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Classical Education: Timely, Timeless, and Tried-and-True

To what end, and how, should we educate our children? We live in a global arena, filled with philosophies conflicting with one another and in which fundamental ways of life are relentlessly challenged by technological flux, economic uncertainty, social unrest, and political chaos. Answering the question requires contemplative, careful decisions. Our society struggles to find answers. This is largely because we have focused on training versus emphasizing what was, for millennia, the understanding of education as a good in and of itself: to nurture well-rounded character, responsible citizenry, virtuous people, and a coherent, aesthetically fruitful culture. 

Jennings L. Wagoner writes, in Jefferson and Education, that Thomas Jefferson hoped education “…would elevate…the people to the moral status necessary to insure good government and public safety and happiness. To Jefferson, the survival of all the freedoms being declared and fought for in the Revolution ultimately depended less on the outcome of battles than on the enlightenment of the people.” Sadly, within the space of about two hundred years, educator Eva Brann noted in Paradoxes of Education in a Republic that, “…it is not too inaccurate a synopsis to claim that the notion of training the mind for use belongs peculiarly to the mainstream of modernity.”  

As Brann points out, we are educating our children for societal use—like robots we can program and command without thought of repercussion to their souls. Today, we pay lip service to our esteem of education; but we must change course and embark upon a serious examination of our predominant educational paradigm, taking advice from Neil Postman, who wrote in The End of Education, “…at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despises it. Nonetheless, it is the weightiest and most important…” concern. 

The answer to the burning question about education has been under our noses all along: a timely return to the timelessness of classical education. Its roots reach into antiquity and its influence remained palpably potent well into the 20th century. Gene Veith and Andrew Kern wisely note in Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America: “Classical education employs the wisdom of the past to address present needs.” Such an education cultivates people who can live harmoniously in the world, encouraging virtuous habits, wisdom, and a desire for Truth. In contrast, our current methods stress training. This utilitarian emphasis on training is an ever-changing landscape. It produces an inexorable need to adapt the training to specific situations rather than universal principles aligned with life and human nature. It engenders fragmentation and disillusionment. Classical pedagogy, however, upholds universal human knowledge with respect to transcendent Truth, Goodness, and Beauty for consistent patterns of integration and optimism. 

Our tunnel-vision focus on training paradoxically reduces training itself to irrelevance—especially with the advent of sophisticated artificial intelligence. If people are treated mechanistically as “living tools” which can then be trained to use technological tools, there will be cultural stagnation and decay. Again, classical education is the antidote. It enculturates adaptation in effective and relevant ways to fluctuating circumstances, including changing technologies. In stark contrast to causing disintegration, classical education equips human beings who are forward looking, innovative, and able to contribute to a stable, humane civilization. 

Contemporary education, with its highly mechanistic nature and heavily bureaucratic characteristics, enforces a utilitarian top-down, one-size-fits-all conglomerate model. Not only does individual work generally become irrelevant, but individual people are swept aside: their abilities, talents, skills, hopes, and dreams are swallowed up by an anti-human monolith that strives above all else for its own self-perpetuation. Classical education, on the other hand, helps individuals flourish with agency in their communities. They think and imagine independently. They show initiative in their specific circumstances and beyond. They impact others not simply as “users-of-technologies” who are in turn used, but by acting with liberty in positive ways – with virtue (acting rightly), wisdom (choosing wisely), and truth (behaving with integrity).  

The timelessness of classical education is what makes it so timely. Contemporary education is a collapsing edifice. This is now painfully apparent, from students failing to achieve basic math and language literacies to companies battling to hire employees who are qualified by character, skill, and mastery of knowledge. Classical education, with its tried-and-true form and content that has withstood centuries intact with steadiness and integration, offers the remedy.  

Due to the ever-evolving pedagogies responding to constantly moving goal posts of training, contemporary education has found that reliance on quantitative assessment of training necessitates repeated adjustment of assessment itself. Just as training becomes increasingly irrelevant—as technology does more and exceeds the understanding of those who use it – assessment becomes equally irrelevant. It has reached the point when even basic capacities are viewed as outdated.  

Consider that we no longer feel it important to memorize multiplication tables, because we have calculators and, therefore, we do not need to assess whether students possess enough math comprehension to grasp the nature of multiplication (let alone the mathematical operations and concepts relying upon it). We do not see the need to teach grammar, because we have spell check and grammar tools in our writing programs, so we do not need to assess our students to see if they understand the meaning, worth, or even the necessity for the vocabulary or syntactical foundation of language. We do not acknowledge a need to teach our students to articulate themselves lucidly—after all, we believe AI will do that for us—so we do not need to assess whether students understand what excellent communication is, or even what the ultimate purpose of communication might be. 

The upshot is, we no longer teach the point of what we are learning. We no longer have effective means to evaluate what our students actually are learning. We might as well abandon the “how” we should be educating our children, because we cannot answer the question of “why” we are educating them for a world in which they, as persons, have become irrelevant. How then can we nurture free, creative, and adept people who respond astutely to the challenges of life without equipping them with foundational knowledge and capacities and having viable means of assessing those things? Simply put, we cannot.  

Classical education responds to this predicament with tried-and-true qualitative methods of assessment such as recitation, narration, discussion, and disputation which have remained constant and successful for centuries. This is because the goals—the “whys” of education—have not changed, unlike the training-based objectives that move on shifting sands. The goals are universal and have remained the same for time immemorial. Classical education turns away from the persistent need to adapt methods of assessment to training purposes. Full attention turns towards these goals themselves: seeking virtue; pursuing the good; appreciating and initiating beauty; and living out Truth. 

The intensely bureaucratic environment of contemporary education has set government up as the source of all things for people who are perceived as tools, not as wielders of them. Ultimately, adding irony to irony, people are not only not educated, they do not even become adequately trained in the use of tools. They become dependent upon the state, with its entrenched reliance on technological tools and its AI facilitators rather than its people. The inevitable result of this treatment of the human spirit is that people become apathetic at best and, at worst, enraged at their hindrances, helplessness, and hopelessness. Rather than looking to a promising future, they see only exercises in futility and struggles to survive.  

  1. K. Chesterton wrote: “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. Whatever the soul is like, it will have to be passed on somehow, consciously or unconsciously, and that transition may be called education…What we need is to have a culture before we hand it down. In other words, it is a truth, however sad and strange, that we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves” (Observer, 1924).

Tools are artifacts of culture, not the authors of it—and to teach solely to train in the use of tools is to abandon culture. This is what, to our great detriment, we have done. Classical education responds with a humane, hopeful vision based on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty while cultivating virtue, wisdom, and life lived out in ontological harmony. It sparks interconnected yet autonomous agency. It encourages a positive outlook about the future. It inspires people to build healthy and enduring legacies for generations to come even in the face of social, economic, and political turmoil (all of which have, after all, been staples of human experience since the dawn of time). The more we encourage a broad conversation about, and the reclamation of, the timely timelessness of classical education—with its tried-and-true form and content—the more culture, and the people creating it, will thrive. 





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