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An Overly Simplified Comparison of Classical and Conventional Education

Of the three general forms of education, classical, traditional, and conventional, the greatest contrasts are between conventional and classical education. What I mean by conventional is simply the way things are done in schools, generally speaking, these days. It has philosophical roots, but people tend not to think about them.

In this post, I am going simply to list a few areas that classical and conventional education have in common and then express some differences. In future posts, I will try to develop some of these thoughts further. We’ll see what happens.

Classical and conventional education share the following elements. Both have:

  • A theology
  • A philosophy
  • A view of human nature
  • An approach to governance
  • A purpose
  • A curriculum
  • A pedagogy
  • Approaches to assessment
  • An environment/atmosphere

Now for an overly hasty analysis of some differences in each area:

  • The theology of classical education is that the world we live in and the basic structure of being is expressed by the phrase “word made flesh.” The theology of conventional education is of a straw god who is both idiotic and irrelevant.
  • The philosophy of classical education is that truth can be known and communicated. The philosophy of conventional education is that truth is, at best, the ability to control or adapt to the environment. It cannot be known or communicated.
  • The classical view of human nature is that mankind is the Divine Image or possesses a divine spark and therefore has a faculty to harmonize and create. It was called reason before that word was highjacked. The conventional view of human nature is of an experiment.
  • The classical view of governance is rooted in agrarian and pastoral analogies and habits, while the conventional is industrial and analytical.
  • The purpose of classical education is to cultivate wisdom and virtue in the students, to humanize them. The purpose of conventional education is unclear, but it claims to be empowerment. Because it seeks power apart from truth, it leads to the enslavement of the student, who can achieve genuine freedom only by learning to perceive the truth.
  • The classical curriculum is the seven liberating arts – the arts of truth perception. The conventional curriculum is a pragmatic grouping of subjects that have no necessary relation to each other or to reality.
  • Classical pedagogy is defined by incarnation of a logos (the idea being taught) while conventional pedagogy is a varyingly random set of the latest techniques that accomplish whatever goal has become fashionable.
  • Classical assessment arises from artistry and apprenticeship and judges whether students have perceived the given truth or mastered the skill being taught. The core question in classical assessment is whether the student is more self-governing than he was before the lesson began. Conventional assessment is governed by the unnatural need to standardize, regardless of the nature of the lesson taught. The core question seems to be how the student compares to other students, though certainly most teachers resist this unnatural approach.
  • The classical atmosphere/environment is part of the instruction, but so is the conventional. This tells you almost everything you need to know about atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the environment of a classical school is ordered to sustaining the quest for virtue, creativity, and insight. It embodies the humane principles expressed in the foregoing. It cannot be a cheap imitation of what is happening around us. Conventional environment strives for what they consider efficiency. It’s hard to know what end this efficiency serves, because it doesn’t support effective instruction. It seems to be oriented to moving people around efficiently more than to learning effectively.

I am well aware that the foregoing is overly simplified. In the future I will attempt to address the questions with a little more nuance. Nevertheless, in their essential philosophy and approaches, classical and conventional move in radically different directions and operate on radically different assumptions. My intention is not to be unkind or harsh, but to get at the bare ideas.

Forgive me for any injustice in the foregoing. I will strive to be fair in what follows. The main goal of this post is to help me understand classical education better by drawing a sharp contrast between it and conventional education. I do not pretend that the two do not have a great deal in common and that much good is not done in conventional education.

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