The What and the Why of The Classical Thistle

When starting a project, those who initiate the process absolutely must know the what and the why, but almost as necessary for success is that the readership understands them as well. This post explains the why and the what of The Classical Thistle and how we hope it will help advance classical Christian education in the 21st century.

What is The Classical Thistle?

The Classical Thistle was founded in March 2017 and arose out of conversations between its co-founders, Kyle Rapinchuk and Scott McElvain, over a two year period. The conversations centered on the relatively minimal online influence of classical Christian education in an ever-increasing digital age. Although there has been an increase in print publications in recent years, the classical Christian education movement is still largely led by a few voices and a few publishers. We wanted to provide a two-fold service. First, we wanted to increase awareness in the broader community regarding the nature, purpose, and practice of classical Christian education. Second, we wanted to provide a forum for more voices to share their ideas and experiences with the hope that it will help instruct and encourage other classical Christian educators.

Why is it called The Classical Thistle?

The thistle serves as a helpful symbol for classical Christian education in a number of ways, and hence serves as our name and logo. First, most thistles are classified under the family Asteraceae, within which there are a large variety of kinds of thistles. Some of these thistles are of great benefit, serving as an attraction for goldfinches, nectar for butterflies, and an ingredient in certain vegetable oils and pharmaceutical compounds. Some in the medieval era even used it medicinally believing it to be an aid for healing from headaches, the plague, and jaundice. Conversely, some of these thistles are nettlesome and problematic as they compete with crops for nourishment and can stop foraging animals from grazing in areas where that would be ecologically helpful. These qualities, both beneficial and problematic, of the thistle reflect a reality in classical Christian education that should not be overlooked. As we and our students are reading the Great Books, we must sift out truth. We cannot wholesale accept each work, for while much of it is beneficial, we can easily allow that which is false in these great works to choke out what is true.

Second, thistles are well-known for their prickly edges, which serve the thistle well in providing it with protection and thus giving it a type of resilience. Likewise, classical Christian education, because it seeks after the true, the good, and the beautiful, ought also to have a type of resilience. The pursuit of truth, though battled against throughout the ages, is not easily pushed aside. But the prickly edges of the thistle not only remind us of the resilience of both the thistle and classical Christian education, it is also a reminder of caution. One Scottish legend, one that apparently gave rise to the thistle as a Scottish national symbol, speaks of a time when the Norse army was invading Scotland. The Norse were attempting to sneak up on a Scottish army encampment at night when a Norse soldier stepped upon thistle. As he cried out in pain, the Scots were alerted and drove back the Norsemen. In classical Christian education, we, too, should take caution. Not only should we be cautious lest we allow that which is false to choke out what is true, we must also guard against arrogance and pride. Although we may rightly believe that classical Christian education is superior to modern education, that does not make us superior people, nor does it give us the right to attack others who may approach education differently. We may debate them on the merits of one education versus another, but we must be cautious lest we fall into sin, and the prickly thistle reminds us of the need for caution.

Finally, despite the thistle’s resilience and caution, it has a rugged beauty. It is not the fleeting beauty of many flowers who wither at the first full sun or falter in the wind. The thistle stands strong and rugged against many elements, yet it retains a beauty in some ways more radiant because of its ability to endure the elements. We, too, aim to discover beauty alongside truth and goodness. But what we often find in Christianity is that true beauty is won and recognized through the trials, not devoid of them or even in spite of them. The thistle thus stands as a symbol of the kind of rugged beauty we seek to produce in the hearts and minds of both ourselves and our students.

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