What is classical education?

While most modern education focuses on quick solutions, practical or financially beneficial outcomes, moral relativity, and a denial of the existence and importance of the metaphysical, classical education does the opposite because it represents a wholly different view of the purpose, content, and method of good education.

The purpose of classical education, particularly in a Christian context, is to shape students as whole people, preparing them to serve the Lord throughout their lives. A whole person has a heart, a soul, a mind, and strength. Classical education shapes the student’s heart by shaping his desires, directing him to desire what is good, true, and beautiful. Classical education shapes the student’s soul by directing him toward the Lord and the Word of the Lord as the authority in every aspect of life. Classical education shapes the student’s mind by filling it with good, true, and beautiful information, stories, illustrations, poetry, logical arguments, standards for determining truth, and the ability to ask good questions. Classical education shapes a student’s strength by offering valuable purposes for which he can use his strength—to serve God and others. Education is a “leading out,” and classical education is intended to lead the student out of ignorance into knowledge, out of pride into humility, and out of disordered affections into rightly-ordered affections.

The content of classical education is built on the true, the good, and the beautiful. Students must be taught what is true as well has how to discern truth from falsehood and how to discover further truths beyond what can be taught in the first 18 years of their lives. Students must also be taught what is good. But they must be taught to discern and to love what is good amid the host of evils among which we live; life, even—and especially—the Christian life, is not confined to the purity of the McGuffey’s Primer. Life is a difficult, sometimes terrifying, nearly-constant wrestling match against the rulers of darkness in high places. Students must be provided with spiritual and intellectual armor of light, the bright steel of God-ward affections. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” Lastly, the content of classical education must be beautiful. God, the Creator of all, is Himself beautiful; His temple is beautiful; His Son is beautiful; the feet of those who bring His Good News are beautiful; His Bride is beautiful; and His everlasting city and throne are beautiful. He created a lovely world, and its loveliness continues to uplift and direct us toward Himself, despite the Fall. He created men and women in His own image, and we continue to have the capacity to do, create, and discover good and beautiful things, despite the Fall. Yet we easily succumb to a bleary view of the mundane or become discouraged by the problems in our culture. Students, and teachers, need to be reminded of the beauty and cohesion of each subject; its relationship to other subjects; and its significance as a creation of, or as an item in, the mind of God. Students need to be told about the saints and the heroes; they need to drink in the rhythms of poetry and the heart-speeding elegance of music; they need to treasure the courage of Joshua, Leonidas, Daniel, Horatius, St. Patrick, Roland, Tyndale, the Minutemen, Alvin York, and Frodo Baggins; the patience and perseverance of Ruth, Odysseus, Aeneas, Alfred the Great, Galileo, Washington, Wilberforce, and Solzhenitsyn; and the love of Joseph, St. Augustine, Gloucester, Sydney Carton, Elizabeth Bennet, Uncle Tom, Alyosha Karamazov, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Finally, the content of a classical education is presented in a way that suits the student’s ability to know and learn. When students are young, they can be taught many facts that form the grammar, or foundational language, of various subjects. Older students are taught the skills of logic and argumentation so that they can reason to sound conclusions and discern truth. High-school/upper-school-aged students are taught rhetoric—the art and responsibility of persuasion, eloquence, and clear expression. While these methods are not exclusive to these ages, as Littlejohn and Evans write in Wisdom and Eloquence, they are the primary ways in which students are taught according to their intellectual abilities. Classical education also recognizes the truth of Francis Bacon’s statement that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” so it contains much of each: reading, conversation, and writing.

Image: Magdalen College, Oxford, UK