Hundreds of Christian schools have cropped up around the country in recent decades dedicated to the project of “classical education.” But what on earth do we mean by “classical”?
A Blast from the Past
In common usage, the word “classical” usually means either something similar to “classic,” in the sense of “the older, better, original way of doing things,” or refers specifically to “the Classical Period” of ancient Greece and Rome. So which is “classical education” calling us back to? Well, both! I think it’s helpful to keep both these meanings in mind when thinking about classical education, because going in just one of these two directions can be unhelpful. If we think of classical education merely in vague terms as “the way everyone always used to do things,” we will forget that educational methods have never been static, and that the past is not automatically better than the present. If we think of classical education as “educating the way the Greeks and Romans did,” we will quickly run into the objection that as Christians, we should presumably want to improve upon them, and indeed Christians historically have.
The fact of the matter is that classical education does name a broadly-held, long-term tradition of how best to educate human persons-how to lead each child from ignorance into knowledge, and from vice into virtue-and that this tradition drew much of its inspiration and categories from the practices of classical Greece and Rome, with their conception of the “seven liberal arts.” These practices were developed, refined, and transformed in light of the Gospel during the Christian Middle Ages, but over time lost some of their original vitality, as Logic was often emphasized at the expense of Grammar and Rhetoric, and as theology threatened to marginalize rather than direct the other sciences. The humanist educational reforms of the Renaissance and Reformation led to fresh developments in educational theory, as well as a passionate imperative to spread the fruits of education widely throughout society. In many ways, the pinnacle of classical education was reached in the Protestant universities of the 16th-18th centuries, before the rise of the natural sciences, faith in progress and enlightenment, and growing specialization of disciplines began to undermine it.1 With the reconception of society as little more than an economic engine for maximizing prosperity, and the abandonment of any robust vision of “the good life,” Western nations instituted increasingly soulless and inhumane new methods of education designed to produce efficient cogs in the educational machine, rather than full-grown men and women who participate in God’s government of the world by wisdom and virtue.
Recovering Wisdom and Virtue
Since we don’t talk that much about either “wisdom” or “virtue” these days, let me elaborate on these terms, and how they relate to classical education. Wisdom we might define as “the soul’s attunement to the order of reality”: a comprehensive recognition of the givenness and goodness of the world, of the nature and calling of humanity, and of how to live well within these realities. Although the education of pagan Greece and Rome did not always prioritize this pursuit, it produced men who exemplified it-great lovers of wisdom like Socrates and Aristotle, Cicero and Virgil-whose quest for wisdom was celebrated and preserved into the Middle Ages and became central to the “classical education” of the Christian era. Christian paedagogy always placed the pursuit of wisdom at the center of the educational task, and insisted that wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord and ends in the vision of His glory.
Virtue we might define as “the habits of soul and body that enable us to most fully realize our human calling.” Virtue is more than just good intentions or good behavior; it is more than just following rules. It is about mastering the art of life, and as with any art or craft, mastery requires not merely head knowledge, but extensive practice, until the dos and don’ts of the craft become second nature and enable one to pursue true excellence. First fully articulated by Aristotle, this idea of the practice of virtue as the key to human flourishing has also been at the center of the Western vision of education from late antiquity to early modernity. And again, that which the pagans dimly perceived, the early Christians proclaimed as part of what it means to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Four Features of Classical Education
But how does a “classical education” help us pursue these things? So many answers might be given, but let me briefly highlight just four:
Classical education is holistic. One of the hallmarks of modern education, as Dorothy Sayers noted in her influential essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” is its preoccupation with “subjects”-neatly compartmentalized spheres of knowledge with a heavy emphasis on practical utility. Students do not learn to know their way around the world-much less learn how to learn-but simply to know the facts and procedures of each discipline. The classical approach seeks to recover an older, more holistic mode of navigating the world, one that pays particular attention to the connections between things, celebrates the interwovenness of reality, and treats each “subject” as an opportunity to acquire skills that spill over into others.
Classical education teaches love of words. As Christians, we are called to be people of the Word, and yet we live in the age of the image. Our image-saturated children desperately need a recalibration in the arts of language, the vehicle of thought and persuasion. The classical Trivium-Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric-points us to the power and indispensability of words: the rules that organize their meaning in submission to truth, and the crafts that refine them into beautiful forms that can lead others in pursuit of the good. Teaching classically means helping students see the inextricability of language and thought; hence the importance of language teaching as part of classical liberal education. And since the dominant language of the Western tradition has been Latin, classical education must include serious training in Latin, so that students can inhabit the thought-world of Western literature, philosophy, theology, and more.
Classical education teaches love of history. Again, as Christians, we are called to be people steeped in history as the drama of God’s redemptive work, and yet we live in an age that despises the past, dreams wistfully of the future, and feels trapped in the present. Teaching classically means teaching a deep respect for the past, and questioning the myth of progress that has a stranglehold on late modernity. This does not mean indulging in nostalgic illusions that the past was better than the present; it is enough that it was different, as C.S. Lewis highlights in his essay “On Reading Old Books.” The past had different insights, assumptions, and blind spots than the present. If we want fresh insights that our own age doesn’t offer, only the past can give them to us, and if we want fresh perspective to avoid our blind spots, we will need the past to help us with that
Classical education forms character. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul exhorts his hearers, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” This is the biblical model of character formation: the student learns to imitate the teacher, and then in turn models the virtue so that others may learn it from him. Of course, this mode of teaching and learning is not unique to moral development, but in fact is the best way to acquire any skill. Modern education has reconceived its task not as e-ducatio, a “leading out” of the student into maturity, but as the impartation of information. For this task, virtue was not really necessary in either teacher or student. And even many Christian schools today have not fundamentally challenged this method. For classical education, though, the teacher is the master craftsman, and the students are the apprentices, and the teacher models not merely mastery of his particular craft, but-since as we’ve seen all the crafts are interrelated-also mastery of the craft of life, virtue in its fullest sense. This is the vision for teachers at classical Christian schools.
The Perils and Promise of Classical Education
Like many good gifts of the past that have been long-forgotten, a classical education holds perils as well as promise. The greatest peril is that we will make it into an idol, making grandiose claims for all the ills that it can cure and leaving a trail of frustrated students and parents, and burned-out teachers in its wake. Sinners are still sinners, and learning is still hard work; a classical education is not a guaranteed-success education. Classical education also has to continue to grapple with the tensions between its pagan origins and its Christian refinements; even after two millenia, we still struggle to balance the claims of the general wisdom found in the world and the unique wisdom found in the Word. Finally, the question may fairly be asked, “Is classical education for everyone?” Historically, of course, it was not. Only a small elite of the relatively wealthy, or those pursuing leadership in church or state, were given the opportunity to benefit from this rich cultivation of the mind and affections. Our modern-day context makes it possible for the blessings of education to be spread more broadly, but at the risk of ignoring the real differences between gifts and aptitudes. The classical education movement is still very much wrestling through the implications of this question, seeking ways to form every human person in this pursuit of wisdom and virtue, while also providing different pathways of excellence for different students. Christians committed to the renewal of classical education are wrestling with these questions, in pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
1Many have asked whether “classical education” should be understood as fundamentally a matter of method or of content-does it consist in certain paedagogical techniques and orderings of the curriculum, or in certain content that forms the focal point of study? My answer, to quote the favorite meme, is “Why not both?” There is a rough order of instruction that classical education encourages (beginning with the Trivium and progressing through the Quadrivium), and specific teaching methods and exercises that classical education seeks to retrieve from the past. But classical education is also involved in a recovery of “the great books,” a loose canon of classic texts from the ancient world right down to the recent past, and which used to serve as a common currency of basic knowledge and cultural literacy.
A version of this essay originally appeared at the blog of Loudoun Classical School.
Learn how to start a classical Christian school or co-op at your parish from the Anglican Schools Association.