What is Classical Education

The content of the curriculum of a classical Christian school, on primary, secondary, or college levels, is similar to the core of the “arts and sciences” core of a university, which was developed from the medieval curriculum of the “seven liberal arts” of the “trivium” and the “quadrivium,” which was invented by Plato in Book 7 of the Republic. The sciences inkreeft-classical-education-lazarusclude mathematics, the natural sciences, and sometimes also the human sciences. The “arts,” or humanities, include language (the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic—in English, Latin, and Greek), literature, history, perhaps political science, and finally philosophy, theology, and religion.

Mathematics is to the sciences what the trivium is to the humanities. Any science program that ignored or despised mathematics, as modern “humanities” have largely ignored or despised the trivium, would have sunk like a torpedoed ship long ago, and been thoroughly discredited throughout academia.

The Five Distinctives of the Classical Curriculum
The classical curriculum differs from that of a typical modern school in at least five ways: First, by what it isn’t.

The most obvious distinctive feature of classical education, though not the most important, is what is left out: all the courses and departments other than the ones I mentioned, which now constitute well over fifty percent of the modern large university. It does not include courses and departments like economics, music, theater, communications, or vocational training, whether nursing, business, law, medicine, engineering, seminary, or science directed to research. This last fact insures that the most lucrative government grants will never go to classical schools. This keeps them poor, and thus wise; for according to Jesus and nearly all the wise men of all ages and cultures, one of the surest ways to make a person foolish and corrupt is to make him rich; and the same is as true for a school as it is for an individual.

A second distinctive feature of the classical curriculum is what it includes: Greek and Latin, which in most universities is either dead or dying. The classics department at Boston College, for instance, which used to be one of the university’s largest and most prestigious, has shrunk to three professors with an average class size so small that the department will soon have to cease to exist altogether because it cannot obey the new university-wide regulation that mandates that each department must teach the same minimum number of students per professor (120 per year), a regulation that assumes the priority of quantity over quality, numbers over content. It is really the Marxist philosophy of quantitative egalitarianism, leveling everything by numbers.

Third, the classical curriculum can structure education at all age levels, from kindergarten to Ph.D. It does not suddenly come into existence at a certain age and then as suddenly die four or eight years later.

The fourth and most important distinctive feature of the classical curriculum is its structure. It has a unity, a coherence, a plan, which has remained essentially the same over the centuries, even with the gradual addition of more sciences. Most non-classical curricula today in higher education have the “anything” structure of Alice’s Restaurant (“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant”), from the Mickey Mouse art of “communications” to any vocational specialization imaginable or desired. You can major in Pickling and Fermentation at Ohio State University, and get academic credit for it.

Fifth, the classical curriculum is hierarchically ordered: math is the basis of science; the sciences are preliminary to the liberal arts; and within the liberal arts, especially in Christian schools, they are ordered to philosophy and finally to theology as their final end and the source of their guiding principle.

The Importance of Latin & Greek to Grammar Knowledge
The most important part of the curriculum for classical education is what we call the humanities. They are an expansion of what the medieval system called the trivium—the three subjects of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic —which constitute the language of the humanities as mathematics is the language of the sciences. Grammar means the structure of language, both in general and in particular; and “the particular” means both a foreign language and your native tongue, the King’s English, which is also a foreign language to many of today’s teens. If you do not know another language you will not appreciate English, and you will simply never become a good writer, for two reasons:

First of all, you cannot write good English unless you appreciate English, and you cannot appreciate anything except by contrast with its other, and other languages are that other.

Second, a good writer is a master not only of English but of language itself, but you cannot rise to the knowledge of the universal structures and principles of language itself unless you begin with at least two particular languages (and preferably more than two) from which you can abstract those general principles.

Among non-English languages two stand out as especially useful: Greek and Latin; and this also has two reasons. The first reason is the historical fact that they are the roots of Western civilization, both because of what they are in themselves, the two most beautiful specimens of language ever invented, and because all the great books of premodern times except for the Old Testament were written in either Greek or Latin.

The second reason is that these two languages are so highly and rationally structured with such a good infection of inflection, that to learn them is to exercise the mind more lithely and acrobatically, to give the mind the power to play with words more fully and elaborately, than can be done in any modern language. I can tell, 9 times out of 10, whether a student has studied Greek or Latin simply by reading his English. Great stylists like Cardinal Newman and C. S. Lewis could never have tamed and mastered English and made it flow and prance and sing and juggle so effortlessly and obediently if they had not first mastered Latin and Greek, which were light heavyweight sparring partners to prepare them for lightweight boxing in English.

The mastery of the grammar of these languages enables you to master the rhetoric, the beautiful and powerful use of them, rather as understanding a cookbook enables you to cook a delicious meal, or as understanding the principles of physics enables you to apply them in technology.

The third and culminating subject of the trivium, “dialectic,” means logic, or rather the use of logic in philosophy, the use of logic in the pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom is both the last and most important part of the subject matter of the curriculum and also the end of it all. Of course, the logic meant here is not the empty, merely mathematical, computer logic found in modern logic texts, but the logic of ordinary language, which begins not with quantitative symbols, but with qualitative words, which need to be defined, and concepts, which need to be understood. And the philosophy meant here is not the technical, academic exercises in “publish or perish” “scholarship” that fill those dreary professional philosophical journals today, but the living, literal love and pursuit of wisdom, especially wisdom about values and virtues, the kind of thing Plato did in his dialogues—an enterprise most modern professional philosophers, alas, have completely abandoned.

kreeft-classical-education-grammar-stagesWhat is Education For?
As arms, legs, hands, hearts, brains, lungs, and all the other body parts make a single human body—and as the plot, characters, setting, theme, and style make up a single story—all these subjects in the curriculum make up a single thing: an education, an e-ducare, a leading-out and leading-up into the light. It is a change, like an operation or a birth: a change in the student. It is a change from darkness to light, from small mind to large mind, that is, from ignorance to knowledge, and (much more important) from folly to wisdom.

Education, as classically conceived, is not primarily for citizenship, or for making money, or for success in life, or for a veneer of “culture,” or for escaping your lower-class origins and joining the middle class, or for professional or vocational training, whether the profession is honorable, like auto repair, or questionable, like law; and whether the profession is telling the truth, like an x-ray technician, or telling lies, like advertising or communications or politics. The first and foundational purpose of education is not external but internal: it is to make the little human a little more human, bigger on the inside.

The primary end of classical education, then, is in the student. But the student is a human being, and according to all the religions of the world (and therefore according to the vast majority of all people who have ever lived, in all times, places, and cultures), the ultimate end or final cause of a human being is something more than simply the mature flourishing of human powers, especially the powers of mind, in this life. If this is true—if in fact this life is a gymnasium to train for another, sterner combat—then the ultimate purpose of classical education is there.

One of the functions of the teacher is to raise the dead, to make their authors present. How? Not by doing anything to the authors, but to the readers: by getting the students to read the great books as their authors intended them to be read, namely actively, questioningly, in dialogue with the author, who will speak to them from beyond the grave or from a distance if, and only if, the reader asks the right questions, the logical questions. The reader may thus get the alarming sense that he is being haunted by the ghost of the writer. A great book, properly read, becomes not just a dead object but a living subject, a person, or the ghost of a person.

Christianity & Classical Education
Finally, a few thoughts on the relation between Christianity and classical education. Christianity naturally leads to classical education because Christianity teaches respect for the mind as part of the image of God in man, for the world as God’s intelligent, designed creation, and respect for human words because words, for the Christian, are not merely humanly invented labels for the commerce of writing and speaking. Rather, words dimly reflect their ultimate divine origin. “In the beginning was the Word.” In turn, classical education leads to Christianity because classical education seeks all truth for its own sake, is open to all truth, is a truth-seeking missile; and according to Christ, all who seek, find. Non-Christians are not seekers, or, if they are, they are not non-Christians for long.

When the right lynchpin, or capstone, or keystone is in place, everything else in the structure gets its proper place and meaning and fulfillment. And classical education helps Christianity, or rather Christianization, the Christianization of students, because nature is the soil for grace, and classical education is the best fertilizer. A student who knows what a subject and a predicate are is much more likely to understand that God’s existence can be logically proved; and a student who knows that both human thought and language and the material universe are by their own intrinsic nature rationally structured is not likely to be a skeptic, a subjectivist, a New Ager, or a Deconstructionist. Nietzsche sagely observed that “we atheists have not abolished God until we have abolished grammar.” For grammar is the reflection of The Word in words, the reflection of the ordering reason of the Creator in the ordered structure of the creature’s language.

It is a relationship of transcendence. As Pascal showed us, classical wisdom is infinitely more precious than all the best goods in the world, but Christian wisdom is infinitely more precious than the best classical education in the world; and the second infinity is infinitely more infinite than the first. When St. Thomas Aquinas was traveling across the Pyrenees (on foot, because he was very heavy and had charity to animal donkeys as well as human ones), the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and revealed an awesome vista of fifty miles of rich forests and richer cities, with shining golden domes. His friend Brother Reginald said, “Wouldn’t it be a grand thing to own all that your eye can see at this moment, Brother Thomas?” And Brother Thomas replied, after only a moment’s hesitation, “I suppose so, but I think it would be a grander thing to own that missing page in that Aristotle manuscript.” A little more wisdom is more than a little better than a lot of anything else.

Peter Kreeft is professor of philosophy at Boston College and the author of numerous books on Christianity, culture, and philosophy, including the Handbook of Christian Apologetics and Socrates Meets Jesus, both of which are available from Memoria Press. This article is an abridged version of his presentation at The Society for Classical Learning’s 2007 Annual Conference.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2009 edition

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