Anne Van Fossen, Classical Orthodox Christian Educator
Recently, antiochian.org interviewed Anne Van Fossen, classical educator and co-founder of the Classical Learning Resource Center, about their Orthodox online school offering classes in Greek and Latin, Philosophy and Critical Thinking.
1. A quote on your website reads, "In order to be thirsty enough, hungry enough to seek God diligently and uncompromisingly, we must form our souls carefully and continuously." Create for us a thumbnail sketch of the Classical Learning Resource Center--what is your "raison d'etre" and how are you structured?
The earlier part of the quote you mentioned points out that great literature, art, and music can awaken within us a hunger and thirst for the good things of God. They can awaken us to beauty, truth, and a desire in our souls for our true home with God. We live in a world that works to distract us from that home and attempts to delude us into believing that suffering and carnal pleasure is all we have to hope for. Great literature, art, and music awaken this hunger and thirst for that which is good, true, and beautiful.
As to our structure, the Classical Learning Resource Center exists to promote good education that puts students in contact with this great literature. We are not a school and do not attempt to cover every subject area. Our goal is for the CLRC to come alongside of educators to assist them whether they are homeschooling parents, public or private school teachers, or anyone seeking to provide or procure a good education.
We offer live, interactive, real-time, online classes for all ages from young children to adults. Students need access to the internet, inquisitive minds, and a schedule that allows some time for additional work between weekly classes.
2. What are the key ingredients in the classical approach to education?
As critique of the American public school system has grown, many have turned to ‘classical education’ for a more effective means of educating children. There are many different brands of classical education being promoted and what is meant by classical education can vary considerably from one group to another. At the Classical Learning Resource Center we focus on language and context as keys to a good education. Language provides precision in thought and in both verbal and written expression. In the classical learning model, the study of Classical Greek and Latin provide an important foundation in language. The study of influential authors and philosophers in great literature written over many centuries helps students to further develop their language skills and probe the roots of their opinions and assumptions to understand the context of the world in which they live. Language and literature invariably build upon what came before. Understanding the stories and ideas of the ancient world provide a necessary foundation to fully appreciate today’s world. An understanding of the ancient world helps one to understand much of what is happening in the world today.
3. St. Theophan the Recluse said, "Of all holy works, the education of children is the most holy." As an Orthodox Christian, how would you describe the intersection between a classically based education, and the Orthodox faith?
That is a wonderful quote from St. Theophan and I’ll respond to your question by quoting another saint of the Church. St. Hesychios has said that "knowledge precedes faith". While education by itself cannot bring illumination, a good education can remove barriers and point us toward God. It can bring students to the point where they see the natural limitation and vanity of this world and hunger for beauty and truth. Education is not in conflict with faith. Rather, it dispels confusion and clarifies the epistemological contexts in which arguments about faith are made.
There are many ways in which the study of classical languages, especially Greek, can enrich the lives of Christians through access to the New Testament, Septuagint, services of the Church, and many of the works of the Church fathers. Further, as students study great literature and probe the roots of their opinions and assumptions they deepen their understanding of the context of their faith and appreciation of its beauty and truth. They wrestle with the ultimate questions of humanity made in the image of God and in so doing are made more authentically human. Great literature provides an antidote to the false and shallow ideas that pervade the modern world through television and advertising. Students are led out of a narrow world of alienation from God, from nature, and from each other and immersed in Achilleus’ struggle with the vanity of life in the face of inevitable death, Pip’s efforts to be a good man, Huck Finn’s battle to do right by Jim, and the poignant pain of Quasimodo. Students learn to emulate the integrity of Alyosha, the dedication of Hector, and the honor of D’Artagnan. We are made in God’s image not merely to be trained as workers for increased productivity but with the capacity to think, create, perceive and appreciate beauty, and comprehend and respond to Truth.
Those of us who came to the Orthodox faith from Protestantism know the feeling of just how uneducated we were about events and ideas that should have been foundational to our faith. Becoming Orthodox is a process of becoming educated in history which was never taught to us, theology which was never explained to us, art to which we were never exposed and perspectives beyond a limited western European bubble which had never occurred to us. Education enriches and supports our faith.
4. Whom do you serve with the Resource Center and how do you hope to expand in the future?
Our youngest student just celebrated her 6th birthday. Our oldest is in his 50’s. Most of our students are middle school and high school students who desire to supplement their education with CLRC classes. We serve students of all descriptions, homeschooling parents, and public or private school teachers. In short, we serve anyone seeking to provide or procure a good education.
Our plans for the future include increased course offerings in subject areas such as Writing, Math, and Shakespeare and greater accessibility to schools. Before founding the CLRC my husband, Subdeacon John Van Fossen, and I worked at a Christian Classical School. While there we experienced first hand how difficult it can be for a small school to marshal top quality educational resources. Not many small schools can afford to hire a college professor with 17 years of teaching experience to teach their Philosphy classes or a Latin teacher with an MA and over 10 years of experience teaching students at all levels from K through HS and adult. To meet this need we are working to develop a new service which we call ‘Classics on Demand’ to allow the CLRC to teach classes virtually for schools throughout the country at a fraction of the cost required to hire a new faculty member. The program will include teacher training so that in the long term each school will have faculty equipped to teach similar classes on their own.
We also have hopes for the eventual development of a retreat center associated with the Classical Learning Resource Center. We are located physically in beautiful North Idaho near the Kootenai river on a small farm with 7 goats and a small flock of chickens. We’ve considered week-long to month-long retreats with a combination of farming, hiking or cross-country skiing, intensive study of a particular author or language, and delightful evenings of conversation over dinners with homemade cheeses and other farm fare.
5. His Grace Bishop Joseph has said of your Center that "the programs they have developed are among the best that I have ever seen”. What prompted his strong endorsement, and how has being active Antiochian Orthodox Christians strengthened your ministry?
We have had extensive conversation with His Grace over our educational goals and methodology over the last 10 years and are deeply grateful for His support and encouragement. He was delighted with the Christian Classical school that I just mentioned. My husband and I were two of the founding parents of that school. John later became the headmaster of the school. I began as the administrator and eventually came to be in charge of curriculum development and ancient languages. His Grace has continued to be enthusiastic and supportive of our work in online education as well.
Perhaps I can answer your second question best by quoting more fully from the excerpt of St. Hesychios mentioned above (which His Grace sent to us earlier this year). "He who does not know the truth cannot truly have faith; for by nature knowledge precedes faith. What is said in Scripture is said not solely for us to understand, but also for us to act upon." This is the context for education, and for our ministry. Apart from the Church it is meaningless.