Characteristics of Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I may be reinventing the wheel here, but I wanted to talk a little about the characteristics of classical education. The term is used very broadly to refer to education movements and styles from antiquity, the middle ages, and modern times. In each of these eras there can by any number of classical educators, each with their own unique take (even the ancient world was not uniform; see this post for some background on the varieties of classical ed). If we pick any two at random we may find little that seems to unite them. Many fruitless conversations happen in online forums, discussing whether such-and-such a person is classical because we have no one good definition.

What I’d like to propose today is a list of criteria. If the curriculum you are looking at has all of the following characteristics, it is classical. If it has none, it is not. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. I am inspired in this approach by a book I read recently about some scientists researching near-death experiences. They talk in the book about typical elements, some of which are quite common (seeing a light, being in a tunnel, seeing loved ones) and some of which are less so. The IRS’s list of criteria for what makes one a small business versus a hobby is similar — it is a list to use in evaluating the issue but there is no clear line drawn. Still another way to think of this might be as: “You might be a classical educator if . . . ”

So, without further ado, here is my list of

Characteristics of Classical Education

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

A Test Case: Is Charlotte Mason Classical?

Though it is really not my sole purpose in putting together this list, the oft-disputed online question of whether Charlotte Mason’s (CM) philosophy of education is classical serves as a nice test case to show how we might use these criteria.

Let’s start with what is CM on this list. She does use classical sources (#2). Plutarch stands forth quite notably. Though I would venture to say that she might use fewer than some others. She also believed in the learning of ancient languages (#16). She also believed that there is a body of knowledge outside of man (#8) and that truth can be known (#12). She very definitely had a high view of man (#13).

Next let’s look at those characteristics which are distinctly not present in CM. She does not primarily quote classical sources as the foundation of her philosophy (#1). While it is quite possible she knows these sources and is relying on them, she points to the gospels as the source of her ideas. She does not use the term virtue overly often (#3, 4). There is some element of developing virtue in her philosophy; it is not that she in unconcerned about virtue, but she does not speak of it as classical educators usually do and does not frame it as the goal of her approach. The role of the teacher is distinctly different than in classical education (#5, 6). The teacher provides material, as one spreads a feast, and then largely steps back. While there is some common body of knowledge (#9) and, given her own cultural situation, she relies largely on western civilization (#10), she does not expect every child to glean the same things. So one might say in her philosophy there is a common body of knowledge but not every child will take in the same parts of it. She does not particularly emphasize or make use of questioning (#14), rhetoric (#15), or logic (#17). While she seems open to modern science, because of her time period, it is not an issue she addresses head-on (#18, 19). If I had to guess I would say she might reject the modern reliance on scientific knowledge alone. She rejects a staged approach to education (#20) and does not present a hierarchical or pyramidal view of the fields of knowledge (#21).

Overall then, I would say that Charlotte Mason really does not fall in the classical camp as I define it. I don’t have any illusions that this will end the debate, and it is not that there aren’t points of overlap, but if I were to quantify it, I would say she is not more than 25% classical. In contrast, 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 criteria.

Nebby

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] The points where I end up disagreeing most with them are just those points which still line up with classical education. These include a hierarchy of subjects, a developmental view of the child that reserves some […]

    Reply

  2. […] philosophy of education is very definitively classical (see this recent post on the characteristics of classical ed). Like much of classical education, morality was the goal of education, and an education based in […]

    Reply

  3. […] classical is a very broad term, I recently did a post on the characteristics of classical education. I think it would be helpful to look at Whitehead’s approach in terms of this list to see where […]

    Reply

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