What Madeline Can Teach Us About Classical Education

What is classical education? Sometimes our answers to that question are long and elaborate, and sometimes a children’s book puts the matter simply and beautifully. 

In the story of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, we meet twelve girls who lived at a boarding house in Paris, “twelve little girls in two straight lines.” “In two straight lines,” we learn, “they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.”

And then we read the following: “They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad.”

In the illustrations that accompany these lines we see Madeline and her eleven friends glancing approvingly at a noble woman caring for a horse, glaring disapprovingly at a thief being caught by a policeman, and sadly looking on as a wounded soldier walked before them.  

In that line with its accompanying illustrations we encounter a lovely distillation of the essence of classical education as we understand it at Smith Prep. As simple as it sounds, we would like nothing more than for our students to smile at the good, frown at the bad, and be saddened by suffering.

But is this really the work of education? Are these not subjective feelings that can’t be helped? We don’t believe so. Our subjective responses can be trained and directed, and they should be.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote that “the little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”

As fallen creatures we too often admire what is base, mock what is noble, and laugh at what is crass. We fail to be moved by pity for the unfortunate or compassion for the weak. We content ourselves with the trivial and the superficial. Our deepest disorders are often not the result of faulty reasoning or a lack of knowledge but of such immature tastes and misguided loves.

We should, of course, train the mind to think clearly, but our students will not be fully educated if it cannot be said of them that “they smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad.”

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