Evaline Mmari: "What Is Classical Education?"

Classical education is a kind of learning that refers to the liberal arts. The phrase “liberal arts” has two words—the first word is “liberal” and the second word is “arts.” The word “liberal” comes from a Latin phrase liberalis, and the root word of liberalis is liber, which means “to befit a freeman." Therefore, classical education cultivates a freeman who can be an independent person—one who can think for himself and stand alone when it comes to reasoning and making sound judgment. The second word is “art,” which means "something that can be lived and practiced through performing or writing.”

To begin with, classical education introduces students to reality by emphasizing the practical side of learning rather than the theoretical part, the latter of which being what most schools emphasize through continuous assessments and final examinations.

Secondly, classical education emphasizes learning through imitation, recognizing that students follow the example of others, especially teachers and parents, among other important figures in their lives. Students develop by practicing and forming new habits that they see modeled day-in-day-out by these important people in their lives.

Finally, classical education helps students develop their minds through memorization of songs, catechisms, and patterns.

Classical education offers accessible resources to the students for understanding, interpreting, and responding to the community in which they live. Classical education is designed to prepare students not just for college or employment, but for life, preparing them to be productive human beings by cultivating virtues such us humility, perseverance, and generosity, which are the core values of a humane society. Making college the main goal for education objectifies the human person and thus reduces their innate value. College might be one among many benefits that a classical education can provide, but the goal of classical education is much broader in preparing students to face the challenges of life.

To cultivate an independent human being, classical education primarily focuses on the three initial stages of learning—the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar focuses on the skills of memorizing facts, learning rules and recalling essential information. This stage emphasizes active student formation and lays the foundation for advanced understanding because with a basic knowledge facts one can understand and interpret information accurately.

Logic is the stage in which students learn to build arguments, think coherently, and analyze information presented to them. They develop logical, well-ordered and reasoned arguments, and learn to question everything carefully.

Rhetoric is the verbal art of fluently and eloquently presenting ideas. This stage of learning requires students to express their ideas to others after they have acquired the skills of reasoning and thinking logically. To this end, many classical schools allow students to conduct debates, providing them with the opportunity to clearly communicate what they have learned and discovered.

The combination of these three initial stages of learning—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—enable students to read with understanding, reason the right way, and speak eloquently. They also help students to understand the language of learning and logic before moving to higher-level studies. Consequently, the trivium is the foundation for the quadrivium.

The quadrivium refers to the mathematical arts. These arts consist of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The first art, music, explains numbers rhythmically in time and space. The second art, arithmetic, deals with the study of numbers as they occur in nature. The third art, geometry, deals with the study of numbers in the context of figures and space. The fourth art, astronomy, deals with the study of numbers in space and motion. These four mathematical arts are very important in the preparation of students for advanced mathematical, scientific, philosophical, and theological studies.

Classical education is therefore defined as an excellent and quality way of learning that cultivates independent and totally free human beings who can engage their minds and utilize their already acquired knowledge in thinking through any societal problem in a civilized manner. 

Ms. Evaline Mmari is math and science teacher at the Rafiki Foundation Classical Christian School in Moshi, Tanzania, which is the only classical school in Tanzania. Evaline has been with Rafiki for 6 years. Madam Evaline completed her secondary education at government schools in Tanzania. She attended her first conference on classical education in Nairobi, Kenya in October 2023, and has been passionate about learning and implementing classical pedagogy. At this conference she was able to hear from such CCE educators as: Dr. Brian Williams, Dr. Grant Horner, Dr. David Diener, Mrs. Robyn Burlew, Mr. Ravi Jain, and Dr. Tim Dernlan – plus others! Her essay reflects what she has learned so far, and we expect that she will become a leading proponent of classical education in Tanzania. We at Rafiki are grateful to have her as an educator at our Rafiki Classical Christian school near Moshi Tanzania – her grasp of CCE is even more remarkable when you consider that English is a 3rd language for her.

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