Book review: Wisdom and Eloquence

June 26, 2017

Wisdom and Eloquence

A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning

Publisher: Crossway

Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team

Available on Amazon


The technological boom in America during the last decades of the twentieth century caused a shift in the skills necessary for gainful employment. No longer are employers searching for employees with marketable skills in a particular trade. Today, employers emphasize knowledge and problem solving skills. The body of knowledge that one possesses takes precedence over what one can do. Complex problem solving is prized over the ability to wield a hammer.

According to Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans, this shift has uncovered a deficiency in America’s secular educational system, which produces students who neither know how to learn nor think, who possess a secular worldview, and who lack any vestiges of propriety. In Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning, Littlejohn and Evans, educators and administrators for the past 25 years, propose a return to pure Christian education in order to produce citizens who possess wisdom and the ability to speak forth the truth with eloquence.

Littlejohn and Evans begin by explaining why a Christian education is necessary, what a Christian education is and what it is not. In doing so, they expose what they see as many of the negative aspects of the secular public school system; such as placing the student in the center of the educational process, placing students in various learning "tracks," making vocation central, replacing faith with skepticism, teaching that human nature is always evolving toward something better, and a rejecting of absolutes.

Wisdom and Eloquence states that the purpose of a Christian education is not solely to benefit the one educated, but to benefit society as a whole. "We aim to shape individuals who are both heavenly minded and capable of doing great earthly good." The idea is that more than merely adding Bible and chapel to the curriculum, a truly Christian education is one that places faith in the center, with a view to seeing God displayed in His beautiful creation, for the purpose of using that knowledge to "persuasively articulate a better way of life to those around them."

Littlejohn and Evans use the writings of Augustine and a speech by Dorothy Sayers given at Oxford University in 1947 upon which to build their paradigm for developing students of Wisdom and Eloquence. "Augustine noted that true wisdom comprises at least two significant components. First, he said, a thorough reading of the Scriptures and a general knowledge of its contents form the necessary base from which to gain wisdom with any practical value to society…Augustine’s second wisdom component was, essentially, to learn everything else." Littlejohn and Evans believe the best way to go about this is to build upon the traditions of classical education. They spend a portion of the book analyzing the Dorothy Sayers’ model of the trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric). While they agree with and herald her on many points, there are a few points of disagreement, which they explain and clarify quite well.

Littlejohn and Evans address the issue of worldview and enculturation in the school setting. Developing one’s worldview is often something that just happens; it is not always discernible. However, to develop students of Wisdom and Eloquence, who are distinctly Christian, the process of enculturation has to be intentional. "When enculturation is purposeful or active, we call it formation, and we, as educators, need to be about the work of spiritual, cultural, and intellectual formation." Littlejohn and Evans then turn to the "how" of a Christian paradigm for a classical education.

According to Littlejohn and Evans, one important aspect of "how" to teach "Christianly" includes the community feel of a school. A school exists for educating students, but one critical question administrators must answer is, "what will our school "feel" like?" Littlejohn and Evans call this ethos, and define it as "the inarticulate expression of what the community values…it includes the quality of the relationships within the school, the traditions, the professional comportment, the approach to classroom management, the out-of-class decorum, the aesthetic personality of the school reflected in the student and faculty dress codes, the visual and auditory imagery, and the physical plant itself." Littlejohn and Evans devote several pages to exploring the importance of each facet of a school’s ethos in order to help administrators and educators decide what their school will be like. A good reputation in the community, high academic standards, healthy relationships, rich traditions, and respect and honor do not naturally occur in a school. The school board and its leaders must plan and execute.

A classical liberal arts and sciences education, simply put, includes language arts and mathematics, but it is also much more. Littlejohn and Evans do a thorough unpacking of it in the book. They also defend which methods they believe work best. Wisdom and Eloquence explains developing curriculum is not simply choosing subjects. A classical education is one that groups and integrates the subjects; the subjects do not stand alone. When planning curriculum for the classical school, Littlejohn and Evan recommend beginning with the goal in sight. The school board must ask, "What do we want our graduates to know, be able to do? How do we want our graduates to behave?" If you begin with the goal in view, then it is easier to plan curriculum. The goal will inform the methods and materials for your school. They call this a 12-K approach, rather than the more commonly used K-12 approach. This method asks, "What do we want the students to know by graduation?" The answer to that question will then inform the methods and curriculum for the 12th grade. The next step is to ask, "What do our 12th graders need to know and be able to do?" The answer to this question will tell you the methods and curriculum for the 11th graders, and so on, all the way down to Kindergarten. "By 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."

Littlejohn and Evans include three appendices: a sobering message to parents, an apologetic for the liberal arts, and a discourse on the purpose and planning of your classical school.

Wisdom and Eloquence is written for the educator, and it should be required reading, particularly for those serving in Christian classical schools. I would also recommend it for anyone considering classical education, for understanding its history, benefits and components. It helps to have an understanding of classical education, the trivium and quadrivium, rhetoric, dialectic, etc. before reading this book.
While not written for the homeschooling family, as a classically homeschooling mother myself, I found much of what the authors had to say very insightful. Their description of trivium and quadrivium is different and less complicated, in my opinion. Where Sayers places beginning and ending points on curriculum and stages, Littlejohn and Evans do not. Rather they encourage the employment of the "tools of learning" throughout a student’s education. I found the advice for curriculum development very helpful. It makes more sense to me to begin with the goal in mind when developing curriculum as opposed to only considering what a child needs to know, or has the ability to know, in each grade.

Wisdom and Eloquence sets forth a worthy goal for all of our children, not just the gifted ones. For when high standards are placed before all students, there is unlimited potential for a generation of great Christian thinkers and responsible adult citizens. An educated person is not someone who has merely memorized facts and de
monstrates an understanding of subject material. An educated individual is one who no longer needs a tutor, who possesses the tools to educate himself, and can continue learning throughout life. An educated person, taught "Christianly," has great potential to influence his or her generation for the glory of God. Littlejohn and Evans set forth an awesome challenge for Christian educators, but one that educators and parents should have in view for the children they disciple.

Available on Amazon

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