The Education of Bob Dylan: Classical Education & Formation

By Ben Nolen

There are many draws to classical education and many ways that you can talk about it with others. The best way, of course, is to speak about your own experience: What drew you to classical education? What keeps you committed to classical education? What benefits for your child / children do you see in classical education? What do you like about RCA? Beyond your own experience, it is important to note the specific draws and benefits of classical education. The following is one way that I like to speak about classical education.

Every year in Rhetoric at RCA, I ask the juniors to begin the year by bringing in a piece of writing that they find compelling. The piece could be a poem, a song, a passage in a work of literature, anything. To my personal delight, this year one of our juniors presented a Bob Dylan song, “Chimes of Freedom.” (Yes. I am aware of what Bob Dylan sounds like, but you and I both know that’s not the point.) This past summer Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016. In his Nobel Lecture, Dylan details how foundational his education was to the formation of his thought and message. He speaks specifically of books and how they shaped him:

But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally.

Dylan’s education formed him and helped shape the ideas that permeated his prophetic songwriting. In his address, he focuses on three key works (works that are a part of the core readings in RCA’s Humanities program): Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. It is the Western Tradition – from Jerusalem to Philadelphia, Homer to Eliot – that has forged the man Bob Dylan.

As I think of Dylan’s words, I am reminded that classical education is far more about formation than information. Indeed, as both a father and an instructor, this emphasis on formation is one of the things I find most appealing about classical Christian education (CCE). The end of CCE is to instill in students a distinct culture, a culture of virtue. T.S. Eliot defined culture as “the total harvest of thinking and feeling.” Every parent is instilling a culture in his or her child. Indoctrination is simply a fact of life…or at least it was at my house growing up. Consider how you speak to your wayward child. Lower school parents say things such as, “We don’t act that way.” We? Really? Why do we use the first-person plural in such a dastardly way? Because you and I are aiming to instill a way of thinking and feeling about the world to our children, namely your way. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they shall be a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Prov. 1:8-9). We indoctrinate them because we love them, you see.

CCE simply adds fuel to this already burning fire in your home. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Education is not a subject, and it does not deal in subjects. It is instead a transfer of a way of life.” Yes, education is the transfer of a way of thinking and feeling about the world (something that every “subject” in school inherently possesses) from me to my children. The beauty of CCE is that it aims at this transfer, a transfer of virtue, in which children are formed to love what is good, true, and beautiful in God’s good world.

Bob Dylan’s formation took place in an environment steeped in history and literature. This is no accident, of course. Human beings are story-shaped creatures; it comes with the territory of being made in the image of the God who creates with His Word. We live and move and have our being in the story that God Himself is writing. Therefore, the human soul is formed in large part through powerful stories that fire the imagination and move the will toward either virtue or vice. Furthermore, human beings are shaped by history. Even if history is ignored or untaught, formation is taking place, a formation that turns out human beings who believe that the past does not matter, that there are no “permanent things” (T.S. Eliot, again) which must be protected at all costs. All human beings live according to scripts and all human identities are forged in large part by memory (history) whether personal or corporate. So, any formation, whether virtuous or vicious, deals in these goods.

CCE places a unique emphasis on the study of both history and literature as all education in the West once did. One can hear Dylan punching at this in his address when (twice!) he speaks of these great books as “grammar school” books. Now, Moby Dick is not a book that one reads in 3rd grade. Dylan is saying that we have lost something foundational, something elementary to who we are in the West. We have given up the pursuit of appreciatively exploring our history and drinking deeply from our sacred stories. Classical education preserves and promulgates both of these endeavors. In doing so, it gives parents a potent reservoir from which to draw as we seek to form our children toward truth, goodness, and beauty.

As a father, I often think, “How am I to guide my sons through the decadence of the culture in which they are growing up? What can I do for my boys that will help them to embrace their baptisms and make the faith that my wife and I are giving them their own?” Many people speak of the importance of acquiring a Christian worldview. I like to speak of instilling a culture. I want my children to think and feel a certain way about the world, a way that sees Christ at the center of everything. With Dylan, I want my sons to say that they have “principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world.”

With its emphasis on great books and great ideas, literature and history, CCE provides a method of forming children toward Christian thinking and feeling that is second to none. Whenever I speak with anyone about CCE, one of the first things I talk with them about is the fact that I want my children to be formed as Christians. CCE gives me the tools, the reinforcement, and (quite frankly) the encouragement to continue to swim upstream as I raise my children. I also tell them (only somewhat wryly) that Bob Dylan received a classical education of sorts, and if it’s good enough for Dylan, it’s good enough for me.

The mission of Redeemer Classical Academy is to mentor students toward virtue as learners, leaders, and agents of redemption for God’s glory.