What is the Point of a Classical Education?
There’s a lot of talk about what a classical education actually is, but what is the point, or the goal, of it?
And why is a classical education associated with wonder?
What Do We Teach?
There’s an emphasis in some circles on reading fables, classic fairy tales, Greco-Roman and Norse Mythology, and lots of fictional books—especially ones that were written in previous centuries.
Why? Why not just read the books that are being published today?
Why read classic stories, and stories from Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology? Or stories from other times and places? Why read books that are difficult? Or learn subjects that are hard and don’t seem to have any practical use?
These are all associated with a classical education, but why?
If we don’t know what the goal is, then what’s the point of that content?
If we don’t know why, then no method that’s used for a classical education will make sense because the goal (or end) is what determines the path that’s taken (the means).
So what is the goal of a classical education?
The Goal of a Classical Education is the Formation of a Human Being
It’s not just about cramming as much information into the minds of our students as possible, or reading specific books, or using specific methods like the quadrivium and trivium.
Trivium and Quadrivium
Those terms are from the Middle Ages, but they describe the system of education that was used in ancient Greece. I’m not going into the details of it here, because I’m focusing on the point of a classical education (if you want to know more, you can start with the Wikipedia entries on it here: Trivium and Quadrivium).
The point of that two-tiered system was the formation of the person. Not just math or science or the arts, not just the mind, not just the body, but the whole person.
The phrases that are used to describe the effects of that formation on us are right order or proper ordering of the person, and the reason we need to be formed in this way is because of the effects of the Fall.
Why We Need that Formation
Human beings have a body and soul, and the soul has two faculties: an intellect and a will.
The intellect is made to pursue what is true, the will is designed to choose the good, and the body is the source of the passions which drive us to take action (they get us up and going instead of staying stuck in just thinking about what to do).
A classical education was intended to help us in our struggle with the effects of the Fall (Genesis 3). Before the Fall, the intellect, will, and passions each had their proper role and they worked together in harmony.
This is how they work when they are properly ordered:
The intellect discerns the truth, distinguishing what is true from any errors that detract from the truth
The will chooses what is good and makes the decision to act
The passions are the engine that drives the person to move or take action
All three acted together so that the person would be truly happy.
After the Fall:
The intellect was darkened, so it’s not always possible for us to know what is true
The will was weakened, so we don’t always choose what is good, even when we know what it is
The passions, instead of just getting us moving, often overwhelm our intellect and will, and interfere with our ability to think clearly and to choose well
Because of this, we often choose to do things that we know are bad. We don’t choose them because they’re bad, but because we know that there’s some good in it (it feels good, it tastes good, I like it, I want it, etc.), even if there is a lot that is NOT good.
We choose the action because we focus on the part that we like or want, and ignore the rest—even though we know that it’s there!
That’s when we sin
We know we shouldn’t, we know it’s wrong, but we choose it anyway.
Instead of choosing what is truly good, we choose what we want.
Instead of choosing what is true, we choose a distorted version of the truth because we want what we like.
That’s our state after the Fall, and that’s why it’s so hard for us to choose what is true, and what is good (even when we know it), and why we like what is pretty or appealing to our senses instead of what is truly beautiful.
This is why an education is supposed to train us to recognize the true and the good for what they are, and choose them
How Does that Work?
It’s often a struggle, especially for young children who are mostly impulse driven.
We don’t have infused knowledge like the angels do. We have to acquire it first through our senses and then through contemplating the ideas.
This is why good stories, and challenges to our mind, are so important: by wrestling with ideas, and struggling to find the true and good in them, we learn to make distinctions.
Some modern stories use three characters to embody the characteristics of the intellect, will, and passions. In those stories (The Lord of the Rings, The Brothers Karamozov. the original Star Trek, The Silver Chair in the Chronicles of Narnia, Dorothy’s 3 friends in The Wizard of Oz, the 3 main characters in Harry Potter, etc.), the struggles of those characters show the struggles that all of us go through now, and show us how to overcome obstacles by putting the intellect, will, and passions in their proper roles (add links to other blog posts here).
An idea may be partly true and partly false—but which part is true and which is false?
We struggle with whether something is truly good, or just giving us what we want or telling us what we want to hear.
All of this helps to form us as a person. God created every single one of us to be with Him forever in heaven.
Reading stories that allow us to wrestle with ideas, and to experience suffering and redemption through the actions and effects of those actions on the characters in the story is an important part of this.
They shore us up against choosing rashly or acting badly, by showing us the consequences of the actions and allowing us to consider the ideas and actions in the story.
All without having to suffer the real-life consequences, or causing others to suffer as a result of our actions. They allow us to go through the struggles, failures, and successes along with the characters without having to suffer in our own lives.
And all of this—choosing the truth over deceit, choosing what is good over what we like, and choosing to act well instead of self-centeredness—allows us to be open to God and to receive His grace.
We can’t choose God if we don’t know who He is, or what is true, or what is truly good. And we can’t learn what is true, good, or beautiful without struggling to overcome the effects of the Fall on us and opening ourselves to receiving His grace—which is necessary to overcome the effects of the Fall.
So What is the Point of a Classical Education?
To form us as persons so we can respond properly to what is true, good, and beautiful.
Whether we know it or not, we’re conforming ourselves more closely to God when do that. We’re also developing the habit of choosing what is true, good, and beautiful each time we make that choice.
How does that bring us closer to God?
Among God’s attributes are:
By choosing to orient our entire person—body and soul—towards God, we grow in holiness and become perfected (that final perfection is in Heaven), because each time we make a conscious choice to choose God wherever He is found.
This helps us to stay open to receive the gift of wonder
Those moments of wonder are moments of grace. Not sanctifying grace, but actual grace, because they help us to act in the world, and to choose God, who is goodness and truth itself, above all else (read more about what "wonder" is, click here).
This is why a classical education is associated with wonder.
If you’re looking for something to help you teach this to students, check out my series, Teaching Critical Thinking with Stories
You get a series of printables that walks students through the story beginning with observation, to discovering the deeper meanings in stories while developing critical thinking skills.
The exercises can be used with any story.
You can even teach a group of students at the same time using the same story, but engaging at different levels so that each one is still challenged.
They can be used for:
Literature circles or book discussions
The first exercise in the first level can be used for children as young as 4. The other levels require the ability to read and write.
Each level includes:
Recommended reading list
Challenges at many levels
Descriptions for teachers on the reasons for the exercise (the “why”)
Recommendations for evaluating the student’s work