Classical Education: Part 2
What Classical Education is Not

Continuing in this brief exploration of classical education, it’s first necessary to dispel some common misconceptions about classical education before moving on to show what makes classical education distinctive.

Classical Education is not Simply Harder

There are educators who talk about classical education as if the thing that defines it is its difficulty level. Consequently some people believe that if you load students down with tons of busywork they will somehow be greatly benefited, and this will somehow bear a resemblance to classical education. Now, it is true that classical education deservedly enjoys a reputation for being rigorous and difficult. However, this rigor is not simply hard work for the sake of hard work.

Classical Education is not Content Based

This is another common misconception about classical education. “Classical education” refers to an educational philosophy that encompasses several methods. However, the term “classical education” does not refer to the content of the education. Just having a child read ancient books by the likes of Plato, Herodotus, and Plutarch doesn’t make an education classical. One could, in theory at least, implement the principles of classical education with a different collection of starting literature. Now, it honestly wouldn’t make sense to implement the principles of education developed in western culture through the last 2,400 years or so without reading any of the foundational literature of western culture. However, the point remains: don’t think that reading old books is the same as having a classical education.

Classical Education is not Knowledge Based

Unlike the standards for many of our public schools today, a classical education isn’t primarily focused on transferring a certain amount of knowledge into the heads of students. Once again, these sorts of things go along with a classical education; a classically educated student will probably have a wide array of knowledge bouncing around in his head. Still, the attainment of certain knowledge isn’t the goal of the classical education. In the words of Arthur Quiller-Couch, an English professor at Cambridge in the early 20th century, “The man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that something recognisable for a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse.”[1]

Classical Education is not simply “Ages and Stages”

This one is a bit more controversial, but it’s still worth pointing out. There is an idea today that classical education is nothing more than recognizing three different stages in childhood educational development, the Poll-Parrot, Pert, and Poetic stages as they were called by Dorothy Sayers. Though this is related to one specific way of implementing classical education, simply recognizing these three stages is not the same as having a classical education. In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, scholar and writer of detective fiction, gave a speech at Oxford entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in which she suggested that the three parts of the classical Trivium, Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, seem to fit quite nicely with the stages that a child goes through in adolescence. This is a wonderful insight, and most classical schools today follow Sayers’s model. However, the classical education that Sayers described was far more than “ages and stages” as some have called it, and many classical schools before and since have implemented the Trivium without tying its parts to stages of childhood development.

Classical Education is actually Useful

This last one may come as a particular surprise. Often classical education is portrayed by its critics as intellectually elitist, outdated, and impractical for any real work in today’s world. What can someone do with a classical education? They can think very deep thoughts while flipping burgers at McDonalds. However, this too is a misconception. The ideal student who gets a classical education will be able to succeed in any field of work or study they choose to pursue. Rather than being a hindrance to real life employment, classical education may be the best preparation for any sort of career or job out there.

The reasons for this, however, will have to wait until the next installment.


[1] Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas. On the Art of Reading. https://archive.org/details/ontheartofreadin003074mbp

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