Carol McNamara: "What Is Classical Education?"

“What is classical education?” is a decidedly Socratic question. Socrates was famous or infamous for posing what we might call the “what is” questions?  What is virtue? Courage? Moderation? Piety? Justice? Wisdom? What is friendship? What is the best way of life for a human being or for a city? And more. For Socrates, the questions are the beginning of any productive inquiry and hence, the beginning of education. Socrates also famously concluded in Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” that his wisdom consisted in his recognition of his own ignorance—that he, in contrast to the politicians, the poets, and even the craftsmen of Athens, was at least aware of the limitations of his knowledge. Socrates’ quest for knowledge begins with the acknowledgement of his radical ignorance and thus the need to dedicate himself to a life of examination in pursuit of knowledge about the full nature of the world and the human beings in it.

So, how then can we trace the origins of classical education to Socrates? It would be anachronistic to assert that the Socratic education is a classical education, so it is perhaps more appropriate to say that the Socratic education is essentially a liberal education—an education that liberates us from the received opinions of our times by compelling us to test and make our way through and often, ultimately, past these opinions to pursue the truth about the things around us. In this way, liberal education requires two attitudes from us that may seem to be in tension but are both essential to our progress towards knowledge. A truly liberal education, the education befitting a free and thoughtful human being, requires us to be willing to subject the opinions that we have inherited or adopted from the people and the world around us to rigorous examination in order to sort the true from the false, the good from the bad, or at least the better from the worse. So, liberal education requires us to be objective and to distance ourselves from the love of our own opinions to determine their veracity. And yet it is also true that the practice of liberal education is very personal. It should matter to us a great deal whether we know the truth about the things around us and about ourselves. So, classical, liberal education is the essential means towards the acquisition of wisdom about the world and the self-knowledge that forms our souls.

In the “Republic of Plato,” perhaps the greatest book ever written on the subject of education, Socrates apparently presents two forms or stages of the education the young will receive in the “Just City in Speech” that he, Glaucon, and his other interlocutors are founding. The first account of the education of the young occurs as a result of the necessity to form the souls of the potential guardians of the city, those who will guard it from harm. This education takes the very structured form required to tame and order the “philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong” nature necessary for the work of guarding. The education will have two parts: “gymnastic for bodies and music for the soul,” with the musical education preceding the physical education in importance and order. The content of the musical education will consist of stories of divine and human models who are steadfast and good, without deception. The mode of storytelling will be that of simple narrative without imitation, while the music as such will be characterized by a steady rhythm to produce moderation and composure under pressure, rather than the excitement of the passions. This balanced pattern of education is well ordered, highly disciplined, and censorious. We are left to wonder about the ability of the guardian’s education to resist the curiosity and the questions that arise in the course of education of the young and that can challenge even the good habits of a well-ordered mind.

Socrates returns explicitly to the subject of the education of the citizens of the just city in Book Seven of the “Republic,” where he addresses our initial sense that the earlier education of the guardians, while foundational, was incomplete—like an elementary or middle school education on which to build a higher education. The full liberal education is the education received by the young person dragged up and away from the comfort of the images and common opinions reflected on the cave wall in Socrates’ telling of the allegory of the cave. This student is compelled to ascend through the levels of cognition or understanding. First, the knowledge, acquired in the visual realm of Socrates’ image of the divided line, through the senses and imagination, and moving next to trust or acceptance of the opinions formed. Then, the student crosses into the realm of reason—first, acquiring higher knowledge through thought and hypothesis and then progressing to the level of intellection, the acquisition of knowledge through reason alone and contemplation. Through this education, which Socrates recounts in great detail in the rest of Book Seven, the student arrives at and sees “the truth about fair, just, and good things” (520c).

This Socratic account of the order in which we learn and acquire knowledge is the description of a liberal education. It begins when we learn about the things around us through the careful observation of our senses and know how to separate and categorize objects and ideas according to their kind. Next, we begin to ascertain the opinions of the community, and we come to trust them. The full quest for self-knowledge and an understanding of things as they truly are, the capstone of the liberal education, requires, however, that we learn to question and challenge even the true hypotheses or theories, knowledge of which we have acquired in our early years, and to think through the difficult ideas and questions in a way that makes us truly thoughtful and serious human beings and responsible, free citizens.

Carol McNamara, PhD
, is Director of the Great Hearts Institute for Classical Education.


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