The Idea of a Classical School

There is no metaphysical common ground between modern school and classical education. They may share some material similarities, but in essence, they are antithetical, founded on mutually exclusive views of human nature. The one operates as though man were an animal needing the right conditioning in order to meet so-called academic standards. The other operates as though man has a soul needing formation to achieve his natural end. The former concerns itself with measuring learning outcomes, the latter with cultivating the intellect. 

The differences are not simply lexical. “Measuring learning outcomes” is not another way of saying “cultivating the intellect.” To assume that I am quibbling over vocabulary is to presuppose the modern belief that words do not embody real concepts. Recovering the proper vocabulary is important but may actually prove detrimental to the classical movement if we do not also recover the corresponding concepts. Couching our modern concepts with classical verbiage will only trick us into believing we’re different from modern schools.  

How Different Are Modern and Classical Schools?

To illustrate just how far we have to go in recovering proper concepts, consider how easily we teachers move from a modern school to a classical school, or vice versa, and change very little about how we teach:  we carry the same “toolbox of teaching strategies” and use them on students in order to get them to meet the various grade-level standards. Consider how students can just as easily move from a modern school to a classical school without much ado. If modern schools treat students as rats in a maze, rewarding them for finding the cheese at the end, a classical school will simply rename both the maze (perhaps “the halls of erudition”) and the cheese (perhaps “the good, true, and beautiful”).

Recovering the concepts and not just the vocabulary allows us to see that the “toolbox of teaching strategies” we collected from our credential programs are really nothing more than tricks to convince students that we’re not wasting their time. The tricks work temporarily and produce the veneer of “engaged learning.” But students soon realize they’ve been tricked and begin to act up. When their behavior again needs modification, we crack open up the trusty toolbox and pull out a jigsaw, or maybe a visualization, or perhaps we dust off the old think-pair-share. And so we pretend to teach and they pretend to learn.

The best pretenders will go on to perfect their pretending in our universities, who will claim the best of the best for themselves. They may actually begin to believe that their pretend learning is real. We can only hope that they are not beyond listening to the counsel of John Henry Newman. In his The Idea of a University he asserts that “recreations are not education; accomplishments are not education.”

If we listen to Newman, we will soon see that the outcomes-based model of all our public educational institutions and too many of our classical schools can never actually be “classical,” for it rewards external compliance and ignores the interior life. By contrast, cultivating the intellect honors the interior life, for the soul is the only domain for intellection.

The Art of Turning Around 

By way of explanation, take Eric Voegelin’s simple definition of “classical education”: “the art of periagoge, of turning around,” that “turning around” referring to the turning from the darkness of shadows to the light of Truth as described in Plato’s allegory of the cave.  Turning from darkness to light is the turning from subjective opinion to objective reality, which presupposes that there exists an objective truth and that we may know it, two presuppositions denied by the social engineers populating our educational bureaucracies.

Contrast the struggle to know Truth with what happens in our modern schools, which take not the apprehension of reality as their goal but the meeting of various standards, such as “[Citing] strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” We modern teachers are instructed to write such banal standards on our boards and then to use our teaching strategies to poke and prod our students into “meeting” those standards, measuring their “learning outcomes” on various assessments. Notice the total disregard for the student’s interior landscape. What truth the student grasps in his soul has been eclipsed with a concern for what he does.

No, teachers cannot cultivate a student’s intellect in the same way we try to teach the so-called academic standards. There are no tricks or strategies one can use to turn a soul from error to truth. Gaining true knowledge cannot be coerced; it must necessarily come from the free choice of a human soul, which is prior to and qualitatively different from what can be measured by learning outcomes. 

Yet we’ve constructed elaborate systems to reward the coerced behavior of students while ignoring their interior life. These elaborate systems are often the unquestioned assumptions about how schools must operate, with their highly regulated schedules enforced by impersonal bells and their predetermined curriculum inculcated by our behaviorist pedagogy. 

Classical Factories

Newman reminds us that a “University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.” The latter is sometimes referred to as the industrial model of education, which was gaining prominence in Newman’s day and is now the default mode of nearly every educational institution. Newman suggests that a university which “had no professors or examination at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three of four years” is preferable to a “treadmill” university that presents its students with a smattering of information unconnected by any common principles. As opposed to the regimen of modern schooling, doing nothing would be more beneficial for “training, moulding, enlarging the mind” and would produce “better public men.”

Re-examining the presuppositions that underlie the structure of our schools is important if we are to become worthy of the name “classical.” Assembly-line schools may sometimes produce compliant behavior and may even sometimes result in a student reaching a “learning outcome” but there is little hope for a genuine cultivation of the intellect. If there is any cultivation of intellect, it has surely occurred despite the principles of the modern school, not because of them. 

But even in such a hopeless system as a modern school, there is always hope one might attain genuine knowledge because one’s environment, while influential, is not determinative. Assuming otherwise is to fall prey to the modernist heresy of materialism. But we know the human soul is immaterial, and the human soul is that which becomes educated. The problem with thinking that classical education might find a synthesis with modern pedagogy should be clear: the latter denies the immaterial soul while the former assumes it as a first principle. 

Unfortunately, even as classical schools abandon modern curriculum in favor of the “classics” or “great books,” they maintain the presupposition that this new “curriculum” will produce its own learning outcomes, outcomes even more impressive than those of modern schools. But changing the material cause without changing the formal and final cause of our institutions is not much of a change at all. Does it matter to a student if he is dehumanized with contemporary novels or with ancient poetry? Does it matter to him if his learning outcomes are measured with worksheets published by Pearson or by Memoria Press? 

What Are Great Books For?

What we teach is important but we cannot neglect a thorough autopsy of how and why we teach. The truth is that many of us, armed with our classical curriculum, still teach students as if they were means to an end. We think we need to employ particular teaching strategies in order for students to perform particular tasks in a particular way or produce particular artifacts according to a particular rubric in order to meet one of the Common Core State Standards. We must reject that paradigm. And we must recognize the extent to which our teaching has been poisoned by the presupposition that students are animals needing the correct stimuli to produce the desired outcome. 

Students are human beings, ends in themselves, not objects in a foundry, not a means to producing learning outcomes imposed by their teachers, nor as animals to be subjected to the latest “teaching strategies” concocted in our university laboratories. Instead, we need to first know and love our students with true Christian charity. In love, we engage them in genuine human conversation guided by the great teachers of the past in pursuit of truth. Our students’ souls will be nourished by truth itself, not by our teaching strategies. We advise and encourage students to till the soil of their souls, but nature grows the fruit. 

Presupposing that our classical curriculum will produce certain learning outcomes abuses both the great books and the students forced to read them. In their proper place, the great texts are guides, not gods; they are means, not ends.  Let’s not make them into idols to which we sacrifice our students.  And let’s be clear about what they are a means to: The great texts are instrumental in forming our souls, not producing learning outcomes. They are a means to knowing the truth, but they may also deform one’s soul if read incorrectly or without the proper principles. 

By using the great texts as a means to meeting academic standards, we may turn the wisdom of the past into lifeless texts which children read because some teacher would give them a bad grade if they didn’t.  Without thirsting for knowledge, a student will resent being forced to drink. We may end up making bored cynics out of our students.

Conversely, if we treat the great texts as an end in themselves, simply to be read for their own sake, our students may become like the deformed souls Newman describes: 

They abound in information in detail, about men and things; and, having lived under the influence of no very clear or settled principles, religious or political, they speak of every one and everything… not discussing them, or teaching any truth, or instructing the hearer, but simply talking. No one would say that these persons, well informed as they are, had attained to any great culture of intellect or to philosophy.

Without being grounded in principles of true literacy, whereby one learns to read reality rightly and allows the great books to form one’s soul, the classical movement may churn out graduates who are merely well-read dolts, capable of simply decoding and parroting all the words in the great books. Their foolishness will be compounded by arrogance.

Before even assigning a page of reading, classical teachers should cultivate in their students a desire to know truth. We do so by desiring it for ourselves. 

Attend First to Yourself

We would be of more benefit to our students if we spent less time concocting contrived lesson plans and more time listening to the great teachers for our own edification. In other words, we must practice the habits we wish our students to practice. By so doing, we can share a cultivated interior life with our students, giving them a model for their own. We invite them into a great conversation, one to which we as teachers are studiously attentive. Listening attentively to the great teachers is the precondition for genuine learning and does not necessarily result in any quantifiable outcome.

Newman says education is first the “preparation for knowledge,” which concerns an interior state of being. Only after that interior preparation can teachers have a hope of “imparting knowledge.” So if students are not grounded in principles of objective truth, if they are not disabused of the relativism inculcated in them by mass media, if they don’t understand that their human nature endows them with reason by which they can know reality and with a will by which they can conform their actions to reality, if they don’t know that the great books may guide them towards truth and provide them with the symbols, characters, and stories that enrich their moral imaginations and shine a light on the fullness of human living, then all our impressive curriculum and reading lists are worthless. 

“But how do we produce this interior state in our students?” the demons of modernism call out to us. Let us attempt an exorcism: We cannot produce this interior state in our students, only in ourselves by the grace of God. We can invite them to join us in the pursuit of truth and we can share the fruits of our own intellectual habits. Our students, being human, may freely accept or reject what we offer.

Furthermore, Newman adds that education imparts knowledge “in proportion to that preparation.” The responsibility of the teacher, then, is to indeed know our students as our own children, understanding the capacity to which they can receive truth and then teaching them according to that capacity. If this is true, how can we know which texts to assign our class before knowing their names? St. Paul makes a similar point about the teaching of Christian doctrine. He tells the Corinthians, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for solid food. In fact, you are still not ready.” Our students come to us unable to eat solid food and malnourished by our decadent culture. They need milk, but we try shoving sirloin down their throats. 

If we are trying to “impart knowledge” to unprepared souls, we will be no better than the modern schools we claim to revile. To our shame, we subject human souls to our predetermined curriculum and pedagogical toolkits as if we might manufacture the same academic skills coveted by modern schools.  

The classical education movement offers a lot of hope. But the seeds of the sower land on many soils. Our modern presuppositions are briars that have grown unnoticed for centuries. Their roots run deep, and they threaten to choke the life out of the seedlings. Let us attend to our garden under the guidance of the great teachers who help us identify the weeds. Let us then summon the courage to diligently uproot them, so that we may be blessed with a bountiful harvest grown by the light of truth. 

S.A. Dance teaches humanities at a charter school in Northern California. His writing has appeared in The Federalist, The American Conservative, Everyman Commentary, and Christ and Pop Culture. 

This is the fourth essay in our symposium, “The Future of Classical Education.” See the introduction and a list of all the essays here.

We Write Letters

Well, emails really...

Be the first to hear all the news from the Ancient Language Institute, including events, exclusive sales, and more.