Classical Education: A Way of Being and Not a Curriculum

stone-wall-1362481_640_optSome old things should be forgotten, yet much that has been forgotten should not have been. No place is this truer than in education. About a decade ago, classical education became a trend in k-12 and higher education and  much that was revived should be allowed to die and much is still forgotten that must live.

Sadly, nobody thought to ask, as they turned to the past, why the system of k-12 and college as separate institutions is a good thing. Education as we experience it in America is a new thing . . . less than one hundred years old and the system may have been bypassed by technology and always was a kludged hack of best-case education.

The attempt to revive old books like the Elsie Dinsmore series reminds a reader why they expired. Elsie is badly written, think Dickens with no self-control over his adjectives, and full of the worst racism of the period. It is certainly true that the series advocates for keeping the Sabbath, but only by promoting a pharisaical attitude so toxic that it would have tried to stone the Lord of the Sabbath. GA Henty is a fascinating person, and his books are historical curiosities, so if you have a taste for Victorian fiction like I do, they are fun, but nobody should build a curriculum around them.

Old does not mean great or even very good.

Classical education is the tension between Athens and Jerusalem. There is a harmony between the wisdom God gives all humankind in grace and the revelation of God, but that harmony is hard to find. Part of the joy of being human is to live in that creative tension and wonder how the insights of Langston Hughes fit with the revelation of God to Julian of Norwich.

Classical education looks to the best of the past, but must not be closed to the best of the present. There are modern methods of knowing that benefit the student that cannot be found in Aristotle or even as recent a writer as Dewey. While we must ask the perennial questions, we must also be open to alternative questions and different voices.  Classical education begins with the foundation of the home language, the mother tongue, and then moves out with limitless capacity for growth.

If we had time, there would be room for even Dinsmore, but not until modern theater, poetry, art, and contemporary philosophy have had their say. It is hard to know what is lasting in the present, but making some good guesses is worthwhile. Classical is not the trivium or the quadrivium, though that framework can be useful. However, many other frameworks for the dialectic between Athens and Jerusalem might be equally useful.

How do we know what to use?

Classical education is personal. As much as possible, the classical educator fits the learning to the needs of the particular student and the gifts of the particular teacher in the community in which they are grounded. My school begins with English texts and documents that form the English language, because that is our situation and the primary language of instruction. Our community is also very diverse so we quickly have added Spanish, French, Greek, Latin, and soon Arabic ideas to our discussion. This fits our circumstance, but as we grow, our opportunity will grow. We aspire to Russian and Chinese, because our church roots are in Russia and much of our surrounding population has roots in Chinese cultures.

This particularity and emphasis on being grounded in community while teaching the individual is why even the canon (the list of texts) can change. If we were a primarily Spanish school, we would have many of the same readings, but some would be different. If we were primarily Aramaic, then our readings would be even more unique.

What is essential?

A classical education is dialectical: it looks to Heaven and earth, revelation and philosophy.

A classical education does not presume, but is open to any question, method, or outcome. We begin where we are, but we are willing for even our deepest beliefs to be wrong.

A classical education is in a particular community and first explores the roots of that linguistic community.

A classical education broadens the discussion to neighbors quickly and could (in theory) reach to the entire world.

A classical education is centered on the student and teacher relationship.

That is real classical education and it can occur in schools not called classical that do not read even Plato (how painful for me!). A classical education is simply education.


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