Classical Education’s Dialogue (Norms & Nobility Notes, ch. 1 IV)

The slow series through Norms and Nobility, section by section.

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Summary Narration of chapter 1, section IV

Classical education was strengthened by a healthy debate and dialogue between those who thought virtue was innate and those who thought it must be taught; because they shared the same goal, the differences engaged and edified both.


Section 4 of chapter 1 explains that within the classical tradition, there have always been two different types of teachers, two different approaches. Hicks calls them the rhetorician and the philosopher.

Both schools agreed that virtue must be taught, that teaching virtue was the aim of education. It was in how to do so that they differed.

According to the philosopher, God (or the gods) gave man virtue as an inherent gift. It is man’s possession, so education develops what’s already there, pruning away the vice and cultivating the virtue. Man must be made more conscious and intentional in his thoughts to uncover the innate ideas and knowledge that are his possession already. Thus, the philosopher emphasized dialectic, dialogue, to uncover what the student already knows or to lead him toward discovery using his rational faculties that are his by nature.

According to the rhetorician, “more popular and practical,” believed that man needed to be shown truth outside of himself to experience a transformation rather than be shown truth inside of him to experience development. The best way to introduce a student to truth was through beauty:

[pullquote align=”center”]“Whenever truth comes to man by way of beauty, it necessarily transforms his character and ennobles his behavior.”


The philosophic, dialectic approach tended for most to produce those who loved discussion and debate and discovering ideas but who did not therefore conform their lives to the truth. It did not produce good men, by and large, though it did produce smart men. And because virtue is knowing and doing combined, it fell short by their own standard.

The true philosopher, like those teachers who taught with the approach, loved truth and lived in accordance with what they had discovered. Most men, however, are not natural philosophers. Rather, as Aristotle admitted:

[pullquote align=”center”]“They fancy they are philosophers and that this will make them good. But they are really just like people who listen attentively to what their has to say and do not obey one of his prescriptions. There is about as much chance of those who study philosophy in this way gaining health of soul as of such people getting well and strong of body.”


To the rhetorician, then, the important thing was not drawing a student out or leading him through a process of self-discovery, but of introducing him to his heritage, to beauty, to love, because love of truth drives a desire to conform oneself to that truth. The student must have experiences with truth outside of himself and then be taught how to align himself – his actions, his words, his attitudes – with the truth he has received.

[pullquote align=”center”]“Learning to speak properly causes the student not only to think but to live properly.”


Now, it’s not that rhetoricians won the day and the philosophers were debunked and dismissed. Although the rhetoricians are the primary educators throughout history, the philosophers continued as well, adding insight and necessary debate.

Classical education has never been and still is not about one monolith, uniform practice. It is about a common end. Participating in a dialectic conversation refines us and keeps us challenged and growing rather than complacent and proud. The philosophers might not have had the best approach for fresh students, but their emphasis on dialogue, challenge, development, and growth was a necessary component for those practicing education and philosophy (that is, practicing wisdom through virtue).

Classical education, that is, values having different perspectives, different emphases, different priorities. It sees conflict with a biblical “iron sharpening iron” perspective. When we have the same foundation (truth) and the same end (virtue), all the conversations and even conflicts about how to get from point A to point B are useful – not in that one person will be proved right, but so that all those engaged in the pursuit are kept alert and active and always attentive.

[pullquote align=”center”]“Do we not understand that conflict which shares its purposes is good and that uniformity does not mean unity any more than conformity signifies independent and intelligent agreement?”


Everyone doing the same thing doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Probably, it means they don’t. Probably, it means many are not thinking for themselves at all. The classical tradition wants participants in the Great Conversation, not lemmings swept along. Participation in a conversation includes challenges, debate, arguments, and refinement of ideas over time.

[pullquote align=”center”]“So long as the ancient quarrel persisted, it fired both sides with an intellectual passion for learning and helped to personalize as well as to achieve the goals of education.“


Participation in the Great Conversation, in dialectic, is not only part of what we’re giving to our students, it is by engaging in it ourselves that we become the philosophers that can give a rhetorician’s education to our students.

[pullquote align=”center”]“The excitement of intellectual passion…makes the school a place where virtue can be taught.”


The goal of the debate, of the dialectic, of the dialogue, is passionate, intellectual engagement with the matter at hand, it is not about winning or coming to a final conclusion. Like a scientist always looking both for further proofs and for new data to refine his theory, we are always engaged with our practices, never complacent, never having counted ourselves as “arriving.”

Don’t be afraid of passionate, challenging, respectful debate. It is an integral part of classical education that we as educators should be participating in ourselves.

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