One of the many challenges Christians face in the realm of education today is the decision of whether to and how to approach pagan literature. With the rabid secularism of the public schools, there is a tendency to an overreaction which results in an emphasis on the Bible to the exclusion of other great works of literature. The great founders of the Christian educational tradition, however, were unanimous in their declaration that a thorough acquaintance with the great pre-Christian literary traditions of Greece and Rome is essential to an education and even, in fact, to properly reading and interpreting the Scriptures.
Charlemagne is among the most notable in this regard as the man who stimulated the Medieval renaissance which follow the Dark Age period in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In his “Capitulary of 787,” a document in which he gives orders for the foundation of a sound educational program within his empire, Charlemagne encourages the abbot of a monastery, one of the many which had become centers for learning, to teach “not only a regular manner of life and one conformable to religion, but also the study of letters.” He reasons that “know of what is right [must] precede right action.” The knowledge to be learned from the great literature of the past, in other words, is, when properly understood, a prompt toward a life more fully lived in conformity to the Gospel.
Similarly, Rhabanus Maurus, a monk and teacher of the same period as Charlemagne, listed “an acquaintance with Holy Scripture” alongside a number of other academic disciplines, including even such things as “the different kinds of medicine, and the various forms of disease,” essential elements of a liberal education. According to Maurus, “any one to whom all this remains unknown, is not able to care for his own welfare, let alone that of others.” He even went as far as declaring that a knowledge of pagan literature is necessary to a proper understanding of Scripture. “All of the forms of speech, of which secular science makes use in its writings,” he said, “are found repeatedly employed in the Holy Scriptures.” After providing a few examples, he continues, “this art [grammar, as learned through the pre-Christian Latin and Greek authors], though it may be secular, has nothing unworthy in itself; it should be learned as thoroughly as possible.”
A Christian education, then, properly defined, is not an education in the Bible only nor does it define itself through a reaction against non-Christian forces. The purpose of a Christian education is not to avoid learning about Darwin or grappling with Nietzsche. It is, rather, a kind of education which embraces all knowledge as the provenance of God and one great gift from him to man. The avoidance of pre-Christian, non-Christian, or even anti-Christian literature within a Christian education is a grave error which has no precedent in the early and great examples at the roots of Christian education. It can only lead to distortion, not only of that un-Christian literature itself but also and even of the Christian Faith and Scriptures. As Hugh of St. Victor, another leading figure in Medieval Christian education, once state with precision, “not knowing, to be sure, springs from weakness; but contempt of knowledge springs from a wicked will.”