It turns out that people have been thinking and talking and writing about what education is and should be for millennia. As the years roll on, some voices are lost and some theories disproved, but others continue to be read, studied, and applied in new ways. That is classical education.
Classical education – in the homeschool or day school – is taking part in not only the conversation, but also the practice not simply of instruction in various branches of knowledge, but of instruction for a purpose, to help our students be noble, honest, virtuous.
The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being is a collection of the writings about education from Plato to the modern era, the writings that have informed the development of western civilization and classical education. Today we continue with Plutarch’s thoughts.
Let us pursue what is admirable.
Plutarch has his own “list of attainments” and concerns to raise about a child’s home environment and companions. He spends considerable time on what must have been a contemporary issue: Should students be made to speak extemporaneously on a topic or be taught to craft and memorize a speech?
His conclusion: The best speakers carefully prepare and craft their words beforehand, and the less mature or experienced students in particular simply cannot speak well without preparation and should never be forced to do what cannot be well done.
He posits that well-performed extemporaneous speeches come after years of practicing speeches that are prepared, memorized, and crafted.
In the midst of this discussion, he writes:
Among admirable things is the practice of neither saying nor doing anything at random; and, as the proverb goes, “admirable things are difficult.”
If this is true for our students, how much more so is it for us? Do we choose curriculum or courses of study at random, or do we know where we’re going and that what we’re doing will get us there? Do we choose extracurricular activities at random, based on clamoring children’s opinions or simple availability, or do we have a reason for each thing that takes our time?
And, what a good reminder: Admirable things are difficult. Having a hard day or being tired at the end of the day is not a sign (necessarily) that anything is wrong. It’s a sign you’re spending yourself, perhaps, but spending into our children’s education is investing, not simply consuming.
And it’s good to remind our children of that, too. It’s normal to balk at difficult work, but the solution is not to make it easier, but to dig in, stick it out, and get stronger with the practice – in short, concentrated bursts, with plenty of sunshine and exercise interspersed.
There is no subject in the “regular curriculum” of which the eye or ear of a freeborn boy should be permitted to remain uninformed.
Here we have another opinion weighing in on the “multa non multum” discussion. Classical education’s main theme has always been a broad and wide exposure to all legitimate studies, without specialization.
But, while he receives a cursory education in those subjects in order to taste their quality, the most important place – complete all-round proficiency being impossible – must belong to philosophy.
We should open the doors to all branches of knowledge, but as we are finite creatures, we cannot expect proficiency in them all. That’s not a reason to cut off exposure, but a reason to zero in on the true priority of knowledge: philosophy, which is love of wisdom.
In the middle ages, educators further narrowed this the crowning study to theology – for love of wisdom comes from God and is answered in Him alone.
It is from and with philosophy that we can tell what is becoming or disgraceful, what is just or unjust, what course, in short, is to be chosen or shunned .
Plutarch here explains why philosophy is of vital importance, and we can see that his reasoning is exactly why theology – a branch of philosophy – replaces philosophy as the Queen of the Sciences: we must know what it is we should be doing, and that comes not from biology or from history or from grammar, but from the only Source of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
And we do not learn theology simply to know things. Philosophy, theology, is practical – it must be put into practice, or it’s useless.
Perfect men I take to be those who can blend practical ability with philosophy, and who can achieve both of two best and greatest ends – the life of public utility as men of affairs and the calm and tranquil life as students of philosophy.
It is only when we blend thought, action, and joy together that we are acting in a complete, reasoning, whole way:
For there are three kinds of life: the life of action, the life of thoughts, and the life of enjoyment. When life is dissolute and enslaved to pleasure, it is mean and animal; when it is all thought and fails to act, it is futile; when it is all action and destitute of philosophy, it is crude and blundering.
My Book Bag
- The Great Tradition by Richard M. Gamble
- The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts by Joe Rigney
- *Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
- The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer (on audio)
- City of God by Augustine (on audio)
This is my third attempt at City of God, but my first attempt at the audio version. I’m really enjoying it this way and already in the fourth book! Augustine so far has been mocking the Roman gods and proving that not only are they not worth worshipping or trusting, they are actually demons whose power is now gone. With the rhetoric flowing, instead of my halting silent reading, it’s made more sense and been downright entertaining at places.
I love audiobooks.