W. Davies Owens: "What Is Classical Education?"

        Classical education bases its roots in a rich tradition extending back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Amazingly, the qualities and characteristics that made it such a time-proven model over the span of history are the very ones necessary to meet the needs of students in today’s modern hyper-technological world. If anything, the classical model is needed now more than ever for modern-day students.

        As a classical Christian educator for more than two decades, I often tell parents to think of the classical model as an “ancient future education” because we look to the past to inform and ignite future learners. Unlike the modern educational tendency to tear down and start again with trends and preferences, we build upon a classical model that lays a firm foundation for students.

         The classical educator’s ancient future toolbox employs many instruments and techniques to help mold modern minds. The great books and memorization of beautiful literature and historical documents guide students to reflect on the humanity, virtue, and struggle that every human heart encounters. Latin allows students to grasp the roots and meaning of our modern-day vocabulary. The formal study of logic shapes their minds to argue well using objective truth as their goal. Participating in Socratic discussions trains students in the robust exchange of ideas and how to wrestle humbly with the art of argument.

         Ultimately, however, classical education is more than cognitive tools, a conveyance of information, and the application of time-tested methods. A classical education uses these methods to form what our children love. It shapes their hearts through their joyful discovery of the true, the good, and the beautiful, leading to a flourishing life.

         The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:4 refers to this formation as “paideia,” commonly translated as “training” or “disciplining.” This time-proven model strives to form the whole person. It does so by penetrating and directing a student's deepest longings and loves.

         First and foremost, a classical education anchors the object of one’s affection in transcendent truth. Classical education, as historically practiced, is unashamedly Christian. Far more than a Bible class or chapel, the classical method permeates the curriculum to guide students to aspire to something greater than themselves and integrates faith in an infinite, personal God. Stories within this framework reinforce a biblical understanding of an infinite, personal God who redeemed a lost and dying people and called them to live out their calling and purpose, answering and filling what Blaise Pascal identified as the “ 

        Another key element of classical education is the emphasis on community. Classical education forms a student’s paideia by inviting students into a beautiful learning community where the influence of the hallway is as molding as the classroom. Students are surrounded by a vibrant community of master teachers as well as peers in engaging experiences like house programs where life-on-life mentoring shapes what is loved and valued. The community aspires and celebrates a higher aesthetic—all that is true, good, and beautiful, reflected in everything from the artwork on the wall to the value of uniforms and higher-order affections. This community should naturally include the reinforcing voices of the home and church, rounding out and resonating with what is valued and celebrated in the classical schools.

        Finally, classical education is the best preparation possible for a young person to flourish in life. A classically educated student is real-world ready, far more vital than college readiness, which is a given. They are adapted for a life ahead where particular jobs and vocations will frequently change. But more, they will flourish as they are grounded in who they are as persons and are courageous in their calling and the contribution they want to make to the world as zealous, lifelong learners. All the while, they have the core wisdom to discern what Lewis calls the “cataract of nonsense” from a cacophony of competing voices and manipulative forces in the larger secular world. Classical education prepares students for lives of service and sacrifice and is one of the few antidotes to the persuasive, and often barbaric, narratives of the surrounding secular world. Classically educated students can stand as a beacon, live well, form sustaining civilizations, and love God and neighbor.

         Raising students in this modern world that challenges truth at every turn means that we must equip them with an education that meets their needs. Classical education does exactly that—it trains the head and the heart. It looks to the past but is designed perfectly for the future. As technology advances more and more, our humanity and the ability to think rightly and act virtuously will be challenged. Those classically trained will be ready. 


W. Davies Owens, DMin, MDiv, is president of Ancient Future Education, where he provides training and support resources to classical Christian school parents and leaders, through platforms like the BaseCamp Live podcast. He also serves as an adjunct professor in the Gordon Graduate Leadership program teaching institutional advancement.


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