Jessica Hooten Wilson: "What Is Classical Education?"

In a 1405 illumination of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, two scenes occur within one image: on the left, a woman in a blue dress with a horned veil headdress reclines at a desk with four books, one of which is open and has her hand resting on the open page. Across from the desk are three women wearing crowns on their heads and each in a different color gown. From left to right, Lady Reason holds a mirror; Lady Rectitude (or Righteousness) has a person-sized ruler in her hand, and Lady Justice appears to be holding an urn (though one would have assumed it would have been scales and a sword). The illustration represents the moment in the narrative when the author is visited in a vision by a triad of allegorical persons. On the righthand side of the image, a strange scene occurs where Christine and another queen—presumably one of the Ladies—are building walls out of bricks. Not only the image but also the book and its author offer us a full picture of classical education.

The open book and stack of books is an obvious emblem of classical education: we are educated by the classics, meaning both those canonical works that have stood the test of time and also those particular to the ancient or classical world. De Pizan assumes as much in the first lines of her book, “One day, I was sitting in my study surrounded by many books of different kinds, for it has long been my habit to engage in the pursuit of knowledge.”[1] Within this one line, we could highlight various features of classical education: one seeks “knowledge" outside of the self, in the sources of the tradition, by repeated “habit.” The tradition that she alludes to is spelled out explicitly later in the paragraph as philosophers, poets, and orators.

Their writings de Pizan mulls over in her mind repeatedly, which leads to self-examination: “I began to examine myself.”[2] In classical education, a person leans not on their own understanding but comes to greater self-knowledge through an exploration of the writings of others. Recall Lady Reason’s mirror. These writings offer a gift for seeing oneself more clearly.

From considering previous writers, de Pizan discovers that she disagrees with some of the authors of the past, for it is not a monolithic tradition. Classical education must be wary of ideology and ready to refute errors, as de Pizan does here. She begins her refutation with a prayer and, in response, the Lord blesses her with three teachers. In classical schools, we assume that students require teachers: Boethius needed Lady Philosophy, Dante required Beatrice, and Christine de Pizan received her allegorical ladies. Additionally, these descending figures show that learning must be graced by revelation; knowledge comes not only from reason but also from imagination, the muses, and the divine Word.

In The Book of the City of Ladies, these three women instruct Christine’s wayward thinking through classical methods: conversation and narrative. Each lady allows Christine to ask her questions and explain the sources of her thought, and then they respond with claims or questions of their own. The dialectic between Christine and the ladies also teaches the readers in the process. In order to prove their points, the women draw up examples from history, myths, and Scripture. Their canon of illustrations is expansive, including Persians, Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and more. Just as in classical education, where we teach students through dialogue and story, so Christine’s teachers instruct her.

While the interlocution is depicted on the left side of the illumination, the right side shows Christine’s actions. She is building a city. This building project is a metaphor for the book, but also a reminder that the conversation results in creation. According to scholar Charlotte Cooper-Davis, Christine oversaw the production of her 54 books herself, and several of them are written in her own hand.[3] The liberal arts that comprise classical education are arts; in other words, you must practice what you learn. In gratitude for the freedom received by this education, one frees others by the way one acts in the world.

Action and contemplation are reciprocal in classical education. At the conclusion of the book, Christine both calls on her readers to act while also praising God for the construction of the city. This dual address outwards to the presumed “honorable ladies” reading the book, in addition to the request that the Lord may “shine His grace upon me” and “do likewise unto you,” illustrates how learning ends in both love of neighbor and love of the Lord. We contemplate and then we act; our virtuous actions also lead to greater contemplation.

As we attempt to define classical education, we should do so by looking backwards, in true classical fashion, to the models of wisdom whom we aspire to imitate. We want to remember that classical education is a way of life, so we cannot come up with a mere list of descriptors and abstract bullet points that define the phrase fully. In Deschooling Society (1970), Ivan Illich narrows education to four channels: elders, teachers, peers, and the things themselves (books, art, nature). Three out of the four are people. To be classically educated may rely on classical things, but more so on people living a certain kind of life together. Without the people, there is no classical education.

I started with an example from 1405, but I did not see this illumination or read this book until 2022. Although I’d spent two decades in classical education from my college great books program, to a masters in great books at one university, a PhD in great books at another university, and teaching K-12 great books, I had never heard of Christine de Pizan. In fact, until 2007, I didn’t know there were women writers prior to Jane Austen. But classical education must be a way of educating that is for all people, draws from both men and women writers of the past, and sees the tradition as a global human story where God’s truth, beauty, and goodness can be found in all sorts of places.

If I can pay Christine the greatest compliment by imitating her, I would like to end with an admonition and a prayer: “pursue virtue and shun vice, thus increasing in number the inhabitants of our city,” and I ask the Lord “to carry on devoting my life to His holy service here on earth.” Ultimately, classical education should offer us the resources to live out those ends.

[1] Book of the City of Ladies, 5.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Christine de Pizan: Life, Work, Legacy by Charlotte Cooper-Davis, London: Reaktion Books, 2021.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Fletcher Jones Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University, the author of Flannery O’Connor‘s Why Do the Heathen Rage?, and a senior fellow at The Trinity Forum.

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1 comment

James Laney

Delightful. I always appreciate your words and observations when I come across them, whether here or that time with the Trinity Forum, or randomly as I pursue my interests. What a treat to discover Christine de Pizan! And I do need to seriously dive into your recent book as well. Blessings abounding…James

James Laney

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