What is Classical Education?

And why is classical education important?

Truly speaking, a classical education is simply the study of the classics: Greek and Latin languages, literature, history, and philosophy, but it seems everyone defines classical education in a completely different sense.

Memoria Press, for instance, defines classical education as the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the study of the liberal arts and the Great Books. They mention Latin in the next paragraph as the foundation of the classical education, but not within its definition. This is a great definition of education, but this is a definition using the “traditional” sense of the word classical.

To this end, classical education is the inculcation of truth, goodness, and beauty in order to liberate the mind and the soul. Perseverance through a challenging education builds virtue, and virtue together with knowledge brings wisdom, i.e. a free mind, the ability to think for oneself without being easily swayed by fallacies, errors, and propaganda.

However, the prime definition of classical is “of or relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture,” so the proper definition of a classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the study of the classics: Greek and Latin languages, literature, history, and philosophy. As Cheryl Lowe, founder of Memoria Press, said, as mentioned by Tanya Charlton in this video, “Classical education is the study of Latin and the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. It’s been that for 25 [sic—she meant 2500] years and I don’t see any reason why we need to redefine it.”

As mentioned previously, my website is named Fundamentally Classical to accentuate the necessity of the classics being the foundation to a great education. The fundamentals of an education are its basic pillars, so for the Classical Education, Greek and Latin languages, literature, history, and philosophy are the foundation of the education. An education must also be about acquiring virtue and there is no better way to learn diligence and humility than in a challenging education from some of the greatest minds in history: the ancient Greeks and Romans, who understood the importance of truth, goodness, and beauty in speech and writing.

Now you may be wondering, “Why do we need to know that?!” You may also be wondering, “What about math and science?!” To the second point, I include math and science in education, as did the Greeks and everyone else, so no need to worry. Math is a part of the liberal arts discussed below, and natural science is a part of basic education in the home, mentioned later.

As to the first point, the reason these are important is because they inform almost everything about Western culture, it’s own languages, literature, history, and philosophy. The romantic languages all come from Latin so learning Latin will help with learning all those modern languages, but more importantly, it helps us to learn our own language.

We wouldn’t have the philosophical genius St. Thomas Aquinas with his beautiful Summa Theologiae if we didn’t have Aristotle, and we wouldn’t have St. Augustine’s philosophy of thought without Plato. We wouldn’t have a Republic form of government instead of a pure democracy if it weren’t for the Romans. We wouldn’t have all that beautiful architecture in Washington, D.C. if it weren’t for the Greeks. We wouldn’t have Shakespeare without the history of Greece and Rome. Even Owl in Winnie-the-Pooh mentions Zephyr (the west wind from Greek mythology).

To know the Classics is to understand where we come from, why we have the laws and government that we do, how our language has been influenced; it even just helps us to notice all those references in literature that we previously missed. A Classical education is a well-rounded education.

Learning the Latin (and Greek) language, though, is paramount to a classical education. To understand why, I will be writing a whole article on the importance of learning the Greek and Latin languages. For now, I will say briefly, studying Latin to fluency is the one thing that makes an education classical. Being able to read, write, and speak Latin, being able to translate from Latin to Greek to English and back again, being able to read the ancient authors—Greeks, Romans, and Church Fathers and Doctors—in their original language is the whole point of a Classical education and anyone who tells you otherwise is misusing the term classical, as mentioned above.

The best education, and the best educators, prior to modern times knew this and started Latin training early and continued every year through high school. This article talks about how even five hours of Latin a week is nowhere near enough, because Latin used to be learned to fluency before high school, so that the child could be educated in high school and beyond by mainly or only speaking Latin in the classroom. I am all for this idea, but it is obviously something that we as a culture have to work toward, given the modern “darkness” that we have been plunged into via the lack of education.

Now, I have not yet educated my children to Latin fluency, so take this with the proverbial grain of salt, but I think that my children will have no problem reading and speaking basic Latin in high school. I start my children in second grade with the Latin curricula. They have been studying Latin every year without break—we homeschool year-round, taking short breaks in between instead of a long summer break—and, at our current pace, in high school, they will be reading Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil’s Aeneid in their original language—that is the power of slow-and-steady training.

Also central to a classical education are the seven liberal arts which are broken into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the first three of the liberal arts) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). The liberal arts actually come from the Greeks, so they are truly classical as well, and according to Wikipedia, “St. Albert the Great, a doctor of the Catholic Church, asserted that the seven liberal arts were referred to in Sacred Scripture, saying: ‘It is written, “Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). This house is the Blessed Virgin; the seven pillars are the seven liberal arts.’”

These subjects are liberal in the sense that they give freedom to the individual who acquires them to think for themselves and not easily be led into error or fallacy by false advertising, propaganda, or politics. Many modern educators stress about “thinking skills,” even making whole curricula for the purpose, but the seven liberal arts are truly the classical “thinking skills” and were even so-called according to Wikipedia.

As I mentioned before, this is the chief problem with society today: the enslavement of the mind from lack of proper education due to parents abnegating their duty to take responsibility for their children’s education.

However, a focus on language and communication teaches children not only how to think well, but how to write and speak well, which is essential to all trades and professions, and even to everyday life. Communicating ideas is a necessary part of humanity, and yet, this art is lost when the focus, as is so often the case in modern education, is on science and technology (or STEM).

Another aspect of classical education is the emphasis on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This applies to all subjects, but especially to literature. Most literature available to today is trash in every way: bad grammar, bad writing or plot, bad morals, bad illustrations. We want our children to be exposed to the True, Good, and Beautiful in order to teach them what these concepts are and why they are important. The more they are exposed to trash, the more they will become desensitized to it, to the point where they won’t even recognize it as something bad.

Hopefully, your children have not already reached this point, but even if they have there is still hope to reteach them! And this holds true with all things bad, which is an especially important reason to homeschool in this day and age!

There is a higher reason, though, for the knowledge of these things, and it is God, who is the essence of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. As the Catechism teaches:

BC 151: “It is necessary to know God because without knowing Him we cannot love Him; and without loving Him we cannot be saved. We should know Him because He is infinitely True; love Him because He is infinitely Beautiful; and serve Him because He is infinitely Good.”

Literature and history should be read and studied with the idea of pointing out the good to emulate and the bad to avoid, so it is necessary for morals to be properly portrayed. Modern literature usually praises bad behavior and makes no room for true “hero” types, whereas literature of old was used to inculcate virtue according to the method described.

Another aspect of classical education is the study of the fine arts (for appreciation, not for skill). Most schools do not teach appreciation of fine arts so children, without exposure to them, never learn to appreciate classical music and beautiful sculptures and paintings. Most modern art can’t even be considered art; it is junk, just like the literature, and if this is all the child sees, he will not appreciate and see the beauty in a thing like the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo or the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

This is not just an opinion or theory. I know it to be true through experience, because I, myself, could not appreciate and didn’t even like to listen to classical music until I was married, and only with my husband, thankfully, helping me to see what I was missing.

I have seen and heard children and adults remarking on the “beauty” of modern sculptures that look like jumbled pieces of metal. And I once saw a clergyman on Twitter remarking about the beautiful view when the photo depicted a bunch of power lines in the way of the view to a handful of modern buildings. The only thing grand about it was that the viewer was on a hill and could see the sprawling city before him, but distance itself does not make a scene beautiful!

One more aspect of classical education is the study of the natural sciences. Have you ever noticed how people in older literature used to know the names of plants and animals of every kind? That is because those things used to be common knowledge when society was more connected to nature. I never learned anything about how to identify plants and animals in school, but I have learned much already with my children from constellations to crocuses, blue jays to beetles, and everything in between.

Lastly, the most basic and necessary part of a classical education is memory work. To understand why this is essential, I will write a whole article about it.

Now, hopefully, you can see that a classical education is a well-rounded education essential to creating a well-rounded, well-spoken person. It is the summit of education, but do not be daunted or discouraged by thinking this is an education for only the well to-do. Children from all walks of life and all levels of ability can achieve and will benefit from a classical education. In fact, the biggest classical homeschool curricula producer, Memoria Press, even offers a Simply Classical line of materials for special needs children!

I am not being paid or gifted anything to mention them; I do so because I find their materials to be far superior in scope and degree of challenge, surpassing by leaps and bounds all other companies I have come across in my twelve years of research, review, and use of homeschool materials. Look forward to reviews of many of their materials in later articles, and subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a thing!

This is part of the “Core Four”, a series of four articles written to explain the scope and content of this website, why it is called Fundamentally Classical, and why you should homeschool your children classically.

  1. What is Education?
  2. What is Classical Education? (you’re here!)
  3. Why Study Latin and Greek?
  4. Why is Memory Work Necessary?

Love your children. Give them a Fundamentally Classical education!

3 responses to “What is Classical Education?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: