What We Believe
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The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being, by Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2007, xix + 669 pages, $20.00.

De Doctrina Christiana is not easy to render into English. “On Christian Doctrine” or “On Christian Teaching” have variously stood in as translations for the title of Augustine of Hippo’s most famous work on education. The eminent Augustine scholar James J. O’Donnell convincingly has proposed instead On the Form of Teaching Suitable for Christians as the most appropriate translation. Anyone who more than a millennium and a half later would weigh in on the form of teaching suitable for Christians would do well to listen to all the fifty-seven voices Richard Gamble has brought together in this massive collection—men, women, pagans, Jews, Christians, agnostics, ancients, medievals, early moderns, moderns, philosophers, historians, orators, an architect, biographers, theologians, bishops, ascetics, professors, teachers, novelists, essayists, poets, and more.

To be sure, Gamble’s own purpose is far broader than answering the question inherent in the title of Augustine’s famous work. At the outset he explains that he is following a “continual conversation about what it means to be a truly educated human being” (xvi), tracing out a specific strand of what many have called “The Great Tradition.” Now in its fourth printing, the collection has served its purpose well for the time equivalent of one child’s journey from kindergarten into early years of college.

For each author, one first encounters a quotation, expertly chosen and helpfully illuminating. These should not be missed—they are far more than mere ornamentation and left me thinking carefully about each author as I encountered each selection. Gamble’s brief introduction to each author and to their specific work(s) are remarkably consistent in size, content, insight, and style—not an easy task given the broad range of figures involved here. His own particular approaches to education and controversial questions surrounding it are discernible here, but never heavy-handed or preachy. Throughout, Gamble sends the reader elsewhere to explore authors and questions more deeply, helpfully reiterating that this massive compilation is just an introduction. The reader will get a solid sense as well of the foundational modern scholarship on education and on the specific writers anthologized. A future edition of the work could include as well some leading scholars on education from the latter parts of the twentieth century, particularly for the premodern period. For the medieval period, for example, I would suggest Rosamond McKitterick and C. Stephen Jaeger as indispensable guides for understanding the varied purposes of medieval education over time.

The collection is most helpful when it is understood for what it is and is not. It is not an anthology of readings in Western Civilization, nor a collection, per se, of readings on the history of western education, nor an illustration of movements or trends within western education, nor even a set of readings illustrating “The Great Tradition.” As the subtitle in particular makes quite clear, it is a set of classic readings on what it means to be an educated human being. In this it is remarkably effective, helpful, and illuminating, perhaps even indispensable. The reader should keep the central purpose in mind when reading through the collection.

Each selection is usually allowed to speak for itself to larger and ongoing educational debates, without much commentary – the usefulness of education, the contemplative vs. the active life are common themes. This method works quite well, generally. In a few places, though, inadvertent anachronisms are likely on particularly controversial issues today and in our own circles. Aristotle’s emphasis on the state’s role in education, for example, is noted as controversial (56). But such a notion would not be particularly controversial in western history until well after the medieval and even early modern periods. Likewise, Gamble’s note of the “debate between home schooling and public education” (107) when introducing Quintilian might give some the questionable impression that the terms of such modern discussion bear notable resemblance to what the Roman Quintilian is talking about in his piece.

Some might quibble here and there with what is included or not included. Given the purpose, size, scope, and thoroughness of Gamble’s project, I would consider such to be as unavoidable as largely unprofitable and pointless (and, I really cannot point to a single selection whose inclusion I would question). Yet, I cannot resist just two omission quibbles: 1) the opening of Petronius’ Satyricon and 2) some key selections from Peter Abelard’s History of My Misfortunes. The former is a ruthless (and well-known) critique of Roman educational ideals and training, an oft-cited counterbalance to idealistic and uncritical praise of the Roman educational system. The latter illustrates a fundamental shift in medieval understanding of what it means to be an educated human being, which played a key role in ushering in Scholasticism. In both of these cases, the specific articulation and textual context is potentially sordid. Yet might not such famous texts, along with the generally more noble and staid ones which make up this collection, speak directly and even wisely to the central important point here?

A certain mischievous professor of religion I know likes to advise students in his department who desire to enter the ministry to change their major instead to English. Church officers attuned for any length of time to Ordained Servant hardly need another reminder of the importance of reading good literature. Yet, Gamble’s collection fills a serious lacuna. I would venture that a fair number of authors in this collection are unfamiliar to many, or at least these works and or selections actually have not been read before. Listening closely to all these voices across time on what it means to be an educated human being—even those with which one disagrees—can sharpen one’s ability to discern what is most suitable for Christians to teach. Church officers would do well to spend some time with this valuable collection, if they have not done so already in the years since its initial publication.

Mark W. Graham is a ruling elder at Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania and a professor of history at Grove City College. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2021.

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Ordained Servant: August 2021

Our Adult Children

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