The rebirth of the classical school has raised the debate of how best to educate children to a whole new level.  But as often happens in any conversation of consequence, misunderstandings abound, there are questions as well, the first one being the most obvious: What is it?  What is classical education? 

The story begins with two fundamental disciplines:  the arts and the sciences.  Our familiarity with both typically goes past little more than the Bachelor of Arts or Master of Science degrees that we may have earned in college.   But what do the words mean, what were they about?  Understanding that will tell us what education is about, and particularly what classical education is about.

When most of us hear the word “art,” we think of a painting or sculpture, with brush or chisel nearby. But the backdrop of history gives us a more expansive definition.  The word “art” comes from the Latin word ars, which is closer to what we would call a skill or craft.  So, you could have soldiers who learned the art of war or doctors who practiced the art of healing.  An art, then, in the classical context was a craft that you hone, an ability you develop, a skill that you master. 

In like manner, the term “science” is now narrowly linked to what we know as the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics).  But the Latin root word again sheds light:  scire means “to know or understand” and scientia means knowledge.  So for classical thinkers, science was simply an organized body of knowledge.  In this context, history and literature were as much a science as astronomy was.

This distinction was, and is, enormously significant. Here’s why:  the arts and the sciences, properly defined and understood, comprised the two essential divisions of educational curriculum historically, with three branches to each one. Within the arts, for example, you had the manual arts, the fine arts and the liberal arts. Note the differences:

The manual arts had to do with the use of one’s hands, because “manual” comes from the Latin word manus for “hand.”  This could include any of the trades (carpentry, mechanics), domestic duties (cooking, cleaning) or, in modern times, the electrical/technical work that require more kinesthetic aptitudes. 

The fine arts cultivated the poetic and aesthetic beauty of the human and the divine through the various genres of music, dance, art and drama.  The fine arts were ends in themselves, without any utilitarian or practical value.  The word “fine” comes from the Latin finis, which means end (as opposed to means). We do not sing or act or paint or dance for any other reason than the satisfaction it brings us.  

Finally, the liberal arts. As the liberating arts or the arts of freedom, these provided the foundational thinking skills required not only to liberate the mind from ignorance but also to form and sustain a free society.  In the classical tradition, you had (1) the trivium: basic language literacy (the grammar & vocabulary of Latin, Greek & English), and (2) the quadrivium: basic mathematics numeracy (the mastery of basic arithmetic facts & mathematical operations/equations).  

Concurrently, within the sciences there were the moral sciences, the natural sciences and the theological sciences.

The moral sciences, also called the “human sciences” or “humanities,” spoke to the concerns and ideals of human beings. Literature as a moral science consisted of not only reading books, but learning which books were worth reading, guided by the high bar of both classical and biblical literature.  Culture as a moral science involved an examination of the threads of the cultural fabric, from the past to the present, of a specific people in a specific place.  

The natural sciences had to do with different aspects of the natural world, and the two main strands included the life sciences (biology, zoology & botany) and the physical sciences (chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy), incorporating the scientific method when necessary.

And the theological sciences represented those bodies of knowledge related to God and the supernatural.  Historically known as “the queen of the sciences,” the traditional extensions were dogmatics (what we believe), apologetics (why we believe), logic (how to think) and ethics (how to live).

Hence it was the arts and sciences – the skills and content, the how & the what – that became the two-edged sword of a classical education.  This was the curriculum that nurtured the likes of Augustine and Aquinas, Washington and Adams, giving rise to Western Civilization and our present way of life.  

When contrasted with the modern versions, one can not only begin to better understand the genius, balance and continuity of a classical education, but can also perhaps appreciate the reason for its renaissance.

(1) comment

Alan Shotts

Thank you Mr. Schroeder for a very fine article.

In my opinion, classical education began to disappear with the advent of "standardized testing". At that time it began to be more important to have the "right answer" than it was to understand why the answer might be right. Then it became important to know what to think, not how to think. There was no room for the possibility of an alternative answer on a test that only had one correct answer.

Until we do something to change the system that measures everything and everyone by a score on standardized tests, it will be very difficult to return to a classical education system. But I can only look forward to the day.

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