American Essence

What Exactly Is Classical Education?

Experts weigh in on the question of the year, explaining why a classical education helps all students to cultivate virtue
BY Krista Thomas TIMEJanuary 21, 2022 PRINT

Wisdom and virtue are traits strived for in a classical education, a study of the true, good, and noble. The following experts—those who promote the transmission of classical education—define what classical education is and can be for today’s students. And, more importantly, why does it matter today?

Dr. Alyssan Barnes

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Dr. Alyssan Barnes)

Barnes serves as Senior Faculty and Director of Credential Program at The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.

American Essence: How did you become involved or interested in classical education?

Barnes: Like so many, I had a run-of-the-mill K–12 public education. It really wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Dallas, which has long been committed to Liberal Arts and the Western tradition, that I began piecing together my own “classical education” through the study of literature, rhetoric, philosophy, and Latin. It was late in the game, and I felt like I was just waking up; I wanted to keep learning. I did that through teaching! I started in a classical school in the inner city of Dallas, and I’ve continued to work in classical education ever since. I was able to research and write on classical education for my dissertation, and, from my work as a high school teacher, I’ve written a couple of books for the classroom: “Rhetoric Alive: Practicing Persuasion” and “Rhetoric Alive: Senior Thesis Student Workbook.” I’ve recently left the classroom to join the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in their beautiful work of renewing this kind of learning in Catholic schools. It’s an honor to be a part of its revival.”

AE: What is the best definition you give when someone asks, “What is a classical education?” How is classical education different from today’s education?

Barnes: There are a lot of different answers you might hear to this question. Some people think that a tell-tale sign of a classical education is the study of Latin; for others, it’s a “Great Books” education. Still others, influenced by Dorothy Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning,” understand classical education to be a kind of developmental model that takes grammar, logic, and rhetoric as particular stages of a child’s development.

However, the best distinction between classical education and the typical, post-Dewey classroom is really in terms of the goal. Modern education is utilitarian: the goal is to get a job, to learn information to later employ in that job. It’s a power model. Classical education, on the other hand, seeks to educate the child as a “human qua human.” And what is the true telos of the human? Wisdom and virtue! More accurately, wisdom and virtue are understood as a discovery and an embracing of reality. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, modern education wants to conform reality to the will, while classical education wants to conform the will to reality. A quick look at human history shows that it’s the classical model that points students toward human flourishing—putting them on the path, as it were.

Once the purpose of education has been established, then you can go back and look at what materials best suit it or what format it should best use. I do believe you end up with the Great Books—in the upper grades, at least—and attention to a child’s natural development. But those are after, not before, determining education’s purpose.

AE: Best book you would recommend on what a classical education is…

Barnes: It depends on what you’re looking for. For teachers and homeschool parents designing their own curriculum, I’d reach for “The Well-Trained Mind” by Susan Wise Bauer; it’s an excellent, practical resource. “An Introduction to Classical Education” by Chris Perrin is an easy-to-read, 45-page bird’s-eye view of how classical education is understood, particularly in religious schools. For Catholics, “Renewing Catholic Schools” makes a strong case for returning to the Church’s heritage of liberal education. For a more in-depth and scholarly perspective, H.I. Marrou’s “History of Education in Antiquity” is just wonderful. Marrou traces the beginnings of education in the Greek world and the transition from a military education to what we’d now identify as a “classical education”—what would become an education in the traditional seven liberal arts.

AE: What do you believe are the reasons for interest in the classical education movement?

Barnes: We’re at a kind of crossroads. To overstate it, but not by much, modern progressive education is inhumane. That is, it has a deficient or incomplete picture of the human person. Because of that, it denies important aspects of the human experience: It leaves out wisdom—the ordering of goods according to the highest purpose—and virtue, which demands an articulation of a human’s true telos, or end. Classical education is bringing humanity back into education; in fact, it starts with that. Who is human? What does a full development of his capacities look like? What is our responsibility to each other? Who is God? How are we to live? What is essential for human flourishing? These are the most important questions we can ask, and—though they are largely ignored today—they are answered de facto by each person’s life. The typical school today doesn’t dare address them. But classical education puts these questions front and center. Everything that follows—whether it is a history lesson or a science experiment or physical education—can be framed in light of those important questions.

AE: How can parents and teachers best help children be prepared for the world ahead even if they did not receive a classical education?

Barnes: What will our world ahead be like? It will be teeming with technology, which is another way of saying that we will have greater means to accomplish our desires. What matters, then, is the character of those desires. C.S. Lewis says it best: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” Einstein saw this, too: “What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind? I do not think that is the right way to put the question. Whatever this tool in the hands of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind. Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them. Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. … Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem—in my opinion—to characterize our age.” In other words, now more than ever, students need wisdom and virtue.

As for us teachers and parents—we are almost all being “retrofitted” ourselves as classical educators. And we are never really “done,” are we? Learning is a lifelong affair, and the best advice I can give to parents and teachers is to journey with your students and model a love of learning. Classical education will seem daunting at first, but the texts and the ideas and the questions have survived, in part, because they are so accessible, and because they continue to bear fruit in the lives of those who are willing to engage with them. And take heart! The great boon for those of us who didn’t receive this kind of education ourselves is that we make up for lost time with zeal.

Martin Cothran

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Martin Cothran)

Cothran, an author and educator at the forefront of the movement, is provost of Memoria College, the editor of Memoria Press’s Classical Teacher Magazine, and the director of the Classical Latin School Association.

AE: How did you become involved or interested in classical education?

Cothran: When I was working in public policy at the state level in Kentucky, I was heavily involved in education issues and educational philosophy. It was then that I met Cheryl Lowe, founder of a classical education school and publishing company. I came on board in 1998, helping Memoria Press grow to be one of the largest providers of classical educational materials in the country.

AE: What is the best definition you give when someone asks, “What is a classical education?” How is classical education different from today’s education?

Cothran: I would say that the contrast is with progressive education. Classical is a basic academic focus on arts and sciences. And even though all schools do have this, a classical education offers a liberal linguistic and mathematical skills approach that you need to know. For example, sciences in the classical sense present organized bodies of knowledge including the theological, dogmatics, and natural sciences, as well as the moral sciences—or the humanities—including history, literature, and philosophies. Intellectual studies and skills are developed as the purpose for the individual is to inculcate wisdom and virtue on the true, good, and beautiful. Now, on the cultural level, the purpose is to pass on culture of the Christian West. Classical education existed in the United States until the 1920s, when this type of education was replaced. The focus changed to adapting children to a vocation or job through progressive political efforts to influence the culture. Classical education purports to pass on knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next instead of progressivism.

AE: Best book you would recommend on what a classical education is…

Cothran: “A Defence of Classical Education” written by R.W. Livingstone in 1916 is what I recommend. At that time, there was a big debate in the United States that challenged classical education. The progressives were taking over the institutions of learning, so Livingstone’s book was written on the cusp of this debate. He was a classical educator and public intellectual and was a repository of the best knowledge of classical teaching and articulated why classical education is what education should be.

AE: What do you believe are the reasons for interest in the classical education movement?

Cothran: A book came out in 1991 by Douglas Wilson, “The Rediscovery of the Lost Tools of Learning,” which essentially republished an essay from Dorothy Sayers who articulated at Oxford the three stages of learning. People stopped memorizing, … stopped studying grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, logic. Now, these stages are accurate. However, in retrospect, the movement helped people realize that while these tools are a helpful learning paradigm, classical education isn’t just that. Sayers is not talking about classical education as that which is defined as learning the Great Books and Latin. Going beyond the stages of learning to a fuller definition of classical education is the result of Sayers and Douglas’ efforts. Cheryl Lowe, who founded Memoria Press, and others interested in classical education helped to modernize classical education.

AE: How can parents and teachers best help children be prepared for the world ahead even if they did not receive a classical education?

Cothran: It just involves investigation. Parents, look to see what entities are available. Classical Teacher Magazine, for example, continues to articulate what classical education is. And, there is a list of Great Books to read, but it is impossible to just expect someone to do anything with it. Curriculum has been developed from phonics and arithmetic to Latin and literature guides. There is an abundance of materials available for parents to use to introduce a classical education to their children.

Dr. Daniel Scoggin

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Dr. Daniel Scoggin)

Scoggin is co-founder of Great Hearts, a network of state-chartered public schools in Arizona and Texas offering a liberal arts curriculum. He is also president of the Great Hearts Foundation.

AE: How did you become involved or interested in classical education?

Scoggin: I earned a PhD in English and originally planned to be a college professor. But I had an opportunity to teach in Tempe [Arizona] at a classical charter school. It was a much deeper experience than working in a college setting. As a teacher and coach, and then headmaster, we started the Great Hearts model. We have grown to almost a million students receiving this kind of education!

AE: What is the best definition you give when someone asks, “What is a classical education?” How is classical education different from today’s education?

Scoggin: A classical education unifies the pursuits of moral excellence and intellectual excellence. It joins the heart and mind in the pursuit of virtue. As C.S. Lewis writes in “The Abolition of Man,” teach children what to learn, to love beauty and a taste for truth through good moral stories, and to sharpen their intellectual capacities. Educating the whole person, the soul, is a beautiful pursuit. And conserving and transmitting the heritage of what it means to be an excellent human being takes place through the Great Books, mathematics, the sciences, and the arts. Modern or progressive education is utilitarian; it is an education that will give a student “this” to help you to do “this” based on a skill set. But a classical education is not utilitarian; it is the first premise of forming the soul. In a sense, it cannot be measured. Can you weigh character, and can you give it a test? Yes, that’s life. And a classical education is deeper than an education based on a utilitarian approach.

AE: Best book you would recommend on what a classical education is…

Scoggin: I think people should read Mortimer Adler’s “Paideia Proposal.” It explains why all students, especially in public education, should be exposed to the Great Books, the arts, humanities, sciences, and mathematics. All students should have access to this humanizing form of education.

AE: What do you believe are the reasons for interest in the classical education movement?

Scoggin: Families feel like most education has been hollowed out from the purpose of serving a full human being, especially in its capacity to cultivate virtue. 100 years ago, … most universities and prep schools were studying Latin and reading Cicero, but that’s all been washed out by a progressive education. Parents want something deeper—a true and more durable form of education.

AE: How can parents and teachers best help children be prepared for the world ahead even if they did not receive a classical education?

Scoggin: I think parents can still have their children read the junior Great Books. They can still talk about history and expose them to art and museums. Yet it’s not just exposing them to the great beauty of the Western tradition but to talk about it. Discussions are meant to be Socratic in nature. You can do this by shaping the family dinner conversations or starting a family read-aloud for 20 minutes and then slowing down and drawing out these conversations about high-minded things.

Jeremy Tate

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Jeremy Tate)

Tate, founder of the CLT Exam (Classic Learning Test), is the man behind the mission to restore meaning to standardized testing through the study of great works and applied mathematical skills.

AE: How did you become involved or interested in classical education?

Tate: Starting out in my career as a second-generation teacher, I was really surprised with what I found when looking into SAT and ACT prep. Generally, the test was, at best, meaningless and often hyper-political. Testing isn’t just an evaluation tool. It’s a pedagogical tool. When I dug deeper, I noticed the biggest education companies were censoring the intellectual tradition which ultimately gave birth to diversity and to the founding of America. Our founders were immersed in Aristotle, enlightenment philosophers, political philosophy; yet in the early 20th century, a movement pushed away the classical education standard. Looking into today’s educational pedagogies, it is practically about career and college readiness. In my opinion, modern education doesn’t really do that, either. I’m not exactly clear what it [modern education] does.

AE: What is the best definition you give when someone asks, “What is a classical education?” How is classical education different from today’s education?

Tate: It is hard to define. But a classical education is born out of wonder. It starts with a natural curiosity of what man thinks about the world. To fundamentally pass down the treasure trove of the great works to the next generation is what a classical education is. The differential is the cultivation of virtue instead of career preparation. For example, we have to ask why mainstream education dismissed logic. Today’s students and teachers never had a class in the study of logic, which assumes a world can be known—that a right and wrong exist already. C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man,” written in the 1940s, describes this well.

AE: Best book you would recommend on what a classical education is…

Tate: One really important book I would recommend is “The Liberal Arts Tradition” by Dr. Kevin Clark. This defining work helps to comprehend why classical education is different from mainstream K–12 education.

AE: What do you believe are the reasons for interest in the classical education movement?

Tate: Andrew Kern, Chris Perrin, and Martin Cothran helped make this movement a movement! It’s a pretty powerful movement, which has been growing since the 1970s. Today, you find wait lists at every classical education school. Covid, especially, allowed parents to start asking questions about the principles of education. Asking why gives you a sense of how things are really different today. When parents are presented with this kind of education, they naturally want their kids to love learning and come back to scholarship to build virtue and character.

AE: How can parents and teachers best help children be prepared for the world ahead even if they did not receive a classical education?

Tate: It is never too late to start. The paradox is that if you only study your own time period, you miss being a time traveler studying through the lens of a classical education. Get immersed in timeless stories. A great formation can start with beloved books like “Aesop’s Fables.” Read them all with your kids over and over. Read “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” and Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”—stories that are the center of this literary inheritance.

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