Junius Johnson: "On the Nature of Classical Education"

         The first question that presents itself when asking, “what is classical education?,” is one of modality: are we talking about a movement, a teaching practice, or something else? If we do not get this right from the very beginning, we will be hampered by imprecision and equivocation as we progress. First, then, classical education is an educational philosophy that has given birth to a movement; this movement, in turn, proceeds by means of varying methodologies. And so, while classical education will look differently in different contexts due to the particularities of the implementation of the educational philosophy, it is still possible to speak of the core philosophical principles that animate all particular instances, which is what I propose to do.

        Every educational philosophy is grounded on some idea of who it is for, what it hopes to do with those individuals, and why it wants to do this. The answers to these questions reveal the contours of the educational philosophy.

        Classical education is for humans. This seems trivial but it is not, because it implies that we have some understanding of what humans are and therefore includes claims about what humans are. And so it is: classical education considers humans to be rational creatures.

        Quintilian expresses the rational part well: “Certainly [thinking and learning] are natural to humans, and just as birds are born to fly, horses to run, and beasts to run wild, so activity and agility of mind belong essentially to us.”[1] Thinking is essential to human nature and is part of the definition of “human.”

        As for being creatures: a creature is that which comes into existence passively. This means that it comes about through no agency of its own, but rather through the agency of another. Whatever is not a creature is the cause of its own being, and therefore is God.

        It is worth noting that the classical tradition, as we have it, is theistic in outlook: first pagan, then Christian. It considers humans as the creations of a divine being or beings, and as placed into the context of a world by which they are conditioned. It belongs equally to this understanding of the human person that we are addressed by spiritual realities to which we somewhat belong but which nevertheless greatly or infinitely exceed us, and which condition us even more than our proximate worldly context.

        Indeed, even where the philosophy of classical education is deployed in an atheistic context, this idea of creatureliness persists. For in such circumstances, the human is still viewed as coming into existence through the (impersonal) agency of another, and as standing before a transcendent reality (whether it be the transcendental qualities of a being or simply the sheer immensity of the cosmos, which takes on a qualitative rather than a merely quantitative character) that conditions his being and thinking.

        As to its aim, classical education aims at the good life. This is robustly understood as flourishing in all the ways that matter most essentially to humans—that is, the ways that address what humans most fundamentally are. And so it addresses every sphere of the human person: individual, familial, social, political, economic, cultural, and religious.

        Classical education wants to do this because it believes that humans are created with the capacity for blessedness and are only fully human to the extent that this capacity has been realized. Thus, classical education aims at the production of full humans, true humans, complete humans.

        Given its understanding of who it is for, what it seeks, and why, every educational philosophy recommends a set of controlling values that govern the way it is to be implemented. These arise out of interaction of the aforementioned aspects.

        Classical education recognizes that because humans are creatures, a good life in the world is only possible by living in accordance with the nature of the world. And so it aims at an adequation between the human person and the world that person inhabits. This correspondence or harmony is the ground of blessedness, and without it no one can hope to attain to a truly good life. Thus, classical education aims at a reproduction at the microcosmic (individual) level of the order and harmony we see in the cosmos at the macroscopic level. A human thus ordered will be both well-disposed internally (will have virtue) and will resonate sympathetically with the cosmos.

        And because humans are rational, this harmony is to be brought about by addressing the rational part of the person. Classically, this is understood to include reason but not to exclude the imagination and the affections. Thus, it is concerned to teach patterns and habits of thinking that are imitations of patterns that we see in the larger world.

        And so, both as it aims at the ordering of the human soul and the regulating of human ways of thinking, classical education is mimetic. It recognizes that humans belong to their world and that the world is ordered under transcendent reality, and seeks to properly modulate the human in relation to these external realities.

        In addition, the creaturely aspect of the human person represents a set of passive virtues that might be summarized as reverence. These passive virtues (by which I mean ways of being in the world that are about receptivity rather than acting on another) are ways of correctly responding to the transcendent reality that creates us and makes us who and what we are. Chief among them are wonder, by which we marvel at the great disparities that define our cosmos, and worship, by which we open our hearts to the presence and molding of the Creator, affirming his authority and basking in his grace.

[1] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, I.1, translation mine.


Junius Johnson (PhD, Yale University) is an independent scholar with expertise in theology, philosophy, literature, and the classical tradition. He is the author of 5 books including On Teaching Fairy Stories (CAP 2023) and is the Executive Director of Junius Johnson Academics.


Get Involved with The Disputed Question

If you’re enjoying the essays and want to respond with your own charitable and respectful thoughts, objections, and responses, you have two options.

  1. Public Engagement: Beneath each essay, you'll find a comment box, where you can post comments to be read publicly. 

  2. Direct Author Engagement: Use the form on The Disputed Question page to send your message to the contributing authors on any topic. Those authors may choose to respond to you directly, but may instead reference your ideas in future submissions.


Be the first to comment

All comments are moderated before being published