Dr. George Grant opened our conference The Autobiography of God with the pre-conference session on "The Great Book Program." Here is what he had to say:
The Thirst for Knowledge
People are always talking about the importance of knowledge, but knowledge is not necessarily all its cracked up to be. It can be greatly overrated. After all, the Apostle Paul says that “’knowledge’ puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
Knowledge can be mastered and transferred. Data and skills can be catalogued. But truth and wisdom are not so easily attained. For decades, educational systems have emphasized gaining knowledge. We want our kids to have knowledge of basic information and, especially, skills for the job market. Ours is the information age. Communicating knowledge has been our objective, and we have assumed kids can make their way in the world if they know data and have the career skills they need.
Americans are enthusiasts for education. We demand the best and the latest of what education can offer. We have spared no expense or effort in pouring knowledge into the minds of the next generation. Spending has increased four hundred percent per pupil in the last 25 years. The number of support personnel has quadrupled and teachers’ salaries have doubled in the same period. Education is the second-largest industry in the country, consuming a quarter of a trillion dollars and employing three million teachers and administrators.
School reform has topped the agenda of public officials for the past ten election cycles. But what do we have to show for it? It is ironic that we seem to know so little about everything. We are drowning in information twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, but American education is a dismal failure. Teacher competency; administration efficiency and effectiveness; and student achievement and advancement are all down.
Consider these facts about education in America:
- Thirty-five million can read only the basics and then only with difficulty.
- SAT scores show a continually decline from 1963 to the present even though standards have been lowered five times.
- Out of the 158 members of the United Nations, the United States is number forty-nine in basic literacy.
- Nearly forty percent cannot draw inferences from written materials.
- Only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay.
- Forty-four million cannot find the Pacific Ocean, including 3 million residents in California.
- Sixty-one million cannot come within five hundred miles of locating the nation’s capital.
- Nearly half of all Americans are so poorly educated that they cannot calculate the price difference between two items at a grocery store or apply for a job at a fast food restaurant.
So many people are undereducated that they do not know that they are undereducated. We’ve hired experts, changed curriculum, and overhauled education, but nearly 45 percent cannot read the front page of USA Today. How did this happen in the information age? How has so little information gotten through if we are so concerned to impart knowledge?
The Root of the Problem
One reason for these problems may be that education is more than the transfer of information. Passing on information is important, but education involves something more. Spurgeon once said that “knowing is not education.”
Another reason may be that many think education has an ending point. Education does not have a finish line or a final outcome. Instead, it is a deposit, endowment, or a small taste of future learning. All talk of education should remind us that we have only begun to learn what we need to learn. Our heritage has introduced us to much, but we’ve only been introduced to what is out there. A life of adventure in all arenas of study still awaits us. In fact, the lessons that never end are the most important. Nevertheless, the view that education has an ending point is not the main problem.
Christian educators have brought us back to the classics, but we are still ignorant. What we need to propose is not a great divide between Jerusalem (church) and Athens (world) but to recognize that there are some questions that Athens cannot answer.
I love the great books — Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer. I have reveled at the chance to sit down with a young man and take him through poetic verse. These are wondrous things, but the great books will fall short if we do not have the Great Book Program.
The Word of God is His revelation of Himself — of His wisdom, holiness, providence, truth, and more. It is His plumb line and His bottom line. When God speaks, His Word stands firm forever. His standards and precepts do not change from culture to culture or age to age. God’s Word is truth (John 17); it is sacred (2 Tim. 3). In Scripture we have the very oracles of God. It is true, good, forever right, and the standard for all judgment. It is the word of life. How, then, can we understand other writers if we have not plumbed the depths of the Word of God?
If we only have great books programs in the classics, we only prove Paul right in his statement about knowledge.
Jesus said we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:1–4). It is sufficient to bring all things into focus.
All Scripture is God-breathed. It is living and active (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The Word of our God shall stand forever. Heaven and earth will pass away but His Word will not (Matt. 24:35).
We affirm these things, but how do we account for the biblical illiteracy evident in even the best churches. People rightly answer questions about television, popular music, and so on. But they can’t tell you the name of the bald prophet or the day Jesus died on the cross.
None of this catches the Lord God by surprise. God warned His people that they must be vigilant to adhere to the Word of God. He warned them to tune out the voices of the world and hear His voice clearly (Deut. 8:11).
A Comprehensive Plan for Education
Deut. 6 gives a glimpse of covenant succession, and gives a comprehensive plan for discipleship, even education. It is the foundation/paradigm for godly education. Note verse 20. We are to recount the past. This plan touches all of human existence
All education, all discipleship is necessarily theological at its root. It begins with the declaration to know and love God (vv. 4–5). You can’t know anything if you cannot know that there is one, sovereign God who spoke the world into existence. You can’t know anything!
We buy fancy curricula, have homework until 10 p.m., are up at 6 p.m. to cram for a test, but there is never an opportunity to open the Word of Life.
The Great Book Program is literary at its heart. The words will be on the heart of the children (v. 6).
It is normal for the West to have a bent toward the literary. But the place reading needs to start is where the words actually give life — the Word of God.
V.7 talks about the need of diligent labor in education. How many people actually work hard in the Word? Are we teaching our people to labor in Scripture? Do we exhort pastors and parents to teach diligently?
There is a covenantal bias and relational emphasis in this program (vv. 7–8). Commands are taught to children and are to be discussed all the time. The Great Book Program is not a class we talk on in period three. It is to infiltrate and subsume every other discussion and discipline.
There’s an aesthetic bias. The Word is to adorn our lives and our days (v. 9). It’s not just a matter of the heart, and it is to infiltrate everywhere and everything in the believer’s life.
There’s an ethical bias. We have an exhortation that these things are not just philosophical. We are to do what is right, good, and true (vv. 16–19). We are to practice the faith, as C.S. Lewis says, even when the faith seems remote because in the practice comes faithfulness.
The meaning of all this comes alive when we tell the story of God’s providence in our midst. First Corinthians 10 calls us to look back at the hand of God’s providence. That is how the past can direct us in the present. That is the Great Book Program.
Many Americans want politicians to solve our educational mess. Many look to professional educators to solve the problem But the fact is that the answer to America’s great educational crisis is for God’s faithful people to recover a love for God’s Word and its sufficiency for all of life.
We need not only faithful preaching from the pulpit but for mothers and fathers to undertake the Great Book Program in their homes. When we become people of the book again, we can wonder at the marvels of the treasure of our heritage rightly.
At this moment of crisis, it is not our next president who will ultimately matter but the person who is teaching our children and grandchildren the story of redemption. May be God pleased to move us to initiate a comprehensive Great Book Program in our homes, churches, schools, and culture. And May God be pleased to use the likes of us in His great plan.