Gutenberg College has everything you would expect to attract a classically educated high school graduate. As with classical education, Gutenberg’s highest goals are to teach its students the skills they need in order to learn, to help students assemble a truthful understanding of themselves and of existence, and to cultivate in its students a love of wisdom and learning. So imagine my surprise when I found out that Gutenberg, despite its kinship with classical education, has found it difficult to rouse the interest of classical high school graduates.
I had just started a job in classical education myself when I was talking with my father-in-law, who also happens to be Gutenberg College president and tutor David Crabtree. I asked David if Gutenberg students who had come from a classical background had found their education advantageous during their years at Gutenberg. I was shocked, then, when David replied that, actually, Gutenberg does not attract many classical students. “We have had a hard time sparking classical students’ interest in Gutenberg. Their thinking seems to be that they have already done Gutenberg because they have already read the books.”
I was baffled. As a Gutenberg graduate, formerly homeschooled and now a classical educator, it makes no sense to me that classical students would consistently pass up such a great opportunity. The fact that they do is either a gross misunderstanding or a travesty. Rather than thinking it unnecessary, classical students should consider Gutenberg a relevant and valuable option for their college educations.
The response of classical students to Gutenberg surprises and troubles me. I would have expected classical students to exhibit a greater sense of value for Gutenberg’s project. I have personally met many high school students who seem enthusiastic about maturity, skillful thinking, and other characteristics consonant with Gutenberg’s goals but who ultimately decide to attend another school. While I realize that there are many reasons to attend one school over another, it seems to me that this trend ultimately points to a lack of value for the education that Gutenberg offers. Gutenberg describes the goal of its education as “mature adults who know how to live well—people who have carefully crafted a sound worldview and have acquired the knowledge and skills to live productive and constructive lives.” Maturity, a sound worldview—in short, wisdom—these are also the values which classical education attempts to cultivate in its students, which is why I suppose I expected classical students to be especially drawn to Gutenberg.
So why is it that more classical students do not see in Gutenberg College a superb opportunity for pursuing the “life-long education” that is the banner of their own pre-college education? There are several reasons, but I believe it boils down to what David pointed out: students feel that Gutenberg is unnecessary after a classical high school education because “they have already read the books.” And, of course, classical students have not just read great books; they have discussed and debated the books’ ideas, written papers on them, and learned relevant historical information. Furthermore, classical students (as I was) are probably used to hearing about how mature they are for their age and how well they will do when they get to college. Understandably, they feel mature enough to be launched into adult life, beginning with occupational training. By saying that they have “already read the books,” these students are really saying that they feel sufficiently mature to handle adult life in the real world. Maybe, they think, if I hadn’t had such a good education, Gutenberg would be the place to go—but I have. As a result, four years at Gutenberg do not seem as useful as four years of career training.
While I can understand this perspective, I believe it overlooks some important points. First and foremost, the perspective that Gutenberg is unnecessary for the classical high school graduate disregards the fact that the kind of maturity one needs to navigate adulthood as a thoughtful adult cannot be achieved by the time one graduates from high school. I hope everyone understands what I mean. Classical education in the pre-college years, along with good parenting, is absolutely capable of producing individuals who are thoughtful, intellectually adept, and mature for their years. However, it is preemptive to call a high school graduate an adult. The years after high school, when one leaves home and actually launches out into the world, are an incredibly formative time—and especially crucial in one’s process of developing into a mature adult.
I would argue that in our society, it is during these “college years”—not in high school—that a child finishes the process of becoming an adult. During the college years, children will either continue to learn the skills they need, or they won’t; regardless, they still need to gain more skills in order to reach the level of maturity they will need to navigate adult life. This is not a shortcoming of classical education, but merely an issue of timing. The college years provide, at an especially vital time, certain formative life experiences that one rarely gains in high school. This life experience works with one’s education to produce wisdom. Indeed, wisdom cannot happen without it. A high school graduate is therefore not quite yet a mature adult, as he or she lacks the life experience that gives content to the form.
So what makes a mature adult? Parents might be thinking, I’m a more mature adult now than I was in my twenties, or thirties, for that matter. Absolutely. But while maturity is an ongoing project, it is life’s way that one must reach a certain level of maturity before he or she can even see how to continue growing in maturity. It is this level of adult maturity that ought to be the project of the college years, and it is encouraging this level of maturity which Gutenberg has made its goal. Adult maturity requires many skills: for example, the ability to think clearly in the face of social and circumstantial pressures; to listen with an open and discerning mind to people with different beliefs; and to hold one’s own beliefs with humility, always ready to exchange them for ones that better line up with the truth. A student can begin to learn these skills in high school and earlier, but they are not fully available to one who has not yet practiced them in the context of adult life. It is therefore unrealistic to think that a high school student, who is as yet inexperienced in adult life, can possess these skills and others to the degree that he or she will need in order to navigate adult life successfully—no matter how good his or her prior education. The college years, on the other hand, provide the perfect opportunity to become adept at these skills.
While the process of developing adult maturity may begin in high school, college is in fact the more fitting time for this project. For one thing, the college student is older than his or her high school self. He or she is cognitively more developed and also has more life experience upon which to draw than when in high school. Furthermore, the types of life experiences one has in college are especially formative. Leaving home, for example, prompts a student either to take ownership of the ideas and values passed on from parents or to reject them.
It is important to truly appreciate how big a life change leaving home for the first time is. Young adults experience an unprecedented level of choice, freedom, and responsibility when they first step out from under their parents’ roof. This freedom means that one’s first several years away from home are his or her first real test in maturity. It is a student’s first opportunity to assess life for himself or herself, to ask the question, “Does what I learned from my parents actually make sense?” Horizons previously obscured now reveal themselves. In other words, the college-age student becomes aware of problems, complexities, and options of which he or she was totally unaware while in high school. This is the natural result of stepping out on any new stage of life. It is therefore preemptive to think that a high school student—even a classically educated one—is done laying a foundation of values and beliefs. High school graduates are lacking in years and in the kinds of life experiences that provide structure, definition, and content to one’s worldview.
I definitely saw this principle at work in myself when I began at Gutenberg at the age of eighteen. There were many books in the Gutenberg curriculum that I had not previously read, but there were also many with which I considered myself very familiar, having studied them in high school or earlier. I expected to do very well, to wow people with my knowledge and maturity. An interesting thing happened when I began at Gutenberg, however. I remember thinking: I feel like I’m back in kindergarten! I had expected to feel more confident, more knowledgeable, and more capable in a college environment whose project was so familiar to me. But time and again, I realized that I knew far less than I thought. While Gutenberg’s unique aspects—such as its tutors and the particular students with whom I attended—all contributed to making this go-around more challenging and more stimulating than before, the timing of it was at least as significant. I was more ready in college to grapple with the ideas in the great books than I was in high school, precisely because life was now throwing experiences at me—like being on my own for the first time—that showed me how vital it was to take this project seriously. I found college a time of intense challenging, honing and testing, and therefore also a time of unprecedented fruitfulness as I worked toward maturity.
I say all this not to argue that Gutenberg is the only place at which one can learn maturity but to point out that—at the very least—achieving a significant level of adult maturity ought to be a goal of the college years. In other words, I do not think it wise to focus solely on occupational training and expect maturity to simply come. It is especially unwise to think that one is already sufficiently mature. It does not matter how ready a student feels, nor how mature he or she is compared to peers; college will be a time of change and growth. College students will find themselves in a situation in which they have new questions for which they will seek answers. College will present horizons and options the high school student could not have anticipated. In other words, it will shake things up. Life experience, exposure to new people and ideas, and other elements of college life will expose gaps in a student’s worldview; no one can avoid this. And whether a student goes to Gutenberg or Harvard, Liberty University or UC Berkeley, someone will be offering to help the student fill the gaps in his or her worldview. To this end, choosing a college environment that can support and enhance one’s goals of truth-seeking ought to be a priority for the classical student who is headed for higher education.
In my opinion, it doesn’t get any better than Gutenberg for the person who values growth and maturity. Gutenberg’s exceptional curriculum, dedicated faculty, and unique student experience make it a truly outstanding place at which to develop the maturity one will need as an adult in our culture. Not only is Gutenberg’s curriculum supportive of the project of gaining wisdom in the college years, it is specifically designed to facilitate it. The tutors at Gutenberg have crafted a program that cannot fail to give earnest students the background and skills they need to successfully pursue truth for the rest of their lives.
The faculty themselves are another of Gutenberg’s outstanding features—arguably its most outstanding. I speak to you as a former Gutenberg student myself—one who was truly impacted by the care and dedication of the Gutenberg staff. Gutenberg tutors clearly do not do what they do for fame, money, or cultural respectability because Gutenberg has not brought them these things, and yet they continue to teach class after class with the same deep care they have had for twenty years now. I respect them immensely, and I believe that the love which Gutenberg’s tutors show daily to their students is Gutenberg’s greatest asset.
The last of Gutenberg’s outstanding features that I will mention is the relationship one develops with one’s classmates and other students. This is partly facilitated by Gutenberg’s curricular structure and partly by its small class sizes. Unlike at a large university, where one may be able to hide among the crowd, Gutenberg students sit around a table facing each other. Everyone has ample time to speak, and discussions center on the most personally affecting topics one can imagine. If disagreements do not arise in the first few weeks, you can bet they will before the term is out. Classes at Gutenberg cannot function, however, if no one can ever put aside differences, show some respect, and listen charitably. One of the greatest skills in which Gutenberg instructs its students is that of listening, and the greatest teachers in this department are one’s classmates. Through discussion, disappointment, frustration, and then reconciliation and increased appreciation, students come to have genuine respect for what God is doing in the lives of the people around them. The humility one gains through close interaction with one’s classmates is a major aspect of what makes Gutenberg such an outstanding and effective place for learning maturity.
Now let us face a common objection that has been lurking in the background: “Gutenberg sounds great; I can see how I have more to learn. But what about job training? Won’t I waste my best years?” First, resist the pressure to discount how important focusing on maturity in your college years is. Sure, any college situation—any life situation, even an oppressive one—can be incredibly formative and enlightening to the one who chooses to see it as such. I do not encourage students to take a look at Gutenberg because it is absolutely the best situation for everyone. However, for those who have the option to attend college, and, furthermore, for those who see wisdom as a life-long goal, it is reasonable that the goals and aims of whatever college they choose would be in line with truth-seeking. Swimming upstream can be spiritually productive—no question about it. But when I think about the fact that one will be swimming up the stream of his or her culture for a lifetime, I believe it makes all kinds of sense to take four extra years to learn how to do so with integrity, especially as one steps into adult life for the first time. Again, while it would be wonderful if high school could adequately prepare one for the challenges of adult life, it simply is not the time of testing that college is, mainly because students have yet to experience what it means to take full responsibility for their lives. College, therefore, must not be overlooked as the peak time for helping students evaluate and assemble a coherent and truthful worldview; it must not be seen primarily as the peak time for career-building.
Second, don’t discount Gutenberg’s practical value. The skills that one needs in order to learn wisdom and gain maturity are the same skills that one needs to be a quick and effective learner in a job environment. The ability to learn new skills on the fly is extremely valuable in every workplace in every field—and this skill is one of many honed at Gutenberg. The Gutenberg tutors and some alumni have written extensively about the benefits of a Gutenberg education for one’s future career. Some articles are “Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities” by tutor Tim McIntosh; “Study Science at a Great Books College?” by tutor Dr. Charley Dewberry; and “Computer Passion and a Gutenberg Education” by alumnus James Simas. These articles make the case that a liberal arts education is of immense practical value as an undergraduate degree for any field. Just look under the tag ‘Education’ on the Gutenberg blog for more.
Whether a classical student ends up choosing Gutenberg or not, it should be clear that outright dismissal of it and its project can only point to outright dismissal of the value of his or her own classical education. This, again, is because both classical education and Gutenberg value maturity and wisdom. Furthermore, adult maturity cannot begin to be mastered until one begins to experience adult life. This makes college, not high school, an even more crucial time for evaluating one’s values and beliefs. Maturity and wisdom, moreover, are never fully mastered; there is always more to learn, more strides one can make, more ways in which one’s thinking can be clarified and expanded. This is immediately evident in the nature of reading a book: every time through, one notices more. Details appear, themes emerge, and connections with other works, ideas, and one’s own life experience become clearer. It would be naïve, therefore, to think that in reading the great books in high school, one could have possibly sucked out all the marrow. In reality, an amazing amount of meat remains on the bones of all great books—that is why they are great. For life itself is a series of repeating lessons because we never learn the first time. I therefore beg students who do not choose Gutenberg to nonetheless resist attending school solely for occupational training. You have much more important things to learn during these years. While the maturity Gutenberg offers is not the final word, it is an incredible beginning that all students would do well to consider.
 McIntosh, Tim, “Rare Air, Impracticality, and Other Stigmas Against the Humanities,” http://blog.gutenberg.edu/2013/rare-air-impracticality-and-other-stigmas-against-the-humanities/.
Dewberry, Charley, “Study Science at a Great Books College?”, http://blog.gutenberg.edu/2013/study-science-at-a-great-books-college/. Simas, James, “Computer Passion and a Gutenberg Education,” http://blog.gutenberg.edu/2012/computer-passion-and-a-gutenberg-education/.
Carina Crabtree graduated from Gutenberg in 2012. She is now a wife, mother, and the Classical Conversations Challenge A Director for Eugene and Springfield.