Brian Williams: "What Is Classical Education?"

When the Odyssey opens in medias res, it quickly introduces us to an insecure, emerging adult anxious to find his way in an uncertain Bronze Age world. His father is missing in action, his mother lost in grief, and his only companions are an aggressive gaggle of slightly older licentious peers who exploit him, eschew their duties, and indulge in unbridled, emotive hedonism. Unsurprising, therefore, that this unguided and misguided late adolescent appears fragile, inarticulate, and socially awkward, unprepared to step into mature adulthood and assume the responsibilities his society needs him to shoulder. Then alongside him come teachers: Athena disguised as Mentor; his father’s friend, Nestor; the beloved goatherd, Eumaeus; and the elderly maid, Eurycleia. Together, they invite him into a richer, truer story about his origins, identity, and purpose; they demonstrate piety and devotion, model well-ordered homes, introduce him to virtuous peers, and create supportive opportunities that move him toward the mature adult he needs to become.

        In doing so, Athena, Nestor, Eumaeus, and Eurycleia reveal an important thread woven throughout the long tradition of classic liberal education. This thread is its enduring emphasis on the multi-dimensional formation of students under the tutelage of virtuous guides for the sake of long-term flourishing. Classical education, therefore, aspires to form students by nurturing them intellectually on the true, morally on the good, aesthetically on the beautiful, spiritually on the holy, physically on the healthy, practically by training them for good work, and socially by helping them love and serve their neighbors. This is what the Telemachus of Homer’s epic needed, and at least partially received, and it is what every Telemachus who has ever walked into my class needs. In this way, classical education begins at the end, because it knows that the child is the father of the man or the mother of the woman the child will become. Therefore, classical educators are not simply responsible to the eight- or eighteen-year-old Telemachus sitting in front of them but also to the thirty-eight-, fifty-eight-, and seventy-eight-year-old man or woman that Telemachus will become.

        This is why classical education carefully considers what curricular materials, pedagogical methods, and formative school culture will best nurture the holistic and integrated formation of students. The ends do not justify the means, but they should determine them. For this reason, with respect to curriculum, classical education prioritizes works of art, literature, music, history, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, and theology that explore and exhibit the human condition, the natural world, and the divine in rich, beautiful, and revealing ways. This means that, contrary to expectation, “classical antiquity” is not the criteria for inclusion in classical curricula. Classical schools are not primary and secondary versions of Classics departments. Therefore, students may read Beatrix Potter and Boethius, Flannery O’Connor and Sophocles, Dostoevsky and Dante, Anna Julia Cooper and Christine de Pizan, Sayers and Shakespeare, and they may learn from both Giotto and Georges Rouault, Hildegard von Bingen and Arvo Pärt, Euclid and Euler, Theophrastus and George Washington Carver, Vitruvius and Wren.

            Even so, the goal is not simply that students know about the discoveries, inventions, and creations of others, but that they develop the skills necessary to discover, invent, and create on their own. To that end, classical education helps them learn the liberal arts of words and numbers through the trivium and quadrivium, the fine and performing arts like painting and theatre, and the common or mechanical arts like cooking and carpentry. The first liberates students to learn, the second to create, and the third to make. To achieve these ends, the classical tradition has employed many different pedagogical methods over the centuries, but always aims to select those best tailored to the child’s nature, the stage of their development, and the ends being pursued.

        Along with material content and pedagogical methods, classical education also closely attends to the school culture within which students are formed and to the faculty of friends at the heart of the school from which that culture emerges. Classical educators across the centuries have insisted that classical teachers holistically embody the tradition in their own lives. John Henry Newman once even uses the great Renaissance phrase “to the fountains” (ad fontes) to refer not to the “great books” but to teachers as fountains of wisdom and inspiration from which students may drink and learn. His novel use of the metaphor implies that contemporary classical teachers should be local wells nourishing their culturally and intellectually parched students adrift in the desert wastelands of social media and shallow pop culture. This requires classical teachers to sink their own wells deep into the tradition and allow the waters of that tradition to flow into their wells and from there overflow to their students. In other words, teachers need to be the kind of people they want their students to become. Because while the writings of Aristotle, Dante, and Austen may be present in schools, Aristotle, Dante, and Austen themselves are not. But classroom teachers are. That is significant because, as I argue above, classical education is not simply about passing on classical skills or knowledge, but about passing on a classical way of life. This is mimesis—learning by imitation. It is the incarnate pedagogy captured in St. Paul’s injunction to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” and, to use another Newman phrase, it is a “rhetoric of conduct.”

        And so, classical education places each and every Telemachus under the guidance of mentor-teachers who embody the tradition, can introduce him to the human endowment of classical and contemporary riches, and can help him develop the skills of thinking, creating, and making using the best pedagogical methods available. Though the materials and methods sometimes change, the end never does. That end is the life-long pursuit of holistic, integrated formation that fosters his own flourishing and prepares him to love God, serve his neighbors, and care for creation regardless of where he finds himself in the world or what he finds himself doing.

Brian Williams, DPhil (Oxon), works at Eastern University as the Dean of the Templeton Honors College, an  Associate Professor of Ethics & Liberal Studies, and the Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities.


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