Classical education is countercultural. It’s time to bring it back.

A student reads in the amphitheater of the ancient Greek city of Termessos. (iStock)

During each of the past two summers, I have conducted a daylong seminar with administrators and teachers of a Catholic parish school who are adopting a classical curriculum and culture. And last summer I helped run a weeklong seminar with teachers from various schools in a Catholic diocese whose bishop is aiming to infuse his schools with a more classical character. Courage and joy permeated these seminars—courage to “think outside the box,” to cut against the grain of the ruling conventions regarding elementary and high school education; and joy that arises spontaneously when teachers realize they are building themselves up in a manner that enables them to nourish their beloved students with wholesome food for mind and heart. As for myself? Simply put, I’ve been humbled and inspired by their courage and joy.

A recurring question I have asked myself, especially right after a lively discussion during one of these seminars, is: Why not classical education? It is a question that I, as a Catholic, address in my imagination primarily to bishops and those in the church who determine curricula and influence the culture of Catholic schools—although I consider it a question that anyone dissatisfied with the current state of elementary and high school education might ask.

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There is a growing conviction among many educators that implementing a classical educational model, little by little and step by step, is the way to go. It has found a home in a host of private, religiously affiliated schools across the country, and it has spread more expansively by means of public charter schools, especially in states like Arizona and Texas whose state legislatures are friendly to such endeavors. What perplexes me, though, is not why Catholic diocesan schools are at the back of the line in the classical education movement, but why they aren’t at its very head.

Indeed, given the depressing statistics about the decline of Catholic education in our country, this is a puzzle. After all, the church’s own educational heritage is at stake.

What perplexes me is not why Catholic diocesan schools are at the back of the line in the classical education movement, but why they aren’t at its very head.

A Challenging Transition

When I introduce myself to administrators and teachers at these seminars, I thank them for permitting me to play a role in an important development—perhaps, in fact, a necessary survival tactic—in the life of their school. They have made the brave decision to dive headlong into the waters of classical education, waters that are ultimately refreshing but that may feel chilly at first. For them to adopt a classical model is to cast out into the deep, the unfamiliar, perhaps even the off-putting, but to do so with the confidence that they will be responding to their educational vocations more authentically.

They will have to learn about the trivium and the quadrivium. They will need to rethink their approach to mathematics and the natural sciences. They will have to read new books and perhaps memorize a lot of poetry. Indeed, over time, they may need to become classically educated themselves. So yes, these administrators and teachers can find the transition challenging but also invigorating and life-changing.

That they find it challenging is unsurprising. Providing a liberal, classical education has always been a challenge. It always cuts against the grain; it is always countercultural. This is because it invites students and teachers to search for standards that exist beyond those of the given culture in which they live. Classical education encourages teachers and students, therefore, to put current cultural standards to the test. Such a process can be painful, perhaps even disillusioning.

Given the state of contemporary culture, moreover, we may sense that imparting a classical education to our students is more difficult than ever before. Whether this sense is accurate or not, one thing is true: It has been and will remain difficult, because defaulting to more utilitarian, culture-conforming modes of education constantly lurks as a temptation.

Providing a liberal, classical education has always been a challenge. It always cuts against the grain; it is always countercultural.

Reinvigorating Education

While finding the move to a classical model challenging, these same administrators and teachers are happily surprised by how reinvigorating it is. Indeed, classical education has always been reinvigorating for teachers and students alike. The reason is simple: A classical education aims to be a human education, period—as full a human education as one can manage. In other words, it engages students and teachers in every dimension of their existence, at every level of their humanity—spiritual, intellectual, moral, psychological, emotional and physical.

Or, to make the same point differently, a classical education puts students and teachers in touch with the whole of reality in its truth, goodness and beauty. Thus it is integrative; it unites students and teachers in their shared humanness, enabling them to engage the wholeness of human experience and, therefore, to become more whole themselves. It also reveals that what is true is good and beautiful, and that what is good is beautiful and true.

To clarify the distinctive qualities of classical education, it helps to contrast it with aspects of the elementary and high school education usually offered nowadays. To do so requires generalizing, of course, and thus painting something of a caricature of the current condition of conventional elementary and high school education. Still, the contrast illuminates classical education against the backdrop of the ruling educational culture, not to mention the economic, moral and political climate out of which conventional education has arisen and within which it persists.

A classical education unites students and teachers in their shared humanness, enabling them to engage the wholeness of human experience and, therefore, to become more whole themselves.

Education in Three Dimensions

Simply put, conventional education is flat; it has become two-dimensional. Conventional education attempts, on the one hand, to transfer (perhaps “download”?) information to students for the sake of passing tests and, on the other, to produce skills in students for the sake of getting a job. Such activities are not humane—nor, it turns out, even very human.

What is information, after all? What are skills? Information is mere truth, naked truth—which usually means the ugly truth. Along similar lines, skills are mere arts, naked arts—which usually means tedious arts. Skills are arts bereft of virtue because they have been separated from the discipline of contemplation.

By contrast, classical education enables students and teachers to garner information and skills within their proper and elevating contexts. Students and teachers alike, as human beings, are called to seek beauty-clothed truth that calls them to goodness and to develop virtue-infused arts that grow out of contemplation.

It is no wonder, then, that students and teachers alike respond to the high calling of classical education. It fans that divine spark within each of us, that potent image of God stamped deeply in our souls. Teachers know, at least implicitly, that students are called to something greater than merely passing standardized tests and finding a place in the workaday world. Students themselves also know, at least implicitly, that they are called to something greater. And so when the students whom teachers are blessed to teach ask for bread, teachers ought not to give them stones; they ought, rather, to give them real, wholesome bread. And when students ask teachers for a fish, they ought not to give them a snake; they ought, rather, to give them real fish.

What is information, after all? What are skills? Information is mere truth, naked truth—which usually means the ugly truth.

At Home in the Church

I daresay, moreover, that a Catholic context is the one in which classical education is most at home. This is not to say, of course, that the church invented such an education. Historically speaking, that is simply not true. One need only read Plato’s Republic to learn this. Yet classical education finds its fulfillment in a Catholic context—a context framed by faith, hope and charity, a context in which students and teachers encounter Christ both sacramentally and in one another. For in a Catholic context, reason, strengthened by classical education, can be paired with faith and the support of the sacraments, and together these two wings bear us toward the contemplation of truth, helping us to achieve the full truth of our very selves.

Recently we celebrated the 20th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio,” an encyclical written to demonstrate the “necessary relationship” between faith and reason. Faith and reason complement each other. Faith sets the sights and aspirations of education higher than Plato could ever have imagined, while the exercise of reason in relation to faith helps to keep our feet on the ground, so that what we believe remains humanly fulfilling and neither stands in opposition to our nature nor suppresses it.

This complementarity between faith nourished by the sacraments and reason enhanced by classical education mirrors the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. We believe, of course, that Christ is fully divine and fully human. In Christ there is no “compromise” between divinity and humanity. To be sure, divinity and humanity remain distinct in Christ, and yet they permeate each other and embrace each other. The same can be said about the Catholic faith and classically educated reason: They also permeate and embrace each other.

We find ourselves in odd, disconcerting times. One odd aspect of our times is this: It can be maintained, very plausibly, that the greatest defender of reason over at least the past half-century has been the church itself. As the world continues to trust less and less in reason’s ability to know truth, to be objective and to escape the snares of relativism and nihilism, the church has become the staunch defender of reason. The church has maintained that, yes, we human beings can know truth and be objective, and thus we should stand up in witness against the dictatorship of relativism and nihilism. To be sure, the church has always expressed an innate trust in reason; this has been part and parcel of the Catholic intellectual tradition from its inception. After all, like all else, reason was created by God, and thus is good.

As the world continues to trust less and less in reason’s ability to know truth, to be objective and to escape the snares of relativism and nihilism, the church has become the staunch defender of reason.

Reason Made Flesh

In recent years, however, our innate trust in reason has had to become more explicit, owing to the many voices encouraging us toward skepticism regarding truth, reason and tradition. So the church reminds us that reason is not limited to just the scientific method and the development of technology. No, reason includes within its scope anything and everything that can be studied intelligently, anything and everything open to human investigation. This includes, of course, mathematics and the natural sciences, but also languages, history, psychology, arts and music, literature, politics, philosophy and theology. The church’s trust in reason is buttressed by belief in God and all that the Son of God revealed by becoming flesh. Not only did God create reason, but also the Word, Logos, Reason itself, was made flesh and dwelt among us. Thereby God upheld in the most dramatic and explicit way the dignity of human reason and its ability to discover truth.

It is incumbent upon the church and its shepherds, then, to help students to see this, to see that there is nothing to fear when pursuing truth. At this moment, I know no better way to do so than to run to the head of the line, courageously and joyfully, in the advancing movement of classical education. Thereby the church will help the young encounter truth, good truth, beautifully good truth, graced by a vision of the whole of creation and its redemption that Christ alone grants. Thereby, too, the church will provide the young neither with a stone nor a snake, but with bread, real bread, wholesome bread, fresh-baked loaves. And the church will provide fish, real fish, healthy fish.

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