Headmaster's Blog


The Implications of a Classical Education



A brief perusal of the literature on Classical education produced within the last ten to twenty years will quickly reveal something about the movement and those who are attempting to define it and give it direction: There are different opinions as to what we mean by “classical education.”

This is one of the challenges that all classical schools face individually, as does the broader movement. There are “classical” schools which might best be described as “great books” schools. There are classical schools which offer nothing more than a back-to-basics sort of education, looking back no further than 1950s public schooling for their model. There are models that organize around the idea of the “Great Conversation,” and others that strictly adhere to the model of the Trivium. And there are other models in between.

As a classical Christian school headmaster who has been involved in the movement since the late 1990s, and one who has served on numerous accreditation committees, I have had the privilege of observing many classical schools first-hand, up close, and personal. While there are many good classical Christian schools out there who take very seriously their missions, sadly, there are also many of them whom I would say “know the words, but not the tune.” They have the lingo of classical education down pat; they can explain what is meant by the trivium in detail; they’ve read everything Doug Wilson and Andrew Kern have written on the subject. They just don’t have a clear idea of how those terms ought to impact everything from the hallway bulletin board to the senior thesis presentations, from kindergarten Bible memory work to whether a young man should hold the door for a young lady.

So one of the challenges facing our school (indeed, every “classical school”) is ...

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The Scoffer, the Simple, and the Wise

by Michael J. McKenna

The Scoffer, the Simple, and the Wise.

Proverbs 21:11, “When the scoffer is punished, the simple is made wise; But when the wise is instructed, he receives knowledge.”

Proverbs 19:25, “Strike a scoffer, and the simple will become wary; Rebuke one who has understanding, and he will discern knowledge.”

Before reading any further, stop and identify the three kinds of people mentioned in each of the above proverbs. If you identified the scoffer, the simple, and the wise, give yourself 10 points!

But before we go any further, however, let’s do some defining. First of all, who is the “scoffer”?  In Proverbs 21:24, the scoffer is identified as proud and haughty. He cares more for his own opinion and his own “wisdom” than he does for anyone else’s. Not only does he scoff, but we find that he actually delights in his scoffing, as pointed out in Proverbs 1:22. Generally speaking, he is incapable of discipline (Proverbs 9:7) and reproof (Proverbs 9:8). He does not love those who try to correct him, nor does he seek out those who might have more wisdom than himself (Proverbs 15:12). And lastly, he refuses to listen to rebuke (Proverbs 13:1). In short, it’s really, really hard for scoffers to find wisdom. Like those whom Job describes, “No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you!”

The simple, on the other hand, generally believe what they’re told. So they more easily lean toward whatever belief or code of conduct is in the ascendancy (e.g., Pr. 1:22, 7:7, 9:4, 14:15).

The wise man, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite of the scoffer. He loves wisdom (Pr. 1:5). He delights in ...

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Boys working in the family tobacco field, Virginia, ca.1930

Count It All Joy!

by Mr. Michael J. McKenna

Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

We’ll get to the idea of struggle a bit later, but for the moment, allow me to lay before you some numbers which may seem random at first. But I promise, it’ll all come together.

(See if you can guess what each set of numbers represents before reading the explanations that follow.)

1:28                     1:16                     1:14.5[i]

Any idea? If you guessed student-teacher ratios in the years 1950, 1970, and 2000 respectively, you guessed wisely! But what do we notice about education in general over that time span? Does anyone think that from 1950 to 2000 educational standards in America improved? So there’s a data point for you: while student-teacher ratios decreased (and who doesn’t think low student-teacher ratios is an unvarnished good?), educational standards also decreased. Maybe there’s not a one-to-one correlation rate, but it’s a data point.

Next, what does the number 168,041 represent?

If you guessed the number of parenting books available on Amazon.com, again, you guessed correctly! (Boy, you’re good at this!)

How about the number 0?

For our purposes, zero represents the number of parenting books written before 1950. Think about that. Before 1950, if you wanted parenting advice, you asked your mom or dad, your grandma, or your older sister who already had kids of her own. You also relied heavily on the way you were brought up and on your own common sense. Today, it seems that few parents think they have enough wisdom of their own to raise their children successfully without the help of “experts.” (More on them later.)

Okay, here’s another number: 7.5.

The number 7.5 represents the average number of hours ...

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It's Not About the Grades!

Mr. Michael J. McKenna, Headmaster

It’s Not About the Grades![i]

My son James attends Texas A&M University, and he is in the Corps of Cadets there. He loves his school, but he does have a problem with his History 105 Professor.

“Dad! The first thing out of his mouth on the first day of class was, ‘Everything that’s wrong with America is the fault of Christianity and capitalism,’ and it’s only been downhill from there!”

Weekly I’ve been regaled by James with the latest statements from this U.S. history professor. For example: The U.S. Constitution was ratified to establish totalitarian control over yeoman farmers; Checks and balances were established so that elites like George Washington could check the peoples’ power in a democracy and balance it with their own; To European imperialists, once American Indians ceased to be powerful, they became mere obstacles to be removed,” and so forth. In fact, when James told me the prof had said that “All human decisions are purely based on economic factors,” I realized that the professor was a Marxist, and so, concluded it was perfectly consistent for him to say things like that.

As for his pedagogy, the professor asks no questions, nor does he permit questions from the students. He simply “proclaims.” Finally, his tests are all True/False. So, when a student encounters a test question such as “George Washington was a member of the elite ruling class who sought to establish totalitarian control over the yeoman farmers by ratifying the U.S. Constitution: True or False,” he checks True if he wants to pass, False if he’d prefer to fail. There is no counter-argument permitted.

This drives James crazy because he was taught in a classical Christian school environment from Kindergarten on, and so was ...

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Teen Fiction

by Michael J. McKenna

Once in an airport, waiting to board my flight, I beheld a spectacle that was one-third entertaining, one-third saddening, and one-third clinical social observation, mixed, shaken well, and served up as a sad commentary about where our culture was headed.

A little girl – no more than four – was romping about the airport waiting lounge, running up and down the nearby up and down escalators, knocking into adults she was having too much fun to notice, shrieking with delight at the entertainment she was making for herself, and generally being a disturbance to everyone in the vicinity, save two. (Honestly, I was trying very hard not to be a curmudgeon. But trust me – this girl was getting on everyone’s last nerve. Well, almost everyone’s.)

I was finally brought to the point at which I asked my fellow travelers, “Where is that girl’s father?” I didn’t have to look far. One or two rows over was not only that girl’s father, but her mother as well. Every so often they would look up from what they were doing, get their daughter’s attention, and say something perfunctory, like, “Come back here, Anna,” and then continue on as before (as did she!). What were they up to, besides failing to properly supervise their young progeny? They were playing video games on their cell phones!

I looked from one train wreck to the other, from child to parents, and from parents to child, and soon found myself feeling like the animals in the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Several years ago, the Manhattan Institute published two essays on the modern twentysomething male, identifying ...

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Charge to the PCS Paladins

Michael J. McKenna, Headmaster

The quaint town of Eichstätt lies in the middle of Bavaria, between Munich and Nuremberg, just north of the Danube River on a bend in the river Altmühl. In 2008 this most beautiful of Bavarian towns celebrated the 1100th anniversary of its charter. If you visit Eichstätt today, you’ll see there the only Catholic university in Germany; you’ll see the Bavarian castle of Willibaldsburg in the hills above town, the Eichstätt Cathedral with its baroque decoration, vaulted ceilings, and Bavarian onion peaks. In fact, Eichstätt is such a picture perfect model of what we think Bavarian towns should be, it wouldn’t surprise me if, on your first visit, you encountered men in leather lederhosen and green felt hats, beautiful blonde girls carrying bouquets of edelweiss back from their romps in the Alpine hills, and a hefty bar maid named Helga carrying 12 steins of beer at once. With pretzels in her apron!

As you head out of town, about a mile southeast, you’ll find what today is the local police academy, where the Eichstätt unit of the Bavarian State Police train.

This academy, while serving a noble societal use today, wasn’t always such a place of dignity, however. Between the years of 1939 and 1945, this was the site of Oflag VII, “Oflag” being the short name for the German word Offizierslager, or “Officer’s Camp.” During WWII Oflag VII was a German prisoner of war camp for allied officers.

Oflag VII was built in September 1939 to house Polish prisoners from the German invasion of Poland. The first prisoners arrived there in October 1939. Over the next few years, British, French, and Belgian officers were kept there as well as eventually Australians and New Zealanders.  In the ...

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We’re Not Raising Boys, We’re Raising Men

by Michael J. McKenna

Okay, as a father of daughters, I’m going to admit something right up front. It’s the rare young man who will be good enough for any one of my daughters. Sorry, but it’s true—he’s got to be one of the Twelve Apostles. These are my girls we’re talking about, after all.

Of course this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a certain underlying reality at work when a father makes a comment like that. I remember meeting one of my daughter’s potential beaus, and reaching out to shake his hand. Upon taking his hand in mine, I thought someone had laid a moist dish rag in my grip instead. I was afraid I was going to break him! As soon as I could, I pulled my son James aside and told him we were going to have to work on that handshake.

Now before you think ill of me for judging this poor young man on the basis of his handshake, read this recent article in the Washington Post. According to a recent study, the average grip strength of 20-34 year-old men is 29 pounds of force less than it was 30 years ago. In short, Millennials today are weaker than their fathers were. Is there some deeper meaning at work, and the strength of a man’s grip today is just an indication?

Perhaps. I realize that was only one study. But consider this article in the February 2012 edition of the Philadelphia Magazine. Young women as far back as 14 years ago were lamenting the sorry state of young men, and things haven’t gotten any better since then.

It used to be that adulthood for men was measured by five “markers”: finishing school, moving away from their parents’ home ...

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Classical Education and Computer of Technology

by Michael J. McKenna

For many parents, the thinking goes, what schools need is a heavy dose of technology in order to ensure their children are “fit” for the future. And so, it should come as no surprise that many schools comply, offering up the mantra that technology is the silver bullet, ensuring that their students receive a “quality 21st Century education.”

At Providence Classical School, on the other hand, we want to approach all that we do, including using technology, in a thoughtful and biblical way. Technology is a tool. As human beings and therefore sub-creators, we make and shape tools for our use. However, the tools that we fashion can, in turn, shape and fashion us as well. Have you ever heard the saying, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Ever had your family physician tell you that, to a surgeon, everything is curable with a little cutting? Remember all the hype about educational television? It was supposed to make us smarter. All it ended up doing was make us love television more. In short, our tools really do shape and fashion us as much as we shape and fashion them.

Schools must consider how tools shape and fashion the learning environment as well as the students and teachers themselves. For example, screens prefer movement, image, and action, which necessarily undermines the value of words and ultimately literacy. Which is why the Washington Post recently cited a study which reported that, “the more children use computers at school, the more their reading abilities seem to suffer.”[1]

Because of their emphasis on movement, image, and action, computer technologies necessarily entertain. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little fun. But when entertainment becomes the standard by which the hard work and “Pain of Learning”[2] is ...

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Apology for Logic in 8th Grade

Michael J. McKenna

Why Offering Logic in the 8th Grade is an Aide to the Study of Science

Logic is concerned with forms of reasoning. Since reasoning is involved in most intellectual activities, logic is relevant to a broad range of pursuits, but is particularly relevant in math and science. I believe that the study of logic is essential for students of science and mathematics, and those who make use of mathematical and scientific proofs. In the process of reasoning one makes inferences. In an inference one uses a collection of statements, the premises, in order to justify another statement, the conclusion. The most reliable types of inferences are deductive inferences, in which the conclusion must be true if the premises are. Recall our studies of geometry: Assuming that the postulates are true, we prove that other statements, such as the Pythagorean Theorem, must also be true. Geometric proofs, and other mathematical proofs, typically use many deductive inferences, and therefore, are heavily reliant upon the skills of a logician.

Our logic course in 8th grade includes deductive inference. The course teaches general concepts and methods that are useful independently of formal languages. Students learn how to construct proofs in the context of formal language, so the logical concepts and methods they learn can be used in other contexts. One even learns how to prove theorems about formal languages; this is especially important for science, mathematics, as well as linguistics.

For example, the idea of a general purpose computer, the Turing Machine, was invented in the course of research in logic. Computer programs are written in special, symbolic languages, e.g., Fortran, and others. They include the logical and mathematical analysis of programs. With such analyses, one can prove the accuracy of procedures and estimate the number of procedures required to execute ...

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Recent Articles

Recent Articles

The Implications of a Classical Education

The Implications of a Classical Education

3/20/2017 12:00:00 AM CDT
3 months ago


A brief perusal of the literature on Classical education produced within the last ten to twenty years will quickly reveal something about the movement ...

The Scoffer, the Simple, and the Wise

The Scoffer, the Simple, and the Wise

1/13/2017 12:00:00 AM CST
5 months ago

The Scoffer, the Simple, and the Wise.

Proverbs 21:11, “When the scoffer is punished, the simple is made wise; But when the wise is ...

Count It All Joy!

Count It All Joy!

11/21/2016 12:00:00 AM CST
7 months ago

Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

We’ll get to the idea of struggle a bit later, but ...