I have given many speeches and written many articles on the subject of what classical education is. One of the things I have realized in doing so is that, among the many impediments to understanding what classical education is, there is the simple problem of the lack of clarity in the words we use to talk about it. There are three terms that those of us involved in classical education like to throw around, terms we sometimes use interchangeably and simultaneously or in some other way that obscures their meanings.
We are in no danger of being arrested by the language police over this, but our approach to classical education and our execution of it depend on our understanding of what these terms mean and how they are distinct.
The three terms are: “classical,” “liberal arts,” and “humanities.”
The Definition of “Classical”
The original and still primary meaning of the term “classical” is, of course, “of or having to do with the cultures of Greece and Rome.” These are the two classical cultures. Its secondary meaning refers to the entire subsequent civilization which derived from these two cultures as they confronted the culture of the Hebrews, and as they were digested, transformed, and later revived by the Christian culture of the Middle Ages. It was the civilization composed of these elements which was handed down, from generation to generation, through Western Christian education, until the mid-twentieth century in America (later in Europe) when it began to be displaced in our schools in favor of other more political and pragmatic concerns.
By the term “classical education,” we mean the system of education that emphasizes Western civilization—the cultures of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem—and that attempts to pass it on to the next generation. It is the project of reviving the modes of thought that assumed and the body of knowledge that undergirded the ideals and values of the West.
This system of education has two chief and theoretically distinct components: the liberal arts and the humanities—the first being the traditional set of learning skills, and the second being classical content. In other words, when we say “classical education,” we mean the liberal arts and the humanities—language and mathematics on the one hand, and on the other, as Matthew Arnold put it, the best that has been thought and said.
In his 1847 “Lectures on the Advantages of Classical Education,” James Pycroft made the distinction between the forming of the mind and the filling of it. The forming of the mind is the job of the liberal arts. The filling of the mind is the business of the humanities.
The Definition of “Liberal Arts”
“The cultivation of the mind,” said Pycroft, “like that of a field, requires that we should first prepare the soil, and then sow the seed. You must sharpen the tools,” he says, varying the metaphor, “before you can make any progress in your work.”
If the instructor does not form the mind of his pupil before he fills it in earnest, said Pycroft, then “the labour of the instructor is like that of the Danaids, in mythological story: doomed to fill leaky vessels.”
Even though we often call classical education in general a “liberal arts education” (often confounding the liberal arts and the humanities), the term “liberal arts” historically has a more specific definition. The liberal arts consist of the academic skills we have inherited from the ancient world, which are the three language arts of the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and the four mathematical arts of the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The liberal arts are a set of generalizable intellectual skills, originally considered to be nine, including architecture and medicine. But they were winnowed down to seven when, as Martianus Capella tells it, the arts (represented as young maidens) were presented as servants to the goddess Philology, during her wedding to Mercury, and architecture and medicine were told—because of their concern solely for earthly things—to sit down and be quiet.
The linguistic and mathematical arts included under the liberal arts serve a purely instrumental purpose. “The liberal arts are the ground rules of thought,” says David Mulroy, in his excellent book, The War Against Grammar, “not its end.” “In Aristotelian terms,” he says, “they are not speculative disciplines, aimed at learning ultimate truths, but practical ones designed to serve ulterior purposes. The value of the liberal arts, in other words, is instrumental—but no less necessary for being so.”
“We should not be learning the liberal arts,” explained the ancient Greek thinker Isocrates, making the same point, “we should have learned them.” “By studying them,” continues Mulroy, “one could discover thought’s basic patterns, which are what bind the seven liberal arts together. In contemporary terms, their subjects are the procedures that are hard-wired in our brains and do not differ from topic to topic.”
And I should probably distinguish this account of the liberal arts from Dorothy Sayers’ use of the terms “trivium” and “quadrivium,” which, in fact, sparked much of the classical education movement we see today. Hers is not a description of the historical liberal arts. It is rather an analogical use of the classical trivium to explain her developmental analogy. I don’t think Sayers had any intention of redefining the liberal arts, with which the vast majority of her Oxford audience would have been familiar, but I think she simply meant to use the historical trivium as a convenient metaphor for the developmental stages of the child as they relate to education—just as she used the historical quadrivium as a metaphor for the division of subjects.
Sayers’ developmental analogy is indeed useful, but when I use the terms “trivium” and “quadrivium,” I am referring to the traditional definition that Sayers herself would have known. I am referring, not to what Dorothy Sayers said, but to what she assumed.
The Definition of “Humanities”
If the liberal arts constitute the forming of the mind, the humanities constitute its filling. If the liberal arts are the how, the humanities are the what of our culture. The term “humanities” refers primarily to three things: history, literature, and philosophy. The formal study of philosophy, being an advanced subject, is generally best studied in college. For elementary and secondary education purposes, the humanities consist of literature and history.
The humanities are not a means to anything else other than wisdom and virtue. They are not quite an end in themselves, but they are a very fundamental means. It is through literature and history that we find out who we are as human beings. They tell us the story of who we are, how we should act, and what and whom we should admire.
For most of history, education served as the means by which a culture’s ideals and values were passed from one generation to the next. The Greek ideal was embodied in works such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The ideals of the Romans were embodied in works such as Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, the equivalent would be Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Christian ideals were informed and contrasted with the natural knowledge of the classical cultures.
Though the humanities are technically only the studies of history, literature, and philosophy, they include the mythologies of both Greece and Rome, which, while not true in fact, are rich in insights about human nature. The great medieval and Renaissance stories, such as the tales of Chaucer and Shakespeare, who were themselves nurtured on the classics, show how these great classical works could be transformed by a Christian consciousness. And then there were the stunning philosophical and theological achievements of philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, taking the insights of the ancients and placing them in the service of the Christian religion.
American culture is the beneficiary, through England primarily, of this heritage, which is why a classical education does not ignore our own heroes, men such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, who themselves studied the classical heroes and classical cultures in a way that prepared them for their roles in the forming of this nation.
The Earliest Definition of Education
And so we have established that classical education consists of two things: the humanities and the liberal arts.
We can see it in the earliest definition of classical education, which is in Book IX of Homer’s Iliad. Phoenix is counseling Achilles and he says, “To thee did the old knight Peleus send me the day he sent thee to Agamemnon forth from Phthia, a stripling yet unskilled in equal war and in debate wherein men wax pre-eminent. Therefore sent he me to teach thee all these things, to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.”
Since speaking and thinking are two sides of the same coin (we could add writing as well), we can say that classical education is teaching students how to think and what to do—which is just another way of saying “wisdom and virtue.”
An Aside About Science
I have left out the term “science” in this discussion, since it has not had as great a role in the confusion attending the term “classical education.” But a complete categorization of education would, of course, include it. To ancient and medieval thinkers the word “science” simply indicated any organized body of knowledge. There were the arts (skills) and the sciences (bodies of knowledge). Today we think of science only in terms of natural science, which is the organized body of knowledge about the natural world. But there are also the moral or humane sciences (the humanities, as we’ve just defined them), as well as the theological sciences, which study the nature of God and our relation to Him.
The passing on of a civilization as an educational ideal and the formal development of the mind came under hostile scrutiny at the turn of the twentieth century, and was eventually displaced by other agendas. The old classical curriculum was slowly replaced by the new progressivism, which was more interested in reforming future society than in reading past classics, and by the pragmatic curriculum which demanded more specific job training rather than general mental training.
A curriculum that stressed how to think and what to do was turned upside down in the new curriculum, where the dual priority was not on how to think and what to do, but on what to think (indoctrination in political ideology) and how to do (vocational training).
But man is more than a political activist and an employee. As Aristotle pointed out, he is a knower, a doer, and a maker, and any education worthy of the name should address all of these.