Put the classical back into classical education

posted in: classical | 1

Hey, guess what? Plutarch, a late Roman thinker, thought short lessons and lots of free time was a good idea. He also said that education is like lighting fire and that memory work should be contextual, rich, and meaningful.

Classical education is not gravel-eating rigor, with reams of memory work and stacks of books and tons of work. It is made of potent work – the most effective practices based on the best philosophy – so that students have both the time and the full mind with which to live a full, educated, well-governed and well-ordered life.

This is exactly what I see as I read slowly through The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, a collection of the writings about education from Plato to the modern era. These writings have informed the development of western civilization and western educators for centuries. Even as homeschool moms, we can benefit from looking to the past and seeing what great minds have had to say about childrearing and education (two inextricable topics).

Classical metaphors for education

The mind is not a vessel which calls for filling. It is a pile, which simply requires kindling-wood to start the flame of eagerness for original thought and ardor for truth.

Sound familiar? Apparently Yeats was not the first to associate education with fire. :)

water in moderation will make a plant grow, while a flood of water will choke it. In the same way the mind will thrive under reasonably hard work, but will drown if the work is excessive.

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, which is a warning some in classical education need to heed.

Plutarch was all for short lessons and plenty of free, unstructured time, turns out.

Yup, short lessons are classical.

He goes on to say:


We must therefore allow children breathing-time from perpetual tasks, and remember that all our life there is a division of relaxation and effort.

If they are going to experience the leisure that grows the life of the mind, they need the time to form those affinities.

The true reason for memory work.

Above all things one should train and exercise a child’s memory. Memory serves as the storehouse of culture, and hence the fable that Recollection is the mother of the Muses – an indirect way of saying that memory is the best thing in the world to beget and foster wisdom.

So, maybe the classical justification for memory work is not as abstract pegs upon which to hang future learning, but, as Cindy Rollins echoes Stratford Caldecott, it is for memory. Here’s a source for that concept, apparently – straight out of Plutarch.

We must therefore allow children breathing-time from perpetual tasks, and remember that all our life there is a division of relaxation and effort. - Plutarch on education

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One Response

  1. Ashlea
    |

    Keep it up, Mystie! I so enjoy your words and you are inspiring me all the time. Thanks for the recommendations. Off to Amazon. :)