Classical Education: Definitions | Norms & Nobility Notes, preface

I am currently in an online book club studying Norms and Nobility by David Hicks, a classical education cornerstone. By the time I was halfway through chapter 1, I knew I’d have to blog through my readings. As I continued to make my commonplace notes and copy quotes, I also realized I was going to have to blog slowly, because I don’t want treatise-length posts, and I also don’t want to skip any of the ideas.

So, if you want to follow along in reading your own copy, I will be posting about Norms and Nobility about twice a month, one section – often only a quarter of a chapter! – each post. Even if you don’t have your own copy, you will be able to follow the thread and conversation and get the “Cliff’s Notes” version of this expensive little paperback.

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Summary Narration of the preface

There is a traditional ideal and a common culture, even in America, which should inspire us beyond self-interest, to desire and live out truth and virtue. To educate for less is to fail to educate.


[pullquote align=”center”] The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting.


David Hicks wrote this preface to Norms and Nobility ten years after the first publication of his treatise. In it, he offers some summary thoughts as well as some reservations he offers in hindsight.

A book about education must begin with a definition of education, and this is his:

[pullquote align=”center”] The end of education is not thinking; it is acting. It is not just knowing what to do; it is doing it.


This is a historic, traditional view of education from the Greeks to today. It has sometimes been the dominant view, sometimes the minority, sometimes the accepted wisdom and sometimes the minimized. However, through history, there have been educators holding to this stream – and that stream is called classical not because it is reproducing an ancient form of education, but because it has proved its worth and truth over the long centuries.

Hicks mentions that if he were to write Norms and Nobility now (where “now” is 1990), he would emphasize and generalize less the claims of the ancients. However, again, classical education is a tradition, a viewpoint, a dogma, not a historic reproduction. We are not trying to recreate Athens or research into exactly what and how Socrates or Aristotle taught.

Rather, we read Plato and Aristotle – and Augustine, Aquinas, Comenius, Lewis – and apply the principles they give to our own situations. The “how to” genre is tempting, but it is also new. Philosophers have always preferred principles to methods, and it is only since philosophy has been disdained that tactics have become our starting point.

[pullquote align=”center”] Education must address the whole student, his emotional and spiritual ideas as well as his rational.


“Every pedagogy assumes an anthropology” asserts James K.A. Smith. Charlotte Mason makes this clear by beginning her principles with the personhood of children. Classical learning, likewise, begins with this same assumption that a child is not a blank slate, a tool of the state or economy, nor is he a random mass of cells.

Classical education assumes human dignity, value, and also (or even therefore) responsibility. When people are thought to be anything less than spiritual beings, we invite moral corruption and societal decline. We cannot presume lies and expect good to follow.

Classical education does not have virtue as the goal because it is good for the economy or the society (although it is), but because it is appropriate, fitting, correct, fulfilling for a person to be fully developed in heart, head, and hands.

And how does that happen?

[pullquote align=”center”]Contextual learning…is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning.


Yes, children learn facts and songs and stories, but unless the learning is contextual, it is not classical. We are not taking Gradgrind as our model teacher, nor taking his Facts and putting them to music to make them more palatable.

We want our students (and ourselves!) to delight in knowledge. Delight comes through context – not falsified context like unit studies nor haphazard context like delight-directed – but steady, organized, formal, delightful knowledge.

The thread to tie this all together: educating for virtue, treating students as whole persons, and contextualizing knowledge is found in the organizing principles of norms and nobility.

  • norms: a required standard; a level to be complied with or reached (from Latin norma, precept, rule, carpenter’s square)
  • nobility: having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals, of excellent or superior quality (from Latin nobilis, noted, high-born; from Indo-European root shared with to know)

Norms and nobility are both about conforming ourselves to an ought, not defining our own values, our own truth, or discovering our own preferences.

A classical education begins with the objective realities of truth, goodness, and beauty, and teaches its pupils to know them, to love them, and to imitate them.

How do you see norms and nobility playing out in your homeschool?

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  1. Hi Mystie,
    Im just translating a piece on the royal, priestly and prophetic mission of Christ, and of ourselves as Christians. So we could even say we have a kingly, not just noble status, thanks to Christ. This of course only underlines the right direction you are leading us in here.

  2. “The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting.”

    We can do right even if our motivation/motives need to catch up. cf. CS Lewis

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