David Hicks on Classical Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

After having taken a brief hiatus to discuss the history of Christian thought on education, we are now returning to our mini-series on Reformed Thinkers on Education. I don’t honestly know the denominational affiliation of today’s thinker. I rather suspect he is not reformed. David V. Hicks is a graduate of the Stony Brook School in New York. (We have previously looked at two other thinkers from this school: its founder, Frank Gaebelein, and and teacher, D. Bruce Lockerbie.) He himself is president of the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. I had long heard of his book, Norms and Nobility (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999), but had not taken the plunge to buy and read it. When I heard of his connection to Stony Brook, I was intrigued and knew I had to finally take the plunge (at $50+ for the book this is not a step to take lightly). 

 Norms and Nobility presents to us classical education, not the modern version of Dorothy Sayers and the Well-Trained Mind, but truly classical classical education going back to the Greeks. Though this is a somewhat dense, albeit not overly long, book, Hicks’ explanation of the Greeks and what they believed is very well done and I feel after reading it that I finally understand this somewhat complex philosophy.

Hicks spends seven chapters explaining the Greek approach, one chapter on what Christianity has to contribute, and then four chapters giving his own practical proposals for education. I am going to largely ignore the last four chapters. Hicks has some interesting ideas and if you run a Christian school, even one that is not classical, they are worth reading, but they do not fit my particular interests. The rest of the book I am going to divide into two posts. Today we will look at what classical education is, that is, what the ancient Greeks believed. Next time we will deal with how Christianity impancts the classical philoosphy and what Hicks’ views are. 

Hicks begins with an assertion that I whole-heartedly support:

“Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes.” (p. 3)

Because education is so tied up in the nature of man and his purpose, we must begin by asking what this nature is. For the Greeks, Hicks tells us, the nature of man was defined not descriptively but prescriptively. That is, one does not look at man as he is and simply describe what he sees. Instead, there is an ideal that is presented, a vision of what man should be. This is what Hicks calls the Ideal Type.

This Ideal Type is a universal, not bound by time or place. Philosophers like Plato saw virtue as inherent in man’s nature, placed there by God. Gradually over time people have seen what is morally good and true and beautiful and made stories about it. Though the image of the Ideal is being refined over time, it is essentially unchanging and is the same for all peoples. 

Ideals aside, any view of man must account for the presence of evil. Modern education tends to assume that evil is external to man. It therefore educates so that men may learn to transform their environments. The ancients believed that evil is within man. Because the root of the problem is internal, the effects of education are also internal. The goal is to change the man. Plato believed that man would not choose evil if he were thinking. Education teaches man to think, or to think better, and therefore enables him to turn from evil.

While modernism is materialistic and denies the spiritual, the ancients acknowledged both material and spiritual dimensions to man. Man was seen to be a microcosm, a universe in miniature. Like the universe, he contains both physical and spiritual aspects. There is a hierarchy to these levels. The material or physical is the lowest. Next comes man’s rational nature. At the highest level is the spiritual (p. 55).

Ultimately the goal of education is action, that the man should act according to what he knows. Aristotle spoke of the theoretic life:

“Indeed, the theoretic life is the life of virtue, so long as we mean by virtue all that the Greek arete expresses: the life that knows and reveres, speculates and acts upon the Good, that loves and re-produces the Beautiful, and that pursues exellence and moderation in all things.” (p. 21)

Alternatively, we may think again of that Ideal Type, the prescriptive vision of what man should be. While acknowledging that no one ever perfectly achieves this ideal and that people will only get there in varying degrees, the goal is nonetheless to conform to that Ideal. An assumption behind this which all of the ancients held to is that virtue can be taught. If this were not the case, education as they envisioned it would be futile.

In educating children, there is another presupposition as well. As Isokrates observed and in contrast to some modern views, children are not to be preserved as children but transformed into adults. Childhood was not seen as a golden age to be preserved but a stage toward a better end, mature adulthood (p. 38).

To the questions of man’s nature and purpose, we must add another: What is knowledge and how do we get it? For Plato knowledge was not a body of knowledge so much as an activity of learning (p. 20). Though there is an underlying unity to knowledge, our knowledge is never complete and there is a constant flux to it. Hicks compares it to “the parable of the river that ever changes yet always remains the same” (p. 68).   

Classical education, Hicks tells us, is not tied to a time or place but is a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction. There are three attributes of this inquiry: general curiosity, imaginative hypotheses, and a method of testing them. While the basic process sounds similar to the modern scientific method, there are some important distinctions. The classical method is at all stages more broad. “The field is open to all sorts of questions,” the hypotheses are imaginative, and the methods go beyond mere experimentation (p. 18).

Because they did not believe in a static but a changing world, the ancients devalued experimentation and preferred a process called dialectic. In this process, we uncover buried truths through a process of challenging ourselves and finding answers. This process is natural to man but he is often not conscious of it. The teacher brings it to the fore so the student is aware and can use it as a more effective tool. The conversation is then not just in the head of one person but becomes a dialogue between student and teacher. The teacher’s main task is not to give answers but to ask questions. Not suprisingly given the central role of the teacher, oral teaching is valued over the written because it is freer and allows the flow of questions and answers. Especially as the student advances, there is a mutual learning that takes place as both teacher and student advance. 

For dialectic to work effectively, one must begin with an opinion, what Hicks calls dogma, rather than from neutral ground. The teacher’s life is governed by some dogma, some overarching pattern. The student initially assume this dogma and then through the dialectical process, through questions and answers, comes to either accept or reject this dogma. [We have seen a similar idea in Gaebelein and Lockerbie. For both the teacher is paramount and to some extent teaches himself.] 

Imagination also plays a large role in classical education. The Ideal, you will remember, is prescriptive and is embodied in myths (“myth” here denotes a kind of story rather than a truth value). Myth tells external and internal realities through imagination. It is like a map in the wilderness which communicates values which transcend civilization. The goal is to fill the child’s head with voices concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent so that he can conform to that Ideal. 

This in a nutshell is classical learning. Next time we will look at Hicks’ own views more closely and particularly how Christianity adapts classical education. I will leave you with this summary of the big questions any philosophy of education must ask and of how classical education answered them:

  • What is the nature of Man? Man embodies material, rational, and spiritual elements. There is a hierarchy to these parts such that the physical is the lowest and the spiritual the highest. Evil comes from within man, not from his environment, but virtue is teachable.
  • What is the goal of man’s life? There is an Ideal Type which men have been able through the centuries to discern and describe with increasingly accuracy. The goal  of life is to conform to this Ideal which embodies goodness, beauty, and truth. There is an active element as one must not just know Truth but act on it. It is acknowledged that no one will do this perfectly and that people will achieve the Ideal to greater or lesser extents.
  • What is knowledge? Knowledge does not seem to refer to a body of truths. There is more emphasis on the process. There is a unity to knowledge but it is also in flux like a flowing stream. Knowledge has been planted in man by the divine.
  • How do we know? To know is to uncover what has been planted in man. We know through a process called dialectic which involves starting with a position, a dogma, and going through a process of questioning and answering. These are not static, catechism-style questions but there is a real dialogue between teacher and student. The personal element is important as the teacher teaches himself more than a body of knowledge. Imagination plays a large role.


8 responses to this post.

  1. […] « David Hicks on Classical Classical Education […]


  2. […] a fuller explanation of classical classical education, as opposed to its modern reincarnation, see this post). This methodology rests on a belief: that knowledge has been planted within man by the divine and […]


  3. […] On the other hand, there are those who, while not admitting to anything like Original Sin, still see a vital role for, for lack of a better term, educational interference. The child may not be inherently evil, but, left to his own devices, neither will he turn out the right way. Education saves him from the evil that he would otherwise learn. Rousseau sought to save children from education; this view sees education itself as salvific. Classical education (by which I mean actual classical education, that of the ancient Greeks) saw education this way. Education teaches one to think and if one could only think properly one would not do evil. Evil is essentially ignorance, and ignorance is evil (see this post). […]


  4. […] A quick comparison of two books I have reviewed recently (and will mention below) shows this: both David Hicks and James S. Taylor look back to classical Greek education to find a model for their own proposals. […]


  5. […] David Hicks shows in his Norms and Nobility (see my review here), the classical education of the Greeks starts with this assumption: that education can solve our […]


  6. […] many of the other authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these […]


  7. […] this particulat line though I cannot find the passage now. For more on the classical ideal see this post on David Hicks’ Norms and […]


  8. […] sources, especially Roman ones, and I detect the flavor of classical thought here as well (See this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility in which I discuss how the classical approach known as […]


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