an education in the liberal arts tradition that will surely challenge schools to re-think strategic planning, the trivium and many other recommendations from computer navigation to music to rhetoric. Wisdom and Eloquence is helpful both for parents and those interested in education, and for educators, I do not hesitate to say it is an essential read.

Robert LittleJohn & Charles T. Evans / Illinois: Crossway, 2006 
Review by Matt Vest, Director of Classical Studies, Oak Mountain Classical School, Birmingham, AL