What is a classical education and is it still a good option for students today? A simple answer to the question, “What is classical education?” can be surprisingly difficult to come by. And it many not be obvious what a tradition of education that emerged in the ancient world has to offer students growing up in the digital age.
When seeking to understand classical education, people most often point to the logic of the trivium: the movement from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric. But classical education is more than the trivium. It is also a set of attitudes and dispositions regarding the purpose of education. A classical education is an orientation toward learning that takes wisdom and moral formation as its goal.
You will find among classical educators, homeschool parents included, the conviction that education is a sacred and moral undertaking aimed at something more than earning good money, achieving distinction, or even accumulating knowledge for its own sake. You will find, rather, the conviction that education is about learning to live wisely and becoming the kind of people God made us to be. And this is precisely what classical education offers students in the digital age, a way out of the sea of mere information toward the heights of knowledge and wisdom.
The first stage of the trivium, the grammar stage, is focused on memorization and basic skills. Of course, even after we move into the dialectic and rhetoric stages, we must still learn new facts and skills. Whenever we enter a new area of knowledge, we must learn its grammar.
But we don’t stop with the facts and the basic skills. We then learn to reason about facts and with facts. We enter the dialectic stage. We discover how to make sense of the facts and relate them to one another. We learn logic and we learn the logic of each discipline. We learn what it means to think like an historian, or a mathematician, or a biologist, chemist, poet, etc.
Finally, with the rhetoric stage, we pass into the realm of wisdom and beauty. To begin with, the rhetoric stage is focused on cultivating the ability to communicate effectively. But if we are to avoid being sophists about persuasion, then what we will be doing is learning to communicate effectively about the truth as we have come to recognize and embrace it. In other words, learning to speak well and persuasively about the truth requires that we come to some personal understanding of what is true, and having done that, then working out how to live in light of it.
What’s more, if rhetoric is to be more than brow- beating, we must recognize and appeal to the persuasive power of the beautiful — the beauty of language, the beauty of art, the beauty of the truth. At this point we have passed from the accumulation of information and the construction of knowledge to the life-long endeavor of living in light of the truth.
Think of it this way. The grammar stage concerns Information, what is true about the world. The dialectic stage concerns Knowledge, understanding the relationships among the various kinds of information, making information meaningful. The rhetoric stage concerns Wisdom, learning to live in light of knowledge and rejoicing in the beauty of a life lived in light of the truth.
In this way, the classical model provides an answer to the worst habits of thought that emerge in an era of information overload. It does so by communicating a vision of education directed toward wisdom and moral formation.
Society has lost its faith in the transcendent order that would render knowledge meaningful and underwrite the quest for wisdom. Classical education is poised to resist this trend only to the degree that it is anchored in a biblical and theological vision of a creation and redemption.
We do well to remember that the quest to attain wisdom is premised on the belief that the world is not absurd. We can move past the accumulation of information only if we believe that the world is imbued with meaning and that this meaning reflects the mind of the Creator along with His goodness and beauty. Because we believe that the Triune God has created and ordered the world, we can confidently pursue knowledge and endeavor to live in light of it. It would not be too far from the mark to describe classical education as the work of brining our minds and hearts into harmony with the order of creation, which reflects the character and glory of God.
In Choruses from “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot writes,
“O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
The heart of Christian, classical education lies in the reversal of Eliot’s lament — in finding a way from information to knowledge and from knowledge to wisdom, and thereby finding Life and drawing nearer to God.