What is it?
Classical education is not a curriculum you can buy or a fixed pattern of learning for all people at all places at all times. This is especially true if we consider the education offered in the classical period. Ancient Greek culture stretches over hundreds of years and embraces a wide variety of philosophies and forms of education. If we add Roman ideas, then we add centuries more history and even greater diversity.
Global Christians have a Bible rooted in Hebrew and Greek languages: Jerusalem and Athens. Christian education will always include these languages and root cultures, but also must take into account the homeland of the learners and the global church.
We are training in God-given virtue. That is both classical and Christian.
Classical Christian education begins with language, particularly the primary language of the learner.
Classical Christian education is rooted in reading, writing, and communicating. We begin in the vulgar tongue, the one we learned from our mothers and fathers. This is the language of our church liturgy. In the United States the primary (though not the only) language is English. Most curriculum would begin in that tongue, though certainly not in every US community.
Curriculum would begin in mastery of reading, writing, and communicating in English. (God help me!) The root tongues of English (including Latin) are useful in this regard. Other major national languages such as Spanish also will receive great attention. Add to this the languages of the historic church: Latin, Arabic, Russian, Ge’ez, and so many others.
For every student the language of mathematics is also essential.
There is so much to learn!
Classical Christian education is a nursery to cultivate virtue, wonder and joy in learning.
We cannot be sure what any given student must know, but we can be sure that we will all need virtue. (Lord have mercy!). A student that uses anything he learns to ask better and new questions will never tire of learning. Knowledge leads to wonder and wonder to more knowledge, humbly held. This is joy in education.
The dialectic is central to classical Christian education: bewilderment, hypothesis, myth.
Classical education teaches us that a good question is harder to form than the answers it will (inevitably) produce. We want answers, but, as a result, learn first to form good questions.
Christian orthodoxy is truth. We learn that truth by learning the right questions walking with Jesus, reflecting on his Word in relationship with His bride the Church. These truths give us better questions as we know God through the person of Jesus Christ.
Discipleship, lived experience, is central to classical Christian education.
We read books for people. We serve, create, build. Another aspect of Classical, Christian education is the formation of learning communities. These communities must do things and for a Christian these will include acts of charity.
Classical Christian education is tied to a global church.
We learn about home first, our home language, the influences on that language, and the roots of our people. Yet we are not merely citizens of a republic (if American), but primarily subjects of the City of God. We long to study the wisdom and wonders found by our brothers and sisters in every tribe, people, and nation. Just as many of us (given our cultures) begin in Homer and move to the great pagan philosophers, so we can and should find wisdom in every other culture.We cannot evangelize what we do not understand and love!
What of the trivium or (even) the quadrivium?
One way of dividing up learning for many classical thinkers (perhaps including Plato) and some Medieval people was the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithematic, geometry, music, and astronomy).
Nobody should base an entire approach to education on an interesting esssay by an excellent mystery writer with (some) scholarly background. Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning is provocative and has inspired many to look into classical, Christian, eduction, but it is no sure guide as to what we should do.
The trivium is an interesting approach to what we should teach and how we should teach it, but is not the only approach. We must supplement ancient wisdom with what science and centuries of further educational experience have taught us about teaching and learning. If many educators today are too hasty to try the new and discard the old, classical Christian educators must avoid being reactionaries who cling to what is merely old even when something works better.
The children in early grades are in the nursery stage of learning and the trivium (even if used woodenly) would not apply to them. In fact, doing so risks draining the joy out of education. In my experience, I can catch a lively learner up, even as late as university, but there is little help for the student reduced to the conformist drill-and-kill drone.
Surely nobody sane would limit a college or university education to the quadrivium! Yes to those disciplines, but yes to so much more discovered over the centuries. The distinction between the two is, after all, artificial. All truth is unified and so the trivium begins with the most simple things (for most students) and ends in the most complex or abstract. Great focus on the distinction is like those schools that get lost deciding just what is religion, what is science, what is history as if making these useful distinctions (for some schools) clear is the goal!
Instead, the focus must always be on aptitudes that will make a person a good and useful neighbor in the city of man and an eternal citizen of the City of God. Both the subjects of learning and the trivium skills (with other important skills) stand in dialog with each other to help us achieve the human aptitudes.
These aptitudes are the great virtues: practical wisdom, moderation, courage, justice and hope, faith, and love. Everything Plato suggested in education was in order to reach classical virtues, just as our salvation by grace and God’s mercy is to create the deeper Christian virtue. A good general education (K-12, college) will make a person fit to work surely, but the fitness is incidental due to a well ordered soul.
The well ordered soul (the virtuous person) will invent, create, and flourish.
Confusing the trivium or quadrivium with classical Christain education is like confusing one way of having a happy marriage with the only way. Instead, any book of marriage advice stands subject to the particular experience of the couple and as a servant to the chief goals of a Christian marriage!
I am writing in response to series of excellent research questions sent to me by a graduate student studying modern classical education.