In her "Lost Tools of Learning," Dorothy Sayers describes what it means to be classically educated. The following essay discusses some of the forms of "classical" education found today in the USA. It is apparent that the designation "classical" can be employed in ways that definitely as not. This essays appears at the website of Logos School Materials.
What is Classical Education?
The resurgence of classical education over the last decade has been heartening in many respects, but some aspects of it are a bit confusing. No one holds the copyright on the word classical, and given the nature of the word, there has been something of a scramble in the various manifestations of classical education. This is not surprising, especially in a time when classical can refer to a ’57 Chevy, an original cola formula, the early Beach Boys, or a classic rock radio station.
Within the field of education, the word classical has a number of legitimate applications and a few spurious ones. There is the democratic classicism promoted by Mortimer Adler. There is the elite classicism of the well-established wealthy prep schools. We also see the classical approach advocated by David Hicks, which has been called “moral classicism.” And then there is the classicism argued for in these pages and practiced in the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS) schools. Among these contenders for the term, the one thing necessary is care in definition. These various schools of thought should not fight for the glory of sole possession, but rather argue in such a way that what everyone means is clear. Put another way, every form of classicism should be able to agree on the importance of early definition of terms in any discussion or debate.
But, unfortunately, because the world is the messy kind of place it is and because America is the kind of place it is, we should also expect to find various knock-offs and counterfeits. One common practice is simply to take whatever the school was already doing and simply call it classical.
Another less-than-adequate approach introduces just enough of a classical touch (one elective, say, on Latin word origins) to persuade inquiring parents that a classical education is being provided. In the long run, it is not necessary to engage such practices in debate, for, as Cicero would have said (had he thought of it), the proof is in the pudding.
In their survey of the classical school resurgence, Gene Veith and Andrew Kern provide the valuable service of identifying differences and similarities in the various legitimate classical approaches. For example, they compare the classical Christian approach with the democratic classicism advocated by Adler.
There are significant differences between the ACCS and the Paideia schools. ACCS questions the validity of state schooling; by contrast, the Paideia proposal is specifically geared to the reform of public schools. Religion is foundational to the ACCS curriculum, and Christianity is the point of integration through which all knowledge is made complete. Paideia does not dismiss the importance of religion, but its approach is more secular, and its foundational value is democracy. If the approach of ACCS can be described as Christian classicism, Paideia’s can best be described as democratic classicism.1
Various aspects of this proposal have already been discussed in earlier chapters. Here it is only important to point out that the Paideia proposal, as a great books program, is a legitimately classical approach to education. But for classical Christian educators, “classical” is not enough. We want our schools to be thoroughly and rigorously Christian as well.
Then there is elite classicism. For one example, Thomas Jefferson School in St. Louis offers a rigorous elite education. But is it classical? On one of their brochures they answer the question this way: The term “classical” implies different things to different people. The subjects we teach and the works we include in our syllabi are, for the most part, time-tested and acknowledged as important by most educated people and by American colleges. But the material, or the approach to it, may in some cases be as new as the current year. An English class may study Maya Angelou alongside Shakespeare. In biology class, the student will not only gain a knowledge of anatomy, accumulated over centuries, but will also learn about the latest advances in knowledge of the human genome. A student reading the Odyssey in Greek will not only be sharing an experience that goes back 2,500 years but will also be viewing Odysseus and his adventures through the eyes of a 21st-century citizen. We leave it to each reader to decide whether our program fits his or her own definition of a classical education.2
Not only is the education rigorous, but the classical and time-tested aspects of the curriculum are mixed in an eclectic way with more modern elements—Maya Angelou alongside Shakespeare. Of course, some might say this is not a mixture of modern and ancient, but rather a mixture of the time-tested and the trendy.
Still, the parents of students enrolled in such academies are paying, ahem, significant amounts in tuition, and they are not doing this in order to get illiterate kids back. The standards are clearly very high. But at the same time, the standards are high because of the social position of the families of the students and the social position of the school. In the other classical academies the standards are high because the schools are trying to recapture something, take something back. With some of the more well-heeled, established schools the standards are high because the schools inherited such standards.
Veith and Kern point to another classical approach, which might be called moral classicism. The leader in this movement is David Hicks. In his book Norms and Nobility he sets out his approach to education. Veith and Kern discuss Adler’s Paideia proposal, the ACCS approach, and the Hicks approach. Or if we think of them in terms of their pedagogical ancestry, the Aristotelian approach, the Augustinian approach, and the Platonic approach.
If the ACCS offers a Christian classicism and Paideia champions a democratic classicism, Hicks can be described as a spokesman for a moral classicism. Each approach to classicism described here rests on somewhat different philosophical foundations, though their intentions and methods are quite similar and compatible. Douglas Wilson is an Augustinian: his school teaches that which can be known with systematic rigor, but it does so with an awareness of human sin, the need for God’s grace and sovereignty over all of life, positions that characterize Wilson’s specifically Reformed, Calvinist theology. . . . Mortimer Adler is an Aristotelian, and the Paideia proposal reflects the scrutiny of purpose, making of distinctions, and commonsense rationalism that are Aristotle’s legacy to Western thought. Hicks finds his inspiration in Plato. He builds his educational theory around a search for the ideal and a conviction that education should be a path to virtue. His curriculum is akin to the classical humanism of the Renaissance, which studies the humanistic disciplines to cultivate man’s potential.3
The ACCS approach to education is specifically and distinctively Christian, and hence it is more dogmatic and settled than what either Adler or Hicks would propose. The purpose of an open mind, the Christian classicists would say, paraphrasing Chesterton, is the same as the purpose of an open mouth—it is meant to close on something. While ACCS schools vary among themselves in their doctrinal commitments—some are Reformed, some more Lutheran, and others are confessional evangelical—they all would glory in their doctrinal commitment, seeing that commitment as the only way to gain educational traction in a slippery world.
Hick’s and Adler’s approaches have in common a dedication to dialectic in education. “The first characteristic of a classical school, according to Hicks, is its reliance on dialectic.”4
For ACCS schools, dialectic is one part of the educational process but not a first principle. The goal in classical Christian schools is to move from grammar to dialectic, and then from dialectic on to rhetoric. To remain in the dialectic would be considered a failure.
The goals vary as well. Adler would want to train students to be able to participate in the great conversation with intelligence and grace. While not differing with this, Hicks would want more of an emphasis on moral improvement. “Hick’s goal is to restore to education norms—standards of morality and excellence—and to education, the elevation of young students to lives of virtue and achievement.”5
So, then, what is the definition of classical education? It is important to understand that I am giving a stipulated definition. In no way do I begrudge other legitimate uses of the phrase. In other words, classical education, as I am using the phrase, refers to a particular pedagogical approach together with an emphasis on passing on the heritage of the West. The pedagogy refers to our commitment to Dorothy Sayers’s basic insight—that children grow naturally through stages that correspond nicely with the three elements of the Trivium. We teach the grammar of all subjects to the younger children; we teach dialectic to the children of junior-high age; and we teach the rhetorical disciplines to the high school students.
At the same time, Western culture receives the emphasis it does because this is the culture in which the Christian faith has made the greatest advances. Western civilization is not synonymous with the kingdom of God, but the histories of the two entities are so intertwined that one cannot be understood apart from the other. Try to imagine a decent history of the West that made no reference to Christianity or a church history that made no mention of Charlemagne or Constantine. We do not teach Western culture in a jingoistic fashion; rather, we believe that students who are taught to love their own culture will understand why other people love theirs. A man who honors his mother understands another man honoring his. In contrast, our society’s multicultural experiment attempts to teach children to respect the cultures of others by instilling in them a practical contempt for their own. But global harmony will take far more than occasional food fairs with samples of international spicy foods.
Gene Edward Veith, Jr., and Andrew Kern, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington D.C.: Capital Research Center, 2001), p. 26.
“Thomas Jefferson School Curriculum Guide.” The school is located at 4100 South Lindbergh Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63127.
Veith and Kern, Classical Education, p. 33-34.
Ibid., p. 36.
Ibid., p. 40.
Related reading: Response to Sayers' Lost Tools of Learning