What does classical education mean?

posted in: classical, podcast | 3

A label is a tricky thing. Just when you decide to take on an adjective as an identity, you find people including shades of meaning that you don’t personally want to own. For this reason, it’s common now to eschew labels altogether and call them useless and misleading. However, I think we should be comfortable generalizing and allowing ourselves to be generalized.

One generalized label is classical eduction. Under that umbrella, you can find many different – sometimes seeming contradictory – definitions and applications.

But, if we look at principles rather than methods, then I think we will find many of those different voices agreeing more than not. And, if we examine underlying principles rather than particular applications, I think we will be surprised about who would fit the label but doesn’t want it and who claims the label but doesn’t agree with the foundational assumptions.

This is not an attempt to try to purify the adjective, the label, the identity, by pushing out those who are sullying it by being different. This is an attempt to clarify a definition, which should always be the beginning of any discussion. And so I’m going to try my hand at a definition that is not so narrow as to only allow me and a handful of people who agree with me, but one that will accurately fit the history of the concept and allow for agreement in essence if not in practice.


Listen to this post!

SC020: What is Classical Education?


Mostly, I need to think through the definitions because I find that if I say I am homeschooling classically, people imagine 6 hours of hardcore work, with fact-drill chants and hard books and Latin. In our house, it’s more like 2-3 hours of work, no fact-drilling (but long-selection recitations), and books with excellent language and stories (but we don’t think they’re hard and we read them for fun), and yes, Latin, but we’re in our second year in the first-year book. So I say “relaxed classical,” which seems to boggle people’s minds as being an oxymoron. But it’s not.

To me, the most important and distinguishing mark of classical education is that it is not a monolith system or approach. Instead, it is a historic stream that began with the ancient Greeks, was modified by the early church fathers, and has been practiced ever since in a variety of styles and situations. It is a moving stream, not a static lake. It has a progression historically, but it is not progressive. Progressive modern education in the twentieth century consciously stepped out of this stream, attempting new ends with new means and new worldviews.

Classical education has had numerous iterations throughout history, so while we should mine the past to figure out how to restore the liberal education that made Western Civilization great, there is enough elasticity within it to grow and expand and make room for Dorothy Sayer’s insight into the trivium fitting stages of development, even though that concept was never a part of education before her essay. There is room for the intensive education of Elizabeth I, and room for the Puritan-agrarian form that shaped early America. There is room for one-on-one tutors and governesses and room for classrooms and room for the mother with a few books.

The primary difference I see between the classical approach and the modern is that the classical approach addresses the whole man (mind, body, and spirit) and attempts to lift him to something higher and better than he is, where the modern approach sees only the physical (even the mind is seen as merely physical cognitive functions), denies that there is any higher meaning to life, and stoops to manipulation (the only effective tactic if people are only highly developed animals) in order to get the student to do what is most advantageous for the economy.

Even people who do not agree with the premise and worldview behind modern education still accept its practices and its goals, probably simply because they are so pervasive. And even liberal, materialist secularists can pursue classical education, but see it as a means toward economic power (because it is actually effective). On both sides there are those whose assumptions about life and goals for life are not consistent with their practices.

Classical education is a certain set of subjects (like Latin and literature), it is a certain set of practices (like memorizing and reading and Socratic discussion), but, more importantly, the classical approach is an idea about what education is. Some subjects may vary, as may practices, but at its core, classical education is a belief about human beings and what they need.

But, most people jump straight to what you do, so classical in common parlance means “Latin, and we spend 6-8 hours of grueling work a day at hard mental labor.” However, if classical is a stream that began in the roots of Western civilization in Athens & Jerusalem and has continued and picked up steam and mass through the ages (rather than being a reconstruction of what was done in Greece & Rome), then first and foremost it is an idea, not one monolith practice. There is historically no monolith practice that made up what Western civilization has called education. But what is meant by education has remained principally the same until the Industrialization. Education has meant a pursuit of Truth and understanding, the pursuit of wisdom. An educated person was one who is conversant with ideas and history and knows how to comport himself properly in light of this.

That’s why I like CIRCE, which defines classical education in this clear and beautiful sentence:

Classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness and beauty so that, in Christ, a student is better able to know, glorify and enjoy God.

That is the best summary I have yet to come across, ever. Practices and subjects are secondary to that.

3 Responses

  1. Amber
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    I was recently listening to a talk by Andrew Pudwea and he used the analogy of the classical education world being like a planet with many continents. People can tend to get into a fixed orbit over a certain continent and feel that is the only way to “do” a classical education. He said he inhabited the poetic knowledge continent, a phrase I liked.

    I like the definition from Circe too. I think it makes it clear that a classical education is as much, if not more, a matter of the heart and affections as well as the head. I sometimes feel that some of the workbook based classical curricula focus too much on the head without trying to reach the heart.

  2. Mystie Winckler
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    I’ve listened to that talk, too! It was a good analogy. :) That’s the continent I’m on, as well. :)

  3. Gillian
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    What a lovely post! I appreciate your ideas on classical education – we also school in a relaxed manner, and enjoy very good books. I’m glad to see someone shedding light on the fact that it doesn’t all have to be hard work/multiple hours a day to be classical.