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What is “Classical Education”?

Summary:  Schools and study programs must be required by parents to prove that they are offering a course of study which was taught successfully by Christian schools in the past.  Only the Classical Liberal Arts Academy offers a truly “classical” education, allowing parents to know that their children are following the same course of study that was used by teachers in the past to lead students to wisdom.  

Catholics all know that words are used differently by different people.  If someone asks, “Are you a Catholic?”, you’ll often need to clarify what the person means when they use that term.  One person will think of St. Francis or Mother Theresa when he says “Catholic“, while another person will think of some imaginary person described in an anti-Catholic video or tract.  “Catholic“, in its true sense, has a specific meaning.  The actual faith and morals of the Catholic Church are published in the Catholic catechism.  If someone has another idea of what Catholic means, they are wrong.  We understand that (hopefully).  The same thing is true when we hear the term “classical” education.

In modern circles, the dissatisfaction many have with K-12 schools has created an opportunity for alternatives to gain interest.  One such alternative is “classical education”.  The widespread ignorance that the modern educational system has produced among adults has left them with very little knowledge about what education looked like throughout human history.  This allows teachers interested in getting their business to appeal to the past with no need to prove that what they claim was done in the past was ever, actually, done.  No one would know where to check any claims that are made about education in the past and, to be realistic, no one has time to do that.

The Argument of “Classical” Education

Now, parents, especially Christian parents who know that wise and holy men have filled history, will be interested in any claim that this or that is what was done by those wise and holy men in the past.  The argument goes like this:

  1. Christian truth was taught successfully in the past through “classical studies”.
  2. Our children must learn Christian truth.
  3. Our children should learn those “classical studies”.
  4. Curriculum X offers those “classical studies”.
  5. Therefore, our children should learn Curriculum X.

Now, that is a great argument and if each statement is true, the final conclusion will be true.  However, the whole argument hangs on statement 4:  “Curriculum X offers those “classical studies”.”  Now, if this is true, we would have reason to trust that as it led children to Christian truth in the past, it would also be able to lead children to Christian truth in the present.  However, if this was false, we would be trusting something to lead us to the truth in the present that has never been proven to lead anyone to Christian truth in the past.

Before going on, it would be false to conclude that because Curriculum X is NOT what was learned in the past, it cannot or will not lead children to Christian truth in the present.  A new curriculum may very well be able to lead children to Christian truth in the present.  However, it would not advertise itself as “Those classical studies”.  That would be, at best, odd–especially if no proof could be supplied to demonstrate that it is true.  Why would anyone do that if the curriculum had merit of its own to commend it to modern students?

If, however, it is falsely stated that “Curriculum X offers those classical studies” and people are being asked to trust that it will lead their children to Christian truth, something is wrong.  If it is not true that Curriculum X was learned in the past, there will be no evidence that it was–there couldn’t be.  Moreover, if it is true that something other than Curriculum X was used in the past and it was that which led children to Christian truth, it would be a dangerous lie to suggest that Curriculum X ought to be trusted today.

This is where we stand today with regard to the subject of “classical education”.  There are many schools and study programs claiming that their curriculum is what was learned in the past and that, consequently, it should be trusted by parents today to lead children to Christian truth.  However, this claim is false.  Parents have no way of knowing that and those promoting it are very forceful in their claims.

What Does “Classical” Mean?

If we start with a simple look at the English dictionary, we find the term “classical” defined as follows:

classical:  Of or relating to the ancient Greek or Latin writers whose works form a canon of acknowledged excellence; of or relating to the works themselves.

It would make sense that a program would want to claim to be “classical” in this sense, for it would be teaching “a canon of acknowledged excellence”.   It would be obvious that this was the meaning intended if that program advertised itself with images and references from Greek and Latin writers.  That would be the truest and historical sense of the term “classical” and would be understood if used in isolation as “classical education”.

A second possible use of the term “classical” would be:

classical:  constituting an acknowledged standard or model

This, again, would be attractive for any study program to claim, since it would suggest that the curriculum is to be trusted as an “acknowledged standard or model”.  Thus, if John Dewey’s model of democratic education developed in the 20th century was judged to be a standard or model of education, it would make sense to advertise a school or program as “classical”, but we would add “Deweyan” to clarify the meaning can call it a “classical Deweyan education”.  It would not make sense to use the term “classical” alone, unless everyone understood what the acknowledged standard or model was that which was being referred to.

There is a third possibility, even more general.  By “classical”, the following sense may be intended:

classical:  Of or relating to a period considered the most highly developed of the civilization that produced it; designating such a period.

Thus, a school or study program would claim that it is a program used by some period that is considered to have been the “most highly developed”.  If one believed that Victorian England, for example, was the “most highly developed” period of English learning, offering the curriculum used during that period would rightly be called “classical–in this third sense.  Again, as there is no universal opinion of what the “most highly developed” period or civilization might be, it would be pointless to use the term “classical” in this sense without some qualification–a “classical Victorian education”.

What does Curriculum X Mean by “Classical”?

Having established three common senses in which the term “classical” is used, we can clarify what is meant when we see any school program advertise itself as “Classical Education”.

If the term “classical” is used in the primary and historical sense, it would mean that the curriculum was made up of the “canon of acknowledged excellence” from the Greeks and Romans.  It is rarely, if ever, used in the second or third senses.  This leads to a new dilemma, however, because there are two different ideas of what the Greek and Roman “canon” is.

In the Catholic tradition, the Greek and Roman “canon” would consist primarily of the writings of Plato and Aristotle (Greek) for philosophy and Cicero (Latin) for grammar and rhetoric.  It was that ancient philosophical curriculum (which started well before Aristotle) that provided the method by which truth and wisdom were to be investigated and taught.  This curriculum was that of the medieval Catholic schools and the schools established by the Jesuits in the 16th-17th centuries.   The term “Scholasticism” may be used to signify the learning of this educational tradition.  We can see exactly what was studied in these true and historical “classical” Catholic schools by looking at historical documents, textbooks and educational treatises like the Jesuits’ Ratio Studiorum.

In the Protestant tradition, Catholic dogma and Aristotelean philosophy were rejected, the Greek and Roman “canon” would consist not in Greek and Roman philosophy, but in poetry.   The key reason for this was that Protestants reject Catholic teaching concerning monasticism and celibacy.  Whereas education traditionally aimed at preparation for the contemplative life, without any concern for secular employments or money-making, Protestantism promoted marriage, and all the secular business that goes with it, as the “highest calling” available to Christians.  The educational program they promoted was designed to serve the Protestants’ secular interests.

Among the Protestants and other non-Catholics, the “Scientific Method” replaced the Aristotelean Method of investigation as the core of the modern curriculum, and moved “classical” studies to the literature department of the curriculum as enrichment studies.  We can see this today in looking at the Classics departments in the old “Ivy League” schools, which were once the center of the whole college program, but are now among the smallest departments in the university, and barely surviving.  Instead of studying the works of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, non-Catholics (if they’re really good) study the poems of Homer, Vergil and Ovid; the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes; and the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Caesar and Livy.  There is, a modern Math and Science core with a classical enrichment program.  This curriculum developed when the Catholic “classical” tradition was rejected in the 1600s.  Schools that claim to follow the ideas of Dorothy Sayers or the “Great Books” tradition follow this post-Catholic sense of “classical education”, which is actually the source of the principles and practices of modern education, which can be distinguished from true classical education–which is concerned with the seven liberal arts–as being concerned with encyclopedic learning.

To give you a simple way to measure these things, if your children finish their studies at a “classical school” and cannot read the Greek or Latin Bible, writings of Cicero, or fables of Aesop you can be sure that they do not have a “classical education”.  If they cannot explain the parts of speech, the rules of concord, the ten categories, what a syllogism is, the difference between demonstration and dialectic, the nature of virtue and vice, the four elements of natural things, and have never participated in a disputation, you can be sure that they do not have a “classical education”.  If they cannot prove the order of the arts of the quadrivium, explain the difference between multitudes and magnitudes, give the axioms and definitions of Geometry, provide a solution to any of Euclid’s propositions, explain the relationship between Music and Arithmetic, and explain the Ptolemaic model of the universe, you can be sure that they do not have a “classical education”.  After all, Aristotle explained that no man “knows” any subject until he understands the principles, elements and causes of that thing.  Only students who obtain such knowledge may claim to have a “classical education”.

Catholic Classical Education

For Catholics, “classical education” must mean the historic curriculum taught throughout Church history by the doctors and learned saints, which is called Scholasticism.  It is centered on the Aristotelean system of philosophy, which St. Thomas taught and defended.  His commentaries on the philosophical writings of Aristotle are still available today (it’s not a mystery), furnishing proof that this was, in fact, what Catholics studied in history.  The Jesuit Ratio and textbooks that remain available today (again, no mystery) furnish further proof not only of the content, but also the methods of this true “classical” curriculum.

It makes little sense for Catholics to use the term “classical” to refer to an educational program that marked, in fact, a rejection of the classical Catholic curriculum and established the principles that prepared the way for modern, secularized education.  The easiest sign of the modern curriculum falsely called “classical” is the focus on “the Great Books”.  Never in history was Greek and Roman literature the focus of classical education.  The seven classical liberal arts were the curriculum.  If literature was studied it was for the sake of translation work in Greek and Latin Grammar schools.  It should be obvious that, with the printing press not even invented until the 1400s, schools were not filled with literature books for students–and even more obvious that children did not have libraries at home until the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, when falsely called “classical” education developed.

Dorothy Sayers, a Protestant, was an advocate not of Scholasticism, but modern education, and attempted to explain modern educational psychology with the names and phrases of true, classical education.  If we compare her ideas to modern K-12 schools, they may look more historical, but when we compare her ideas to Catholic schools in history, we find that she is merely a modern with an affection for medieval literature.  Dorothy Sayers has nothing to do with true, classical education.

Many are led to think that because a school offers Latin and Greek classes, it is, consequently a “classical” school, but this is no truer than to suggest that a modern school with Chinese classes should be called a “Chinese” school.  First, Grammar may only be called “classical” if it serves the end of classical language studies, namely, to prepare students for Reasoning and Philosophy.  Second, Latin and Greek studies that merely serve modern foreign language requirements are not “classical” language studies at all.  Third, the readings that make up the Latin and Greek curriculum were also an established canon of learning, without which, there is no “classical” language study.  Most schools offer elementary Latin and Greek courses using a modern “conversational Latin” program like Lingua Latina.  Others merely introduce students to watered down rules of Etymology and Syntax in books like Wheelock’s or Henle’s Latin.  True, classical Latin studies should come from a philosophically sound Grammar text like Fr. Alvarez’s Institutiones Grammaticae, which is taught in the CLAA.

Nearly all schools that claim to offer “classical education” are offering this second and false curriculum.  There are no Catholic doctors or saints to be found in the history of that curriculum because it was not their curriculum.  After abandoning Catholic philosophy, Protestantism quickly used up all of its intellectual and cultural capital and degenerated into modern fundamentalism, which has yet to find itself with regard to education.  The attempt to organize around “Creation science” reveals the confusion that exists in modern Christian circles where attempts are made to figure out how Christianity fits into the modern Math and Science curriculum.  That dilemma owes itself to Francis Bacon and the abandonment of Scholasticism.

What, Then, Is Classical Education?

As touched upon above, the chief difference between truly and falsely called classical education is the goal of that education.  The goal of true classical education was Wisdom, which regularly led students to seek religious vocations as they progressed in their studies.  The modern redirection of education to serve secular interests is not only responsible for a shallow and aimless curriculum, but also the lack of vocations which the Church sees in recent decades.  Where there is no appreciation for contemplative life in general, there will be no interest in religious life.

We are happy to say that if you want to know what true, Catholic, classical education looks like, you simply need to look here at the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.  If you were to read the works of Aristotle, the writings of the Church Fathers, the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas or the educational treatises and textbooks of the old Jesuits, you would find everything they talk about restored, published and taught here in the CLAA.

We are, consequently, the only curriculum provide that can offer parents the encouragement of the great argument:

  1. Christian truth was taught successfully in the past through “classical studies”.
  2. Our children must learn Christian truth.
  3. Our children should learn those “classical studies”.
  4. The CLAA curriculum offers those “classical studies”.
  5. Therefore, our children should learn the CLAA curriculum.

If you have any questions about “classical education” or would like for me to furnish proof that our curriculum is, in fact, the curriculum that was used throughout Catholic history, please ask.  I will happily supply such evidence.

God bless your families,

William Michael, Director
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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