Getting the Classical Education I Never Got

Apr 23, 2020

I want a classical education, desperately. Together, my wife and I have given one to our three children, all of whom have continued in it to one degree or another. They all have seemed to thrive in it, too. I did not get a classical education. I have, to some extent, recovered one over the years, although sometimes it feels more like I've gotten an education that is about classical education rather than one that is itself classical. 

The greatest contribution to my classical education has definitely been CiRCE's Master Teacher Apprenticeship program. A program in which you read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Plato, and Shakespeare along with Lewis, Berry, Crider, and Hicks, and in which you practice rhetoric through the Lost Tools of Writing in addition to mimetic and Socratic teaching is, by design, givng you an education that is classical. I am extremely grateful for that education; thank God. 

During the apprenticeship, though, I was introduced to an idea that we, in the program, refer to as the "Order of Learning." It is based on human nature, reality, and the writings of men like Plato and Aristotle. It goes something like this: 

Education begins with music (sometimes called poetry or piety) and is basically the stories (in musical form, poetic form, or as narratives) of your people. It would include stories, for us, about our families, our town and state, our country, our religious tradition and then those from western civilization. We learn first who we are before we can become citizens of the world. It would also include the best stories because, through them, we also learn what is lovely and praiseworthy and worthy of contemplation. Through them, we order our loves.

After music, education proceeds to a study of the liberal arts. The Trivium so that we learn the language of letters. The Quadrivium, so that we learn the language of number. With grammar, we learn how to read and write, how to interpret language. With logic, we learn how to clarify our thinking by bring multiple thoughts into harmony with one another. With rhetoric, we learn how to speak and write beautifully and persuasively, as well as how to think and deliberate clearly about a question. With arithmetic, we learn how to think in numbers: what is evenness, what is oddness, Socrates would say. With geometry, we learn to think spatially. With music or harmonics, we learn how to recognize what numbers, aurally, harmonize with one another. With astronomy, we learn how to think about numbers, space, and time on a much larger, much more divine scale. 

After the liberal arts, we move into the sciences. We begin with natural philosophy: the study of cause and being in the worlds of floral and fauna. We then move on to moral philosophy: the study of cause and being in the human world—ethics, politics, and economics. We then move on to philosophy: the study of cause itself and being itself. Finally, we conclude with theology: the study of The Cause and The Being. Although, more thoughtfully considered, theology is less a study of God and more an experience with God Himself.

The order of learning is what it is because human beings learn a certain way. Before I can learn anything, I learn primarily through stories. These stories teach me about the world I live in, and so they give me stories as a kind of poetic mode of learning about language and number, the natural world and the world of human beings, the supernatural world and God. But it is a different kind of knowledge. Having "mastered" that (and I'm not sure exactly what I mean by mastered at this point) I am ready to learn the arts of the trivium and quadrivium. Once I've learned these arts, I now have the love of nature (given me by music) and knowledge of the arts (given me by the trivium and quadrivium) to perceive the truths taught in the science of natural philosophy. I also have the language (words, metaphors, and analogies) to apprehend and communicate what I learn. Natural philosophy furthers my command of language, metaphors, and analogies to enable me to continue on and apprehend and communicate what I learn in the study of moral philosophy. Moral philosophy does the same for my apprehension and communication of philosophy proper, which in turn gives me the language to study theology. 

The classical education that I feel I lack is the one that takes me through this progression in the order of learning. I want to at least sample or taste something from each of these steps in the order of learning. And I want those samples or tastes, initially at least, to be as classical as possible (or as in the vein of the classical thinkers as much as it can be). Thus, during the last few weeks, my son, Alec (a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis—a stalwart of classical education and the Great Books) and I created a list of books, following the order of learning, that is a "taste" of the "classical" but abbreviated enough to be doable. Here is our list:

MUSIC

  • Aesop - selected fables
  • Hesiod - Theogony, Works and Days
  • Ovid - Metamorphoses
  • Old Testament & Deutero-Canonical histories/stories, Deutero-Canonical books include:
    • I Esdras
    • Tobit
    • Judith
    • Song of the Three Children
    • Susanna
    • Bel and the Dragon
    • Maccabees, I-IV
    • Prayer of Manasseh 

TRIVIUM 

GRAMMAR

  • Aristotle - Categories, On Interpretation
  • Plato - Cratylus
  • Erasmus - On Copiousness

LOGIC

  • Aristotle - Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics

RHETORIC

  • Aristotle - Rhetoric
  • Cicero - Divisions of Oratory

QUADRIVIUM

ARITHMETIC

  • Nicomachus - Introduction to Arithmetic

GEOMETRY

  • Euclid - Elements Book I

HARMONY

  • Zuckerkandl - The Sense of Music

ASTRONOMY

  • Ptolemy - Almagest Book I

NATURAL PHILOSOPHY

  • Aristotle - Physics 
  • Lucretius - De Rerum Natura

MORAL PHILOSOPHY

  • Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics
  • Plato - Philebus
  • Seneca - Letters

PHILOSOPHY

  • Aristotle - Metaphysics
  • Plato - Theaetetus
  • Pre-Socratics - Eva Brann's Logos of Heraclitus
  • Kierkegaard - Training in Christianity 

THEOLOGY

Church Fathers

  • Gregory of Nyssa - Life of Moses
  • Philokalia - Excerpts
  • Desert Fathers - Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Deutero-Canonical Writings (We include these but not the canonical writings because of familiarity with the latter and less with the former.)

  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Ecclesiasticus 
  • Baruch
  • Epistle of Jeremiah

Aquinas

  • Peter Kreeft's A Shorter Summa

Of course, there are a thousand books we've excluded that we should not have. We excluded books we are already have a decent grasp of (like books from the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Milton, etc). We excluded books that were simply too big to fit our time constraints and our desire for a "taste" of this education. We excluded books that weren't in the "classical" vein we wanted (and we never really defined what we meant by that either). 

All in all, I think there are a thousand other books that could be on this list and even replace many of the books we did choose to include. I also think that if we do read these books and work through them, that if anyone were to work through these books, they would have a pretty good foundation for a classical education that follows the order of learning. You would most certainly know more than just "about classical education" but would have a pretty good classical education underway. 

Matthew Bianco

Matthew Bianco

Matthew Bianco is a homeschooling father of three. All three of his children have graduated from their family's home school. The oldest has since graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD and works for the CLT. His second and third children are attending Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, NC. He is married to his altogether lovely, high school sweetheart, Patricia. He is the author of Letters to My Sons: A Humane Vision for Human Relationships.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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