Christine Perrin: "What Is Classical Education?"

The renewal of classical education requires replanting a tree, watering and feeding a horse, and living in the actual world of our own time. Classical education is that which has continued to nurture and lead through many years and changes but must always be instantiated in time and place and among a specific set of people who gather as a community with common cause. Community invokes words close to it such as commune and communion and this is the aspect of classical education that has been least considered in our time. People think you can choose a few enduring books and gather some individuals who think it is a good idea to read them and give an education in this manner. It isn’t true—the very people you mean to imbue with these remarkable books will be embittered by them if you fail to attend to their belonging, their at-homeness, among the gathered people and in the gathered books. Further, this common cause does not exclude the centrality of place, for instance the United States, central Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Mountains, the city of New Orleans, the city of Richmond, the James River, the English language, etc.

Deracination is a tenacious problem in our times. We are great trees, like the one in my back yard, uprooted and fallen and with no way for our roots to be nourished and watered. Putting the trees back in the good soil is a tremendous task. It is not simply a curriculum that gives this, it is a gathering of people who strive for this together with common purpose and concern for all involved in the effort. We cannot avoid the commerce of this situation and yet it so often blinds us to what is elemental in the task—if the teachers, administrators, parents, students, and place aren’t replanted into something alive, they cannot be alive, and the effort cannot achieve its bloom and shade. If there isn’t care and attention to each party (and this is relevant to those homeschooling as well—mothers, fathers, children, etc.) the effort is like that of those old horses, sometimes seen in city centers, trying to pull people in a cart without having been watered, fed, shod, and brushed. In so many Russian novels you have the harrowing image of a horse beaten to death, an image that is relevant for our subject. So often it is the teachers who bear the brunt of this demand, sometimes it is the students. Habitually, the individual groups listed above behave as “special interest groups” and are vying for entirely different ends. The person in front of us, be it the teacher, child, administrator, or parent, becomes the object and loses its status as subject, transforming into a means to the end we have fantastically desired as individuals.

Fantasy is a word that Dostoevsky uses frequently (along with rapture, dream, and imagine). Whenever a character is dreaming or imagining, we are right to pay attention as readers. Often the dreaming is attended by comments like the following and frequently precede horrible outcomes (worse than a dead horse):

... active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science (58 Dostoevsky).

Classical education is active love and the love of a lifetime, and not just for some abstract ideals or ideas or even texts but for people whose lives you want to water and feed and to whom you want to give practices and patterns discovered over centuries that will serve them here and now in their lives and bodies.

Another frequent character-type and character flaw we encounter in Dostoevsky is the person that would say “I love mankind…but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular…” (57 Dostoevsky). We find this in those drawn to and influential in classical education as well. Naturally, we must have ideals to take a path like this in the 21st century. But idealism can also be a way of refusing to co-suffer with the people or epoch of which we are a part, and when classical education becomes this it obscures the real good it offers. Here is the good: it offers the remembered treasures of our humanity—astonishing riches piled high like Tutankhamun’s burial site, or Smaug’s cave, or the Anglo-Saxon treasures unearthed at Sutton Hoo—offered through the intelligence and love of a human being riveted by this beauty, to another human being who is learning how to receive and increasingly belong to a place and a people.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brother’s Karamazov. Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Christine Perrin, MFA, has taught at Messiah University and in classical schools since 1999. She and her husband, Christopher, currently teach the course Architecture of Virtue to seniors. She has published two books: Bright Mirror (poems) and The Art of Poetry.


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