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The Classical Approach to Christian Education

An Interview with Marlin Detweiler of Veritas Press

2001

Marlin and Laurie Detweiler have four sons and live in Lancaster, PA. They helped to found Veritas Academy, a classical Christian school in Lancaster and The Geneva School, in Orlando, FL. Laurie is the curriculum coordinator at Veritas Academy and extremely talented at finding great materials for grammar school. Marlin is a board member at Veritas Academy and president of Veritas Press, which the Detweilers own. The Detweilers are founding members of All Saints' Presbyterian Church where Marlin is an elder. The church is a mission church of Christ Church, Moscow, ID where Doug Wilson is the pastor.

How did you come to have an interest in the Classical Approach?

Marlin Detweiler: In 1993, RC Sproul had just read Doug Wilson's book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, and recommended it to us in a discussion we were having about education. We read it and were immediately captivated by having our children receive such an education. We contacted Doug, went to the first ACCS (Association of Classical and Christian Schools) conference, and began The Geneva School later that summer.

While reading Doug's book we both were struck with the thought that this methodology was what we had always wanted and were looking for but were unaware of it and unable to put into words. We knew there must be something better out there-better than the current offerings available to us-but didn't know what it was. Classical education with its method and content was exactly what we were hoping for. It struck a resonant cord.

What is the goal of classical Christian education?

Marlin Detweiler: Several goals could be cited. However, summarily expressed, the goal is to make biblically thinking, life-long learners out of the students. A primary goal in grammar school (generally K - 6th) is to master one's own language and math. Another grammar school goal is to have the student be able to retain a large number of facts about the Bible, history, etc. During this period of time they memorize so much more easily than when they are older. A primary goal of the dialectic school (generally 7th - 9th) is to teach logic, thinking and reasoning, and to understand "ordered relationships," for instance, to understand the relationship between the War Between the States and the War for Independence. A primary goal for rhetoric school (generally 10th - 12th) is to take this language and math mastery and express ones self in winsome, articulate and convincing ways.

How should one implement the "Christian" part of classical Christian education? If a homeschool parent were doing Bible study with his child, would he need to do anything else?

Marlin Detweiler: Scripture says, "All things come together in Him in whom we live and move and have our being." The idea that adding a Bible study to an otherwise neutral education makes the education Christian is so shortsighted it could hardly be considered Christian at all. I believe it was Augustine who coined the phrase "thinking God's thoughts after Him." Education is about learning about God's creation and His providence. Everything that exists exists because God made it. Everything that ever happened happened because God caused it to happen. Our education is Christian not just because we study the Bible (which we must) but because we look at math, history, science, etc. through the light of Scripture. A popular phrase that captures this idea is learning a "biblical worldview." Many of us have experienced the attempts of educators to give a morally neutral education. It's not possible. The presuppositions of the teacher will have a great impact. George Bush would write a considerably different history book on The Gulf War than Hussein.

Classical education includes the study of philosophers from Greek and Roman times. Because these men were pagans, some homeschoolers condemn the study of their works. Do you believe that study of this is appropriate and if so, at what age?

Marlin Detweiler: It is said that anyone who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it. I believe over the course of time, hundreds and even thousands of years from now, people will regard the present time as one of the lowest points in the history of the church. Many of the beliefs and practices of Christians and Christian churches today would not have been tolerated at virtually any other period in history. Many of today's beliefs and practices were condemned by church councils.

St. Paul was certainly not uneducated regarding Greek and Roman philosophers. John Calvin was not; nor was Jonathan Edwards. In fact, the greatness of these men and their contributions can be substantially credited to the fact that they had learned such things. Certainly the work of dangerous philosophers espousing dangerous ideas must be understood in the light of Scripture. However, avoidance doesn't make for stronger Christians; knowledge of bad ideas and its errors does. Additionally, we must realize that throughout all of history the idea of taking good things from unbelievers is a way to make the believing community stronger. The phrase "pillaging the Egyptians" is the idea that we take from the non-Christian community that which will benefit the Christian. Whether it be the Greek philosophers who have something to offer us in gaining an understanding of the world in which we live or the Amish and their strong sense of community, we must be willing to learn by filtering everything through a biblical grid or filter. But their ideas, just like the ideas expressed in the sermon we heard last Sunday, must always be evaluated in the light of God's Word.

The age at which this aspect of education occurs will vary. And learning facts is considerably different from gaining understanding.

How do you know when you have succeeded in providing your child with a classical Christian education?

Marlin Detweiler: If our children grow up and continue to seek to love the Lord, their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbor as themselves we will think we have succeeded. However, we also want them to be industrious, articulate, engaging and able to lead. We want to raise children who love learning. Others will certainly have varied secondary goals for their children.

Can any parent successfully implement classical education in a homeschool environment or does one need special qualifications?

Marlin Detweiler: Any parent who can homeschool can succeed in applying the classical methodology. However, we must realize that educating a child classically takes time. A child in 2nd - 6th grades should spend five to seven hours in formal education daily.

Some "how-to" books have been published on classical education. Do you feel these books provide THE methodology for parents?

Marlin Detweiler: Any time an idea becomes as popular as classical education has become in the last ten years there will be people who will adopt the phrase to get on the popularity bandwagon and use the buzz-words to promote their ideas. We have seen some tragic ideas promoted. There is no idea more tragic than the idea of applying the methodology of classical education in a non-Christian environment. A well-trained mind without a well-disciplined godly heart is a recipe for disaster. There is no single book that we think provides THE (read "the one and only") methodology. However, we are quite partial to the work that Doug Wilson and the folks at Logos School have done as we have seen the wonderful fruit of their labors.

Your company, Veritas Press, has a wonderful catalog that serves as a great resource for those interested in classical Christian education. How did you select the products that you offer?

Marlin Detweiler: I was in the real estate investment business with every intention of continuing. Our involvement in education was directly related to our interest in getting our children the best education possible. As we looked for curriculum to teach history from creation to the present in grammar school we found nothing that we thought was a complete and perfect fit. So, we set out to create it. Others expressed an interest in it and so we thought that it would become an enjoyable hobby for us to work on together that might even be a little profitable.

Laurie's parents really encouraged us to do a catalog as we began to carry other materials. At that time we committed to stay home and spend most of our marketing dollars on a catalog and provide an 800 number and a liberal return policy for customers rather than travel the country from fair to fair. It's hard to imagine a more inefficient means of distributing materials than setting up and tearing down a store every week in another city. We attend the Harrisburg, PA fair and the ACCS conference and that is it.

We have been very blessed to have found a graphic designer who really understands our mission and us. Ned Bustard is substantially responsible for the design of the catalog about which you so kindly commented.

Laurie is the one primarily responsible for the selection of materials in the catalog in grammar school. Both of us and the headmaster of Veritas Academy, Ty Fischer, are involved in the selection of materials after grammar school. Marlin is responsible for the books for parents. Ned and Laurie still refuse to call this section "adult books" even though he would like to.

What makes a product classical?

Marlin Detweiler: That is where there seems to be some misunderstanding in the marketplace. A product is classical in one sense if it is enduring, that is; it will last or be timeless. The Iliad is classical because it has stood the test of time. There is a canon of Western literature that we call classical literature because it has stood the test of time and helps us to engage in the "great conversation." But, when it comes to our history curriculum or Shurley Grammar, they are classical only in the sense that they are consonant with the classical methodology. The idea of classical education is about both method and content.

What helps to do you provide for the new or confused parent who is afraid of purchasing the wrong product?

Marlin Detweiler: Customers are encouraged to call and discuss any product we offer. We also offer a free consulting service that many customers seem to have benefited from.

Veritas Press has several unique products. Let's discuss your new phonics program, the Phonics Museum, first. How does the Phonics Museum compare with Sing, Spell, Read and Write?

Marlin Detweiler: Sing, Spell is an excellent program, one we have used and continue to sell. However, we believed that a "better mouse trap" was possible. In creating the Phonics Museum we set out to have the content of the primers introduce the student to matters of interest, historic content, and biblical importance rather than the "Dick and Jane" pabulum that has permeated most programs. It was also important that the student begin reading as soon as possible. So the first book is read within weeks of starting the program. Of course it is no literary masterpiece as it was written using one vowel, short "a," and about 12 consonants. But the student gains great interest very quickly in learning if he starts reading early in life. We want to not only teach students to read but to have them love reading. There are many other features that could be mentioned, but these two are probably most important.

When we set out to create the program we thoroughly researched the history of phonics. As early as ancient Egyptian or early Roman history we see children learning their letters, then sounds, and quickly reading literature rather than "Dick and Jane" style primers.

What knowledge is the child expected to have when starting the Phonics Museum? At what age should a child begin working with it?

Marlin Detweiler: It is assumed that the child has no knowledge of letters or reading at the onset. The program is generally geared to kindergarten and first grade. Some, and we encourage it for children who are ready, have succeeded with slightly younger children.

Could you tell us a little about the results you have had using the Phonics Museum? What reading level will the child attain upon completion of it? Will further phonics study be required?

Marlin Detweiler: The program is intended to be a complete, no more study necessary, phonics program. Our experience and the feedback we've gotten has been very positive. Children who have completed it are ready to read "real books."

Now, let's spend some time discussing your Bible and history curricula. Each of the programs consists of 32 flashcards, a teacher's manual and a tape. Would you please explain how these programs are best used in a homeschool environment?

Marlin Detweiler: The Bible curriculum has five series with 32 cards per series. The first three series cover the Old Testament and the last two cover the New Testament. The overall purpose of the program is to give the student a working knowledge of his Bible so when they are older that knowledge will contribute to their understanding.

The history curriculum is also five series of 32 cards per series. Each card represents a particular event. When completed the student will have a good working knowledge of the flow of history and will be quite able to contextualize a very deep study of a particular time period when he is older.

Both of these programs were written to be used in a variety of ways to benefit the homeschooling family and their personal plans.

How can the history program be adapted for families teaching multiple aged children?

Marlin Detweiler: We generally recommend that parents teaching three or more children teach the same period in history to all of them and expect more from the older ones-more from their answers, more reading, etc. This might cause a family to "cycle back" to the beginning after covering modern history but it makes it possible for families to give all their children all of history.

Do the Bible and History programs fit together? Can you use one and not the other?

Marlin Detweiler: They were designed to work together or separately. Many families use one and not the other. Many families use both. One of our goals is to have students understand history in the context of Scripture and vice-versa. The feedback we get tells us this is happening quite well.

Some parents feel that there is too much writing at the younger ages in the history program. Is there an alternative way to work with the materials?

Marlin Detweiler: Ideally, the program for history and Bible is begun at the beginning of second grade. Admittedly, there is some difficulty with children beginning second grade writing complete sentences with great accuracy. By the middle of second grade that problem should be eliminated. The program was written so that each level could be used easily from 2nd through 6th grades, thus the problem. Teachers/parents can ease students into this writing in grade two. Students should start to answer the questions by copying the answers. Then they should gradually be weaned by supplying part of the answer, having them complete the sentence When we hear this concern we also are made alert for another concern. It seems that in the homeschool community reading is given considerable emphasis and writing tends to be de-emphasized. This not true with every family, of course. And it is easy to see how this happens, since writing is much harder to teach and stay on top of than reading. But it is of paramount importance that we develop students who write well, not just technically, but in the expression of ideas. Language mastery in every respect is a key ingredient for any thorough education.

What particular doctrine, if any, do your Bible cards support?

Marlin Detweiler: We are theologically reformed; that is we embrace the doctrines of the Reformation. We are members of a Presbyterian Church-All Saints' Presbyterian. The Bible cards have very little "doctrinal positioning" in them. They are geared to provide the student with a working knowledge of his Bible so that he is equipped to deal with biblical discussions regarding doctrinal positions when he is older.

Many thanks to Marlin Detweiler for sharing his thoughts with us here at HomeschoolChristian.com!

Related HomeschoolChristian.com Resources

Veritas Press Bible Curriculum
Veritas Press History Curriculum
HomeschoolChristian.com's History Resource Section
HomeschoolChristian.com's Classical and Charlotte Mason Resource Section