The Four Elements of Classical Education
Classical education cultivates wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. The ancient Greeks and Romans recognized that free citizens require an education that enlarges the mind and cultivates the soul. They believed that the cultivation of virtue, knowledge of the world and of human nature, active citizenship, and practical action all demand this purpose-driven education. When Christianity was planted in the soil of the classical world, its adherents found what was good and true in classical thought, purged out the dross, and handed on the rest to their heirs.
In recent decades, as the classical renewal in education has matured, we have sought to understand its nature and secrets and to discover its essential ingredients.
This essay proposes four elements that define classical education:
- A high view of man
- Responsibility for the Western tradition
- A pedagogy that sustains these commitments
A HIGH VIEW OF MAN
In the heart of classical education beats the conviction that the human being is a creature of timeless significance. The Christian goes so far as to see him as the Image of God, the lord-steward of the creation on whose virtue the well-being of the earth and its inhabitants depends, and as a priest, offering the creation to God for the sake of its flourishing and his own blessedness.
The purpose of classical education, therefore, is to cultivate human excellence or virtue.
Yet this high view of man is no self-indulgent fantasy, for it carries with it the duty to strive for nobility that the classical educator perceives in every person. Human flourishing depends, not on one’s material well-being or adjustment to society, but on one’s relation to the true, the good, and the beautiful.
In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks argues that a fully rendered image of man includes three domains: the social, the individual, and the religious. Educators, then, must envision students’ engagement in their communities, both as voters and as leaders. Educators must also recognize that students have their own spiritual lives on which their citizenship and their economic life depend. A wise and virtuous citizenry not only supports the economy through entrepreneurship and innovation, it also challenges the powerful with well-reasoned arguments rooted in a love for liberty and virtue. A classical education cultivates the creative and spiritual lives of students so that the much-celebrated (and much neglected) “whole child” is truly prepared for real life, without losing touch with his deepest and most intimate self. Thus are all three dimensions honored, and society benefits from the membership and quiet influence of well-rounded, healthy persons.
According to the classical tradition, the true, the good, and the beautiful are the soul’s nourishment. Furthermore, as Image of God, a person is able to know them. To fulfill this role, a person’s human faculties to perceive truth, to love and reproduce the beautiful, and to revere and act on the good must be cultivated. A faculty refined to a pitch of excellence becomes a virtue, such as wisdom or kindness. Christian classical education cultivates the human capacity to know and act on this holy triumvirate, thus nurturing wise and virtuous souls.
Furthermore, the classical educator lives in a knowable and harmonious cosmos that makes ultimate sense. A system can make sense only if it possesses a unifying principle, or “Logos.” Without such a logos, true knowledge is impossible.
Christians recognize that Christ is that Logos. He makes reason possible, harmonizes everything, and creates the conditions for ordered, knowable truth. He is the unifying principle of thought, the key in which the music of the spheres is played, the archetype of every virtue.
The commitment to a logos that makes ultimate sense of the cosmos and makes knowledge possible is expressed in the word, “Logocentrism.” According to a logocentric view of the universe, organized knowledge can be discovered, arranged, and even taught. This is the first principle of the Christian classical curriculum.
As everything is ordered by a logos, so each particular thing has its own logos, or nature—in Latin, species. The power to see truth is the ability to see the nature of particular things and to see each of them in their relations to each other. The tools of learning enable a learner to identify the nature of a thing and to relate to that thing in a manner suited to its nature. Without this knowledge, a human cannot bless what he is interacting with, whether it be a horse, a farm, or a child’s soul.
Perceiving that humans live in a cosmos that makes ultimate sense and that they share it with other members of that cosmos, each of which can be known according to their natures, the Christian classical educator is reminded of his responsibility as a steward and priest. The knowledge available to us is not given to amass power, but to cultivate and guard the earth. The whole creation groans and travails when creation’s lord shirks his stewardship of stewardship.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE TRADITION
Classical educators take responsibility for Western civilization. The West is unique in its view of mankind as the Image of a transcendent God and in its acceptance of the view that both truth and the world can be known. These commitments are the hinges for much that defines Western civilization.
Western civilization is the property of all who live in America. Our national roots have grown deep in the customs, traditions, discoveries, and conversations that make up American, British, European, Greek, Roman, and Hebrew history. It is our privilege to receive and to share this heritage, and it is just as immoral to keep it from others as it is to despise our heritage.
Christ formulated the essential political doctrine of the West: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” But this idea permeated Western thought from the time when Moses freed the Israelites from their Pharaoh-worshipping masters and when Aristotle developed his politics and ethics.
Truth alone, the tradition insists, can sustain the political ideals of liberty and human rights. If the truth cannot be known and does not govern human societies, then there is nothing to restrain the rulers. If rights are not derived from truth, then they are granted by the ever-changing state. Liberty and knowable truth are interdependent.
Because truth is needed to be healthy and free, classical educators believe that to empower the powerless, prepare students for a job, and enable future citizens to play their role in society, every child needs a classical education: deliberate training in perceiving the true, the good, and the beautiful through the tools of learning.
The classical educator understands that Western civilization is as full of vice as it is of virtue. He does not “privilege” or even idealize Western civilization; he assumes responsibility for it. While the conventional educator seems to see Western civilization as something to escape, the classical educator sees it as the locus of his vocation.
He demands a conversation that challenges his culture and himself with the standards of the true, the good, and the beautiful. He understands that survival and power are not their own justifications. Agreeing with the oracle that, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he continues the Western habit of perpetual self-examination.
He appreciates that the Western tradition contains elements of restless idealism, non-conformity, and self-examination. These have always threatened the status quo while also revealing new springs of cultural nourishment. One of the goals of classical education is to discern the appropriate manner by which the mistreated and oppressed can challenge their oppressors without destroying their civilization.
While the classical educator recognizes the West’s recent achievements, especially in technology, he fears that, having lost its moorings in knowable truth, the West has become deaf to challenges from within its own tradition. The modern West, to the classical educator, is the prodigal son, energetically spending his inheritance, perhaps far from “coming to himself.”
Nevertheless, while the classical educator may agree with those who contend that the West is in decline, his sense of responsibility prohibits despair. Instead, he diagnoses the decline as the loss of confidence in the true, the good, and the beautiful and offers a cure in the renewed quest for that truth, goodness, and beauty. To this end, he offers a classical education.
AN APPROPRIATE PEDAGOGY
Western civilization, the classical educator believes, offers its children a rich heritage on which they can feed their own souls and those of their neighbors. The classical curriculum provides the means to do so.
The classical curriculum can be divided into two stages. First, the student masters the arts of learning. Then he uses the skills and tools mastered to enter the great conversation, which is another way to say, to study the sciences.
The classical curriculum begins with an apprenticeship in what has come to be known as the “tools of learning,” a term coined by Aristotle when he developed his elementary handbooks. He called them The Organon, which is Greek for “tool.” The Organon provided the foundation of the trivium in the medieval school and was combined with the quadrivium to form the seven liberal arts.
These arts of learning give the classical curriculum its form. Those who master them gain access to a realm of unified knowledge that includes the natural and moral sciences, philosophy, and theology.
The seven liberal arts are not subjects per se, nor do they compose a “general education.” Instead, they are the arts of learning that enable one to move from subject to subject, text to text, or idea to idea, knowing how to handle the particular subject, text, or idea. More than that, they introduce the student to the arts and convictions needed for a community and its members to remain free. They are the trunk of the tree of learning, on which the various sciences are branches.
Probably the term with which classical education is most closely associated in the popular mind is the word trivium, which is a paradigm for the mastery of language. The Latin trivium literally means “where three roads meet,” and it refers to grammar, logic, and rhetoric. But the trivium applies to far more than language. To be educated in any discipline, you must (1) know its basic facts (grammar); (2) be able to reason clearly about it (logic); and (3) communicate its ideas and apply it effectively (rhetoric). Nevertheless, the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric is fundamentally a collection of language arts.
The priority the classical educator places on language turns his attention to the classical languages: Latin and Greek. Tracy Lee Simmons proposes in Climbing Parnassus that classical education is “a curriculum grounded upon … Greek, Latin and the study of the civilization from which they arose.” Ravi Jain and Kevin Clarke add, “The indispensability of the study of classical languages … is something that our schools will have to realize if they desire faithfully to remain in the classical tradition.” Classical educators defend Latin and Greek in a number of ways. They are convinced that language studies discipline the mind. Nothing cultivates attentiveness, memory, precision of thought, the ability to think in principles, communication, and overall accuracy like the study of Latin and Greek.
In addition, Greek and Latin authors recorded an astounding range and depth of political thought from a wider perspective over a longer period of time and covering a wider geography than is embodied in any other language. In the study of literature, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton become isolated from their sources when the student encounters a language barrier between himself and Virgil, Ovid, or Homer. Most theology has been recorded in, and the church has sung its hymns in, Latin and Greek from the time of the apostles and the first martyrs.
The Great Conversation that is the beating heart of Western civilization took place in Latin and Greek and their offspring. A Western community lacking citizens versed in Latin and Greek must lose its heritage. The citizenry will communicate, vote, work, and think in a manner increasingly isolated from the sources of their own identity. For those who love their heritage and who want to offer the riches of that heritage to others, the classical languages are the sine qua non. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America, “All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind.”
Reality is linguistic. It is also mathematical. That is why the classical tradition emphasizes the quadrivium, the four liberal arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These arts were related to mathematics because they dealt with numbers considered under different aspects.
Jain and Clarke have made an eloquent case for the quadrivium and the powers of the four mathematical arts. The ancients believed “that arithmetic led the soul from wonder to wisdom.” Euclidian geometry “provides the paradigm of certain and airtight reasoning.” Astronomy, the centerpiece of ancient science and the key to profound mysteries, gave birth to modern science. Music, surprisingly to the modern, was a driver of the scientific revolution. “It may,” say Clarke and Jain, “be the chief art of the quadrivium.” Until very recently, a man could not claim to be well-educated until he had mastered the quadrivium.
Classical educators see the arts of the quadrivium as essential tools that enable us to perceive the reality of the world around us and our relation to it. They also discipline and open the mind. Therefore, say Jain and Clarke, “Classical schools must uphold a high standard for mathematical education precisely for its special role in human formation and developing the virtue of the mind.” It is important to remember, however, that the trivium and quadrivium are not discrete subjects. They are modes of learning. Nor are they ends in themselves. They are tools for learning. The thing learned is knowledge, for which the Latin word is scientia, or science. A science, then, is a domain of knowing.
To the classical educator, the word science is much more inclusive than its conventional use. While the modern usually thinks of science as natural science, the classical educator recognizes that there are other kinds of knowledge, much more practical, though less precise, than natural science. These include the moral sciences (history, ethics, politics, etc.), philosophy, and theology.
Natural science deals with knowledge of the material world. Moral science considers human flourishing and is driven by the question: “How is virtue cultivated in the soul and in community?” Philosophical science explores first causes and theories of knowledge. Theological science is the knowledge of God and His revelation. Each science gains its own kind of knowledge, responding to its own set of inquiries and developing its own tools to gain the kind of knowledge it seeks.
The experimentation and calculation used in the natural sciences can contribute to discussions over ethical matters, but these tools are not adequate to answer either the daily questions that make up human life or the large socio-political issues that determine the destinies of human society. For this, what Socrates called “dialectic”, and what has come to be called the great conversation, is necessary. Russell Kirk argued that, “The end of liberal education is the disciplining of free minds.” The mean to that end is the great conversation, an exploration of the human soul and the quest for the best way to live the truth in present circumstances. It draws the students’ attention to soul-fortifying ideas that reflect permanently relevant truths. Contemplating the great books and great works of art draws the student out of himself and his own age into those permanent and powerful tools for living and to the truths that transcend the practical.
The classical curriculum is a formidable and comprehensive theory of education. It is one of the great creations of Western thought. By mastering the tools of the seven liberal arts and participating in the great conversation, the student is nourished in all his faculties and equipped for the never-ending battle (internal and external) for liberty rooted in truth, where virtue can be cultivated and beauty can be incarnated in art, action, custom, and thought.
In closing, it must be added that this course cannot be properly run if the pedagogy does not match it in goal and means. Only dialectical engagement with the truth can lead to the soul’s apprehension of that truth. Only a true apprenticeship in the tools of truth-seeking can set a person free. There can be no guarantees.
Can classical education be adapted to the needs and culture of the twenty-first century? Yes, it can. It is neither of one time nor one culture but is grounded in human nature and in the nature of learning.
Classical education offers an intellectual framework that is disciplined and liberating, open both to the past and to new knowledge.
Looking for more information on Christian classical education? Here are several books worth diving into and contemplating deeply. All of these books can be found at circeinstitute.org.
• Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, by David Hicks
• The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical
Education, by Scott Clark and Ravi Jain
• Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith and Andrew Kern, new edition edited by Brian
• Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, by Tracy Lee Simmons
• “The Lost Tools of Learning”, an essay by Dorothy Sayers
• The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
• Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, by Stratford Caldecott
• Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition, by
• When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and
Christian Thought, by John Mark Reynolds
• The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph
• Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child, by Cheryl Swope
This essay is adapted from the book, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith and Andrew Kern. New edition edited by Dr. Brian Phillips. Published by Capital Research Center.