As all students of the Omnibus curriculum know, it is an integrated curriculum. The components that are integrated together are theology, history, and literature. There is a point to all this, and there is a point that it doesn’t have. Let’s start with the latter.
The modern resurgence of classical and Christian education began with an essay by Dorothy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” The operative word in that title is tools. Sayers was concerned that our approach to education had become one of stuffing facts into heads, and doing so in a way that left students poorly equipped to do anything creative on their own later on. Her point was that we ought to treat students less like carbon-based filing cabinets, and more like human beings with eternal souls. As future men and women, she argued, students needed to learn how to learn. They were not to be taught so that they would then be “taught.” They were to be taught how to teach themselves. They were to be taught in such a way that they could encounter a new situation, get oriented quickly, and do what a truly educated person ought to do.
If a student is just a receptacle, then passivity is the only thing required of him. If a student is in training, then graduation marks the time when he goes out to actually run the race. The mind of a student is not like a shoebox, which gets crammed if you stuff things in it. The mind of a student is actually like a muscle which, when exercised, is capable of more. The more you put into a shoebox, the less it can hold. The more you train a muscle, the more it can do.
Sayers was concerned that education conducted according to the shoebox model was going to create a generation of lethargic souls. In the years after graduation, the alumni would wave off any prospect of learning anything new because they “had already done that.” Sayers was concerned that we figure out how to train our students with the tools of understanding.
And so the point of the Omnibus curriculum is not to make an implied statement that the books or subjects covered are “everything important you need to know.” Omnibus students are not students who have been given a bigger shoebox, with more stuff crammed in it than the kids at the government schools get. This is a qualitative issue, not a quantitative one. The students are apprentices. They are being mentored. They work with these books, and with these subjects, seeing how things connect. All their exercises could be labeled e.g. – exempli gratia. In the course of their lives, they should encounter scores of situations like “this one,” and so they are shown how to take it apart, think about it like a Christian, integrate it with other aspects of their knowledge, and then relate the whole to their worship of the triune God the next Sunday.
Such students see how different subjects tie together. The reason for learning how to do this is so that they can do it for themselves later on in life—when the subjects are different, when the books are different, and when the circumstances are completely different. Once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you know how to ride any bicycle.
This is why the Omnibus curriculum is not a “one size fits all” approach. In one homeschool setting, the student may work through every book assigned, every year, for all six years. In another setting the student may work through a comprehensive (albeit not exhaustive) selection. A traditional school may use the Omnibus for its secondary humanities curriculum. Another school (like Logos School does in Moscow) may use its own curriculum, but have the Omnibus available as a fully integrated resource for their teachers. The point is that these subjects and these books belong together—but not simply on the shelf.
I have long said that a teacher’s job is not to get the students to think in the classrooms (although it is nice when they do). The teacher’s job is to get the students to think in the hallways. The teacher should so challenge the students that their discussions overflow into the next class, and the math teacher is helping them grapple with the meaning of history. The issues should be vibrant and exciting, and they should swirl around the students’ experience at dinner that night. I recall sitting at dinner listening to my son recount stories from Herodotus, while his food got cold. This is integration that overflows into the world.
When a student with tunnel-vision is just being diligent in a simplistic way, his questions tend to gravitate toward a “will that be on the test?” approach. All the subjects of the curriculum are waiting there in the bin like so many Legos that need to be snapped together. When the curriculum is finished, you have built your castle (or whatever), and there are no pieces left over. But in the world God made, there are always pieces left over, and they are all supposed to go together. In the world outside the classroom, everything is waiting to be integrated, and if you learn how to do it in the classroom, then you will know how to do it outside the classroom.
So if an Omnibus student, for example, says that he doesn’t need to go to a liberal arts college because he “already read” Homer, then regardless of whatever good grades he got doing Omnibus, he nevertheless missed the whole point of it. (This doesn’t mean that he has to go to a liberal arts college. It means that he must not avoid it for the wrong reasons.) The world certainly needs more engineers, but it needs engineers who know how to think in an integrated way. Liberal arts training, whether in high school or college, is not vocational training for English teachers. Liberal arts instruction, as is contained in the Omnibus, is an education for living as a free man or woman in Christ, wherever God calls them. And when they are called to a particular place, they should be able to see how Jesus Christ is the integration point for all things (Col. 1:17-18). If they don’t know how to do that, wherever they are, then they did not receive a classical Christian education, whatever was offered to them.
But let’s say we consider another student, one who didn’t get the best grades of all time while in high school. Not only was he integrating theology, history and literature, but also three-a-day football practices, a part time job at the mini-mart, and hunting trips with his dad, and he actually learned how to live an integrated life, with Christ at the center of it all. What should we think? We should think of him as a real success story. This is because the point of education is found in what the student does with it. Faith without works is dead.
Douglas Wilson is a Reformed and evangelical theologian, prolific author and speaker, pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, Id., and faculty member at New Saint Andrews College. Included among the many works he has written is Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.