Monday, October 20, 2014

Classical Education is…. a Person

 We humans are forever chasing desirable traits that are really the natural by-product of other, more neglected things. In the sphere of marriage, we pursue feelings of excitement and attachment for their own sake, forgetting that feelings of love must be anchored and restored by service and commitment. In the sphere of religion, we fall into the trap of focusing our energies on our own good works, forgetting that good works are the result and not the cause of faith in God’s promise of forgiveness. In the world of education…. oh, we are dreadfully inclined to chase the wrong things. We see that good readers have good vocabularies, so we print lists of words and hand them out, instead of guiding children to good books. We see that successful learners believe that they are intelligent enough to learn, and so we tell all children that they are smart, even while handing them “F’s” on their half-blank quizzes.

It is hard to see that just because a thing is good, it may not be helpful to chase it. It is hard to recognize the essential sources of the good things we desire.

It is especially hard to know how to provide a good education, because the dominant educational outlook (progressivism) is problematic, and vibrant, cohesive alternatives (such as the current classical education movement) are still in youthful form. We think of classical ed as a return to past educational ideals, but structurally, it is really a re-invention. The classical education of the past was something that began after the young student’s primary education and centered on what we would now call high school and college. The classical education of the present is something that begins with pre-school or Kindergarten and often ends with eighth grade or, at most, twelfth grade. 

This (neo)-classical education movement is still being defined. Some of the common definitions are:

-          A rejection of progressivism and a statement of belief in absolute truth. 
-          A roughly age-based system embracing memorization, analyses, and rhetoric
-          The cultivation of virtue and wisdom. “The classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’” 

The many definitions available are helpful and exciting, but they are still under development. Parents and teachers must struggle to create a good education based on intangible ideas instead of on a visible working model. It is good to reject the relativism of progressive methodology and to seek after virtue, but how does that apply to a wiggly eight-year-old who hates spelling, or a thirteen-year-old with emotional and psychological problems who has been plunked into a classical school for the first time this year by her desperate grandparents? How can it be taught by the homeschool mom with six kids and a colicky infant?

It is perilously easy for the educator to think of classical education as a method. “Use these techniques.” “Memorize these dates.” “Finish this book list by senior year.” “Make a diorama of ancient Rome.” After all, progressivism has taught us to think of education as the deployment of specific methods. Yet (as a friend of mine has helped me to see) classical education is so much bigger, deeper, broader, and more difficult than that.

The pursuit of virtue, the study of wisdom, the love of truth—these are mere concepts until a flawed, sinful, human person attempts to practice them. Classical education is a person, not a method. As an analogy: Few of us would argue that children learn vocabulary best from printed lists. We know that good books teach vocabulary naturally. In the same way, children do not learn virtue from academic lessons about “kindness” or “generosity.” They learn what kindness and generosity look like by watching us. As a bonus, they also learn about the necessity for forgiveness and grace by watching us fail at kindness and generosity.

Classical education is based on a teacher—on a pious, intelligent, wise, knowledgeable individual who models a love of learning and a pursuit of truth. It’s a frightening thought, because which of us is a worthy-model for our children? We aren’t worthy. Yet, alas, we are all they’ve got.

Our main focus should not be on choosing textbooks or refining techniques. Instead, we need to be developing our teachers. Our teachers are us. We need to cultivate our own minds. We need to develop self-control in ourselves. We need to sharpen our own powers of memorization, analyses, and rhetoric. If we really believe that all these good things are important, we must show it by pursuing them ourselves, instead of trying to achieve the results of a classical education without actually being classical adults. At the nitty-gritty level, I appreciate Auntie Leila’s various posts (including this one) about building an educational home. She also addresses the importance of thinking about how we speak to our children, and becoming a person who speaks well (who uses complete sentences and interesting language, and who teaches little ones to engage with words in the same way). I also like this post about building habits in young children instead of getting carried away by the quest for cute lesson plans.

It probably sounds a little crazy to say that the way to apply classical education to your wiggly eight-year-old, your troubled thirteen-year-old, and your brood of six little ones is to read more psalms, more Mother Goose, and more Cicero. Yet it is. True education is not about compartmentalizing learning into something that children do between the hours of eight and three. It is a way of life. It must be our way of life.


Apparently, pupils were not uniformly well-behaved even
during the original "era of the classical education."

Linking-up with Trivium Tuesdays.


  1. I agree with Katy. Well said. This is also very encouraging.

    1. Thanks. My concern with my piece was that some people might read it as demanding yet more of overworked mothers/teachers, so I'm glad it doesn't come off that way!

  2. Wonderful post! I feel like I need to read it again to take it all in. I completely agree that we are only (re)discovering all that classical education entails. I am loving learning more and more!


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