Every once in awhile I chat with someone who wants to quibble about using the term classical education. For one reason or another, they think the label classical should be abandoned.

On the one hand, I don’t care.

Call it whatever you want.

We can have a conversation about True Education, Real Education, a Liberal Arts Education, or Christian Education if calling it Classical Education trips you up.

But regardless of the label, the discussion will be same because the question is the same: How do we best educate people for real life?

Before we can answer that question, we have to make sure we have the same definition of people and the same understanding of real life. In other words – what are people for? What is life for?

Until you have those answers, you cannot know how to educate, or even what education means.

What are people? What are they for? Your answers will determine what kind of educator you are.

Do you think people have inherent, eternal value? Do they have souls? Should we care for their souls as well as their minds when we educate? Is life about making money and getting ahead? Or is life about honoring the Creator and preparing ourselves and our world for meeting that Creator?

So much ink has been spilled over the subject of education, and we can begin sifting those writings into two categories. Those who think people have a higher purpose and being than merely material and those who think people are sophisticated animals whose purpose is personal gain.

Can you see how the two views would result in a different sort of education?

One group believes there is a higher meaning, purpose, and responsibility than what is visible in this world. They acknowledge the spiritual side of life, and believe the material should serve the spiritual. The other denies the existence of the spiritual side; if they don’t go that far, they at least say that if it exists, it doesn’t make much difference.

We can see that second perspective clearly in society today, but it’s always been around. It’s not new, only pervasive. Ancient philosophers and medieval scholars all saw and wrote on the inclination of the human heart to deny God.

You can’t deny God’s existence and still have True Education – not for very long, anyway.

You can’t acknowledge God’s existence without realizing that humans are not the highest or greatest good, and thus our own personal ambitions or pleasures are not what we should be seeking or cultivating. If there’s more to life than the here-and-now, education to enable us to know it, seek it, become a part of it.

This is the stream of thought that began with the Greeks, was seized by the Romans, was transformed by the early church, was developed by the medievals, was expanded in the Renaissance, and has been handed to us, if we are willing to seek truth, goodness, and beauty instead of personal prestige and wealth.

Some take the same learning – the subjects, the methods – that the classical tradition has passed down and use them for the cause of personal prestige and wealth. These do not educate classically, no matter what books they read or how much they memorize. Classical education has always been and will always be for the humble heart, the seeking mind. Classical education defines success as personal virtue, not personal avarice. Classical education is not for those who worship at the alter of Personal Success.

Pride transmutes classical learning into utilitarian education – and it’s happened in history more than once. Thus, more than once, we’ve needed a recovery of classical learning in the true posture of true education: repentance and humility.

Classical education is for those who understand that the goal of teaching, learning, mentoring, discipleship, living is virtue, is holiness, is sanctification.

Utilitarian education is for those who think that our most pressing problems are economic and technological, who think that our goal should be to die with the most toys or the most items marked off our personal bucket lists.

One of the reasons why the term “classical” has stuck recently, where other names it has had in the past have not, is that is quickly communicates not modern. Just like “classical music” is a label that can encompass both the best composers of all time and also those current composers who emulate them, so classical education is a gathering of the historic best and modeling our own art – teaching – on them.

Western culture is now several generations into utilitarian education. We’re in so deep we don’t even see it anymore. Those who want something more know that education – as it always has been – is key to changing culture because it changes mindsets and habits.

So we grasp for historical perspective, for wisdom, for traditions that treat people and learning in a truly human and rightly-ordered way instead of with a mechanistic, materialist mindset.

Most today educate for the economy, judging success by income and ignoring any spiritual dimension to life.

Classical education is education that opposes mindsets that are utilitarian, materialist, Marxist, where earning-potential is the determining element.

Classical education assumes a spiritual side not only to each student but also to the world, understanding that it is a created and therefore a logical and beautiful entity.

Classical education aims at virtue, not utility.

That’s why classical education actually cannot be pagan while remaining honest. The ancients were pagans because God rarely revealed Himself outside Israel. With only general revelation available to them, their hunger for truth brought them remarkably close to true truth. Jesus entered their world as an Israelite and opened the gospel doors wide open to the Gentiles. Many, many Greeks & Romans recognized that Jesus was the Logos their education had taught them to seek.

Denying the existence of truth or relegating truth to a personal experience is dehumanizing. Teaching that truth, religion, morality doesn’t really matter in school, to learning, is a belief in a completely different sort of world.

Whereas most schools now teach that morality is a personal matter outside the scope of the school, all effective education movements that have come before us taught the exact opposite: the reason to have a school is to impart virtue, upright living, honor and wisdom.

Character training isn’t an extra add-on, it’s the point. Wisdom is the point.

Wisdom is not straight, pure knowledge. It comes from applying knowledge – not only to the world (as in scientific technology), but primarily to ourselves. Wisdom wants virtue more than it wants money or power.

The education refined by the Greeks sought wisdom – that’s why they’re called philosophers. They were lovers of wisdom. The education parents are commanded to give their children and all people are commanded to pursue by the Scripture (within the book of Proverbs most explicitly) is one that honors wisdom above all other ends. Prize her highly and she will exalt you. Or, as Jesus said, those who are last will be first, but those who seek to be first – who seek to be exalted on their own terms – will be last.

Classical means rooted in a long tradition. Classical means the best of what has come down to us. And so we seek classical education, an education for virtue, for glory, for rightly-ordered loves and rightly-ordered knowledge.

This world is not about ourselves. Let us seek the higher things – and let us take the advice that the ancients, medievals, and all truth-lovers have made known.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch.

We only have to seek truth wherever we can find it and apply it with wisdom and virtue.

That is, the only way to give a classical education is to pursue education classically – with wisdom for virtue because we love truth.

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  1. Thank you for this clear and concise explanation-I think labels often need to be defined and are useful tools we shouldn’t be afraid of. I appreciate all your homeschooling encouragement-even in year 16 of homeschooling I still need it!

  2. This is amazing and so well put. I’ve been diving into learning what education really is, and realize that I’ve never really thought about it very much! Even though I’m starting year 4 of our homeschool! Thanks for sharing!

  3. This truly helped to define classical education in a way that separated from mixing it up with a homeschool curriculum that is available. Having this clarity explains why there has been such a struggle for me to decide between different methods for homeschooling and could not wrap my mind around which of two methods to choose…Charlotte Mason or Classical. I was mixing Classical education up with a type of curriculum that is available.

    I remember reading a description of classical education earlier this summer and being drawn to that definition. When I read it and understood it, some of the words used to explain the different stages of learning gained new meaning. A light bulb went on.

    This post has helped even more. Thank you.

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