What do we mean by a ‘Classical Education?’
Succinctly, a ‘classical education’ is one that seeks to develop a whole person – mind and body.
Over the years, “classical” education has evolved along a variety of paths and in a myriad of manifestations: the Trivium (training in Grammar/Logic/Rhetoric), the Quadrivium (add Mathematics to the other Three), Classical-Christian hybrid, and the approach of Hillsdale College, which uses the Constitution and the values of the Framers as its model. From this last one particularly, Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy (The Classical Academy) takes its cue.
The challenge is always how to make the ancient relevant to the modern. Some have argued that this is incompatible, and neatly dismiss the ancient in this fashion. What they forget, however, is what we have retained of the best part of the ages, which has become captured in the values, morals, beliefs, and guiding principles that have sustained us for these millennia. We have placed these principles into our formative documents like the Constitution. We have historically turned to them in times of greatest strife. The investiture of values runs deeply in our culture from its earliest origins.
When those 16th and17th Century folks came to the lands which would become The United States, their pre-occupation was not to create an educational system. They fretted over more immediate and pragmatic concerns: avoidance of ethnic and religious persecution, desire for economic prosperity, entrepreneurship, and adventure. Many had minds steeped in the richness of a European education that informed their every decision. Through adversity, they were guided by principles, which brought them strength and assurance and wisdom. This granted them an understanding of how life works, and respect even for its impermanence. Although the early efforts of these pioneers were defined almost exclusively by their failures, we greatly celebrate still their hard-fought foundation in 1607 at Jamestown. A sense of purpose, their faith, and their education sustained them even when confronted with the opaqueness of a strange new environment. Uncertainty remains a constant today. In the face of that great uncertainty, our own Founding Fathers (and Mothers!), steeped in the classics, drew upon the lessons of the ancients to craft a government and its attendant freedoms we enjoy today. But some say our tried and true ways are in peril.
In 2008, Sir Kenneth Robinson, who once was director of arts education for all of Great Britain, presented a talk to an audience of teachers in Los Angeles. He observed that all educators are engaged in the maddening task of educating for the future based solely on the past successes in education. And how can we do that with any degree of certainty, he observed? One may well ask how we prepare for our own future environment, which is as unclear to us as it was to the early settlers to this land?
Here, the classics give us our best answer, one that has lasted for over 2,500 years. Nothing rivals it. We start with fundamental knowledge – teaching our children what grammar is, and why it is important, and how that morphs into poetry and literature. We delve into the human condition, the core of which is what makes us great. We speak of mathematics as fundamental to understanding commerce in the world, for making decisions that are good for us, and for accessing the natural world in all its wonder. We learn to read great works and see how they inform our understanding of the world. We apply natural law to social order. We have structure and guidance and a blueprint for understanding how we arrived at this existence. And, slowly, tentatively, we lean forward, and take that next step into the uncharted.
Is there anything that has lasted quite so long and done quite so well as the classics? Today, technology is all the rage, and the Information Age. The ancients had technologies and information. It did not change them at their core. How many changes has the world’s people gone through? Core values, ancient wisdom, and pragmatic learning have been timeless staples. Have terms like Beauty, Truth, Integrity, Harmony, Peace, Love, and Character really changed, or have they sat silently as timeless sentinels ready to guide us into a New Age as they did our forebears?
It is the timeless classics that we celebrate, because perhaps they have always celebrated the best that is in us. And there is every reason to think their timelessness will serve us going forward.