What is Classical Education?

A wonderful discussion of Classical Education by Martin Cothran of Memoria Press:

I read a magazine article recently in which the reporter went to two Christian colleges, one a more standard Christian college, and another with an explicitly classical emphasis. When asked what their objectives were, the first college answered, “To save America.” The second answered, “To save Western civilization.”

Why is this significant? It is significant because the second school realized that our problem is not of recent origin and that it isn’t unique to this country.

The decline in our country and our culture is much more fundamental than most people think. And this decline has a lot to do with changes in education over the last century.

Education As It Used to Be

If we were to visit a good American or English school about a hundred years ago, we would find it focused exclusively on one thing: reading classic literature in the original languages. This is what we now call the old “classical education.” It taught students how to think and what to do. It was an education in wisdom and virtue. Students learned Latin and Greek – and through this they learned a set of vocabulary that undergirds all academic lanuage,  and they learned the inherent structure of the grammar common to all languages, including their own.

They also learned the mental skills required to make the fine grammatical distinctions characteristic of these two inflected languages. Having mastered Greek and Latin, they then read, analyzed, and discussed the actions of great men. As always, the chief questions asked about the actions of every great man or woman – the question every child asks when first reading about a character – were “Was he good or bad? Why did he act as he did? Who was affected by his actions? What were the circumstances? What should he have done differently? What would you have done differently?” This was an education in wisdom and virtue.

In the book which was the first textbook of education, Homer’s Iliad, Phoenix, the teacher of Achilles (modeled after the legendary Chiron, the wise centaur who, it was said, taught many of the Greek heroes) reminds Achilles, at a moment of crisis in his life, of what the hero’s father had commanded the old teacher to teach him. He was charged, says Phoenix, to teach Achilles “to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.”

This ideal – the man who would think truly and act rightly – was the goal of Greek education. This was the education of the Romans and the Greeks (and everyone who lived in the Hellenic world, including the Jews). It was the education of the Christian Middle Ages, of the American Founding Fathers, and of their Puritan predecessors. It was the prevailing education into the early 20th century before it was gradually thrown out over a period of about 40 years.

Today’s Education

Today, a new philosophy controls our schools. Its purpose is much different from the purpose of classical education. Today’s schools are about two things: progressivism and pragmatism. Progressivism is a political program that can be seen in an emphasis on political correctness and multiculturalism. Pragmatism is a vocational program that can be seen in an emphasis on job training and employment skills.

Today’s education is almost a direct inversion of the old classical emphasis on how to think and what to do; the political and vocational emphases of today’s education teach students, not how to think and what to do, but what to think and how to do. Its political goal is to use schools to change culture, and its practical goal is to change students to fit the culture.

The goal of classical education was very different. It was not interested in changing culture or fitting children to a culture. Its goal was to pass on a culture – and one culture in particular: the culture of the Christian West.

How Classical Education Works

In classcial education, students read the classics. They focus their attention on what the Victorian scholar Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said.” In Western civilization, our focus should be on what I call the “three cultures”: Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem – the Greeks, the Romans, and the Hebrews.

But why study these cultures? We should study the Greeks because the Greeks were the archetype of philosophical and literary man. They were the original philosophers and poets. Every great idea – and every lousy one – came from some Greek somewhere. All you’ve got to do is trace it back.

Why study the Romans? We study the Romans because the Romans were the archetype of practical, political man. They were the road builders and the republicans of ancient times. These are the people who ran the world for a thousand years. They ran the most enduring government history has ever seen. In fact, the Founding Fathers used the old Roman republic as their model in constructing the American government.

Why study the Hebrews? We study the Hebrews because they are the archetype of spiritual man. From them we learn how God deals with indiviuals and with nations.

In studying these three cultures, classical education does not ignore American history and culture. In fact, in order to fully understand American civilization, a knowledge of these three cultures is crucial since, as political philosopher Russell Kirk has pointed out, all three of them were essential in the forming of our thought, our political institutions, and our moral principles. We study these three cultures and the great works they produced because they constitute our heritage as Western people.

Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities under Ronald Reagan, once said that if you graduate from school not knowing what Western civilization is, then you are not really educated. She was right.

Nor does classical education ignore the skills needed to get a job. In addition to studying the great books and the stories of great men, classical education also studies the liberal arts. The liberal arts include grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These are the generalizable intellectual skills that you use no matter what subject you are studying or what you do.

The Trivium consists of the first three of these. The first was grammar, which was the study of the structure of language, and this was studied by learning a language (preferably and inflected language – one which required a knowledge of the noun cases) other than your own, usually Latin and Greek. Logic was the study of the structure and rules of rational thought, and this was done by studying the Aristotelian system of traditional logic. Rhetoric was the study of the rules of persuasion, and this was done by focusing on writers such as Aristotle, the great theoretician of rhetoric, Quintilian, the great teacher of rhetoric, and Cicero, the great practitioner of rhetoric.

You would also study St. Augustine, who used the skills he learned from these great thinkers to articulate Christian truths.

The Quadrivium (the last four of the seven liberal arts) consists of arithmetic (the study of discrete number), geometry (the study of continuous number), music (the application of discrete number), and astronomy (the application of continuous number).

The Trivium consisted of the arts of language, and the Quadrivium, the arts of mathematics. The first was qualitative, and the second quantitative. Together they were considered to equip a thinker to approach any other subject.

The most important employment skills – and the skills that many employers say are the hardest to find today – are basic thinking skills. This was what a liberal arts education taught. The goal of classical education, then, is the study of the classics in the original languages and the liberal arts: the best that has been thought and said, and the intellectual skills that equip a student to think critically. It is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the study of the great books and the development of basic critical thinking skills in order to pass on and preserve Western civilization.

Classical education is making a comeback. More and more parents have realized that their children are being shortchanged in our schools. And more of them are realizing that it was not always this way.



From the Classical Historian:

Patrick was born in fourth century Roman Britain (c. 390-461) to a loving family of wealth. His parents were most likely successful merchants and administrators of Rome. On February 27, 380, Roman Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica and declared the official religion in the empire to be the Catholic Church. Patrick was brought up in this faith.  He had a privileged childhood as the son of wealthy Roman leaders, but suffered great hardships for a number of years. Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish and changed the course of history.

At the beginning of the medieval ages, many in Europe clung to the pagan religions of the past. Ireland, the island to the west of Britain, was a land where Christianity was unknown. Celts in Ireland followed a belief called Druidism. They believed in many gods, and Druid priests had many practices that we would call barbaric. Druids sacrificed humans to keep their gods happy.

As a sixteen year-old, Patrick’s easy life of comfort and prestige changed forever. Some reports state Patrick had snuck out of his parents’ home and took part in an all-night pagan ritual. With dawn breaking, a small band of Irish pirates raided Britain and captured Patrick. He was taken to Ireland and sold into slavery, completely separated from his loving parents. Patrick wrote later that he had left the faith of his family, and for this he was being punished.

For six years, Patrick worked as a common slave in Ireland. At any instant, he could be killed, mutilated, or beaten by his owner. He was far from his home and far from any help his Christian friends could provide. Instead of becoming desperate and sad, though, Patrick spent his time in prayer and reflection. Working as a shepherd for six years, he grew to love the Irish land and people, and yearned to one day teach them the Christian belief. He united his sufferings as a slave to the sufferings of his savior, Christ, and his love for his captors grew.

According to Patrick’s writings, he heard the Heavenly Father speak to him and tell him to escape from slavery and to walk to the coast. A boat would be waiting for him. As a slave, if he were recognized, he would have been put to death! Patrick did as he was told, and there was a boat waiting for him. The captain agreed to take him back to Britain.
Patrick’s parents were so excited to see him, but they were also disappointed to hear what he wanted to do. He wanted to become a priest and return to the people who enslaved him in Ireland. His parents wanted him to get married, become wealthy and important, and raise a family. If he returned to Ireland, wouldn’t he be killed by his former slave owner for escaping? How could he have a family if he became a priest?

Patience is a virtue Patrick practiced. He went to Gaul (France), studied to become a priest, and waited for his calling to go back to Ireland and spread Christianity. At the age of 49, after about 25 years of waiting, he finally received the order to go to Ireland as a bishop to evangelize. He returned, went to his former slave owner, and spoke about Christ. Amazingly, within Bishop Patrick’s lifetime, Ireland became a Christian country!  And, since this time Irish missionaries have travelled throughout the world spreading the news of Jesus and his Church.

There are many legends attributed to Patrick in Ireland. For example, some say he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, or that he used a three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity. But, what is not legend is that within his lifetime, Ireland changed from a land of slavery, human sacrifice, and paganism, to a Christian land, where the slave trade came to a halt, and where murder and tribal warfare decreased.

Along with bringing Christianity to the Irish, Patrick established monasteries that some say saved Western civilization. In the Middle Ages, a monastery was a place where men lived and worshipped, served as doctors and nurses, fed the poor, took care of orphans, and copied important documents. It was the only place of learning in the first centuries after the Roman Empire fell. As Roman law and order gave way to chaos, Irish monks kept working, copying classic texts of the west, and spreading Christianity. For centuries after Patrick died, Irish monks spread both the Christian faith and the classics. It is for this that some historians claim that St. Patrick saved Western Civilization.

To read the actual writings of Saint Patrick: 

As Augustine said, we do what we desire. Our sin is the result of our affections being improperly ordered, of loving what we aught not, or even loving something good more than the ultimate good, which is God. Virtue is nothing other than the perfect love of God. But this right ordering of affections is only attainable through the grace of God. And that is why we also must pray with Augustine, “Set love in order in me.” (City of God, XV.22)