The expression “classical education” has been worked over pretty well in the last ten or twenty years. It’s hard to blame people for thinking it’s just a buzzword. Compounding the problem is the blizzard of seemingly different definitions of the term.
When you want to define something, the best way to do this is often not to define it at all, but to simply give an example of what the thing is—or, in the case of classical education, what it was. This can be accomplished simply by looking at the classical cultures and what they thought education was. And, as Christians, we also want to know what it looked like after it encountered the growing Christian culture into whose lap the classical cultures were thrown as the older civilizations fell and Christianity rose.
For the Greeks, education was the transmission of the values and ideals of its culture through the works that expressed them best. For them, this meant Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the great epic story of their national myth—of their confrontation with the Trojans (and, in the case of the hero Achilles, confrontation with himself).
This two-book epic told the Greeks who they were. It was their way of articulating to themselves what they valued and revered. The two great values of the Greeks were strength and intelligence. Achilles embodied the first, Odysseus the second.
The Romans admired Greek culture and in many ways imitated it. The wealthier Romans sent their children to boarding schools in Greece or had a Greek tutor teach their children at home. Homeschooling, we quickly find out from reading history, was often the norm, not the exception.
The Romans, too, embraced strength and intelligence, but they had their own values as well. These were also two: order and piety (piety being the order of the soul). These were expressed in the Romans’ own epic, Virgil’s Aeneid. Like Achilles for the Greeks, Aeneas embodied the Roman values. He fled the burning city of Troy, with his father on his shoulders and his family in tow, and founded the new Troy on the banks of the Tiber River. There, a civilization grew that, because of its values, was able to rule most of the known world for a thousand years.
For these two cultures, education simply meant passing the culture along to every succeeding generation.
But then something interesting happened. This classical culture, deriving from Athens and further cultivated by Rome, encountered a new thing—the culture of Christianity, which itself had its origin in the culture of the Jews.
The Christians did not reject the values and ideals of the ancient cultures as they were rightly understood. They viewed them as products of God’s “natural” revelation, given to the Gentiles. But they added two supernatural values, which they considered to be primary, and which they had learned from God’s direct revelation to the Jews: faith and obedience. This encounter between Athens and Jerusalem, the consummation of the classical values—true and good in their own right— in the theological values of Christian thought is what defines Western civilization. And it is these values and ideals that classical Christian education seeks to transmit to the next generation.