Martin Cothran: "What Is Classical Education?"

The trouble with the question "What is classical education?" is that it contains a perverse redundancy. There is the noun "education" and it is modified by the adjective "classical." We normally use an adjective to reduce the scope of the meaning of the noun. If I say I would like a brown coat, I mean to include only brown coats and to exclude all non-brown coats. If I say I want to put white flowers in the vase, I mean to include white flowers and exclude all that are not white.

What is it we are excluding when we attach the adjective "classical" to the noun"education"?

I have found in recent years that when I enter a coffee shop and ask for a cup of coffee, I am asked, with increasing frequency, whether I want it hot or iced.  What I want to say is that iced coffee is not coffee at all. That “iced coffee” is the product of some dangerous conspiracy against the integrity of coffee. I want my coffee to be cold about as much as I want my ice cream to be warm. And I hold to the now apparently controversial position that the hotness is an essential, not accidental, characteristic of coffee. If is not hot coffee, it is not coffee at all.

So when we say "classical education" do we mean to say that that there is some other education out there that is not classical? If someone were to say that they preferred "non-classical" education, what could they mean?

I propose that to say "classical education" is like saying "hot coffee"—at least, saying it to me! It is redundant. And that using the term “education” to mean anything other than what we refer to as classical education is like saying "artificial meat." It is a poor imitation. It might look like education, but it is really not education at all. All education is classical insofar as it is education: to be classical is part of the essence of what education is, not some different kind of the same thing.

There might be an etymological argument in favor of using the word "education" in another way. The two roots of the word are educare and educere, the former meaning to train or mold, and the latter having the sense of "leading out.” But if we look at how the term "education" has been used in the Western tradition, we find it means something more and different. It has traditionally indicated the formal passing on of one's civilization. It referred to acculturation via the inculcation of wisdom and virtue through the study of the system of arts and sciences that had been developed over centuries. These arts and sciences originated with the Greeks, were adopted by the Romans, and handed on to Christian Europe and then the United States.

The word "education" has only taken on a different meaning in modern times as a result of changes that took place in the early 20th century at the hands of progressives like John Dewey and pragmatists like William Heard Kilpatrick. Dewey tried to change the meaning of education from passing on a culture to changing the culture, a political usage of the word. Kilpatrick tried to change it from cultural transmission to the fitting of children to the culture through vocationalism.

The purpose of a thing dictates all else. When Aristotle detailed his "four causes"—his four ways of defining something—he emphasizes one of them in particular as being the most important, the one closest to the heart of a thing. This was called the "final" cause, what the thing was for, its purpose. The final cause is the most important cause because it is closest to its essence. It is what something is for.

In organic beings in particular, every particle is "pointed" toward the purpose of the organic thing of which it is a part, whether it is a human, an animal, or a plant. The same particle could appear in one being and also, later, in another. But its orientation in one biological body would be different in a different body because of the controlling purpose. This purpose is the most important thing about a thing.

It is no different when it comes to education. Here, too, its purpose is the most important thing about it. The purpose of education to every civilization up until about 100 years ago was to transmit itself to the succeeding generation. This would have been true of Athens and Rome as much as it would have been true of a primitive tribe.

To change the purpose is to change the thing. And if we are going to do that, we should, in the interest of full disclosure, call it something else.

I take my education like I take my coffee—hot.

Martin Cothran, MA, is Provost of Memoria College and editor of The Classical Teacher magazine.

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