Classical Education: Back to Basics
Classical education is a new term for an old path. Over the last several years it is being rediscovered. It’s the classic path, the path that was well travelled but somehow our adventurous natures took us beyond that path. As we try to rediscover how our Western Culture gave us a richness of beauty, truth and goodness that we have not been able to replicate in recent years, it turns out we’re in for a bit of a journey. This journey is presented in many different ways, styles and methods.
Way Back When
I’d like to take you back to a time before the phrase “classical education” emerged. Way back to the time when communication between human beings was primarily oral, or speaking. Some people were beginning to create systems of writing where words could be put down in a concrete, tangible ways. But it was not easy to do, so only the most important, or valued words were set down in a way that could exist outside of the human mind. Many of the texts that we have from that beginning are a good source for us to learn about who we are as human beings, but also how human beings have behaved and how or if that has changed. We need to pay special attention to some of the civilizations that existed before the birth of Christ such as the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures. These are three cultures whose words were put in written form and passed through the ages. When we take a closer look we will see that, as some of the first recorded thinkers, they presented foundational truths that have been built upon.
To be fair, it’s not easy to take a few thousand years of history and boil it down to into a neat little summary. However, like a valiant student of the subject who can’t always distinguish between brash and brave, I’ll delve in with you and take to heart what G.K. Chesterton said: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And I believe so strongly that it’s worth learning about our past because I believe that there is no other way to change our future. So let’s give this a try.
Some Truth and Good Ideas
The Greek civilization was keen to look at man as more than a physical phenomenon. Through the works of Plato we learn that man is more than a body; more than what is visible to the eye. Plato tells us about another part of man which we know to be the soul. He goes on, at tedious length I might add, to discuss what that means, and how a man can take control of his actions and become self-governed. He explains to us that to become more human, man must learn to conduct himself in a way that benefits the greater good, and the wider community of mankind. While all these ideas resonate with us, we feel something lacking. That’s because there was a major piece missing in Greek thought which became evident when, despite their efforts to be man in perfection, they were invaded by a barbarian horde who became their rulers.
Some of the barbarian hordes listened to the ideas that the Greeks had put forward, and these ideas resonated with them too. As a result, they tamed their wild natures to be able to get along for the greater good of the community, or you could say they learned to be civil. And thus, we come to one of history’s greatest civilizations, the Roman Empire. The Greek ideas became the teachers in this new order, and the idea of a self-governed man became alive as the civilization began to set up structures to rule over other people. The self-governed man was learning to rule as a governor of many men, but also how to live under a governor or many governors as good citizens. As a result of their thoughts and actions, they were able to extend their rule over less governed people and barbarians became civilized.
An Unavoidable Problem
As lovely as it might sound, this was not the utopia that man was longing for. Self-government and learning to live under man’s rule as a good citizen did not work out the way it had been planned. While many Romans were courageous and lived honorable lives, there were many cowardly and dishonest Romans. So it’s fair to ask the question: if these ideas are so great why was Greece conquered? Why did Rome fall?
Because man cannot be the perfectly self-governed individual. We know that this is true because before Plato ever drew breathe, a man named Moses lived. He was the leader of a small tribe of ex-slaves, wandering like nomads in the desert. Moses famously ascended a mountain to receive instruction from his God, the great YHWH. Moses received the powerful words spoken and etched into stone by YHWH for all the world to read: the two stone tablets of the law. He presented these words to his people and they scorned him. This Moses, beloved of YHWH, receiver of these great words was unable to contain his fully human anger towards the people. According to his God, the great YHWH that was the point. YHWH had been saying for many generations that His people could not keep these laws. But that didn’t stop Him from presenting the law to His people anyway, even after Moses destroyed the first copy deciding that the people were not worth of these great words.
Jesus is the Answer
So it was no small matter that, at the height of the Roman Empire, during the reign of one of Rome’s greatest governors, or Emperors, YHWH fulfilled his promise to take matters into His own hands and make everything right. He became man, in the form of a small baby, born in backwoods Jerusalem, far from the glory of Athens or Rome. This God-Man was to be the only perfect self-governed Man, and the only perfect Citizen that the world had ever seen. But what’s more, He would fill that longing that persisted in all mankind, even after we followed the Greek and Roman words that resonated as truth within our souls. That man was Jesus, the fulfillment of the words delivered by Moses, and the Saviour of a world that, despite its grasping for truth, would not be able to achieve perfection without Him. Because He was of another world, another Kingdom, and He calls us to be part of that kingdom too.
The Greeks present us with a model for good character. The Romans gave us the ideals for good citizenship, and the Jews bring us to Jesus and the truth of Christianity which holds all things together.
These three things are the foundation of becoming more fully human, and they build on each other. St. Paul works this out in his letters to the early church which, as you may remember was emerging from within the Roman empire. St. Paul’s instruction for good character is called the Fruit of the Spirit. St. Paul largely summarizes the verbose Plato in the succinct verse in Galatians 5:20 where he talks about the Fruit of the Spirit. We routinely pull this verse out when we are dealing with bad behaviour as if that one chapter and verse will convert a heart. Just like a good Greek would have looked to Plato’s texts. But without the Spirit, Plato’s law could not be fulfilled, and and humans had no hope of bearing fruit.
St. Paul also gives us instructions on obeying governments. It comes to us in a book of the Bible titled: Romans. St. Paul was writing to the Roman Christians on how to be good citizens. Isn’t it a bit ironic that St. Paul thought he had something to say about citizenship in a culture and age that prided itself in defining citizenship?
And finally, Jesus reveals to us that all our efforts are wasted unless we lose our lives to this world and allow him to resurrect us with our souls into the City of God; the eternal Kingdom. It’s only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we will be able to become more self-governed and therefore be good citizens.
What does all this have to do with education?
Before we choose the curriculum that we want to use to teach our kids, we have ideals that we want to teach. Most of the time our ideas or goals are not what we start with, but what we unintentionally end with. This is with good reason, since we have to deal with day to day practical issues that overshadow the ideals and lofty goals we may have. Things like the vast array of textbooks to review, government requirements to follow, and financial constraints to abide within. Then there’s the child’s attitude towards his education and work.
These things can consume our time and mental space, but if we don’t allow ourselves time to think about our ideals and goals, we will inevitably follow the spirit of the age and go with the ideals that don’t challenge us, but actually contribute to our wandering off that ancient path of truth, beauty and goodness.
The Heart of a Classical Education
So what if we turned our process on its head. What if we spent time thinking through what’s really important to us; to our children? What does it mean to be nurturing them in the fear and admonition of the Lord? What if we allowed the gospel and the stories of faithful people gone before us to influence us in how we come to our ideals?
This is behind what we know today as Classical Education. It’s also why there can be so many voices contributing to the definition of Classical education. Reading classic literature, teaching a thorough history chronologically, following a guided stage of learning for the child via the trivium; these are all tools we can use to teach character and citizenship in the context of Christianity.
While Greece and Rome fell away under the corruption of unredeemed human nature, we can follow the works of many Christians who used the foundational ideas and added to them the fulfillment of Jesus’ life and resurrection in those ideas. In the writings of the early Christians, we can learn how Jesus is the fulfillment of the longing for truth. Christianity points us to a new city, a greater kingdom whose King is perfect, who redeems us to perfect obedience even as we live in this fallen world. But it’s not just in the writings of early Christians that we see these ideas being worked out.
Tools to Use: Literature
Let’s take a look at some of the tools that can be used to teach these three ideals of character, citizenship, and Christianity.
Literature has always been a big part of education. It is a kind of upside-down pyramid that borrows heavily from the past as it tells us the story of human nature. Both the hero and the villain are characters that we can identify with easily as we delve into excellent stories. What is it that causes us to cheer for the underdog who performs heroic acts in the face of hopelessness, or perhaps we applaud wildly when the villain is defeated while at the height of his power?
Why do these things thrill us? Why do we want to share in this story? Because it fulfills the longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. And ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the underdog who turns out to be King of the eternal kingdom. But it’s not just about the hero going out in a ball of flame. It’s also about the unseen work. The baby born in a stable, dying a humiliating death on a cross. A seemingly useless life. This story is only heroic because of Christianity. Because while the Romans and the Greeks were focusing on man and trying harder in their own strength, Jesus was showing us that we don’t have to be perfect and take over the world to have meaning. We can, and we must learn to have meaning in the quiet of our hearts, in prayer and contemplation. Only then can we find the strength to be the hero.
Practically that looks like the honors student who graduates from medical school. He gets a job at a lab and now he’s just one of the many employees with a number and a task. His work is in researching infectious diseases and creating antidotes. But in creating the antidote, he must first understand the disease, possibly even recreate it. One day, there in the back of the cluttered and noisy lab he realizes that he has the ability to bring humanity near to death while holding in his hands the power to heal them. What will he do? Now all his medical knowledge has reached the end of its usefulness. Mathematics and technology are no good to him. He needs to know what is good, true, and beautiful. He needs a moral compass to guide him, an instinctive truth embedded in his soul that will influence his decision. The world might never know that he faced this crisis that would have enveloped it. His decision at that moment may never be exposed, but he is, in secret, a hero if he chooses good.
Tools to Use: History
History is a fundamental part of who we are and how we came to be here. Our participation in community is evident in our local cities and churches, but we are also a part of a community that’s lived throughout the ages. Decisions that our ancestors made have directly affected us, and we had no control or influence in those decisions. But we still have to live the life they made for us. As the saying goes, “if you don’t know your history, you are bound to repeat it.” So what are we going to do with our lives to change the future?
Tools to Use: The Trivium
The trivium and the quadrivium are a way for us to sort out all the information that we want to teach to our dear ones. It also helps us to understand when and how we can teach certain subjects in a way that’s most effective. Since every subject is related to all the others, it’s important to know where to start so that we can let the subjects inform us about each other and help us to learn more over a shorter period of time. It also helps us to teach according to the natural development of a child. It’s no use trying to teach a 2-year-old logic. Any parent who has ever tried, me included, has had to learn that some things just need to wait for the child to be ready for it.
Tools to Use: Foreign Language
Foreign languages are important to help us understand other cultures and their practices. As I just mentioned, no subject exists in isolation, and foreign languages are crucial to helping us understand the practices and thoughts of other cultures, and just as importantly our own western civilization. Ideally, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew should be learned because these were the languages that were spoken around the birth of Christ and the languages of the emerging church. If we want to understand Christianity today, reading the early church writings will help us to see how God worked in history beyond his story given to us in the Bible. Practically, it’s easiest to start with Latin since it contains the same alphabet and grammatical structure as English. This would be an example of how we can teach many subjects in one lesson.
There is so much more that I can talk about but for the sake of time, I’m going to leave it there and encourage you to do some of your own reading and research into the ideas behind classical education.
Other Voices in the Conversation
I believe there are many educational philosophies of today that fall under this idea of teaching character, citizenship, and Christianity. One of the more popular methods that come to mind is the Charlotte Mason method. Charlotte Mason is a great example of how these ideas have been brought through the ages. She has written so much on character training, including basing her ideas of education on properly formed habits. Habits are essential to building good character and we would do well to listen to Charlotte Mason’s advice on this matter. Her inclusion of ancient literature like Plutarch or medieval writers such as Shakespeare are a glimpse into her own classical education.
Plutarch tells us of the lives of the Roman lawgivers. This relates directly to explaining what citizenship looks like. Shakespeare is mandatory reading for Charlotte Mason as a development of human nature. It’s no accident that many of Shakespeare’s plays have to do with kings and rulers. We cannot forget that good character loves “our neighbor as ourselves” and takes care of the community. In our day and age, we have large layers of governments ruling over us and we always have something to complain about regarding them. But have we thought about ourselves as good citizens? Even more than that, have we thought about ourselves as statesmen with an obligation to use our education to lead a government? Have you considered that you are educating tomorrow’s statesmen? Governors? How are you preparing them?
Charlotte Mason rooted everything she taught in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Her body of writing is so clear and concise on these ideas that it’s no wonder so many people love and follow her. She thoroughly and thoughtfully lays out to a modern world that there are foundational truths to being a human. Truth has not changed over thousands of years and it never will. We know that because, like Charlotte Mason, we root ourselves in the God of Christianity who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Her books show that her own education was firmed rooted in classical thought, and she gives us a very clear and bold way to teach our own children.
More recent writings about classical education are helpful, and need to be read and considered. But always against the backdrop of ancient writings and medieval thought. As we begin to rediscover what they mean we will see many differing views and opinions on how best to teach the past. We need to consider them, but not all of those voices will be right on everything. So we need to be discerning for our own families.
Are we just trying to recreate the glory of pagan cultures of the past? Go back in time? By no means. What Christianity points us to is a greater civilization and a Kingdom that’s out of this world. We are moving towards that kingdom, not looking back at fallen civilizations. However, we are not the first people who are traveling this road. Many people have gone before us, and many of them have laid the foundations for the road we are traveling on whether they acknowledged the destination to be the eternal kingdom or not. By listening to their thoughts as they first walked this path we can both avoid dangers that they fell into, and also strengthen the path for those who will come after us.
There are many philosophies of education and so many voices encouraging us to be the best we can, to do the best we can. But if we boil it down, it all still starts at the beginning. We want our kids to have good character, we want them to be good citizens, but most of all, we want them to be Christians because we know that that is the only thing that ultimately matters.
If you would like to read more about this, I encourage you to read: