What is Classical Education? (No, Really.)
by William C. Michael
Classical education is the education one would have received in Aristotle’s school in ancient Greece.
What is classical education? If you’re confused about the meaning of this phrase, don’t think there’s something wrong with you. It’s probably because you’re a reasonable person who’s able to see some obvious problems.
Classical Education: Modern Rip-offs
With the widespread dissatisfaction with modern schools, it is easy to promote something different. Unfortunately, many have sought to take advantage of parents and students who don’t know any better (thanks to their modern education) and have sold them a modern education program that called by a different name, and dressed up a little. They sprinkle some literature and history on top of the modern curriculum and call this “classical education”.
Modern Curriculum in Disguise
In most schools being advertised as “classical” today, a modern curriculum is simply re-branded to appear to be something different. Less attention is given to mathematics and science and enrichment subjects like history and literature are added. Elementary studies in Latin or Greek may be added, in place of modern foreign languages. These superficial changes are hyped up in school marketing to make it appear that radical changes have been made — but everything is the same.
First of all, the schools are still organized according to the modern K-12 grade level model, which is a great part of the problem with modern education. This model is great for creating jobs for administrators and teachers, and for selling study materials, but it is terrible for students. It was designed by men who thought that children should be produced and graded like products on a modern assembly line. Gifted and needy students are left to themselves by a system designed to serve the middle 70% of the student population. This is problem #1 in modern education, but remains in place in fake “classical” schools and study programs.
Second, the three levels of modern education — elementary school, middle school and high school — are re-named “Grammar”, “Logic” and “Rhetoric” in fake “classical” schools. This idea was promoted by a woman named Dorothy Sayers in the 1900s and has been latched onto by modern educators hoping to sell something they can call “classical education”. This idea is used to deceive modern parents in two different ways.
The first argument works like this:
- The study of the classical liberal arts is classical education.
- Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric are classical liberal arts.
- Therefore, the study of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric is classical education.
This is false because the classical liberal arts are seven in number, and include Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Grammar, Logic and Reasoning are some of the classical liberal arts, but they are not “the classical liberal arts”. The second premise, therefore is false and the conclusion false.
A second deception in modern schools is the following:
- Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric were taught in classical schools.
- Our school teaches Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric.
- Therefore, our school is a classical school.
This is an example of equivocation. In the first premise, Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric name three arts, which are formally studied as subjects. In the second premise, the words “Grammar”, “Logic” and “Rhetoric” refer not to arts or subjects to be studied but a modern idea of “stages of learning”, which have nothing to do with classical schools. The second premise is false and the conclusion is false.
These are sophistical arguments — the kind of arguments that real classical education was designed to expose and avoid!
Sophists for Teachers
A look at the faculty behind any of these rip-off programs would make it easy to see that these have nothing to do with classical education. The administrators and teachers are not classicists and usually have no classical studies on their resume. They have no evidence of any knowledge of the history or philosophy of classical education — or of its content.
To get around this, they suggest that a different method of teaching is used in their schools. Rather than having an expert teacher explain the content of the subjects to the students, the teachers of these fake classical schools suggest that they use the “Socratic Method”. By this, they mean that they do not teach their students the subjects, but simply discuss the subjects with them, asking the students questions and allowing them to “seek out the truth on their own”. Of course, this has nothing to do with the real Socratic Method, but is simply an excuse to allow teachers who can’t teach the subjects to appear to have something to offer that’s worth the price of tuition.
“The sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.”Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations
So, if you’re willing to pay a private school tuition to have a man with no classical education ask your children questions rather than actually instruct them, you might be interested in this. But, if you’d prefer a teacher who has studied and can actually teach the content of the courses he is paid to teach, you might want to look elsewhere. This, after all, is just a bunch of marketing baloney, that is, sophistry.
Classical Education: The Real Thing
The reason we’re interested in classical education in the first place is because we can see clearly that modern education is not effective. We know that something different is needed. Therefore, classical education should be something that is radically different from what is offered in modern schools. It should not be the same thing with other stuff sprinkled on top. It shouldn’t be some irrational nonsense as described above. It should be something that we can go back into history and see on display in the lives of the wisest and best men.
The Content of Classical Education
The content of real classical education has always been known, as this 13th century painting proves.
While this may not be expected at first, modern technology is a great help in learning about real classical education. Sites like Google Books and the Internet Archive make original texts from past centuries available to us. We can go back and look at the actual books that were used in schools, which makes those inexcusable who fall for the baloney being sold as “classical education” today.
For example, anyone who has studied the history of education or classical studies knows exactly what the Romans taught children. We can read it in a book like Quintilian’s “On the Education of an Orator”. And, if we read it, we will see that it is nothing at all like modern education. If we wish to know how Christians taught children in the 16th century, we can look at the Jesuit “Rule of Studies” and see all of the details. After we learn from these sources, we can find the actual books they name as the source materials for real classical education. There is no mystery here regarding the content and methods of real classical education. Anyone with a classical education knows this. Only the pretenders have to make stuff up.
From ancient times, philosophers worked to discover the arts and sciences necessary for an excellent education. These arts and sciences were famously established by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. after he discovered the principles of the art of Reasoning. This art, once discovered, allowed for the investigation of all subjects, and produced the “sciences” which could be taught efficiently to students. This system of “scientific” learning provided the curriculum for true classical education from that point forward.
Whether we look at education in Christian history or in education outside of Christian circles, we find this system of learning studied and taught by history’s wisest and best men. Whether we study the lives of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, the Apostle Paul, Constantine, the Church Fathers, the medieval Scholastics — all of them share the same classical education. When the Jesuits worked to revive Christian education in the 16th century, it was this same system of education that they taught in their schools. There has only ever been one system of true classical education.
The curriculum of real classical education consists of the study of what were known as the “seven liberal arts”. These seven arts were the studies that “taught a man how to fish” as it were, giving students the skills that they needed to continue learning and solving problems throughout life. These seven liberal arts were:
- Classical Grammar
- Classical Logic
- Classical Rhetoric
- Classical Arithmetic
- Classical Geometry
- Classical Music
- Classical Astronomy
While the names of these studies remain in use in modern schools, they do not mean the same thing they did in the past — so be careful. We label them as “Classical” to mark the difference. Fortunately, as said above, we have access to the ancient sources that were studied and taught, so we can enjoy the real studies.
After working through these “classical liberal arts”, students were prepared for the study of classical philosophy, which consisted of three branches:
- Moral Philosophy (Classical Ethics)
- Natural Philosophy (Classical Physics)
- Theology (Classical Metaphysics)
This system of education was the only “classical education” that ever existed in history, and it remains so today.
The Method of Classical Education
Teaching in classical education has nothing to do with any so-called “Socratic Method”, but should see expert, classically-educated teachers leading students through the master texts with efficient instruction.
As for the so-called “Socratic Method” mentioned above, this is a modern invention used to deceive parents who don’t ask questions. The Socratic Method, in history, was a method used by Socrates to investigate controversial questions in philosophy — for which the true answers were not yet discovered. In fact, the Socratic Method leads us to see what answers cannot be true. It cannot demonstrate, or teach, the truth. In fact, the asking of questions is not appropriate in teaching. Aristotle referred to the Socratic Method as “dialectical reasoning”, and explained that teaching is done by means of “didactic argument”, whereby a teacher presents what is true and known to students who are expected to receive it from their teacher. This is done through organized lectures presented by the teacher to the student, to make learning as clear and efficient as possible. Teachers don’t get paid to “investigate” the subjects with students in class!
“He who argues didactically should not ask questions, but make things clear himself.”Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations
If we wish to see an example of what the teaching of a real classical educator looks like, we can read Porphyry’s “Introduction”, written to one of his students in the 3rd century, or one of the lectures of St. Thomas Aquinas made in the 13th century. We find no questioning of students by teachers, but expert instruction by a master of the subject. This is what we should expect from real classical education.
So, the question of what real classical education looks like in practice is not complicated. Expert teachers should explain the subjects to students, from the ancient sources. Students should be reading the works of the ancient and medieval masters on the seven liberal arts and philosophy: Aristotle, Cicero, Porphyry, Nicomachus, Euclid, Boethius, Ptolemy, Theophrastus, St. Thomas Aquinas, and so on. Teachers of classical education should be expert in these works, having studied them, and should be able to lead students to mastery of them. That’s the goal of a real classical education.
Fortunately, modern technology provides us with access to these resources so that we can learn exactly what classical education looked like throughout history and how it was taught. This gives us the opportunity to move away from the errors of modern education and return to real classical education, which wise men have done in modern times.
“Progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”C.S. Lewis
The Classical Liberal Arts Academy
While we’ve shared some good news above regarding classical education, we have even better news to share. This real classical education is available to modern students in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. In our program, real classicists teach the real classical liberal arts. There’s no modern sophistry, no fake Socratic Method, no teachers with no experience in classical studies, no dressing up modern studies. We teach the seven liberal arts and philosophical sciences directly from the ancient sources as efficiently as possible.
As the founder and headmaster of the Academy, I invite you to get started with us today at no cost. You can enroll and get started with a real classical education in just a few clicks. You can enjoy self-paced online courses that lead you through the ancient texts (in English translation) and you can upgrade if you’re interested in assessments and records of your progress. Best of all, expert help is always available.
God bless your studies,
William C. Michael, HeadmasterClassical Liberal Arts Academymail@classicalliberalarts.com
P.S. To learn more about the history and principles of real classical education, check out my free book titled, “Understanding Classical Catholic Education”.