Louis Markos: "What Is Classical Education?"

The best way, I believe, to define classical education is to isolate and describe five elements that are essential to any form of education that would call itself classical.

First and foremost, classical education is neither utilitarian nor vocational in its methods or goals. It is committed, rather, to providing a liberal arts education, one that frees (liberates) the mind. In fact, the phrases “liberal arts” and “classical” are essentially synonymous. The only reason we need to use the word “classical" today is because the liberal arts have been so watered down that they no longer mean what they used to mean! 

All of that is not to say that students who receive a classical education will not be able to compete in the marketplace. On the contrary, the grasp of critical and creative skills, the ability to think outside the box and on one’s feet, and the facility for making connections between various kinds of thinking and areas of thought make classically trained students more marketable in the long run. Still, getting a job is not the goal of classical education; its goal is to equip young minds to think logically, love learning, and participate in the great conversation that has been going on since Homer’s epics and the books of Moses.

And that leads to the second key component of a classical education: it is firmly and unapologetically grounded in the Great Books of the western intellectual tradition. It believes that the best method for nurturing virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens is to teach them to wrestle with the great ideas that have shaped the western world. While not denying the importance of other world traditions, classical education focuses on the western tradition, not only because it is ours, but because it is the tradition that has produced the greatest degree of freedom, justice, and self-determination. 

In its wrestling with the Great Books, classical education takes an interdisciplinary approach that studies together the literature, philosophy, history, art, and science of the historical periods that stretch from the ancient world to our own. It seeks to learn, assess, and appreciate wisdom from each age, while also measuring that wisdom against transcendent standards of goodness, truth, and beauty.

Third, classical education adopts and instills a humanistic rather than a social science view of man and society. It treats people as individuals rather than as groups, even as it trains its charges to understand the importance of community and family. Though not all classical schools are specifically Christian, they rest on a vision of man as possessing inherent worth and value (the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei) while yet existing in a state of brokenness and rebellion (the Christian doctrine of the Fall).

Because of its essential anthropological belief in man’s glory and shame, classical education can uphold the dignity and integrity of each individual child while also understanding the need for rules and discipline. It knows that children thrive best when they are given liberty within limits, freedom within structure.

Fourth, no classical school can call itself truly classical if it does not provide an education in virtue. That virtue, however, is not synonymous with a simple list of do's and don'ts. Classical education rejects pharisaical moralism in favor of Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the mean between the extremes. To be a virtuous person is to be properly aligned with that which is good, true, and beautiful.

In sharp contrast to public schools that promote such fashionable, man-made, negative values as diversity, equity, inclusion, multiculturalism, and environmentalism, classical schools hold up the seven traditional, enduring, positive virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, justice, faith, hope, and love. They seek to instill such virtues in their students, not in a dry, abstract manner, but by introducing them to the heroes of literature and the Bible.

I save for my fifth and final essential element what many would have put first in their definition of classical education. I speak of the centrality of the trivium, of a method of education that believes in conducting students through the threefold path of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Though the exact implementation of the trivium will vary slightly from school to school, all understand the need for memorizing foundational names, dates, and events at the grammar-school level. They neither shy away from this necessary building block of education nor demonize it by calling it “rote” memorization.

From there, all classical schools believe that students must be taught to think logically and to see through logical fallacies. They treat students as rational beings able to think objectively and dispassionately rather than relying solely on emotion, prejudice, and what Orwell called “groupthink.” Finally, all classical schools are committed to training students to communicate what they know effectively and defend it persuasively (rhetoric).

In an age of moral, philosophical, and aesthetic relativism, classical education remains dedicated to what T. S. Eliot called the “permanent” things. Those who receive such an education will be the glue that holds together our unmoored and fragmented society.

Classical education can do this because it aims, as Cardinal Newman said of the liberal arts in Discourse Seven, chapter ten of his Idea of the University, “at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.”   

Dr. Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian Univ., holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 25 books include The Myth Made Fact, From Plato to Christ, and Apologetics for the 21st Century. His Passing Down the Torch: How to Educate the Next Generation is due out in 2024 from IVP Academic.

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