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Principles of Classical Education

Principles Derived from the End of Classical Education


The purpose of Classical Education is to cultivate 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 ultimate end of Classical Christian education is to enable the student (disciple) to better know, glorify, and enjoy God. Since we are able to know things with which we have a common nature, the more we are like God the better we can know Him. A student gives glory to God when he is like Him. Our enjoyment of God is derived from our ability to see Him and to see His handiwork.


In a Christian school, learning is not an end in itself.  Instead, the classical Christian teacher asks God to use his teaching, dispositions, and actions as an instrument in His hand to cultivate the students’ souls toward holiness.  In this sense, learning can be a means of grace

Ordo Amoris (the order of affections):

To fulfill a lower order good, one must proceed to the good of the next highest order (i.e. to fulfill the good of finishing homework, the student must proceed to the slightly higher good of trying to get a good grade; to rightly gain food and shelter we must seek first the  kingdom of God and His righteousness; to get into the most appropriate college and to do well when we get there, we must seek wisdom and virtue).
Failure to recognize this principle in every area of education and life leads to a disordered soul and a school that cannot succeed in what it values most highly. To nurture a rightly ordered souls requires the cultivation of the moral imagination.


Schooling is not the purpose of life or of childhood and it has value only to the degree to which it enables the child to fulfill his purpose as a particular human being. It is not fitting for a school to dominate a child’s life or to ask a child to perform exercises that have no value beyond school.

Principles Derived From The Nature of Education


Every curriculum is guided by metaphysical commitments and every teacher, school, and parent lives within a metaphysical vision of reality. The classical Christian is committed to an idealistic, logo-centric metaphysic. Christ is the Logos, or unifying principle of the classical Christian curriculum. The quest for wisdom and virtue is a quest for unattainable ideals; the degree to which we attain these ideals is the degree to which we fulfill our humanity.


Education is an epistemological exercise. This means that everything that happens in education is the enactment of beliefs and assumptions about what it means to know and how a person comes to know.  Every school is an apologetic for the epistemology it represents.  Classical Christian epistemology is rational, moral, and personal (i.e. it is not the mind, but the person who knows and knowledge is gained personally). It recognizes that students come to know ideas by seeing them embodied in particular instances.


The classical world sought for centuries for an integrating principle of all that is and all that can be known. They called this principle, the Logos. Classical Christian education integrates all teaching in Christ.  He is the “logos” that binds every subject in a universal harmony, makes sense of all things, and lifts learning and knowledge to the realm of eternal meaning. He is the creator of the orderly universe and the Word who explains all words.  He is the sun of the solar system, giving order and meaning to the planets, and making them knowable in His light. In Him are contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. To integrate is to honor the nature of each subject or science and to rightly order each subject in its relations to the other subjects.


When a unifying principle is applied to the entire curriculum and philosophy of education, the result is a program characterized by integration, harmony, and a consistency controlled by principles.


Only when ideas are the focus of learning can a curriculum be integrated. Only when a curriculum is integrated can it help the souls running its course attain the integrity suited to it.
The soul feeds on ideas, and the great ideas are most perfectly expressed in great books and great artifacts. Content and skills must be mastered in order for the student to absorb ideas, but they cannot serve as adequate integrating principles.

Hierarchy of learning:

All learning depends on prerequisites being mastered before going on to the next level of knowledge. Poetic knowledge is the foundation of all knowledge, academic or otherwise.The seven liberal arts serve as the base of the curriculum. Next come the natural sciences. A person can master the natural sciences only to the degree to which he has mastered the seven liberal arts. After the natural sciences come the humane sciences, or the sciences of human behavior and the soul. The student’s ability to master the humane sciences is dependent on his mastery of the natural sciences. Following the humane sciences in the nature of learning come the metaphysical or philosophical sciences. The student’s ability to master the philosophical sciences is dependent on his mastery of the humane sciences. The capstone of learning is the theological sciences. Again, by the nature of the case, a person is able to master the theological sciences only to the degree to which he has mastered all the lower arts and sciences. The removal of Christ as the Logos of the curriculum has led to the disintegration of learning and the specialization of subjects without regard for the prerequisite studies or the relationships and interdependences of subjects. Practically, Classical Christian education seeks to integrate and order the elements of the curriculum around the issues raised in the Humane Letters program. Education is a humane activity, not merely naturalistic scientific; therefore the humane studies are recognized as universally prioritized. Consequently, the ideal classical Christian teacher will have attained mastery at least to the level of the humane sciences (literature, history, ethics, and politics). This mastery need not be theoretical. It is more important to be able to “do” than to be able to explain how to do something.

“Multum non Multas” (Much, Not Many):

Classical Christian education deals deeply with few subjects, rather than hastily with many.  The subjects reflect her emphasis on the seven liberal arts, mastery of which develops the content and skills that flow through all of the modern subjects. The Classical Christian opposes premature specialization (specific training in a given subject or skill for its own sake or for practical purposes, e.g. literature, drafting, etc.) or meaningless generalization, seeking instead an education that consistently recognizes the relationship of all skills and subjects to each other and teaches the foundational skills that every later subject requires.

Principles Derived From the Nature of the Child


The child is a living and eternal soul to be nourished, not a product to be molded. In general, organic metaphors are much more suited to reflection on the nature of a child than industrial metaphors or statistical data.

Stages of Growth:

Education should correspond to the growth of the child (which Dorothy Sayers, among others, outlines generally), but in so doing the quality and depth of the instruction must not be sacrificed to the interests or even the skills of the child.  The purpose of childhood is training for adulthood, not amusement.


Education begins with the cultivation of good taste—that is, a taste for truth, goodness, and beauty.  Good taste includes a taste for the virtues of diligence and order. Order is emphasized in the environment of the Classical Christian School, the souls that live in it, and the relationships among the people in it.

Moral greatness:

As A. N. Whitehead said, “Moral education is impossible apart from the vision of greatness.  If we are not great it does not matter what we do.”  Artificial greatness as expressed in vanity and vainglory is strenuously resisted.  The greatness the Classical Christian seeks is the true greatness of wisdom and virtue.  This vision of greatness guides the Classical Christian in his curriculum decisions and the conduct of his school.


Discipline is the foundation of every kind of creativity and maturity.

Principles Related to the Teacher and the Art of Teaching


Education is the cultivation of the soul and is not to be reduced to the molding of behavior.  The soul feeds on ideas, and the great ideas are found in great books and great artifacts.


The curriculum guide, what the teachers teach in the learning context, and the substance and modes of assessing what is learned must be aligned by working to the same end.


Students work and performance should be assessed by instructors who are qualified to assess what has been taught. Assessment should include but must not be limited to analytical, numeric assessments. Assessment is dangerous. Unspeakable disruption has occurred in American schools by their adoption of assessments and measures derived from industrial management and military theories. If teachers are unable to assess student performance they should not be teaching. If they are able, they must be trusted, for only a person with judgment can exercise the discretion necessary for successful instruction.


From the most ancient times, teachers have recognized that teaching moves in one of two directions: from the particular instance to the universal idea (induction), or from the universal idea to the particular instance (deduction). Two modes of instruction were developed to optimize the power in these movements: the Didactic mode and the Socratic mode, each of which incorporates elements of both induction and deduction. The classical Christian teacher will strive to master both of these modes of teaching, fitting his own individual strengths and tastes into their parameters. Speaking precisely, there is no classical methodology when a method is understood to mean a strictly repeated process with a predictable outcome. There are no strictly repeated processes that can educate a human soul and there are no meaningful outcomes that are sufficiently predictable.


The ideal classical Christian teacher will have attained mastery to the level of the humane sciences (literature, history, ethics, and politics). This mastery need not be theoretical. It is more important to be able to “do” than to be able to explain how to do something. Every classical Christian teacher needs to be committed to growing in his mastery of all seven liberal arts and the school needs to provide opportunity for that growth. In addition, the ideal classical Christian teacher speaks with authority on the arts and sciences he teaches. To speak with authority is to speak with judgment, a capacity made possible when one understands the causes of a thing.


No skill should ever be free from further development.  The teacher models this, and sees to it that the student never stops developing.  The environment of a classical Christian school cultivates a community of learning.  All instruction in the early years looks to the instruction of later years.

Principles Related To The Community

Vocation and Commission:

The classical Christian community is driven by the demands of its vocation (calling) and commission (task), not by the circumstances in which it finds itself (though one cannot reach one’s destination while ignoring the road he is driving on and failing to keep gas in the tank!).


The tone of the school, the conduct of the teachers, the relationships among all members of the school community, and the language used in the Classical Christian school are characterized by reverence.  Awe, sublimity, and joyful solemnity describe the atmosphere and are the foundations of submission throughout the school.  “Dignitas” and “nobilitas” are demanded of every member of the school community.

Social Hierarchy:

The lesser is blessed by the greater “without controversy.”  Teachers do not seek to sink down to the level of the student but to raise the student to the level of the teacher.  A wall of separation is maintained between the teacher and the student.  Submission and deference guide those who are lower in the hierarchy, while humility and duty guide those who are higher; authority is derived from the role and people are hired only when they have the qualifications, i.e. the prerequisites demanded by the nature of the position, to fulfill the duties implied in the role.

Historical Perspective:

The Classical Christian recognizes that he lives in a historical continuum and that his duty to give honor to whom it is due extends both to his ancestors and to his descendants.


The Classical Christian deliberately cultivates a formality in the atmosphere of the school.  He seeks, not the artificial formality of the arrogant, but the true formality of the wise who continually seek to give every idea its fitting expression.  The guiding principle of Classical Christian formality is the appropriateness of the form, not the convenience of the expression.


The knowledge, insights, or experiences we are given lay on each of us the duty of stewardship.  “To whom much is given, much will be required.” What we do with what we are given is the principle of our accountability.