What is Classical Education?
Classical education nourishes the soul on truth, goodness and beauty in order to cultivate wise and virtuous students who love to learn. Classical students read time-tested, classical books that have significantly impacted Western Civilization and the world. This enables them to better understand their history and culture. They study classical languages and learn subjects “the classical way”. The classical style trains students to master the fundamentals of a given discipline (grammar), make sound arguments using evidence and rational thinking (logic), and make application with persuasive communication (rhetoric). In order to achieve these ends, classical teachers make use of repetition, exposure and imitation of greatness, Socratic discussion, copious reading and writing, and respectful debate.
Objective vs. Subjective Standards
Classical education has a tenacious commitment to objective truth, goodness and beauty. Contrary to the claims of our relativistic, postmodern culture, these standards are not subjective creations of society. They do not change with the times and they do not differ from person to person. In this way, they resemble the objective laws of math and science. Classical education pursues these objective standards and seeks to transform students by them. In the ancient world, students were expected to strive to become the “Ideal Type” through the embodiment of virtues such as justice, courage, temperance and wisdom. For Christians, this Ideal Type who we strive to emulate is Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. Contemporary education has largely rejected the notion of objective truth, goodness and beauty and the result has been a society that is increasingly immoral, meaningless and empty. Classical education positions itself against all forms of “soul-less” education. It holds that there are objective standards and that pursuing these standards will result in a fulfilling, wise and virtuous life.
Becoming a Wise and Virtuous Human Being vs. Getting a Good Job
The main goal of contemporary education is to prepare people for college and the workforce. While there is merit to this, this is not the primary goal of education. In classical education, the central focus is on the formation of wise and virtuous human beings (which makes a person very employable). Education that teaches “to a job” typically focuses on what to learn rather than how to learn. This does not provide a student with the necessary skills for a rapidly changing economy. In ancient times, free children received a well-rounded, liberal arts education that taught them how to think, how to communicate and how to live. This liberating approach does not give a student a fish but teaches a student to fish; it empowers young people to flourish in any context whether it be the workplace, family or government.
Holistic Approach to Knowledge vs. Myopic Approach
Scientific study is an important part of any education. Indeed, science is only possible because God has given us an orderly, consistent, and lawful universe. A biblical worldview provides students with the proper framework to understand why things are the way they are. As our culture became increasingly secular, God was removed as the sustaining cause of all things. Science came to be seen as antithetical to faith and the only reliable source for knowledge of the universe. As a result, students are now encouraged to espouse a strict materialistic understanding of the world. Analytical questions abound while normative questions dealing with human worth, purpose, morality and God are sidelined. The problem with this approach is that it eliminates the study of things that give life meaning and fulfillment. Classical education embraces scientific inquiry while at the same time pursuing knowledge that is not readily available to the five senses.
Integrated Approach vs. Isolated Approach
What does math have to do with theology? What does literature have to do with history? In contemporary education, the answer is very little. Each subject is studied in isolation while students fail to grasp how things relate and never develop a cohesive outlook or worldview. Classical education, on the other hand, views knowledge as a web of interconnected truth. Because of this, the various subject matters are synthesized whenever possible. A piece of literature is not merely used to help students read better. It can also inform him on a historical time period, philosophical viewpoint or theological doctrine. It can help explain the music and art of the era. It can be used to develop the students’ reasoning or rhetorical ability. Likewise, the laws of math and science are not inexplicable principles that govern the universe. They showcase the consistency, orderliness and faithfulness of God. By showing cohesion in a sea of diversity, classical education helps students make sense of their world.
Great Books vs. Newest Fads
Education in America has lost its way. New fads, methodologies and curriculum abound while academic performance wanes and social woes wax. The thought of consulting the past to inform our present seldom arises. This is because modern education operates under an evolutionary understanding of the world in which new things are considered better and less primitive by virtue of their newness. But if classical education has given us the philosophers of Greece and Rome, the reformers of the Renaissance and the Founding Fathers of our nation, perhaps it would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with its methods. How do we get our children to think, communicate and live on a high level? Classical education answers this question by directing students to the greatest works by the greatest authors. These are the works that have stood the test of time and whose ideas have changed the world. With the proper tutelage, reading these works is to the mind and soul what exercise is to the body. They stretch and challenge us to consider what is good, true and beautiful. They do not always offer the same philosophy or viewpoint. This forces the student to refine his own thinking and be able to offer a reasonable defense. It has been said that you are who you associate with. The more that students are exposed to the elevated style, logic and virtue of the classics, the more they will be inclined to be like them in speech, thought, affection and life.
Challenging the Student vs. Entertaining the Student
Classical education is challenging. It requires the student to read and write copiously. It beckons the student to think deeply about a topic in a way that is supported by logic and good reason. It obliges the student to express his thoughts in an articulate fashion in order to persuade others to accept the truth, goodness and beauty that he has discovered. In all this, the mind is completely active. It is not allowed to passively receive predigested facts that are spoon fed from a textbook and then regurgitate them onto a test. The mind is also not permitted to passively sit back and watch an abundant supply of videos that do the thinking and imagining for the student. Classical education constantly expects the student to be active by reading words on a page, forming proper ideas out of those words, deciding if he agrees with those ideas and on what grounds, expressing those ideas on paper or in public speech and finally applying them to his own life and context. This is a far cry from modern education’s propensity to entertain students with images on a screen or stimulate them with activities that are engaging but lacking in substance. Contemporary education also places an emphasis on creating an environment that in no way hinders a student’s self-esteem, self-fulfillment and self-conception. The result is a fragile, self-absorbed individual. The classical educator, on the other hand, disabuses the student from acting in accordance with his selfish instincts, and directs him toward objective standards, self-discipline and hard work. The instructor’s goal is to form the adult-to-be, not to liberate the child within. Since classical education requires hard work and does not affirm basic selfish instincts, this prepares young people to become responsible fathers, mothers, spouses and citizens.
The Trivium vs. Bloom’s Taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy orders thinking skills from less complex to more complex. The least complex thinking skill is to remember information. This is what much of modern education focuses on. While the ability to remember facts is important, it does not form a person who can do his own thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy maintains that the higher order thinking skills involve understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating. This is somewhat similar to the ancient classical method of training people in grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar deals with content acquisition and is necessary for all grades but is especially well suited for elementary students who have minds like sponges. Logic deals with proper reasoning and is well suited for middle schoolers who naturally begin to challenge claims and ask “why”. Rhetoric deals with converting good content and logical thinking into persuasive arguments. This is well suited for high school students who have an increased desire to express themselves effectively. By following this trajectory, students learn “with the grain” and along the lines of what naturally interests them. Significant and mnemonic memorization in the Grammar Stage is followed by logical and reasoned argumentation in the Logic Stage. This is followed by winsome and engaging expression and relevant and virtuous application in the Rhetoric Stage.
Western Civilization vs. Multiculturalism
Classical education focuses on Western Civilization for a couple reasons. First, there is only so much material that one can cover over the course of one’s study. A teacher will always have to pick and choose what is most significant for a student’s educational growth. Second, the most significant event in history, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, had the greatest effect in Western civilization. Third, Western Civilization placed a high importance on objective truth, goodness and beauty whereas other cultures have not held these ideals in like regard. For example, the Eastern notion that all reality is illusory and that all things are divine or “one” leaves little reason to pursue truth or distinguish good from evil. Western civilization’s staunch commitment to truth, goodness and beauty allowed for great advances in the fields of philosophy, science, literature, art and music and gave rise to figures such as Aristotle, Augustine, Michelangelo, Beethoven and Shakespeare. The multiculturalism of modern education, on the other hand, refuses to privilege objective values. Rather, it places equal or predominant focus on cultures without high standards of goodness, truth and beauty. In addition, while multiculturalism encourages students to dwell on how people are different, classical education focuses on how we are the same. We all possess a common humanity, plight, and desire for redemption, and this matters much more than superficial cultural distinctives. Rather than focusing on what makes everyone different, classical education focuses on what brings us all together.
Depth vs. Breadth
Classical education aims for mastery. Mastery can only be achieved through much time, effort and repetition. Unfortunately, modern education is not conducive to mastery. Teachers fly through textbooks at a rapid pace so the students can pass a standardized test. Students rush from period to period each lasting about 40 minutes. This affords little time to think or discuss things on a deep level. This problem is exacerbated if a student is placed in a class of 25 or 30 students. By the looks of it, the goal seems to be to expose students to as much information as possible so they can temporarily store it and then put it on a test. Retention and mastery take a back seat to passing tests. This Cram-Pass-Forget Cycle is all too common. To give one example, there are many students who take three or four years of a foreign language but can hardly utter a sentence at the end. Classical schools, on the other hand, prioritize depth over breadth. What good is it to learn a bunch of facts if one doesn’t know how they relate or apply? The Latin phrase multum non multa (much not many) is a staple of classical pedagogy. Instead of exposing a student to a superficial understanding, classical education encourages students to dive deep. Teachers do not rush through material but take time to ask challenging questions that force students to take a side and then defend it persuasively with evidence and logic. Teachers do not just ask analytical questions testing comprehension, but normative questions testing a student’s ability to evaluate and apply. The emphasis is not on passing tests but on skill mastery and a relentless pursuit of truth. Mastery results in students who love to learn and who take pride in their education. Superficial exposure, on the other hand, breeds students who never fully enjoy the fruits of learning since they do not experience the joy of becoming an expert. Classical education focuses a student’s attention long enough on some worthy topic so he is able to make connections, determine cause and effect, discover patterns, and attain mastery.
Definition of What Classical Education Is Not
In order to help us better understand what something is, it is often helpful to define something by what it is not. First, classical education is not Postmodernism: it does not subscribe to the notion that truth and morality are relative. Rather, they are objective ideals that existed even before people contemplated them. Classical education is not Romanticism: it does not espouse the belief that mankind is basically good-natured and that his feelings are a reliable guide for truth and morality. Classical education is not Empiricism: it does not claim that legitimate knowledge can only be accessed through the five senses and the scientific method. In addition to the senses, conscience, tradition, spiritual experience and reason should also receive their due consideration in matters of knowledge and truth. Classical education is not Pragmatism: It does not hold that truth, goodness and beauty are only important insofar as they are useful in helping us achieve our own goals. While it is true that knowledge should be tied to proper action, we must first know what is good and proper before we can judge it to be useful. Classical Education is not Evolutionism: it does not maintain that older things are necessarily more primitive while newer things are better or more complex. Classical education is not Multiculturalism: it does not focus on differences over commonalities and does not give equal weight to cultures that have not had a tenacious commitment to truth, goodness and beauty. Classical education is not Self-centered: it does not encourage students to get an education primarily to get a good job and make lots of money so they can live comfortably. Instead, it calls young people out of their narcissistic tendencies to a life of sacrificial commitment to a purpose that transcends the self.