What is Classical Education?

in Blabber, Philosophy

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*The following post is not endorsed by any school and is riddled with my opinions.  Enter at your own risk.

In medieval times, there was no “Classical Kindergarten” education.  So, what each Classical Education school is attempting to do is to impart to the children whatever portions of the medieval university education is appropriate to their developmental level.  A child doesn’t have to wait to college to start Chemistry, but he won’t understand it in it’s fullest sense until he’s there.  Same for every part of the Classical Education.  It requires a fully developed adult brain to really “get” any of these things in their “fullness.”  But, we can start adding the layers immediately.

For one, the Medieval world view was eat up with the gorgeous Catholic beauty-loving wisdom.  Our culture isn’t.  We can’t even pick out a pretty picture, much less a balanced, beautiful well-reasoned line of thinking.  So we have plenty to do in the meantime, on top of all that reading, writing, ‘rithmetic.

The following definition comes from the Circe Institute and is used by MoDG as the definition of “Classical Education.”

Classical Education: is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.

Most Christians will understand the italicized part above. But, without examination, the previous phrases can sound like word-salad.  Let’s break it down.

“Cultivation of wisdom and virtue.”

What is wisdom? In it’s simplest form, wisdom is right judgement.  I understand that to mean that we discern reality as it really is.  Our  “goods” and “bads” line up with the reality of Good and Bad.

What is virtue? Again simply, virtue is habitual right actions.  This the habit of choosing actions over and over in accordance with right judgment.  We don’t overdo or under-value the goods of this world and we habitually act on that value system.

“By nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.”

“Truth, goodness, and beauty” are essentially one thing apprehended different ways. I like St. Thomas’s explanation best. Beauty has three parts: wholeness, proportion, radiance.  That last one is the hardest.  But beautiful things “shine” from the inside.  Beauty brings “delight” to the heart in a way nothing else can.

  • Truth is wholeness, proportion, radiance of knowing.
  • Goodness is wholeness, proportion, radiance of desiring and behaving.
  • Beauty is wholeness, proportion, radiance in sensing.

“Nourishing the soul” on these things means providing habitual formative experiences of them.

The closest comparison I know is the “Sensory Diet” idea for Occupational Therapy.  If nature did not modulate and organize a child’s senses, the therapist creates a “diet” of formative daily sensory experiences.  Over time, this “sensory diet” helps calibrate the child’s sensory processing systems. A habitual “diet” of beauty, goodness, and truth help calibrate a soul’s “senses.” We rejoice in wholeness, proportion, and radiance in all its forms. Ugliness, dissonance, and inconsistency repels us. We hear right reason and are attracted to it. We see virtue and desire it.

In my home, we are HILARIOUS people.  However, the enjoyment brought on by a really clever song lyric in a super-fun song is not the Delight brought by an encounter with truly beautiful music.  One is potato chips and the other is salmon and kale.  It’s fine to like potato chips, but you can’t live on them.

“By means of the Seven Liberal Arts.”

The Seven Liberal Arts are techniques. Ways of interacting with what one wants to know.  If truth, goodness, and beauty bring our souls delight, the “tools” are time-tested methods for ferreting out, verifying, and communicating truth. All “arts” MAKE something. There is a product.

Oversimplifying again, I would say that the first 3 Arts deal with the structure of communication: Language, Reason, Expression. Children who understand, recognize, and build whole, proportional, radiant arguments grow into adults who easily see through the media’s sensationalism and partiality.

The next four Arts deal with the structure of the universe (which is mathematical): Number (Arithmetic), Shapes (Geometry), Numbers in time (Algebra and Harmonics), Shapes in time (Astronomy/Physics). Children who recognize and build whole, proportional, radiant number arguments can easily see through biased data and poorly supported claims.

“And the four sciences.”

The four sciences refer to four domains of knowledge. In contrast to the Arts, they do not “make” something.  They are the mines in which the Arts do their work.

  1. Science: The study of particular beings and substances. Biology, Chemistry, Physics.
  2. Humanities: The study of humans as rational beings. Politics, Ethics, Sociology, Psychology.
  3. Philosophy: What is “being”? What is “substance”? What is “knowledge”?
  4. Theology: Who is Being? Who is Knowledge? What has He to do with us?

So, I’ll repeat the thoughts in that very first paragraph.  Classical Education attempts to impart to the children whatever portions of the medieval university education is appropriate to their developmental level.  A child doesn’t have to wait to adulthood to start a “Science” but he won’t understand it in it’s fullest sense until he’s there.  But, we can start adding the layers immediately. 

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