Classical Education Explained

Classical Education: An Old Paradigm for a New Path

by Steven Wedgeworth

At St. Augustine School, we work to cultivate excellence, wisdom, and joy by assisting parents in the education of their children, so that the next generation may grow into a profound and fruitful understanding of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. We believe that the time-tested tradition of classical Christian education is the best route to this end. Beginning with the “Great Books” emphasis of the early 20th century, the meaning of “classical education” has widened and changed, however, and can thus be interpreted in a number of different ways. There are many school groups that use this language today, and we are happy to consider ourselves a classical school too. But precisely because there are so many different understandings of what this means, we would like to explain what we mean by a classical education at St. Augustine School and what you can expect from our administration, teachers, and curriculum.

What is Truth?

Today, the answer to Pontius Pilate’s famed question, “What is truth?”, seems less certain than ever. The damage done by progressivist education, while by no means universal, is extensive, and the vision of truth, goodness, and beauty—the “first things” of all knowledge—has been replaced by the subjective and relative values of human communities. At its best, progressivist education attempts to both emphasize neglected voices and streamline efficiency, but it always does so at the expense of defining and defending the objective character of truth and its absolute authority.

By contrast, classical education professes that truth, goodness, and beauty are objective. Wisdom is cumulative, and so new knowledge can be added to the old, but truth is unchangeable, and so new knowledge must be consistent with the old. This is why there is typically an emphasis on “the classics” in classical education. But there is no reason to ignore more recent history or even contemporary affairs, however, and a sound classical school will interact with modern material. But it will always do so while standing on the shoulders of giants. Classical education does not outgrow the classics, but rather builds upon them in order to discover new things.

The Unity of Knowledge

Classical education seeks to emphasize the truth that all knowledge is unified. This means that every subject has relevance for every other subject, and thus the well-trained mind looks for the core principles of wisdom from which it can learn all later knowledge. The founding principles of religion, morality, and art should influence all specific subject matter and classroom instruction, and they will necessarily do so. Our burden is to be self-conscious about this, to pay attention to our founding principles and to notice what it is that they imply about every area of learning.

Practically this means that subjects are not taught in isolation but rather in constant conversation with one another. Works of literature must be taught in their historical context, and the prevalent religious and philosophical ideas of their time must be understood. Even the maths and sciences, while typically having a more formal character, were not drafted in a vacuum, but were themselves historical and philosophical events. At times the link between mathematics, logic, and language is direct, and so each subject can reinforce the other. Classical education recognizes this at the outset and articulates its understanding of intellectual efficiency in the expression “much, not many.” Students will be taught deeply and of the best material. Rather than reading excerpts from hundreds of literary works, the students will read the foundational works in their entirety. Teaching will be to mastery, and whenever possible, interdisciplinary study will be emphasized.

This understanding of education will also make it clear that students do not need to take a “worldview” class. Their entire time at St. Augustine School will be a study in worldview, with an emphasis on viewing the world at all times and with all disciplines. It is also important to maintain that the student does not shape reality but is rather shaped by it as he pursues it, and so it is not really the student’s view of the world which is important but rather the truth of that view. This is why every subject both supports and critiques every other subject with the goal of providing a complete education.

End-Oriented

Another important distinctive of classical education is that it has an end in mind with each of its endeavors. In fact, it has the end of the entire teaching endeavor in view at the outset of schooling. We do not teach a first grader or a fifth grader with merely the completion of first grade or fifth grade as our end goal. The goal really isn’t even the passing of the test or the getting of the grade. The goal is learning. Classical education always teaches toward a mastery of the whole wisdom of the Lord, as shown in objective truth, goodness, and beauty. Thus, this form of education does not tend to focus on modern benchmarks; rather, the goal of the classical curriculum is to ultimately transition the student into a self-teacher, so that he understands not only how to complete the course, but how to learn.

Some main components of a classical curriculum do stand out, typically because they are not present in other kinds of education. Chief among these are Latin, Logic, and Rhetoric. These fundamental disciplines will enable students to master the more specific topics and to see the inherent connection between each discipline, with the ultimate goal of understanding and articulation. In fact, these subjects could be renamed knowledge, wisdom, and eloquence, as they seek to explain the basic mechanics of language and thought, the proper organization of language and thought, and the persuasive and effectual use of language and thought. It is precisely because of their fundamental importance that St. Augustine School will require all of its graduates to complete these courses in addition to the more familiar courses of the maths, sciences, and humanities.

As valuable as everything we have just said is, we have really only addressed the penultimate thing. Our final goal at St. Augustine School is the most important one. It is to lead the students from the unity of truth to the knowledge and worship of the One God. All truth is God’s truth, and when the student learns something about this world, the universe, or himself, he also learns something about the God who made all those things, the God who made him after his own image. Since, as all truth reflects God’s very nature, we believe that a classical education is the fullest expression of the attempt to glorify God with our entire mind.

But What am I Going to Do With It?

Practical relevancy is a major concern with education, and questions like “Will my student be prepared for college?” or “Can he get a job?” are actually perfectly legitimate. Theory, while important, must always translate into activity, and the great tradition has always sought to create movers and shakers of culture. A classical education should prepare students for every professional task in their future. But how does it do this?

Classical education is not a vocational education. It expects every student to receive a complete liberal-arts education. But this expression, the “liberal arts,” did not originally mean something abstract or overly refined, but instead the skills necessary to produce free people: people who could think for themselves, solve problems, and become leaders of men. In teaching students how to locate the fundamental principles of a question or challenge, to solve complex problems, and to articulate their ideas and concepts in a clear, forceful, and persuasive manner, classical education is teaching them the essential skills for every human endeavor. It teaches them to identify essential elements, to set aside unnecessary elements, and to solve problems which have not-yet been encountered by employing the fundamental and universal concepts of thought. This is actually what colleges and employers look for as valuable.

In fact, when you compare the various “admission requirements” for colleges and universities, you often find that the more prestigious schools, especially the Ivy League, do not have a highly detailed list of class-requirements, but instead ask for a well-rounded general education with strong language skills and civic involvement. This is because the classical education is designed to create “renaissance men” who have the basic tools of knowledge that can be applied to every specific area of work. And precisely because the student has been trained in the basics of thought, is familiar with the great conversation of tradition, and has the ability to speak forcefully and effectively, he has the confidence necessary to succeed.

At St. Augustine School we believe that a classical education is the best form of Christian education, and we believe that it provides the best education. Other classical schools across the country have been successful in gaining admission to the University of Notre Dame, Samford University, Cornell University, Tulane University, Louisiana State University, Penn State University, Furman University, Rhodes College, Vanderbilt University, and many more top-level schools across the country. As more and more students are applying for admissions, a classical education is an important distinction among elementary and high school training, and its time-honored philosophy and curriculum ensure that it will continue to be effective for college preparation, successful employment, and a life well lived.