Once More, What is Classical Education?

As I present seminars on classical education and train teachers around the country, I find that this question—What is classical education?—persists. Even experienced classical educators keep asking it. To be honest, I keep asking it, and have been asking it and answering it for nearly twenty years now.

It is a profoundly important question for our time, and one we should continue to ask and answer. There are a few reasons for this:

  • We did not receive a whole, integrated classical education ourselves, so we don’t have a strong answer based on our own experience.
  • Classical education is a tapestry with many threads and patterns, or a museum with many rooms. As a result, it can be explored and described in several ways, so that there is not one answer to the question, but several complementary answers.
  • The renewal of classical education is desperately needed in this cultural moment. The classical approach to education served the West very well for some 2,000 years; its recovery now is no mere luxury, but a necessity for cultural preservation and continuity.

To define something is to determine just what that something is and is not. Our word “define” comes from the Latin de (concerning, about, from) and finis (end, boundary, limit). When we define something, we fix its limits. Even the word “determine” has this sense, coming from de and terminus (end, limit, termination).

We can therefore define classical education by what it is:

  • Classical education is the liberal arts and the great books.
  • Classical education is the cultivation of the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the liberal arts.
  • Classical education is cultural transmission—the transmission of the soul of society from one generation to another.

We could go on with several more complementary definitions, which I mention in my companion video to this blog post. But we can also define classical education by what is not. It is not, for example, a child-centered approach to education in which children decide what they will read and study and when they will do so. It is not a study that privileges the most recent books and ideas, nor an approach that privileges job or vocational training. By setting forth what it is not, we already gain some insight into what it is.

We can also define something by comparison. You might have noticed that in specifying what classical education is not, I was beginning to do a comparison of classical education to modern, progressive education. By setting the two approaches side by side, we begin to learn a good deal about each.

We can also define something by analogy. We define by analogy when we say that something is like something else. Analogy is particularly useful when defining those things that are complex. Humans use metaphor and analogy at the most basic levels of thinking and speaking—all language and thinking relies heavily on metaphor and analogy (a claim I won’t try to defend here other than to note the implicit analogy contained in our word “define” that appeals to our knowledge of lines and boundaries).

So then, what is classical education like? What does it resemble? Here are several analogies that I like and often use when defining classical education:

  • Classical education is like a museum.
  • Classical education is like a garden.
  • Classical education is like a cathedral.
  • Classical education is like a table.
  • Classical education is like a tapestry.
  • Classical education is like a mosaic.
  • Classical education is like a conservatory.
  • Classical education is like a monastery.

Can you see resemblances in each case? I have touched already on the museum analogy. There are many beautiful “rooms” in classical education, all of which display something beautiful, true, and good. Like a world-class museum, classical education is such a large treasury that you can’t fully explore or comprehend it even in a lifetime. Like a museum, classical education features a collection of beautiful things created and gathered by those who have preceded us, so that we receive it as a remarkable gift, a tradition that has been graciously handed down for us to enjoy. A museum contains those things that delight and inspire us—a place where the “muses” dwell, creating a kind of internal “music” in souls and delivering from the shallow distraction of “amusement.” Classical education views the cosmos (something beautiful at root) as a living museum that cultivates wonder.

Now you might note that I am making use of yet another means of defining something—etymology. The word “museum” is derived from the Greek word mousa, meaning muse—as in one of the nine Greek muses that inspired learning in poetry, history, literature, dance, singing, and astronomy. We could therefore define classical education simply by studying the words “classical” and “education.” I won’t do that here, other than to mention that the original meaning of the Latin word classis was “a fleet of ships” (hint: the fleet was carefully organized and ranked).

In my ten-minute companion video on this topic, I spend a bit of time on each analogy above, but I am guessing you already see many of the connections inherent in the other analogies. Analogies are enjoyable as they engage our imagination and impart insight to us fairly quickly. When answering the question “What is classical education?” I usually start with a short aphoristic definition such as “the liberal arts and the great books,” but move to analogies as soon as I can.

Ultimately, answering this question requires a conversation, not a mere response. Beyond that, it requires some reading and thinking, then more conversation. Then we repeat, and repeat again, slowly ascending a kind of spiral staircase filled with books, chairs, and friends to talk with. It seems to me that we are in a lovely library. So learning about classical education is like . . .

Here is my brief 16 minute video on “What is Classical Education?”

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