Jake Tawney: "What Is Classical Education?"

One of my favorite interview questions to ask headmaster candidates is, “Can you offer an example of something we could change in our schools that would still allow us to be considered a classical school, and can you offer an example of something that, if we changed it, would cause most people in the movement to question our commitment to classical education?” What I am after here is to see if an interested headmaster can avoid two extremes often found in the classical education community. The first is to assume that a particular iteration of classical education is the pure one and that any deviation from it is anathema. We can call this is purist approach. The second is to assume that classical education is so hard to define that it is almost without definition, which results in a lack of boundaries altogether. We can call this the generic approach. In response to the question, “What is classical education?,” I am going to take a unique approach of answering the question indirectly by offering my own examples to the interview inquiry. 

In the first category, that of things that could vary within the boundaries of classical education, I begin with the approach of mathematics in the elementary years. Some schools choose to focus on a program that emphasizes memorization, repetition, and skill building, and defend this choice by correctly noting young studentsnatural disposition towards these activities during this stage of development. Others will adopt a program that seeks to develop a sense of awe and wonder of the art of mathematics by guiding students towards understanding of mathematics realities and defend this choice by correctly noting that young students are particularly excited about learning. (It seems that academic cynicism doesnt set in until middle school.) Both of these approaches will use some form of Socratic inquiry as lessons are delivered. Further, it should be said that each approach does not ignore the benefit of the other. More often than not, a program that puts memorization and repetition at the focal point still guides students towards understanding in the presentation of the material, and a program that emphasizes understanding still offers skill development and memorized math facts. The difference in approach is also not to suggest that one might be better than the other, but it is to suggest that either approach can find a home in a classical academy.

In the second category, that of things that should be found in every classical academy, I offer the example of the great books. While there will be good and healthy disagreement about what criteria should be used to designate a book as a “great book,” which of these should be read at each of the grade levels, and even the pedagogical approach to presenting the works in class, it would be hard to justify a school as classical if it didnt commit to having students read the best that has been written. This is because classical education adopts a posture of humility in honoring Chestertons “democracy of the dead.” We receive that which has come before us and has stood the test of time. For literature, the great books endure precisely because they communicate some part of human nature and the nature of the universe that transcends time and place.

The order of the great books is, to me, squarely in the first category. Many a classical academy orders the books in high school chronologically, preferring to start with the ancients and end with the moderns. There is a certain beauty in this presentation, which gives students the chance to see how later works are in dialog with those that came before. It does, however, lead to a particular challenge with studentsreading comprehension. High school students find it much more difficult to comprehend the Ethics in the ninth grade than they do in their senior year. For this reason, some academies choose to present the works in an order that is not strictly chronological—for example, starting with American books in the ninth grade.

For a final example, the study of Latin is squarely in the second category. It would be difficult to claim to have a classical education if one had not at least been exposed to a few years of Latin. Language itself is central to a classical model, and the Latin language is given pride of place both for its privileged historical and linguistic place within our tradition. That said, how and when Latin is done is very much in the first category. Some academies start as early as Kindergarten with Latin songs, prayers, and sayings. Others wait until the second grade, when students can read and understand the basics of grammar. Still others wait until middle school or high school. The pedagogy with which Latin is delivered varies from one academy to another, with some opting for a spoken approach, others a written approach, and still others a blend of both.

I offer this approach and these examples not to circumvent the basic question: what is a classical education?. Instead, I offer it as a humble starting point and a caution to avoid the two extremes—the purist approach and the generic approach. I leave it to others to build a more systematic definition within this guideline.


Jake Tawney, MS, is the Chief Academic Officer for Great Heart Academies, a national network of classical schools serving 28,000 students in grades K-12.

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