Classical Education’s Demands (Norms & Nobility Notes, ch. 1, III)

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Although my book club just finished reading and discussing chapter 4 of Norms & Nobility, here on the blog I’m taking a slower, more ruminant approach so that I can sit with these ideas longer and so that you can follow along with me without pressure.

Summary Narration of chapter 1, section III

Indeed, virtue can – and must – be taught, be chased, as an unattainable but necessary ideal to which we conform.

Our aim in education should be virtue – not only knowing what is good and true and beautiful, and not only loving it, but also doing it, pursuing it, wanting to be a personal expression of what is good and true and beautiful.

How do we go about this? 

David Hicks quotes de Feltre, who wrote that for the education we must provide:

  • “the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong.”
  • “the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions.”

History is not just factual knowledge, but informs our moral imagination by teaching us what men have done and how it’s gone for them. What are men like? What are cultures like? What happens to them over time? Why?

Historical examples of both virtue and vice educate our identity and our moral compass by providing vicarious experience of how the world and society operates.

History and literature and languages are the humanities because the focus is on human beings and how to be better ones, more mature ones.

In our technological age, however, science has triumphed in the schools because we disrespect the innate honor of humanity – calling our existence a mere trick of chance – and valuing the control over material that science gives us, deluding ourselves into believing the world functions on an amoral plane.

“Predictably, as science took a technological turn and as education began preparing students for work rather than for leisure, for the factory rather than for the parlor, the school itself came to resemble the factory, losing its idiosyncratic, intimate, and moral character.”

May that not be true for ourselves, for our children, and for our homeschools. Rather, we know the value of virtue and right reason, because we know God has created man as different from the animals and for a purpose.

[Classical education brings] “the ability to recognize who he is and what his purposes are in terms of the virtues and excellencies found, though hidden, in nature.”

Seeking wisdom, the classical student knows he is not what he should be, what he was made to be, and so more and more tries to conform himself to the image of He who made him, “making himself a work of art.”

This is a hard life that requires effort, humility, and perseverance. When we think “leisure,” we usually think “ease” an “comfort,” but in the classical sense it refers more to having the time to think about and pursue higher aims than pure subsistence, pure practicality and utility.

“In its utilitarian haste, the state often peddles preparation for the practical life to our young as the glittering door to the life of pleasure”

The classical concept of leisure as time to cultivate virtue does hinge on the “pursuit of happiness” – but happiness is understood to depend on conformity to the true, good, and beautiful, not on sensory pleasures and material wealth.

Our society tries to shortchange happiness by defining it as fleeting pleasure (and not only ours, but all decadent cultures as the New Testament, written in the late Roman empire context, plainly teachers). Then we are surprised when our happiness is shortchanged, transient, shallow, and superficial.

“By encouraging this selfish approach to learning, the state sows a bitter fruit against that day when the community depends on its younger members to perform charitable acts and to consider arguments above selfish interest.”

Let us not pursue education for selfish ends or use self-interest as a motivator for ourselves or our students. Rather, let us show the glory and delight found in a life of love of God – who is the source of all that is true and good and beautiful – and a love of His world and the story He weaves through history, from the beginning until its end.

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