Classical Education’s Distinctives (Norms & Nobility Notes, ch. 1, I)

Summary Narration of chapter 1, section I

Classical education is not a mimic, but a mindset; valuing inquiry and reason, cultivating style and conscience, and pursuing an organized course of study, it is a dialogue about truth that develops our awareness and demands our conformity.

For years – decades, even – the classical renewal movement has been refining its definition of what classical education really means.

Definitions are a vital place to begin, of course, which is why the conversation over definitions can be so frustrating. Shouldn’t this be an easy, simple question? Why is there so much dialog and development and even disagreement?

David Hick’s very first chapter addresses both the definition and the dialog surrounding classical education – by showing just how classical any such conversation actually is.

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place.

Whereas Charlotte Mason education or Thomas Jefferson principles or Montessori schools can look at a single person who wrote very clear directions about what education is and how to go about doing it, classical education has no such single source.

It is a different sort of thing than a model based on a single source.

Instead of looking to one particular person (such as Plato or Aristotle), one particular time (like the early church or medieval monks), or one particular place (such as Athens or even colonial America), classical education looks more broadly.

[Classical education] stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth.

Classical education, rather than a specific set of instructions or books, is a spirit, a concern, a conscience. It is a mindset more than it is a method. Sure, there are methods – there must be for anyone to do anything – but it is the mode, the mind, the mood that matters more.

That mood, that mode, is one of curiosity. That curiosity is not idle, but active – pursuing not satiety or selfish ambition, but truth.

This bent of the mind [curiosity]allows the educated man to go on educating himself or extending the realms of knowledge for his fellows.

Classical education requires wonder, in both the sense of marveling and questioning. It marvels because it realizes it doesn’t know. It questions so as to know more and attain to as much truth as possible, knowing all of life is not long enough to discover all the truth out there to be known.

Only the person whose mental habits conform to this generous process can be said to be “educated” in a universal sense.

Yes, this concept of education Hicks calls “a classical, or universal, education” – for it has always been the definition of what an educated person is: someone who has dedicated years to seeking and connecting truth, whose interest remains vital, alive, continual.

This is the person competent to judge what the experts say without being an expert himself.

With the tools of the seven liberal arts, the ability to use language and number (or proportion and relationship) to think about any given topic, an educated man is led about by opinion polls or demagogues – or even his own passions.

To impart the spirit of inquiry, therefore, and to clarify the objects of study, the need arises for a *formal* education in which the curriculum (“the course run”) is selected and organized in accordance with criteria supporting the nature of the inquiry being taught.

Is the spirit of inquiry natural and inborn? Must we do anything to cultivate it?



Yes and yes. We were created with natural curiosity and wonder, but like all good things in this fallen world, they are easily lost or muddied.

Enter education, where that sense of curiosity is developed rather than allowed to atrophy. And it is developed not through a child-chosen path, but through a time-tested, set path – the particulars might not be set, but the criteria are.

The classical form of instruction serves a cultural purpose, as well as an intellectual one.

That is, educating is not only about the student’s brain and abilities, but also about the student’s tastes, affections, and conscience.

It confronts man with some truth about himself, a kind of truth that might have taken him a lifetime of error and misdirection to arrive at for himself, but ultimately, a truth he must in his own experience of life if he is to appropriate it for himself and benefit from the confrontation.

This is the path of classical education: truth.

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5 Responses

  1. anneneulieb
    | Reply

    This is so so good! Thank you. I don’t have this book, so I’m happy to be reading your (well-written) notes on it.

  2. Karen M
    | Reply

    While recovering from this fourth c-section, I’m reading Veith and Kern’s Classical Education book. I had the privilege of hearing Andrew Kern speak last week and he is so inspiring and approachable. Classical Education has a chapter entitled Norms and Nobility, so I also pulled Hicks’ text off of the “to read” shelf. I’m glad to see that you happen to be reading it at the same time!

    There is much to ponder here about the classical leanings that my own education fortunately contained (I attended twelve years at Catholic schools that still retained some Classical aspects and I had two Great Books courses in college (Homer, Virgil, Dante, St Augustine’s Confessions, etc) as well as a small course on Ovid’s Metamorphosis) and the ways I hope to “spread the feast” for our children, whom I teach.

    Now, if I only had a blog on which I could narrate the chapters and thus compel myself to finish the books in a timely manner…lol! Thank you!

  3. Meredith_in_Aus
    | Reply

    “With the tools of the seven liberal arts, the ability to use language and number (or proportion and relationship) to think about any given topic, an educated man is led about by opinion polls or demagogues – or even his own passions.”

    Is this correct, Mystie, or a typo? An educated man IS led about by opinion polls… I would have thought the opposite to be true.

  4. Lauren Scott
    | Reply

    Thanks for this post and those to come. :-) I’m going to enjoy gleaning from it all since my current to-be-read list is already way too long to add this book to it right now. :-P

  5. Tracey
    | Reply

    Meredith, I wondered about that statement also. I think what Mystie may be saying (and these are her words, not those of David Hicks) is that when a spirit of inquiry is present, without a determined course of study, the man who seeks to be educated chooses his subjects randomly and without any real order. Hence the need for a formal curriculum.

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