A Classical Education Without the Classical Tradition

A Classical Education Without the Classical Tradition

It is not difficult to find a consensus as to what is meant by the phrase “classical tradition.” The first known use of the word “classical” in the English language dates back to 1546, and its meaning in that first instance was, “of or relating to the ancient Greek and Roman world, especially to its literature, art, architecture, or ideals.” That particular definition has held strong till this day, eclipsed only by the use of the word as a synonym for “classic” (M-W Unabridged). But when coupled with the word “tradition,” the meaning is unambiguous. The magisterial The Classical Tradition by Grafton, Most, and Settis offers perhaps the most concise and robust definition: the classical tradition is “the reception of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions in later cultures.” This definition serves as a reliable “field guide” to spotting the classical tradition when it appears.

One might then assume that the phrase classical education follows a similar semantic pattern: one would assume a classical education is an education based on the classical tradition of education — in other words, it is a theory of education based on ideas originating in ancient Greece and Rome, as received and developed by later cultures. Interestingly, however, I have noticed a trend among Christian Classical Education (CCE) theorists. The most recent definitions I have seen of CCE omit any reference to the classical tradition. Two examples suffice:

1. “Grounded in piety, Christian classical education cultivates the virtue of the student in body, heart, and mind, while nurturing a love for wisdom under the lordship of Christ” (The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, Kindle Locations 284-285).

2. “Classical Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences” (CiRCE Institute). A second definition follows: “Christian Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.” (Presumably this is meant to refer to a Christian Classical Education.)

The interesting thing is that in both cases the word “classical” could be replaced by another word, and the definitions would not suffer loss. For example, suppose we replace the word “classical” with “comprehensive”:

1. “Grounded in piety, Christian comprehensive education cultivates the virtue of the student in body, heart, and mind, while nurturing a love for wisdom under the lordship of Christ.”

2. “Christian Comprehensive Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.”

Both revised definitions are timeless and elegant delineations of a broad and liberal approach to education. The word “classical” is superfluous. Except that it is the name of the theory of education. So Christian Classical Education becomes the moniker for a timeless body of interrelated ideas that is not not necessarily “classical.” It is like the SAT. Originally, “SAT” stood for something: “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” But in 1997, the College Board dropped the etymology, but retained the moniker:

“‘The SAT has become the trademark; it doesn’t stand for anything,’ said Scott Jeffe, a spokesman for the College Board in New York. ‘The SAT is the SAT, and that’s all it is.’” (NY Times).

Why would CCE theorists want to have a definition that is not in its essence tied to the Greek and Roman tradition? Perhaps a better question is, “Why wouldn’t they?” If the CCE theory of education is true, right, and universal, then wouldn’t it be distracting to anchor the definition to a particular time and place, especially one in which those ideals were only imperfectly manifested?

In fact, this line of thinking is the logical and proper outworking of the Platonic philosophy which is at the heart of the classical tradition. For Plato, only the Idea or Form is perfect. All worldly instantiations suffer from imperfection in one way or another. For example, there is no “circle” in the real world. Any circle we might observe with our senses has some imperfection which will eventually be uncovered. The only true circle – in which every point on the circumference is exactly the same distance from the center – exists only in the other-worldly realm of the Forms.

It seems to me that the design goal of CCE is to find the perfect, timeless method of education. Any earthly instantiation by definition suffers from imperfection in one way or another. The ancient Greeks originated some portion of it; it was then refined by the Romans. Then the medieval Christians received it and brought it further towards the Ideal, the Form. Today as CCE theorists attempt to recover the tradition, they attempt to find the best of the best, and to hopefully improve on what has come before.

Just as Plato would not define the “circle” based on earthly imperfections, why would a CCE theorist define his or her theory of education based on historical imperfections? Why not advance a definition that is free from the corruption of time and place, one that anticipates the same perfection achieved by the geometrician who conceives of a perfect circle in his or her mind?

On the surface, this seems to be a sensible approach. I would only note two problems with it:

1. When a definition is grounded only in the Ideas and Forms, it is prone to drift. For example, if someone discovers that nature study is an edifying activity, then one is free to add it to CCE, as long as one can show that it has some logical affinity to the ideal Form as broadly described. It does not matter whether or not nature study was ever practiced in Greek, Roman, or Medieval education. As long as nature study fits the Ideal, it is good. But when more and more additions and modifications are made over time, the result is that the theory of education shifts. Eventually, it becomes something that would not be recognizable to its ancient or historical practitioners.

2. When a definition is grounded only in the Ideas and Forms, it is hard to understand. Ultimately I can conceive of a circle because I have become aware of circles in the real world. Now to be sure, Plato theorizes that all learning is actually remembering. But for one who rejects this extreme notion of Plato, the experience of life shows that people work from sense, observation, narrative, and story to abstract ideas and principles. I would assume that someone who wants to learn CCE would respond to the Ideal definition with, “Yes, but what does it look like in practice?” If there are no canonical implementations of CCE to refer to, then it is harder to understand. Also, there is the question of “why.” Without any appeal to an authoritative historical precedent, it is harder to explain why virtue, wisdom, and the liberal arts should be singled out as the key elements of education.

Charlotte Mason wrestled with these questions as she attempted to articulate her own newly-developed theory of education. In 1894, Mason declared that her theory of education should not be linked to her name or to the name of any other person. She felt that the best principles of education were timeless principles that should be freely understood and adopted by all, with no particular claim of authorship and no historical anchor. However, as time went on, Mason realized that this stance was not workable. She realized the two issues that I enumerated above, and in 1904 she wrote the following:

“It is quite true that [in 1894], I protested against the [use] of names and definitions. I have tried for years to hide behind the phrase P.NE.U though[t], but we make little headway as an educational power in the country and we lay ourselves open to the charge brought against us by the malcontents of ’94 that [absolute] vagueness is to prevail about the best principles and methods of education as understood by the Union. As people grow in earne[s]t about education, they will either neglect us [as] amateurs, or require to know what our platform is. So it seems to me well to draw even an inadequate statement of what we teach and also it seems necessary that this teaching must be protected by the name of the originator, or everyone who speaks for P.N.E.U. has a right to say, ‘I think’ and call it ‘P.N.E.U. Teaching’ and this must result in the ‘absolute vagueness’ we deprecate.” (CMDC i68p1cmc393 – i68p2cmc393)

Charlotte Mason courageously chose to insist that her theory of education “must be protected by the name of the originator” — by her own name. And so even today we have a “Charlotte Mason education.” We can work towards definitions; we can work towards ideals; but in the meantime we have an anchor and a reference point firmly established in a particular time and place.

I suppose I am an earthy man. I believe in a Bible filled with true stories about a particular people that lived in the Ancient Near East. I believe in a God who became a Man with a particular Name in a particular time and culture. I believe in ecumenical creeds which were formulated in history by real men in real circumstances. My doctrine of the Trinity is anchored to a place — Nicea. I am a member of a church that is named after a place on earth: I am an Anglican. I believe in doctrines which a real man, Thomas Cranmer, penned with a real hand, which he offered to a real fire, to be burned before the rest of his body. And I believe in a theory of education that was born, prototyped, tested, and articulated in a real community led by a real person.

Don’t get me wrong. I love ideas. I love perfect circles. But I also tend to lose my way. And when I struggle to understand the abstract concept of homoousios, I like to be able to look back to Athanasius standing before the bishops of Nicea. And when I am not sure whether a particular educational practice is wise or not, I like to be able to look back to see what the PNEU did, under the leadership of Charlotte Mason.

Now of course, I am free to walk away from Charlotte Mason, and of course I will do so the moment I am convinced that her theory is wrong. But until that moment, it is a comfort to this earthy man to know that the method of education I practice in my home was tested and proven on the same earth that I walk on.

In 1923, homeschooling father J. W. Walker wrote:

“The whole training seems to invite a close companionship between parents and children through common interests and opportunities for nature study and the discussion of the problems of their own life history; thus the interest which parents and children take in each other’s lives is largely due to Miss Mason’s influence in teaching us as parents to realize that our children, from earliest babyhood, are persons with an individuality of their own, and are to be treated as such.”

I shouldn’t expect to see the same results in my family in 2016 that Walker experienced in his family in 1923 if I don’t follow the same method that he followed. So I personally do not subscribe to an eclectic, hybridized approach to education that combines Mason’s ideas with ideas taken from the classical tradition and other sources. Of course I can experiment if I want. I can even walk away from Mason completely. But it is nice to know that if I choose to walk away, I will always be able to find my way back. I know because Mason’s theory of education is forever embodied in the past. No one can ever take that history away.

2 Replies to “A Classical Education Without the Classical Tradition”

  1. I enjoyed this essay, Art. I’m right with you. I don’t need an eclectic, hybridized approach. I’m comfortable standing on Mason’s very clearly defined ideas.

    “The reader will say with truth,––’I knew all this before and have always acted more or less on these principles’; and I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less,’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated. I suppose the difficulties are of the sort that Lister had to contend with; every surgeon knew that his instruments and appurtenances should be kept clean, but the saving of millions of lives has resulted from the adoption of the great surgeon’s antiseptic treatment; that is from the substitution of exact principles scrupulously applied for the rather casual ‘more or less’ methods of earlier days.” -Charlotte Mason, Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 19

    1. Thank you for your comment. I love that quote and the reference to Lister. Some of the ancients did have some sense that surgical instruments should be kept clean. In that sense, Lister had a tie to the past. But his method was new in the sense that it fully articulated a consistent “why” and “how.” In the same sense, Mason developed and tested a philosophy and method of education. Of course we can find some parallels and precedents here and there in the history of education. But neither Lister nor Mason were attempting to revive an ancient tradition. Rather, they were trying to develop solutions based on the best information available to them in the present.

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