What Is Classical Education?

Classical education has grown so much in the last twenty years that when Dr. Gene Edward Veith and Andrew Kern turned in the second edition of their book, Classical Education, the editors changed the subtitle to The Movement Sweeping America.

But classical education is also ancient. Its origins are in the classical world of Greece and Rome, but its roots lie still further back in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The story of classical education is a long, strange trip through the centuries.

At the CiRCE Institute, we are committed to the mission of understanding classical education in its essence. We want to discover what is common to all classical educators so that we can better understand classical education itself.

We have discovered a few common and controlling ideas that set classical education apart.

First, classical educators have a high view of humanity. 

To the Greeks, mankind possessed a divine spark. To the Christian and Jew, he is the Divine Image. 

One way or another, classical schools and educators are committed to cultivating wisdom and virtue in their students. While classical education honors and even equips for vocational education (which is more accurately described as training) that is not what classical education is.

Second, classical educators are logocentric. In a word, that means they believe that the world makes sense and that the sense it makes is knowable. They base their approach to education on discovering that sense. 

Another way to say this is that classical educators believe in and pursue a logos, or a unifying principle, for all knowledge and action.

In essence, then, classical education is the logo-centric quest for the ideals of wisdom and virtue.

By contrast, the conventional educator either denies or doesn't respond to the idea that world makes sense. They shirk the burden of developing a curriculum, system, pedagogy, or mode of assessment that help make the sense knowable. They become obsessed with the practical and useful instead. 

Classical education is the only practical approach because it is not pragmatic. 

Third, classical educators take responsibility for the western tradition: to receive it, to assess it, to preserve it, and to hand it on to the next generation. 

Fourth, classical educators teach in light of the three foregoing elements, leading to an emphasis on language (the trivium), mathematics (the quadrivium), and modes of teaching, governance, and asssessment that support the rich goals of a classical education.

Everything you will find on this site is our best effort to apply the four elements of classical education through our research and in our services to the classical renewal.  

Other common features of classical education include:

  • the use of classical books and art,
  • a general preference for great art, music, and literature,
  • an integrated curriculum,
  • and idea-focused teaching.

 

​THE CLASSICAL DIFFERENCE:

Classical education does not offer a slight adjustment to the curriculum. It is a much more fundamental and inclusive change in paradigm.

The classical difference affects what we teach and how we teach, govern, and assess. It even affects the vocabulary we use to express our vision.
Different words are used and emphasized (such as "trivium", "quadrivium", "virtue", etc.), while some of the words that are common to classical and contemporary education carry significantly richer meanings (such as "science", "liberal arts", etc.).

We teach differently because we have a different perspective on the Child. We don’t believe that a child is a fortuitous blob of protoplasm waiting to be decomposed. We believe that she is nothing less than the Divine Image, an icon of the invisible God. She must not, therefore, be taught following techniques developed to instruct beasts. She must not be reduced to mere chemical responses to electrical stimuli. She must be taught personally, in relationship.

We teach different things because we have loftier goals for the child. We govern differently because we have a more serious perception of our task. We assess our work differently because we have higher standards. We confront the challenge of communication because we don’t conform to the spirit of the age.

This paradigm shift creates a number of challenging practical problems, perhaps none of which is more significant than the problem of communicating it to the contemporary audience.

Textbook companies, for example, cannot survive if people don’t buy their textbooks. But the market does not buy what it can’t understand–unless it is compelled to do so by bureaucratic forces. Consequently, textbook companies have little choice but to publish textbooks that are easy to use and understand or else to publish books that the educational bureaucracy demands. Neither option works, the first because Christian classical education cannot be made easy and the second, because of the distance between the teachers and the curriculum designers and choosers.

A similar problem arises for a classical school that wants to communicate its vision to its local community. What can they say that the local community will appreciate and understand according to the intention of the speaker? The best solution seems to us to be to tell them what classical education is and why it is valuable. This will draw in those most ready to receive the message. A core will be built up and equipped, which will lead to more explanation and expansion. The worst thing we can do would seem to be to rush forward not worrying about whether we understand what we are talking about and drawing in, for the sake of numbers, a weak base that is not committed to or able to understand classical education (which raises vital and unavoidable questions of viability). What it boils down to is this: it is imperative that we think deeply and consistently about what classical education is. For in the end, classical education is a rich and vigorous stewardship–and that demands responsibility.

But classical education varies considerably from conventional education. It holds to a different metaphysical paradigm (i.e., it holds to different assumptions about the nature of reality and the way we know it), orders its curriculum around different principles, regards the child differently, is mission driven rather than market driven (indeed, it seeks to heal the market it serves), and seeks different ends for its students.

To learn more about classical education, please take a leisurely look around our website. And if you have questions, we’d be honored and pleased if you would ask us for answers. Join us in this relentless pursuit of wisdom and virtue.