Most of us have a difficult time defining the word “education”—it has a wide range of meaning and is used in different ways in different contexts. Certainly education can be formal (as in a college education) or informal (his stern aunt provided him with a fresh education in manners, which is much like a homeschooling setup, minus the stern aunt, of course).
The word “classical” is no easier to define. It can refer to a certain kind of music (that came well after the Greeks and Romans) and a certain kind of literature (the “classics” of Western civilization). It can refer to a historical period (the era of the Greeks and the Romans) and architecture (style, concepts, and motifs from Greece and Rome). Of course, it can also refer to Greek and Latin when used in the phrase “classical languages.”
But “classical” can also refer to anything that has become standard and authoritative (in a given field) as opposed to novel and experimental. Thus we can speak of classical physics and even classical book making or bread making and, of course, classical education.
Given the wide semantic range of both “classical” and “education,” it is not surprising that the phrase “classical education” is also used with various meanings. Language is flexible, and so we have some varied and flexible uses of “classical education.” This means that there can be several legitimate uses of the phrase, but it would be wise to know just what a given speaker means by “classical education.” Below are several ways the phrase is used:
Classical Education and Homeschooling Education Compared
- Classical education (linguistic definition): a study of the Greek and Latin languages
- Classical education (linguistic and cultural definition): a study of the Greek and Latin languages and the history, literature, art, philosophy, and culture of Greek and Roman civilization
- Classical education (intellectual history definition): a study of the great ideas of Western civilization as contained in the classic “great books” produced by that civilization; a study of the “best that has been thought or said”
- Classical education (curricular definition): a study of the seven liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium)
- Classical education (pedagogical definition): a study of the seven liberal arts, employing traditional teaching insights and methods (such as singing, chanting, Socratic discussion, and debate) passed down to us by past educators
- Classical education (soul-ish or psychological definition): the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts
- Classical education (communal definition): an approach to education that seeks to create a community of learning, characterized by academic rigor, warmth, and delight and involving vibrant interaction of teachers, parents, friends, and others
All of these definitions reflect current use. This is because classical education, as a rich, complex 2,500-year-old tradition, does contain many important elements (linguistic, cultural, intellectual, curricular, pedagogical, psychological, and communal elements). Because classical education is so rich and complex, it is hard to sum it up in one or two sentences. Homeschooling is a bit different. Here is a crack at it—this time including a theological element:
Classical (and Christian) education: a traditional approach to education that blends Christian theology with the historic curriculum and pedagogy of the seven liberal arts in order to produce societal leaders characterized by wisdom, virtue, and eloquence
This may be a decent “dictionary definition,” but like so many brief definitions of complex topics, it is so general that it lacks clarity and punch. What, after all, is Christian theology, pedagogy, and the seven liberal arts? And if we listed the liberal arts, how many of us would like to know more about grammar, logic, or rhetoric as an art? How many of us have a clear sense of what “virtue” and “eloquence” mean? But alas, when we abbreviate we must leave things out. So where do we go from here? To the same place we go after putting down the dictionary—to an article, encyclopedia, pamphlet, or book; another level down.
Going another level down, we would discover that classical education has also traditionally emphasized:
- The training of leaders: Those governing and leading culture were educated classically while others were trained for particular jobs and tasks.
- Reflection and leisure: Time for discussion, thought, and application was a necessary part of acquiring wisdom, capacity, and skill.
- A common curriculum: Students all studied the essential curriculum of the seven liberal arts, which were thought to prepare students for any profession or field of endeavor.
- Interaction with tradition: The knowledge, wisdom, and art of the past were honored and studied for present use.
- Innovation according to need: Classical education adapted to new geography, circumstances, discoveries, and continued with “theme and variation.”
- Partnership with the church: Education was informed and guided by church liturgy, teaching, training, and financial support.
- Training affections and the intellectual virtues: Educators sought to shape and form the student and not merely inform him; students were taught to “love that which is lovely” and acquire the virtues necessary to be eager and excellent seekers of truth.
With homeschooling parents talking increasingly about the classical approach to education, it will do everyone good to become familiar with the basic contours or essential elements of traditional, classical education. We should avoid facile, “straw man” constructions of classical education that are easy to dismiss as much as we should avoid glowing and sentimental descriptions that present it as a cure-all. By becoming more familiar with this rich tradition in education, we will better communicate and better make use of its riches.