Education and Winemaking

by Douglas Wilson

Educating children in a classical Christian setting is a lot like making wine. But perhaps I should explain myself.

One of the deleterious effects of modernity on everything has been the inexorable tendency toward the standardization of virtually all that we produce. And while standardization and interchangeable parts are a good thing in numerous manufacturing situations, they do have a noticeable and negative effect on certain things. It really degrades a particular kind of quality, and in other settings, the process of standardization goes all the way and rips the soul right out of it.

You have probably not ever gone with a friend to a pop machine, watched him select the Diet Coke, open the can, take a sip, and then say, “Ah, 1987. Southern France, I believe.” This is because the formula used in the making of Diet Coke, Whoppers at Burger King, and Hostess Twinkies is the same formula for each product, and, in the case of Twinkies, it is the same formula world without end. And I defy you to detect a difference between a Twinkie bought at a 7-11 in Portland, Oregon and a Twinkie bought in Shreveport, Louisiana at the bus terminal.

But in wine making, the variables are the thing. Variables are sovereign. There is, of course, standardization—of a sort—in that it is possible for a wine maker to predict if he will be making Merlot as opposed to Chardonnay. So of course, what comes out of the vat is not a random thing. At the same time, there are still multiple variables that affect (in noticeable ways) what happens to the noble grape on its journey to your glass. Those variables include the weather, the type of grapes used, the length of time the grapes are left on the vine, the nature of the soil, the slope of the hill the vines are on, the yeast on the grape skins that causes the fermentation, and so on.

Now perhaps by this point you have looked at the cover to see if you are reading the right catalog. But here is the point—the challenge facing us as classical Christian educators is this one. We are living in a time when the education establishment wants to teach kids like they were cans of Diet Coke. And our movement represents a desire to return to the ancient educational practice of wine making. Further, this is what distinguishes what we are doing from what some education reformers are doing—demanding a return to the days when Diet Coke tasted better than it does now.

This reality of “wine-making education” is why it is not really possible to take what is happening at Veritas Academy or Logos School and transplant it any old where, and get exactly the same results. This is not a process that can or should be standardized to that extent.

The point of this illustration is not that schools have the same limitations that vines do. Schools can exist anywhere that people live. While grapes cannot really flourish in the Yukon, people can, and they have their children there. And of course, those children can and should be educated. What I mean by all this is that it would be possible to build a Diet Coke factory in the Yukon and start making Diet Coke there. And it would not be possible for someone to tell whether their can of pop came from there or from Brazil. This level of standardization would not be possible to do with a vineyard. Suppose for a moment that we could get grapes to grow up there—the point is that the wine would taste different. More than this, the point is that the wine should taste different.

This is why a classical education in Yorkshire should “taste different” than one offered in the Pacific Northwest, or the American South, or in Nigeria. The point of an organization like the Association of Classical and Christians Schools is not to standardize the process in a mechanistic way. Rather, it is to ensure that we are all doing the same general thing (making wine). It is not to ensure that children educated in one ACCS school have exactly the same flavor as children from another. Such a vain attempt would destroy the process of making wine, and would result, at best, in some kind of alcoholic Kool-Aid. This is one of the central educational methods of modernity, and in returning to the classical Christian model, we are self-consciously rejecting it.

However, we face a danger on our left flank as well. There are those who have taken up our criticism of schools as “knowledge factories.” Students are not production units, and it is not really possible to insert three credits of sociology into the cranium. Sociology is not capable of being measured out as though it were ten pounds of flour or three yards of cloth.

But when we have abandoned the soulless machinery of “school as factory,” we have to avoid the opposite error of becoming educational beatniks, hippies, and bums. Many a complaining worker on an assembly line somewhere, if taken out to the vineyard to work all day in the sun, would be no happier. It turns out that he was not allergic to the soul-crushing atmosphere of the factory; he was actually allergic to the work there. And farming, and wine-making, and other organic pursuits like education are disciplines. They involve hard work, planning, thought, and so on. It is not true that organic or poetic learning require us to sit around staring absently at the wall, thinking great thoughts. If challenged in the middle of our vacant stare, it would not do for us to defend ourselves by saying that we were not engaged in manufacturing widgets. This would be quite true, but it would be equally true that we were not growing grapes.

And this means, for all the reasons mentioned above, that a program of educating in the classics—the basics of education—is a program that concentrates on the “center” of winemaking. Further, this is why a program like the Omnibus that Veritas puts out is so important. To continue the metaphor, we want an education that allows for great regional diversity between wines, and which also never fails to use grapes. This is a program that is consistent in what it addresses, but also which translates anywhere.