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Classical Education: The Truth will set you free

Posted: 11/11/2014

Mrs. Erika Ahern - Director of Center Education

Classical Education: The Truth will set you free.


"All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth." (Aristotle, fragment “A Treatise on Education”)


    If the fate of human empires rests on the education of its children, then classical education is the most powerful force driving the history of Western civilization, from its rapid rise in the pagan Mediterranean through its triumph in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. While classical education has become a popular choice only recently in American education, it is in fact nothing new.


“Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)


Classical education is a tradition that remembers and honors those who have gone before us, while forming each new person to acquire the art of learning. J


To understand why Regina Caeli and other classical programs are “alternative,” it is important to understand how we came to be in such an educational crisis in America. John Caros, of Founders Classical Academy, writes:


“Classical education is one of the great legacies of Western Civilization, however, for the better part of the last century and into the 21st century, students in this country have been denied their educational inheritance. Why this is the case is the result of decades of some misguided education reforms rooted in romantic ideals. Education has taken an academic detour. Fortunately, there is a better road ahead. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road…” (“The Oldest Ideas for Young Minds”)


Romantic ideals--including child-driven education, the abandonment of formal logic and grammar, and the loss of belief in original sin--have contributed greatly to the perpetual adolescence of poorly educated adults. In addition, however, the post-World War II movement to standardize education coupled these ideals with the notion of education as social engineering. John Dewey famously wrote: “Education is the midwife of democracy” and “no child is to forced to a task that does not appeal to him.” If Aristotle’s maxim is true, then America, since the 1950’s, has founded its future on the notion of assimilation, federal regulation, and Romantic ideology. This is clearly C.S. Lewis’ “wrong road.” To re-discover the right road and go forward, we must first look back.


The Goals: What a human person is for

As John Dewey rose to power in the United States, Dorothy L. Sayers was observing the havoc that Romantic and Enlightenment ideals had wreaked on the public schools in Great Britain. Europe was several decades ahead of America in terms of education as social engineering: Marxists, Masons, and National Socialists had already mastered the art of conforming youth to their own ideologies. In the ruins of bombed-out London, Sayers concluded--and detailed in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning--that the crisis of Western education was a crisis of goals:


“Is not the great defect of our education today--a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned--that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils "subjects," we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”


The goal -- a curious, eager, and robust human intellect -- was lost and replaced by smaller, less human goals: material wealth, expertise in one subject, Marxism, scientism, nationalism. Without the true goal of education, there can be no effective means to attain that goal. Sayers’ brilliance lies in identifying the goal:


“For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”


For those who believe in the Incarnation, this goal expands even farther. Because the Word was made flesh, we understand that the flourishing human person is not simply someone who knows how to learn and applies himself ably to many subjects. Rather, a man fully alive is a citizen first of heaven, someone who both belongs and knows he belongs in heaven. He is a man who can see the whole of knowledge, practice all the virtues, and grasps the connections between all things because he knows God, the origin and the end of all things.


The Matter: What a human person is

In the Catholic classical tradition, the human person is a creature of body and soul. The body, while subject to corruption, is our “home away from home,” to be loved and honored as God’s creation. The soul is both Intellect and will, which must be formed in knowledge and love of the True, the Good, the Beautiful.


“...for the object of education is to teach us to love beauty.” (Plato, The Republic)


    In addition, the human person has been created for communion. Heaven will be the true and complete communion of the person with God, his creator, and perfect communion with all of the saints. We are Trinitarian creatures and we learn only in the context of relationships. Children and youth are most of all shaped by their relationships and learn their own individual identity through a healthy communio personarum.

    Because the human person is a unity of body and soul, created for communion, a successful education will aim at a healthy body, the healing of the soul from original sin, and fostering true friendships and union with God.

    The person, however, is not born ready-made for every art and skill: Classical education’s historical success rests on its respect for the reality of human development. Dorothy Sayers’ analysis of the stages of learning--the Grammatical, Dialectical, and Rhetorical--provides the outline of how children of all ages can reach this Catholic notion of flourishing.

    The early stages of learning--typically grades 3 through high school--map on to the classical Trivium, the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These arts are wonderful in themselves--remember the joy of chanting “eeny meeny miney mo!”--and are also the necessary foundation for all other subjects. The child cannot study calculus without the numbers, addition, and subtraction; the adult cannot read the “signs of the times” in his own culture without knowing the “story” of human history; a missionary cannot convince unbelievers without the art of writing, logical argument, and effective rhetoric. Thus, the wonder of the young child lays a foundation for the arguments of the adolescent, whose logic later serves as the basis for effective rhetoric and communication. While traditional educators focus too much on the next stage and pushing on to “advance,” romantic ideology emphasized “child-centered” education to the detriment of laying foundations in memory work and formal mathematics. The classical educator balances the two extremes.


“The basis for a good education is, on the one hand, the self-motivation of the child to pursue what engages and interests him, and on the other, the creativity, responsiveness, and love of the teacher, who sets the terms for learning and encourages the child to flourish. If the romantic tends to underestimate the effects of the Fall, he is at least correct that children retain a desire to learn that needs to be encouraged. But a framework conducive to learning--as the classical approach emphasizes--must include the habits of discipline and attention without which such desires are easily dissipated. It is important, too, without being too rigid about it, to appreciate the different stages of development have different needs. An emphasis on play may be less appropriate at a stage when more solid content is required.” ~Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word


The innocence and wonder of early childhood, which seems to fade as they grow, is not something to be lost, but something to be regained in a new way. Classical education respects and challenges each stage of child development in order to help young adults become again wondering, joyful, eager, courageous, docile, and repentant like young children but now as adults. The stages, designed by the Creator and guided by wise men and women of the ages, lead the human person to become a fully-flourishing Christian who knows his origin and end, loves his origin and end, and speaks the “good things men need to hear” (Ephesians 4:29).


Therefore, classical education, in the tradition of Western civilization and the Incarnation, is a liberal education: it frees our children, born with the effects of original sin, to be who they are.


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