Chris Hall: "What Is Classical Education?"

Classical education is hard to distill, so to make the thousand-word limit, I’ll turn to metaphors, as they alone offer the bandwidth to make the core concepts clear.

I invoke distillation, which involves a mash coming to maturity. The mash of our movement takes in the grain bill provided by Sayers, Mason, Wilson, Hicks, Perrin, Kern, Cothran, Clark, Jain, and others in the great tradition. That grain was grown in soil dating back to antiquity, turned and amended through the middle ages and renaissance, and sprinkled with a compost of matured enlightenment thought, but not too much, only that which aligns. Modernity makes the attempt to be turned in, always, but the culture of the soil, being healthy, wards off much of what might otherwise find its way in unbidden. Add to all of this the rye, or perhaps wry, of a few decades of modern medievals pitching amendments to the barrel and we have what we pour over the rocks of our moment.

Classical education is, in essence, exposure to and apprenticeship in the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is an expression of Philippians 4:8–9: 

 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.

“Classical” refers to a time before the zeitgeist of modernity asserted a false authority over many frames of life, including work, economy, and even definition of a person. “Education” is the leading out of one’s self, in our case through exposure to the timeless voices that echo through the ages, by which we come face-to-face with ourselves and our condition.

The vehicles of pedagogy associated with these exposures, encounters, experiences, and adventures are the liberal, common, and fine arts. The liberal arts, by which we justify our knowledge, include the arts of language and the arts of mathematics. Grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric give us the frameworks to communicate effectively, while arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as understood by the medievals, give us the ability to reckon quantity and quality on the micro and macro scales. Both arts offer glimpses of the poetic: through both we see how quantity and quality dance in resonance, proportion, and poetry. Crowned by philosophy, the love of wisdom, and theology, the study of the divine, the liberal arts give us both the wide field and the wild woods of our school grounds.

Along with these are the common arts, the arts by which we meet our basic, embodied needs in the world through the provision of goods and services. Through application of the arts of language and mathematics, with philosophy and theology ever above and resonant, we grow food, build shelter, defend ourselves, rebalance our bodies, cook nutritious food, and much more. We do all these not simply to survive but to thrive: these arts show us, through material ways, the providence and wisdom of God, the fullness of the logos.

When the liberal and common arts are refined in their practice such that one experiences goodness, truth, and beauty directly through their very performance, then they have ascended to the realm of the fine arts. There are such things as musical speeches and musical cheeseburgers. If you know, you know, and you are blessed by the knowledge. 

Our overarching goal is wisdom as well as knowledge. Wisdom starts with fear of the Lord, and she presents a banquet along with folly. By our education, we learn to choose which is best to attend, and upon which fare we should nourish ourselves.

The way that we study is as important as what we study, so we seek to craft our pedagogy and apprenticeships so that the experiences are:

  1. Connected, not isolated. While we have walls between classrooms, there are none, ultimately, between our disciplines. We know that a holistic education is better than a fragmented one.
  2. Formative, not simply informative. We do what we love, we become what we do.
  3. Focused on uncoverage, not simply coverage. We embrace mystery, wonder, and awe. We take tests, but living well is the real test.
  4. Poetic, not simply reductive or materialistic. “The function of imagination is…not so much to make wonders facts, but to make facts wonders” (G.K. Chesterton, The Defendant).

One challenge posed by that last point: some disciplines were not around in their current forms at the times from which we have drawn our pedagogical models. All of the modern sciences, for example, have come about in the last few centuries. We need to be wise enough to ‘re-instaurate’ these disciplines within the classical principles, to use Bacon’s term from the Novum Organum: we need to have them baptized not in materialism, reductionism, and mechanistic thought, but rather, keeping the best of their methodologies intact, we need to add back the fullness of natural philosophy from which they were hewn, and so restore them with salt and light.

And that brings us back to the notion of leading. We are called in whatever we do, whatever we say, whatever we make and in how we make it, to be salt and light. The mechanics and musicians, farmers and craftsmen, will lead as surely as the congressmen and generals, the CEOs and justices. We are called to irrigate deserts. We are called to leaven with the proper yeast, to know that the very rocks cry out, and to tend the vineyards. We are called to feed sheep, to be the blessed peacemakers, even as we are often those who mourn. Fear not, for if we do what we set out to do faithfully, then we will raise carpenters and stonemasons to carry on this project, and the stone that was rejected will become the cornerstone, as well as the counterweight to the follies of our moment, whenever that moment may be.

Chris Hall, MAT
, is a teacher and author in the Christian Classical tradition, as well as the Founder of Always Learning Education, an organization focused on the cultivation and preservation of the common arts.


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