The heart of the difference between classical and conventional education is not in curriculum or teaching methods, though those are affected. The heart of the issue is in goals and beliefs. Our practices often entangle us so much that we can’t get back to the things that matter most.
The biggest difference is theological. Conventional education is ultimately nihilistic, believing that we live in a great meaningless vacuum. Classical education, Christian or philosophical, rests on the foundation of Being. Everything quite literally follows from this.
To move a little closer to something understandable, the next biggest difference is what I’ll call metaphysical. Conventional education is oriented toward power (college and careers, empowerment, etc.) while classical education is oriented toward truth. Which is ultimate? Which serves the other? For the classical educator, the practical serves the true, not vice versa.
At the ethical level, the difference is easier to see. The conventional educator acts on the premise that the purpose of childhood is socialization. The classical educator sees childhood as the time for moral development. Next time you read an article about education, ask yourself which of those ends directs the author’s thinking. You may be surprised by how clarifying these categories are.
In the domain of what we now misname science (better would be “natural philosophy”), the difference is that the conventional educator specializes the sciences into their own silos while the classical educator regards them as human activities subject to the same dialectical review from the whole that every other domain of knowledge is subject to.
What I mean by that is that the classical educator doesn’t see natural science as the only way to gain knowledge, and doesn’t believe that ethics, metaphysics, and theology should be subjected to the exceptionally limited knowledge attainable through the methods of the natural sciences, and demands that the natural sciences pay attention to ethical, philosophical, and even theological matters when they do their work.
By nature, the natural sciences are not ultimate. They only come into being in a context where metaphysics and theology support them. For example, cultures that believe the world is an illusion don’t develop the natural sciences very far.
That leads to the final basic distinction I’ll mention here and that is the one that arises in the daily practical activities of the classical educator.
Because the classical educator believes in a real-world that gives up ordered knowledge of itself, he teaches the student how to get that knowledge. The seven liberal arts were quite deliberately developed for precisely that reason. Believing that we can know truth, and believing that truth sets us free, classical educators spent thousands of years refining the tools of truth-seeking that were used from the beginning of time but were first codified by Aristotle.
The seven liberal arts are not enough to overcome sin. But the mind that refuses to learn them out of a false sense of piety has lost its way. The seven liberal arts are the ultimate refinement of common sense. They enable us to use the God-given faculties of reason to discover truth. They can even, if we use them in a sanctified way, help us overcome sin and folly. To sit around listening for the voice of God in a mystical way when He is already speaking to us and expressing His will through the law of non-contradiction and the rising of the sun is not spiritually sound.
But that is a digression. The point is that a Christian school that doesn’t teach the seven liberal arts is robbing its students of their heritage because it was the Christian community that identified and refined these tools of learning into the superpowerful tool for thinking that they became.
The conventional educator, on the other hand, regards truth not as something that the soul can perceive but as something relative and subjective. You have your truth; I have mine. That is synonymous for, “There is no truth.” And it lays the foundation for a teaching approach and a curriculum that is ordered to the emptiness that I claimed above was the ultimate goal of conventional education.
There is nothing to know. Just get yours: empowerment, college, career, etc. Since there is no truth to align your soul and action with, you need to learn how to socialize (i.e. fit in). We’ll teach you that. We’ve got some scientific dogma that sustains that philosophy, so all of your science instruction will be surrounded by that dogma, which only a complete idiot would ever challenge. Yes, that will make your life meaningless and yes it will make science boring for most of you, but that’s the price that has to be paid. Also, you must understand that science is the ultimate arbiter of every issue because ethics, philosophy, and theology can’t be proven scientifically (and the circular reasoning behind that is none of your business). There is no room to challenge the hegemony of science. We will use it to defend our ideologies at all times and at all costs, so don’t challenge its sovereignty. And don’t waste our time with rubbish about the seven liberal arts. Freedom is a charming idea for rich people to think about, but we’re empowering the down and out by keeping them in our schools that prevent them from learning how to find truth on their own. We don’t have time for truth. Too many children are uninsured and underfed. The planet is melting. There is no time to figure out whether those things are really happening because the implications are just too great. So stop wasting time reading old books, learning how to think, and communicating your discoveries to each other. Do as you are told and we’ll all progress into the next century sexually liberated and living in a world where the women play football and the men do as they are told. Thank God for title IX or XI or whatever and don’t ever mention him again.
Or something like that.
Being over nothing.
Truth over power.
Virtue over socialization.
Honest dialectic over radical empiricism.
Seven arts over subjective manipulation.
Those are the main differences between classical and conventional education.