A Classical Education in the Classical Tradition

A Classical Education in the Classical Tradition

In the beginning of the twentieth century, progressive educators advocated widespread reform and were quite successful in permanently changing the intellectual landscape of American primary and secondary schools.[1] (Jonathan Beeson)

Jonathan Beeson
Jonathan Beeson

Jonathan Beeson studied at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before graduating from Yale Divinity School in 2003.[2] He served as a minister, and then in 2007 he accepted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to start a new Christian classical school.[3] But what is a Christian classical school? To answer that question, Beeson admirably begins with definitions. While serving as principal of the classical school in 2011,[4] he produced a clear and articulate 29-page document explaining what is meant by a contemporary Christian classical education. His document begins by explaining that a classical education finds its roots in the classical tradition.

The common definition of the classical tradition is “the reception of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions in later cultures.”[5] Beeson’s definition almost perfectly matches this textbook formulation:

… classical educators … are looking to reconnect with a long standing educational tradition that began in ancient Greece and Rome. The term “classical” refers, at least in part, to the classical period from which originates the whole of western education and learning.[6]

Towards the end of his document, Beeson even more closely identifies the classical tradition with of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity:

… the word “classical” is typically used by practioners in the [classical education] movement to refer to the classical period of Greece and Rome.[7]

A study of Beeson’s document shows that he is true to his word. He does indeed “reconnect with a long standing educational tradition that began in ancient Greece and Rome.” By doing so, he is able to produce an unusually succinct document that represents a highly coherent account of classical education. Such an account is valuable because it allows us to identify the dramatic points of separation between Christian classical education (CCE) and the theory of education developed by Charlotte Mason (1842-1923). These points of separation may be summarized under five key categories.

1. The source of guidance for the method

As with other CCE theorists, Beeson strives to develop and articulate a philosophy of education that directly and self-consciously embraces specific tenets from the classical past:

In particular, classical educators attempt to preserve the “liberal” nature of the tradition by a more direct appeal to the “what” and “how” of the tradition.[8]

CCE theorists Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain describe the CCE methodology as one of “recovery.” They write:

Continuing in this trajectory of recovering the tradition and applying it to contemporary contexts, we seek to enlarge upon our predecessors’ visions for a classical liberal arts education.[9]

Beeson uses the same word to describe the methodology:

Classical educators are also different because they are committed to point students towards the recovery of a particular past.[10]

Parents’ Review
Parents’ Review

Beeson’s approach contrasts sharply with that of Charlotte Mason, who never once in her copious writings claims to be recovering principles of education from the classical past. Instead, Mason states that she derived her theory of education from Christian revelation, scientific discovery, and personal observation. Indeed, she was a self-proclaimed progressive.[11] In calling herself a progressive in 1895, she was identifying herself with the well-defined progressive movement of her day. Educational philosopher and historian Gerald Gutek explains what it meant to be “progressive” at the start of the twentieth century:

… progressive education … was a broad and amorphous movement extending back to the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century naturalistic educators Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, who developed educational theories that opposed traditional school practice. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment and nineteenth-century social reformism contributed the concept of “progress.” by which humans, using reason and science, could shape their environment. Educational reformers claimed that a natural educational methodology could free humanity by creating a better world.[12]

Mason’s writings demonstrate that her own self-categorization as a progressive was accurate. She describes at length how her “educational methodology could free humanity by creating a better world.”[13] I have also documented many of the ways in which she “opposed traditional school practice.”

Gutek elaborates on the meaning of “progressive education” in Mason’s historical context:

Progressive education was a reaction against conventional schooling’s prescribed curriculum with its emphasis on basic skills, books, examinations, and discipline. Although they were often merely reacting against traditional school practices, the progressives also developed their own educational philosophy and methodology. They established a number of private schools where they fostered a more permissive attitude toward children and encouraged activities to stimulate their creativity… Some progressives drew their inspiration from European reformers such as Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Montessori.[14] Others were simply interested in creating a school that would follow the child’s interests and needs… Stanwood Cobb brought progressive educators together in the Progressive Education Association in 1918, and the Association began to publish a journal called Progressive Education in 1924, which disseminated the views of its members. Among the major principles of progressive educators were the following:

  1. Encouragement of child freedom.
  2. Creation of a new school which would contribute to the development of the whole child and not merely his or her intellect.
  3. The use of activities designed to give the child direct experience with his or her world.
  4. Cooperation between the school and the child’s home.[15]

The correlation between these four points and Mason’s theory of education is somewhat obvious, but may be briefly summarized in the following table:

Principle of Progressive Educators Example in Mason’s Theory of Education
Encouragement of child freedom We “should let [the child] live freely among his proper conditions.” (Principle 6)
Creation of a new school which would contribute to the development of the whole child and not merely his or her intellect “’Education is the Science of Relations’; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of— ‘Those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things.’” (Principle 12)
The use of activities designed to give the child direct experience with his or her world Nature study
Cooperation between the school and the child’s home The entire thrust of the PNEU homeschool movement


Dr. Stephanie Spencer

Dr. Stephanie Spencer[16] is the Head of Department of Education Studies and Liberal Arts at the University of Winchester. In 2010, she published a detailed and scholarly analysis of Charlotte Mason’s theory of education. Her paper was published by Routledge Press in a larger volume entitled Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000. Spencer correctly documents Mason’s source of guidance for her method, which is not the classical tradition. Rather, according to Spencer, Mason “formulated her ideas from a combination of practical experience and extensive reading.”[17] In nearly-perfect alignment with Gutek’s definition of “progressive education,” Spencer identifies only Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, and Herbart Spencer as the subjects of Mason’s “extensive reading.” That is not surprising since Mason rarely quotes classical sources in her extensive writings.

Spencer’s verdict is that Mason “developed and introduced innovative ideas into educational theory and practice in state and independent schools, whilst holding her ground against social superiors who challenged her theories.”[18] Indeed, at Mason’s death, The Times, the leading newspaper of England, referred to Mason as “the pioneer of a new educational method.”[19]

The contrast is clear. Beeson describes CCE as a recovery of the classical past, whereas Mason is repeatedly described as progressive, revolutionary, and innovative.

2. The Purpose of Education

Beeson, as with many other CCE theorists, identifies “virtue” as the primary goal of education:

Catholic liberal education [is] synonymous with virtue education.[20]

Beeson makes clear, however, that the word virtue in this context does not mean simply personal righteousness. Exhibiting fidelity to the classical tradition, Beeson embraces the classical definition of virtue (ἀρετή):

But what classical educators mean by vice and virtue can also be easily misconstrued by the modern reader for vice and virtue, to us, are words used almost exclusively with moral connotations. Their more classical meanings—much richer than our truncated sensibilities—are broader in scope. A virtue is simply an “excellence” or the “perfection” of a thing; vice is, conversely, a defect or the absence of a perfection which should be present in a thing.[21]

Beeson uses the classical definition of virtue when he restates the purpose of education as follows:

[Classical] education aims to develop habits of excellence in every area of life.[22]

This statement is easier for the modern reader to understand. It makes it clear that the purpose of classical education is to develop personal excellence in every area of life.

This stated goal for education is quite different from the philosophy of education espoused by Charlotte Mason, who does not speak of cultivating personal excellence. Rather, she writes:

… the knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and the chief end of education.[23]

Mason does not outline a plan to cultivate “excellence” in students. Rather:

… the object of education is to put a child in living touch with as much as may be of the life of Nature and of thought. Add to this one or two keys to self- knowledge, and the educated youth goes forth with some idea of self-management, with some pursuits, and many vital interests.[24]

It is evident that Mason differs from Beeson in her understanding of education, but that is to be expected given their difference in methodology and sources of authority.

3. The Curriculum

Beeson also shows a high fidelity to the classical tradition when he asserts the inferiority of matter relative to spirit. In doing so, he reiterates the basic dualism that is so fundamental to Platonic philosophy, and so important to the classical tradition. Beeson writes:

Matter is, in other words, dark, but as it participates in the Divine, the human intellect casts light on sensory objects and sees what matter is intended to be.[25]

Against this notion of matter as “dark,” Mason describes nature as teeming with light:

“every leaf on every tree”

Most of us have observed how the every-day sights of the natural world have been hallowed, whether by association with our Lord, or, by His use of them to convey deep truths. The lambs upon the hillside, the reeds in our lakes, the shepherd and his flock, the grass, the cornfield, the wind, the face of the sky, the sea and the fishing boats and the fisher folk, and many other sweet natural associations, are as bonds of sympathetic thought between us and our Lord. But perhaps we fail to realize that those things which He observes with His eyes and hallows by naming with His lips, are but types of the rest, chosen to point to us the fact, that nature teems with teaching of the things of God, that every leaf on every tree is inscribed with the divine Name, that the myriad sounds of summer are articulate voices, that all nature is symbolic, or, as has been better said, is sacramental. Realizing the close correspondence and inter-dependence between things natural and things spiritual, that God nowhere leaves Himself without a witness, and that every beauteous form and sweet sound is charged with teaching for us, had we eyes to see and ears to hear, we shall better understand any single emblem brought before us than if we suppose it to be chosen arbitrarily and taken away from its connection with the natural world.[26]

Mason’s sacramental world view sharply contrasts with platonic dualism. Matter is not “dark” until “human intellect casts light on sensory objects.” Rather, “every beauteous form and sweet sound is charged with teaching,” whether human eyes see it and recognize it or not.

Extending this Platonic dualism to the sphere of curriculum, Beeson writes:

The centrality given to Truth within Catholic liberal education is most manifest in the traditional distinction between liberal and servile studies. Examples of liberal studies are grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, geometry, and astronomy; the typical subjects often listed under servile studies are law medicine, carpentry, and masonry.[27]

Beeson demonstrates his fidelity to the classical tradition by accurately conveying the concept of the liberal arts as originally articulated by Aristotle. Gutek describes this conception of Aristotle as follows:

Following the conventional Greek distinction between “free people” and “servile people,” Aristotle designated the liberal arts as those studies that liberate people by enlarging and expanding their choices. Other occupational and vocational pursuits, such as trade, commerce, and farming, he claimed, distort the body and reduce the time available for leisurely cultivating intellectual excellence.[28]

Beeson indicates that classical education directly follows Aristotle and intentionally devalues “servile” subjects:

Clearly servile studies are good and can hardly be gainsaid but they are lesser goods when compared to liberal studies. Catholic Liberal education self consciously deemphasizes the “practical” and the “useful” and thus frees the individual for intellectual virtue.[29]

To remove all doubt about his source, Beeson directly quotes Aristotle:

This perspective of the Church continued the classical Greek view of work so wonderfully summarized by Aristotle: “We work so that we can have leisure.”

By embracing a dualism in education, Beeson sharply divides from Mason, who places all subjects as equally sanctified before God. Mason asserts that the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator, citing the Hebrew teaching of Isaiah 28:24-29. In this passage, the prophet states that God teaches the farmer the principles of farming. So whereas Aristotle excludes farming from the Liberal Arts, Mason includes farming within the scope of divine education. Mason explicitly repudiates the dichotomy between servile and liberal when she writes:

And what subjects are under the direction of this Divine Teacher? The child’s faith and hope and charity — that we already knew; his temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude —that we might have guessed; his grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic —this we might have forgotten, if these Florentine teachers had not reminded us; his practical skill in the use of tools and instruments, from a knife and fork to a microscope, and in the sensible management of all the affairs of life —these also come from the Lord, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. His God doth instruct him and doth teach him.[30]

Albert Wolters describes the kind of divine education that encompasses farming:

This is not a teaching through the revelation of Moses and the Prophets, but a teaching through the revelation of creation – the soil, the seeds, and the tools of his daily experience. It is by listening to the voice of God in the work of his hands that the farmer finds the way of agricultural wisdom.[31]

Wolters points to revelation that can be found even in the soil. The classical dualism, however, points to a curriculum where students look up and away from the earth. In a particularly revealing statement, Beeson describes the danger of studying technology:

Technological training curbs man upright posture, and turns his face to the dust.[32]

Both Wolters and Beeson agree that certain “servile” studies bring the student into contact with the soil – the dust. But whereas Wolters (and Mason) find the Holy Spirit active in “servile” studies such as farming and the study of technology, Beeson warns of the danger of turning one’s “face to the dust.”

Spencer asserts that Mason’s rejection of a dualistic curriculum is precisely the reason that her theory of education has been largely ignored by contemporary educationalists. She writes:

The mind–body split has resulted in a hierarchy wherein academic or intellectual subjects (usually associated with the male) have assumed a higher status than practical subjects, usually associated with the female. Thinking, as a “male” activity, by default achieves a higher status than “doing”— a “female” activity. Charlotte Mason’s current reputation is based on the practical application of her methods and, as this increasingly overshadows the philosophy which underpinned her pedagogy, so her status as an educationist has declined.[33]

For those attempting to promote Mason’s theory of education, there is a constant temptation to focus on the “intellectual subjects” that might give Mason more respectability among educators. But to do so is to create a caricature of Mason’s ideas.

4. The Nature of the Child

In addition to applying platonic dualism to matter and studies, Beeson also applies dualism to the nature of the student. He writes:

But physical excellence is ephemeral and has a dignity which is borrowed from the spiritual realm. In the traditional listing of the virtues, then, one will not find any mention of physical virtues.[34]

Although Beeson qualifies the platonic position, he nevertheless accepts a form of dualism:

While fully embracing this reduction, can we not follow the pre-codified usage of the term and speak in some lesser sense of physical virtues?[35]

As a result of this hierarchy, he classifies the body as being of less concern than the soul:

It would be fair to say that liberal educators are not as concerned about the body as they are about the soul…[36]

This classical position differs sharply from the teaching of Charlotte Mason, who envisioned the child as a complete and unified person. In her landmark chapter in School Education, Mason writes:

We take Children as Persons. – In the first place, we take children seriously as persons like ourselves, only more so; the first question that comes before us is – What do we understand by a person? We believe the thinking, invisible soul and acting, visible body to be one in so intimate a union that––

“Nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps soul.”

If the doctrine of the Resurrection had not been revealed to us, it would be a necessity, in however unimagined a form, to our conception of a person.[37]

Because of Mason’s persistent emphasis on body and soul unity, her theory of education treats physical education and handiwork as equally valuable and sacred as the work of the mind.

Spencer also concludes that Mason utterly repudiates classical dualism. She writes:

Mason frequently conflated intellectual, spiritual and physical requirements and undermined any concept of a mind / body dualism.[38]

Indeed, the title of Spencer’s paper highlights Mason’s patent rejection of dualism. Spencer note Mason’s characteristic metaphor of knowledge as the “food of the mind,” and writes:

… In focusing on the metaphor of food, intellectual, spiritual and physical hungers were all interlinked.[39]

5. The Role of the Teacher

David Hicks describes the role of the teacher in classical Greek education:

Students become the disciples of their teacher, so to speak… Teachers then exercised such a profound influence over their students that the charge against Socrates of corrupting youth was not at all an uncommon one.[40]

Beeson again exhibits his fidelity to the classical tradition when he emphasizes the role of the teacher in contemporary classical education:

The best way to fight the vice of intellectual apathy is through the modeling of a teacher. The Catholic Liberal educator counters the contemporary zeitgeist of intellectual sloth by modeling an active intellectual life. The educator, by her very presence, is the curriculum which is being taught.[41]

This last sentence so clearly and dramatically shows one of the most important differences between CCE and Charlotte Mason’s theory of education. Beeson’s statement that the “educator … is the curriculum” could hardly be more extremely opposite to Mason’s view that the instructor should get out of the way. Indeed, Mason writes: “Our deadly error is to suppose that we are his showman to the universe; and, not only so, but that there is no community at all between child and universe unless such as we choose to set up.”[42]


I have great respect for Beeson and I appreciate his document. In his document, Beeson proceeds admirably in multiple dimensions:

  • He begins with definitions.
  • He explicitly uses the word “classical” in its widely-understood sense.
  • He is logically consistent. He carries his ideas from philosophy to practice.

I admire Beeson for his fidelity to his stated tradition and for his clarity of terminology. I admire the fact that he has articulated a classical education in the classical tradition. Such clarity enables straightforward understanding, evaluation, and comparison.

In a similar way, I respect Mason for her clarity, coherence, and consistency. I admire Mason for her fidelity to her own educational vision. Many adjectives may be appropriately used to describe that vision. Classical is not one of them.


[1]What is Classical Catholic Education?” (accessed 2/14/18)

[2] Facebook (accessed 11/5/16)

[3] St. Theresa Catholic School in Sugar Land, TX; see comment for the timeline

[4] Date taken from PDF metadata

[5] The Classical Tradition, by Grafton, Most, and Settis, p. vii

[6] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[7] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[8] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[9] The Liberal Arts Tradition, Kindle location 252-254

[10] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[11] Mason wrote, “We are progressive,” in The Parents’ Review, volume 5, p. 426. She elaborated: “we believe we have scientific grounds for a line of our own.”

[12] Gerald Gutek, A History of the Western Educational Experience, p. 486

[13] See, for example, Formation of Character, “A Hundred Years After

[14] Mason asserted that her theory of education was as revolutionary as that of Maria Montessori, but was nevertheless far superior.

[15] Gerald Gutek, A History of the Western Educational Experience, p. 487

[16] Not to be confused with Dr. Jennifer Spencer, a Charlotte Mason education professional

[17] Spencer, Stephanie, “Knowledge as a necessary food of the mind: Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,” in Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000, p. 105

[18] Spencer, Stephanie, p. 116

[19] The Times, January 17, 1923

[20] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[21] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[22] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[23] Parents and Children, p. x

[24] Parents and Children, p. xii

[25] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[26] Parent’s Review, volume 17, p. 718 (also available in Scale How Meditations, edited by Benjamin Bernier)

[27] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[28] A History of the Western Educational Experience, p. 51

[29] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[30] Parents and Children, p. 273

[31] Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, p. 28

[32] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[33] Spencer, Stephanie, “Knowledge as a necessary food of the mind: Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,” in Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000, p. 107

[34] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[35] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[36] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[37] School Education, p. 63

[38] Spencer, Stephanie, “Knowledge as a necessary food of the mind: Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,” in Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000, p. 118

[39] Spencer, Stephanie, “Knowledge as a necessary food of the mind: Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education,” in Women, Education, and Agency, 1600–2000, p. 118

[40] Norms & Nobility, p. 41

[41] “What is Classical Catholic Education?”

[42] School Education, p. 188

One Reply to “A Classical Education in the Classical Tradition”

  1. Thank you Art for continuing to shed light on a situation that is very confusing to many people. Poor definitions and poor use of words continues to confuse people and therefore serves no useful end. I appreciate your insistence on clarity! A great read. Carroll

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