Classical Education is Idealistic (Norms & Nobility Notes, prologue)

Slow read with me through Norms and Nobility. Or, if you don’t have or can’t get a copy of your own, consider this your Cliff’s Notes version. ?

Summary narration of the prologue

Classical education values a prescriptive view of man, seeking the Ideal Type and training men in the self-discipline and self-sacrifice necessary to conform to the ideal; materialism makes us slaves to our baser nature even as we seek freedom. True freedom is found in submission to a higher good.

“The teacher’s ancient and perennial desire to connect the wisdom of the past with man’s present and future actions [is] to educate the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies responsibility.”

The prologue primarily addresses the dichotomy between the modern view of man and his role and the traditional, classical view.

“Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes.”

Or, as James K.A. Smith has written, “Every pedagogy assumes an anthropology.” What you believe about man shapes how you educate.

Classical education begins with an anthropology that is prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is, rather than simply being a belief in biological facts or personal identifications, the educators of the past began not with the question of “what is” (descriptive) but with “what should be” (prescriptive).

By knowing our end, we can look at where we are and take the right next step forward. Education is about closing the gap between what is and what should be. It is idealist.

“Both an elaborate dogma and a man, [the Ideal Type] defied comparison with any man, yet all men discovered themselves in it.”

Classical educators envision an Ideal Type and cast a vision for their students and themselves to more fully realize that ideal in themselves.

“What made these stories valuable was not their historical authenticity or experimental demonstrability, but their allegiance to a pattern of truth. Whatever fit this pattern was retained and added to the education of future generations. Whatever fell outside this pattern was judged superfluous to the education of the young.”

The search for the Ideal Type, then, found its fulfillment in Christ’s coming. Truly God and truly man, without sin, Christ was “the incarnation of a metaphor” that the early church quickly realized, adopting imitatio Christi as “the chief aim of their education.”

“Modern educational tomfoolery…denies all transcendent value in learning and plays into the hands of utilitarians…buying off man’s freedom by excusing him from responsibility. After all, if he can only be described as a reflex of positive factors, how can man be free and receive praise or blame for his thoughts and actions? To function efficiently becomes his only god in learning.”

Education is always about control. The older ideal is to inculcate and demand self-control of its students. The modern ideal is to control material through science (technology) and control others through manipulation (marketing).

“To be a little lower than the angels was not so much a dream..as a high calling to hard service. Neither Jew nor gentile, Greek nor barbarian, Christian nor pagan was left much choice other than service.”

The question in the premodern mind was only who you served, not whether you served. Serving the true lord rather than yourself is at the heart of nobility in every culture.

“Indeed, it is my intention in this book to ponder the difference between the man who was educated to believe himself to be a little lower than the angels and the man whose education permits him to ignore both angels and God, to avoid knowledge that is not of the five senses, and to presume mastery over nature but not himself.”

Previous generations of educators knew that self-discipline brings true freedom, while self-service and self-aggrandizement brings slavery. Therefore, the myths and the standards – the norms – show us an unattainable ideal; the ideal demands we sacrifice, submit, conform, and even suffer for a good beyond ourselves. Such self-discipline and self-sacrifice is at the heart of the ideal of nobility.

“The good school does not just offer what the student or the parent or the state desires, but it says something about what these three ought to desire.”

Ordo amoris. We don’t look at what we ourselves or our children do desire and reach for that. We look toward what we ought to desire and practice desiring it, pursuing it, until our affections, our loves, our desires, are richer, truer, deeper.

That is why we read Norms & Nobility, Charlotte Mason, or any educational philosophy: we do it to order our loves, to grow our vision and ideal, to align ourselves with truth rather than with personal convenience or societal defaults.

Let us do so more and more.

What anthropologies have you seen played out in your own education or in your homeschool over the years?

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3 Responses

  1. Karen M
    | Reply

    This: “The question in the premodern mind was only who you served, not whether you served. Serving the true lord rather than yourself is at the heart of nobility in every culture.”

    Great summary.

    I will be thinking of this as I go about my daily duties.

  2. Lauren Scott
    | Reply

    “Efficient” and materialistic viewpoints seem to slip into the way I opperate far too often. And that just means I need my mind renewed ALL THE TIME with Truth. Thanks for the reminder.

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