Carrie Eben: "Classical Education: It’s Much More"

Sometimes it is tricky communicating what classical education is. I often observe attentive eyes glaze over or rise in panic upon hearing words like “trivium,” “dialectic,” or “liberal arts” for the first time. Therefore, I do my best now to be more hospitable. Typically, I communicate classical education to three types of audiences: community leaders, overwhelmed teachers, and concerned parents. Most often, all three audiences want what classical education offers. Classical education fills their perceived need. Even so, classical education provides much more.

Community leaders are usually disturbed by the perceived lack of rigor offered by most modern schools. They want to know if this education is academically challenging and surpasses the expectations offered by the public school. They might ask, “Will it get students into the best schools and help them compete for the best job?” “Yes,” I say, “and classical education is much more.”

Teachers, who begin their teaching journey hopeful, find that education is less about the individual and more about the institution and its pre-determined learning objectives. This, combined with unreal expectations for teaching these learning objectives without a foundation of moral tradition or parental support, causes many teachers to become overwhelmed, defeated, and ready to leave the profession altogether. They want an education that allows them to practice the art of teaching. They might ask, “Will my students and I find joy in learning again?”  “Yes,” I say, “and classical education is much more.” 

The parents who despise the values of the modern education system want to protect their children from the progressive values of the world. They fear Critical Race Theory and transgender bathrooms. They are running from something unwanted rather than running toward something beautiful. They simply want a quality education for their children that upholds traditional morals in a safe environment. They might ask, “Will my child be safe from controversial ideas?”  “No,” I say, "because a classical education is much more.”

No, classical education is not safe. Just as, when Lucy asks if Aslan is “safe” and Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe?...Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” So it is with classical education.[1] Students will eventually encounter ideas that are not sheltered. Violence, lust, greed, sloth, prejudice, and other vices make appearances in conversations. Humanity can be evil, but discerning this evil can, in fact, lead students towards what is good and help them think on “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…” (Phil 4:8).[2] Classical education teases out the true, the beautiful, and the good in all strands of knowledge and helps students articulate it. When students pursue these things, safety is not guaranteed. However, they receive much more.

Though not safe, classical education embodies all the qualities that allow individual humans to learn to live the “much more” in all its ages and stages. It not only helps a willing student accomplish their life’s vocational calling, it also helps them be good mothers, fathers, friends, church members, and community leaders. The secret to “much more” living is formational virtue.

When education’s primary intent focuses on virtue, all other imperatives fall in line. Leigh Bortins, founder of Classical Conversations homeschool programs, says about educating her own sons:

 …my only goal is to raise virtuous men…Virtuous men have no problem going to college because they are studious. They have no problem finding employment because they return hours of work for honest wages. They have no problem starting businesses because they can sacrifice to make others’ lives better. They have no problem serving in missions because they can delay personal desires…virtue should be the goal of education.[3] 

Another one of my favorite quotes, which sums up the heart of classical education, is from David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility: a Treatise on Education. Hicks redeems modern education by saying, “The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.”[4] Education is not just acquiring knowledge for the sake of learning it, even if it is useful. This simple quote says it all: education is for the whole individual to know virtue and to live it out in all areas of life.

Classical education differs from modern education with its pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful instead of the new, the popular, and the useful. Universal ideas from enduring texts founded in truth, goodness, and beauty offer opportunities for those made in God’s image to grow. Additionally, students who learn how to read attentively and thoughtfully are able to think deeply and strategically, discern prudently and courageously, write articulately and expressively, and compute carefully and thoroughly. They can integrate truth, goodness, and beauty across all subject areas—a skill which is of the ultimate use. This “much more” education directs students to the things worthy of attention, forming their souls to love the things worth loving. The cultivation of individual virtue is the defining difference of a classical education.

A classical education does not offer safety, nor is it tame. It is much more—it is good. And this goodness offers whole humans a full and flourishing life that prepares them for further education, labor, family, and citizenship through joyful learning. As a Christian classical educator, I believe this goodness is centered around the person of Christ, who embodies all of creation. He is Everything. Christ, the Virtue Giver, woos the human heart to the truth and goodness of Himself with his beautiful creation. He is Good. He is the Much More.

 [1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1970th ed., vol. 1, 7 vols of The Chronicles of Narnia (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1970), 75-76.

[2] Philippians 4:8. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians%204:8&version=NIV.

[3] Leigh A. Bortins, The Conversation: Challenging Your Student with a Classical Education (USA: 2015 Classical Conversations Multimedia, 2015), 27.

[4] David V. Hicks, Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education (Lanham, MD, MD: University Press of America, 1999), 20.

     

     Carrie Eben, MSEd (PhD student), is owner of Classical Eben education consulting (www.classicaleben.com), founding board member of Sager Classical Academy in Siloam Springs, AR and adjunct instructor of Integrated Humanities at John Brown University.

     

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