Andrew Seeley: "What Is Classical Education?"

I am very grateful to CAP for initiating this conversation on classical education. After several decades of remarkable success and growth, leaders of the classical liberal arts renewal are in a position to move beyond trying our best based on what we can learn about the past. We are in a position to become wise about education—to understand more completely the goods we hope to achieve and the best means to achieve them in our times.

The word “classical” does not name a distinct form of education, but rather an intention to guide our practices today by the wisdom and practices of the past. Few classical educators think they are simply reviving a form of humanistic or scholastic education; we all recognize that we are adapting older practices to our own very different situations. Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning” and the Great Books movement are examples of adaptation. Naturally, different forms of classical education have arisen that depend, in part, on what in the past strikes different educators, how far back in the past they go, what needs they perceive in the present, what good they hope to achieve, and the depth of their seriousness in considering the wisdom of the past and achieving wisdom for themselves.

Because the tradition of classical learning largely died out in the mid-twentieth century, we have not been able to draw on living experience to perfect our understanding of what made the education of the past so powerful. After several decades of experience, however, we can now approach the old sources with greater perception and new questions.

In some ways, our situation is like that of the Jesuits in the late 1500s. They never intended to found schools. The needs of parents and the opportunity to shape culture led them to open their first school in 1548, only seven years after their order was founded. Explosive growth followed. Twenty-five years into this development, the Jesuits made several efforts to take stock of what they were accomplishing in various parts of the world and unite the best practices in a common plan of education. Eighteen years of collating, sifting, ordering, drafting, seeking feedback, re-drafting, and testing finally produced the famous Ratio Studiorum in 1599 (available online in a translation with excellent notes and commentary by Alan Farrell).

The Jesuits of those days had an advantage over us—they did not need to invent the education they hoped to offer. Rather, they adapted the humanistic education prevalent in Paris, which itself was the fruit of a century of reviving and systematizing the old rhetorical education delineated by Cicero and Quintilian. (See the excellent article by John J. O’Malley, How the First Jesuits Became Involved in Education.)

In keeping with the evangelical mission of their order, they intended to subsume humanitas into Christianitas—something Christian classical educators should keep clearly in mind. The Ratio opens thus:

It is the principal ministry of the Society of Jesus to educate youth in every branch of knowledge that is in keeping with its Institute. The aim of our educational program is to lead men to the knowledge and love of our Creator and Redeemer. The provincial should therefore make every effort to ensure that the various curricula in our schools produce the results which our vocation demands of us.

This was not easy, for the classical education they transmitted was “so identified with the study of one particular culture - that of ancient Greece and Rome - that there was no room left for anything else” (Christopher Dawson, Crisis of Western Education).

One of the best short summaries of that education can be found in an unlikely author, Renee Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes provided a roadmap of the education he received in one of the finest Jesuit schools in Europe. We can recognize many elements of the education we are trying to offer today incorporated into a complete account that extends into collegiate and even graduate education.

 I still continued, however, to hold in esteem the studies of the schools. I was aware that the languages taught in them are necessary to the understanding of the writings of the ancients; that the grace of fable stirs the mind; that the memorable deeds of history elevate it; and, if read with discretion, aid in forming the judgment; that the perusal of all excellent books is, as it were, to interview with the noblest men of past ages, who have written them, and even a studied interview, in which are discovered to us only their choicest thoughts; that eloquence has incomparable force and beauty; that poesy has its ravishing graces and delights; that in mathematics there are many refined discoveries eminently suited to gratify the inquisitive, as well as further all the arts and lessen the labour of man; that numerous highly useful precepts and exhortations to virtue are contained in treatises on morals; that theology points out the path to heaven; that philosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple; that jurisprudence, medicine, and the other sciences, secure for their cultivators honors and riches; and, in fine, that it is useful to bestow some attention upon all, even upon those abounding the most in superstition and error, that we may be in a position to determine their real value, and guard against being deceived.

Although Descartes lists theology as a rung in the ladder, his description of its role suggests that it had not been fully integrated into the whole, much less did it have the pride of place demanded by Aquinas and Newman. Re-thinking classical education so that it is fully Christian while still drawing on the best of the past is one of the most important tasks before us, though it may take several decades, and a new generation of leaders who have been formed under classical education, to accomplish.

Andrew Seeley, PhD, is Director of Advanced Formation for Educators at the Augustine Institute, a co-founder of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, and the President of the Boethius Institute for the Advancement of Liberal Education.


 Get Involved with The Disputed Question

If you’re enjoying the essays and want to respond with your own charitable and respectful thoughts, objections, and responses, you have two options.

  1. Public Engagement: Beneath each essay, you'll find a comment box, where you can post comments to be read publicly. 

  2. Direct Author Engagement: Use the form on The Disputed Question page to send your message to the contributing authors on any topic. Those authors may choose to respond to you directly, but may instead reference your ideas in future submissions.

Be the first to comment

All comments are moderated before being published