John Cicone: "What Is Classical Education?"

What is classical education? In our modern times, you will find a variety of answers to this question—some quite long and others more succinct. I believe, however, that to properly answer the question, we must understand two important secondary questions that are implied in our primary question. By analyzing these two implied secondary questions, we can then develop a complete answer for our primary question.

The first implied secondary question is, “What is education?”. From ancient cultures and civilizations, we learn that all peoples have a view that education is important. Simply put, education is the importance of passing knowledge, experience, and wisdom to a new generation.

By answering “What is education?,” we flow quite easily into another question which is, “What is the purpose or goal of education?.” I have been living and working in Tanzania for the past eighteen months, and I have learned that local tribes all value educating their children; however, they have different goals for their graduates. The Masai are a very traditional tribe and typically educate their children with the skills, virtues, and knowledge needed to be a good member of their community. They teach practical skills, such as cattle raising, hunting, sewing, and farming, among others. Knowledge that Westerners consider essential, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, are not considered important to the Masai. The Chaga tribe, on the other hand, has a more modern view of education, and many of their children attend schools with the goal of being trained to be accountants, lawyers, business owners, etc. Both tribes have the same goal: to educate their children so they have the necessary skills and virtues (necessary as defined by the culture) to be positive contributors to the society, and in doing so they emphasize a different set of skills and a different type of knowledge.

We can now apply the answers to these two secondary questions to our primary question, “What is classical education?.” First, we understand that we are passing on knowledge, experience, and wisdom to a new generation. However, the goal of classical education is quite different than many other forms of education. In classical education, the goal is to produce a graduate who will live a virtuous life with the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to be a positive contributor to society.

In classical education, the concept of schole is preeminent. Schole is the idea that learning is a, enjoyable, lifelong process. Classical education during childhood and teenage years is designed to provide everyone with the knowledge and skills considered foundational to any occupation. The graduate is expected to continue being educated in a more specific occupation. Once in that occupation, the person is expected to continue learning about many fields of knowledge, both related and unrelated to their occupation. This is the concept of schole.

Why is this expectation so critical to classical education? Wouldnt it be better if a person focused on learning knowledge and skills related to their occupation? Why does a carpenter need to know history or a sports journalist need to know art? Many modern forms of education ask these questions and conclude that there is no good reason for this expanded knowledge. However, to classical education proponents, people are defined by more than one specific set of knowledge or skills. Life is complex and someone who lacks knowledge in many areas will not be the best contributor to society.

Our modern times are a great example. Our world and nation grapple with difficult problems—racism, global warming, poverty, etc. Solutions to these problems are complex. Those working to solve these problems, whether in the private or government sector, need to be knowledgeable in many areas, (i.e., history, science, diplomacy, psychology, debate, logic, etc.). Unfortunately, while our leaders are all educated, many with advanced degrees, the education they received was poor and incomplete. They were educated in a specific set of knowledge for a specific occupation. Lifelong learning has been reduced to skimming social media websites rather than focused, intentional reading. Debates are “won” by the person who employs logical fallacies in the cleverest way.

The expectation that certain fundamental skills are taught in the formative years of a persons life, along with a lifelong pursuit of learning in a rich, deep, and mature way, is critical because everyone is then well-rounded in knowledge. Everyone can present a persuasive, logical argument based on facts and wisdom. Such people can truly be positive contributors to society. We need carpenters who know history and understand how historical events are related and contrasted so they can provide meaningful commentary and opinions on world events. We need sports journalists who appreciate the complexities of art and apply this knowledge to the beauty and grace of the human body moving in an athletic competition so they can improve the quality of their articles. If you ponder our current world, you will begin to think of numerous examples where a classical education would be most beneficial.

In summary, “What is classical education?” Classical education is a means of passing on knowledge, experience, and wisdom to create virtuous people who can be positive contributors to society. A graduate of a classical education is a person who can reason logically and persuasively in both written and oral forms of communication, who appreciates truth, beauty, and goodness, and who is prepared to be trained into any specific occupation.

I did not receive such an education. The education I received was not bad, but it was lacking. Thankfully, anyone at any age can decide to pursue a classical education and fill in the gaps. I hope you will join me in this wonderful journey.


John Cicone, MEd, is the Head Administrator of the Rafiki Foundation School Tanzania.

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