Classical education is awesome, and it will change your life! It offers us a timeless education for modern times, seeking lifelong learning, integration of all knowledge, and human flourishing. It befits the sculpturing of the soul in the most wholesome ways. I like to say that classical education is a Whole Foods diet in a fast food world. It is a trip to the mountains or a hike above tree line. But what exactly do we mean by “classical education,” and what are all the other ideas and terms associated with this distinct style of education? I’m glad you asked! Let’s look at those below.
Classical education is prolonged exposure to the Good, True, and Beautiful, or what I prefer, the Great books and Great art. What is the Good? The Good is indicative of the summum bonum (Latin for the greatest good) but also ethics (good and evil). What is the True? Besides truth and falsity, it is that which orients as a compass or the North star. What is the Beautiful? It is, as Aquinas argues, that which pleases upon being seen. Jonathan Edwards furthermore argues that it is the nature of true virtue. The Great books are the canon of Western civilization handed down through the ages and writing that has stood the test of time. Obviously, classical education can be found in non-written items such as fine art (from Italy, etc) and music (Mozart, etc.). In order to cultivate this more, let’s look at teaching methods, the “Liberal Arts,” prior background, basic classical resources, and general school outcomes.
Classical education is taught through telling, asking, and coaching. Telling is largely lecturing and the giving of a lesson. Lecturing is dynamic, one-directional pedagogy and andragogy. This tends to be the way most knowledge is conveyed, though classical education is incomplete with only this method. The method tends to entail the written essay, taught and cultivated to the dissertation level. Asking is discussion, seminar, question and answer, call and response. Discussion and seminar are crucial multi-directional methods of communicating and learning for both children and adults. There is an art of asking questions to cultivate insight, memory, and knowledge. This is also a form of learning how to speak and listen, as Mortimer Adler so aptly argues. Coaching is the application part of the learning method. Tell Sophia how to ride the bicycle, engage in discussion with her over her questions, and now it’s time to ride the bike. Coaching is most often in the form of homework and assignments, but the best coaching entails life-on-life mentoring.
The Liberal Arts refer to the “seven” liberal arts and sciences, which are divided into the trivium and the quadrivium. The Trivium is typically used for forming classical education in schools. The trivium is Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, taken primarily from the medieval times and cultivated through Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning. Grammar turns into grammar school (elementary). Logic turns into logic school (middle). Rhetoric turns into rhetoric school (high). Besides the regular form of grade level development, the trivium, representing the “letter” arts of the Liberal Arts, is typically understood as the development of the child through the normal stages of knowledge acquisition (memorizing, singing, reciting), understanding (reasoning, questioning, debating), and wisdom (maturation, crafting, self-governing). Stated differently, grammar gives blocks, logic teaches how to arrange those blocks, and rhetoric shows how to craft beautiful buildings out of those blocks. Everything aims at the transcendentals, wisdom, and the Good life. The Quadrivium are normally the “numerical” arts worked in along the way. These are the other four Liberal Arts. Given that the Liberals Arts are designed to set the individual free, learning Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy play a crucial role in classical education. Many times classical education revolves only around the humanities or the trivium, leaving out the math and sciences. However, as mentioned above, when classical education is done well, it is very difficult to separate the trivium from the quadrivium, or math and science from literature and history. When reality is taught or discovered, it is complex and full of all kinds of knowledge, nature, and humanity. That being said, the trivium typically forms the broader structures in education (the stages), and the quadrivium inform along the way (through subjects).
Whether it is “American Classical” education, Latin schools, classical academies, or Christian Classical private education, the outcomes are broadly aimed at the same things. There will be differences in curriculum and methodology, background and emphasis in faculty members, and perhaps the timing of the sections (50 minutes, etc.), but they all will be claiming to aim at the Good, True, and Beautiful. Some will emphasize foreign language, others the Bible, still others philosophy or statesmanship. I rarely encounter the same definition of “classical,” but I always hear the same descriptions. This is very important for accounting for the “kind” of school(s) one desires, as I would argue there will actually be very different outcomes. Our kind of school will have an emphasis on “American Classical” education, so this will result in education that is more civic oriented and rooted in the American tradition. We will still have Latin as the main language base.
Most classical schools (including ours) emphasize history and the scope of Western civilization as the main backbone to classical education. This is typically done through the training in Greece and Rome, Greek and Latin. This tips our hat to the five cities of Western civilization (Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia). This is not merely the memorization of facts, figures, and important people, but it is laying the foundation upon which civilization is built. When a reader/learner/student encounters the great historical texts (Thucydides, Livy, the Bible, Augustine, even Churchill, etc.), they do not merely encounter history as a discipline. They are encountering human nature. Even the history of the American Founding is an exercise in understanding human nature. Thus, classical education incorporates fundamental ways of learning about the past, so that we can understand the present, and know how best to act in the future.
Classical education will change your life and the lives of your children. It is timeless, based on the best minds, bottomless not boring, real content, and original-sourced. Classical education reflects human nature, teaches how to think not what to think, uses multiple methods, embraces all student levels, and it is universal. This education is, in my opinion, the only education worth having for yourself or for your children. It provides the best foundation from which to learn anything (college, career, military, law, medicine, technology, ministry, business, etc.). Ultimately, classical education aims at lifelong learning, integration of all knowledge, and human flourishing.