“Classical Education” & “Classics Education”: An Introduction

NOTE by Eduardo Chaves:

I wrote the following article in the form of a “Letter To A Young Daughter on the Education of her Child (and my Grandchild), Olivia“.  The daughter was (and is) Andrea Chaves, the granddaughter was (and is) Olivia, born on March 11, 2002. The date the letter was written was July 22nd, 2003, when Olivia was a little over one year old — but her mother was already concerned about her education. The major source of concern at that time was whether, when the time came, to send Olivia to school or to educate her at home. I tried to address some of the issues — in a rather academic manner, since that is what I am: an academic.

I publicly share this material now because I met a group of young people here in Brazil interested in the very same issues.

I will publish two more articles with what I list here as two Annexes. Originally there were five Annexes, but three of them were links to sites, most of which cannot be found at the places they were fourteen years ago.

Thank you. If you came as far as here, I hope you enjoy the rest.

o O o

  1. Some Terminological Difficulties
  2. Classics Education
  3. Classical Education
  4. Classical Education and Classics Education
  5. Notes

o O o

Campinas, July 22, 2003


You asked me about my views on classical education. You have been reading about it in many places, especially in the context of Home Education.

I will try to summarize them. You may be surprised that my summary is going to take almost ten pages, without the Annexes (which take about fifty pages more), but that’s me…

Forgive me my “professional” distortions… From now on I will turn my professorial style on. At the end I become personal again… 🙂

1. Some Terminological Difficulties

First, some brief terminological issues. Technically there is a difference between the expressions “classical education” and “classics education”.

Classical Education” would seem to refer to an education such as a person living in ancient times was likely to receive.

Classics Education” would seem to refer to an education that, today, ought to be centered on the reading of the classics.

The first refers to education such as it was then (at a not too precisely specified time in the past); the second, education such as it ought to be today (in the view of its proponents and defenders).

Confusion is sometimes added because some people also think that the best education, today, would be an education such as people in classical times had. See, for instance, the site http://www.classicalhomeschooling.org/  [1], from which I extracted the following quotation:

“Return to the proven educational methods of past centuries.

Classical Education returns to the time-honored educational theory of the past. The classical method was the only educational theory in practice in Western Civilization for over two millennia.

Educators are returning to classical education as modern educational methods continue to produce high school graduates who are not only functionally illiterate and lacking in critical thinking skills, but morally bankrupt as well.”

There is also a lot of divergence about what period should be described as the period of classical education, and so about what sort of education is meant when one refers to classical education. Most people believe that the period of to be taken into account in the expression “classical education” is that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Others, however, as the quotation above indicates, consider this period to cover “over two millennia of Western Civilization”, that is, the period of the ancient Greeks and Romans (including Christian Antiquity), the Middle Ages and even the Modern Age (up to the end of the nineteenth century). Consequently, there are those who emphasize ancient Greek and Roman education as the core of classical education and those who would prefer to concentrate on what they call “Christian Classical Education”.

See, for instance, the site http://homeschoolinformation.com/Approaches/classical.htm [2], from which I extracted the following quotation:

“The classical method that was developed in ancient Greece and Rome and established in the Middle Ages, was used almost exclusively in the Western world until the 19th century. The main focus was reading the Greek and Roman classics. To be in touch with literary arts marked one as accomplished. There can be no doubt literary education is more whole, more human, and more satisfying than today’s modern scientific technological education. But is even literary education enough? Good literature— Scott, Milton, Virgil — promotes courage insight, high morality, and imagination, but it can never do what the Bible does.

Why Go Back to Greeks Ways – Why not Return to Biblical Methods?

We understand this desire to return to a better way, but believe that, instead of returning to the ancient Greek ways, we need to return to the Biblical model. Our only hope for stable, ongoing, integrated culture is placing the word of God at the center of our thinking, speaking and acting. Literature and all literary arts must give the place to the mastered of Bible. And they themselves become servants to the word of God. The Bible warns us against Greek philosophies.”

To make matters even more confused, many people do not take this distinction between “classical education” and “classics education” seriously: some seem to consider the two expressions synonymous and others seem even to reverse the meanings that I suggested at the beginning of this section.

This being said, I will start discussing “classics education”.

2. Classics Education

The central thesis of Classics Education is that basic education, today, would be better promoted if children were required to read the best things that were ever written in fields such as literature, philosophy and science – the best that the human race has been able to think in the last 2,500 years (or thereabouts). That is why this movement is also called the “Great Books” movement.

Let me say at the outset that whatever the criticisms I make of Classics Education, I find it vastly superior to the multiculturalist alternative proposed to it by the left. Multiculturalists have criticized the Classics Education approach because they think that the “canon” (list of required readings) suggested by its defenders is chauvinistic: it includes mostly (or only) Dead White European Males… In place of this canon, multiculturalists would like to put living non-European so-called minorities (like women) who would naturally be “people of color” – like Rigoberta Menchú. Menchú is the Guatemalan Indian woman who in 1992 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Fortunately, if I may say so, the Swedes did not corrupt themselves to the point of giving her the Nobel Literature Prize. See http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1992/tum-bio.html. Read Dinesh d’Souza’s references to multuculturalism and Menchú by searching through the analytical index to his books.

The Classics Education movement, with its “Back to the Classics” rallying cry, was mostly turned against an educational movement called Progressivism – identified with the names of John Dewey and William H. Kilpatrick.

The main emphases of Progressivism were:

  1. Education should prepare children (students) to be competent problem-solvers through the use of the scientific method and responsible citizens through the living of democratic procedures at home and in the school;
  2. Education should favor, as the basic learning method, active, project-based investigation by the child (the student), not passive assimilation of information transmitted through teaching;
  3. Education should be centered on the child (the student), not the teacher;
  4. Education should be oriented toward the future, not the past.

Although Progressivism may seem today quite sensible to many people, it seemed shocking to many when it first appeared, with its vociferous criticism of traditional education, because it seemed to neglect aspects of education that they considered important, such as:

  1. Moral education and character formation;
  2. The cultural tradition of the Western world (emphasis being placed, in some cases, on the Christian tradition);
  3. The important role of adults (parents and teachers) as well as of society (or of the community) in a child’s development.

Reading the classics was thought to be the way to rebalance things, placing the emphasis on morality and character (not problem-solving and living in a democracy), on essential and perennial issues confronting human beings (not the momentary and volatile interests of the child), and on our continuity with our past (tradition), not on abrupt new starts. To make problem-solving through scientific method and the issue of how to live in a democracy the goals of education is to place means in the place of real ends. The real end of education should be living the good life – which, in the view of the critics of Progressivism, was the virtuous life, that cannot be attained without character formation…

The proponents of Classics Education thought that the best way to achieve the sort of education they defended was through the reading of the classics – of the best that the Western world was able to produce during its history. These included literary, philosophical and even (more recently) scientific works.

The list of books that have been proposed as worth-reading is immense by the proponents of the Great Books Approach is easily located on the Internet.

But looking at the whole, this looks more like a reading list for a lifetime than a sensible curriculum. Therefore, each one ends up adapting the list to what seems feasible.

My criticisms?

I cannot deny, first, that I, personally, enjoy reading the classics. But I recognize that there is a lot of distance between what I personally enjoy and what I am willing to propose as educational agenda for everybody else.

I cannot deny, second, that I have strong sympathies for some aspects of Progressivism as an educational philosophy (although I do have criticisms of others aspects and especially of its tendency to radicalize).

Let me try to justify my views by clarifying my understanding of education.

Some animals are born ready to live their lives. Sea turtles, for instance, are this way. An adult female sea turtle lays her eggs in holes in the sand at the shore where she was born, covers them up, and takes off. Her duties as a mother are finished. When the time is due, the small see turtles hatch the eggs, come to the surface, walk to the sea, and swim away. Their genetic code told them to behave this way and will tell them, for the rest of their lives, how to behave.

Human beings, in comparison, seem to be born unfinished. If left on their own, after they are born, they simply die. Most of the functions that are going to be essential when they are adults, such as walking, talking, etc., have to be learned and human beings take what seems to be an awful long time to learn them. For being minimally competent at walking around, they take over one year; at talking with their fellow human beings, well over three years; at providing for themselves, if left alone, even considerably more than that.

That is why some people say that, in order to be fully capable of living their lives, human beings need two gestations: first, their biological gestation, in their mothers’ womb; second, their social gestation, with the assistance of mainly parents and teachers. This social gestation is what we call education.

Education, so conceived, is the process through which human beings become ready to perform as competent adults in society. In other words, education is the process through which human beings develop as human beings – it is a process of human development.

This development is not a development with pre-determined ends, however. Human beings are capable, starting more or less at adolescence, to choose the ends toward which they are going to develop, to define their own life projects – and then proceed to develop the competences and skills necessary to implement them. In other words, human beings are capable to dream their own dreams and to work to make them come true.

So education is the process through which human beings become capable of living their own lives – lives that are of their own choosing.

If this conception of education is correct, then Progressivism is correct in defending the following theses:

  1. That education should be oriented toward the future, not the past;
  2. That education should be centered on the child (the student), not the teacher;.
  3. That education should favor, as the basic learning method, active, project-based investigation by the child (the student), not passive assimilation of information transmitted through teaching.

As you can see, I only disagree with one of the theses that I attributed to Progressivism, namely:

  1. That Education should prepare children (students) to be competent problem-solvers through the use of the scientific method and responsible citizens through the living of democratic procedures at home and in the school.

Even so, my disagreement here is partial. I do believe that education should do that – but I am convinced that this is an overly restrictive goal for education.

I prefer to use the so-called Four Pillars of Education described by UNESCO as the framework that organizes the basic (not specific or professional) competences and skills that children ought to develop in order to succeed in becoming effective adults.

These Four Pillars are:

  • Learning to be
  • Learning to live together
  • Learning to do
  • Learning to learn

Learning to be implies that children should become autonomous individuals, who are free and responsible, as well as competent to define and live their own lives;

Learning to live together implies that children should become capable of living together with other people, cognizant and assertive of their own rights but also respecting of those of their fellow human beings.

Learning to do implies that children should become capable of not only working to sustain themselves but also acting to achieve their goals.

And learning to learn implies that children should become capable of learning in every sort of activity in which they engage themselves: work, play, leisure, and the daily human interactions.

Although I do think that children need to develop competences and skills and all of these areas, I do not think that all children should develop the same competences and skills. Children are different, they have different interests and talents, and they should be allowed to explore and develop them freely. That is why I endorse Progressivism’s view of a child-centered education and its view that children learn best when they actively engage themselves in activities in which they are truly interested – either because they simply do enjoy those activities or because they realize they contribute to the development of competences and skills that are important to their life project.

Children learn when they are doing things that are enjoyable in and for themselves or that are useful. Outside that, getting a child to learn something is an herculean task.

Getting now back to the classics.

I have no doubt that some children will enjoy reading the classics in and for themselves, because they recognize that reading those books is a pleasurable experience, and that other children will realize that reading the classics is useful for developing competences and skills that they want to develop – perhaps they want to become writers themselves.

For the remaining children, however, those who do not derive pleasure from reading the classics or those who do not see any usefulness in doing so, forcing them to read them is a waste of time and effort. Some of them might want to become astronauts, engineers, dentists, basketball players… I believe that we ought to allow them to develop the competences and skills needed for the chosen life project.

Before I end, I want to deal with a delicate question.

You may question me if I am not presupposing that children’s interests, their likes and dislikes, are set once-and-for-all. You may think that it is possible to change children’s interests: to get a child that loves dissecting animals to become interest in music, to get a child that loves reading poetry to become interested in building bridges…

My answer to that is that we should let children’s interests develop as much as possible without direct intervention. I do admit – and find quite important – what I like to call “indirect intervention”. We should endeavor to create for our children (and students) environments that are as rich as possible in learning opportunities, in every aspect of life. These environments should allow them to come into contact with all sorts of human activities, manual and mental, those that are pursued for pure enjoyment and those that are pursued because of their usefulness. In environments like this, they will surely develop worthy interests and will require no direct intervention by parents or teachers.

3. Classical Education

Let us now come to Classical Education.

Take a look first at some of the sites included in Annex IV [this Annex was removed].

Pay attention, then, to this quotation extracted from the site “Classical Christian Homeschooling” (http://www.classicalhomeschooling.org/ [3]):

“What is Classical Education?

The core of Classical Education is the Trivium, which simply put is a teaching model that seeks to tailor the curriculum subject matter to a child’s cognitive development. The trivium emphasizes concrete thinking and memorization of the facts of the subjects in grade school; analytical thinking and understanding of the subjects in middle school; and abstract thinking and articulation of the subjects in high school. Subjects unique to Classical Education which help accomplish the goals of the trivium are Grammar, the science of language usage; Logic, the science of right thinking; and Rhetoric, the science of verbal and written expression. Classical Christian Education is further characterized by a rich exposure to the history, art, and culture of Western Civilization, including its languages (Latin and Greek), its philosophy and literature (the Great Books of Western Civilization and the Christian tradition), and the development of a Biblical worldview with Theology in its proper place as the Queen of the Sciences.

Why Return to Classical Education?

The combination of the progression of learning from facts to understanding to expression (the stages of the trivium) and the additional classical subjects, work together to give children the tools to think for themselves and to be independent, life-long learners. That is the primary goal of Classical Education. It is to equip educated men and women able to approach previously unknown subject matter, problems, or life situations; and using the tools of learning which have been practiced and refined and internalized in school; to grasp the subject or problem, analyze it according to the standard of truth, and understand and do something about it. Classical Education therefore trains children for success in any field, whether it be marriage and family life, work dealing with society and individuals, business, or arts and the humanities. Furthermore, Classical Education has proven its effectiveness in training for scientific excellence, which depend on the arts of fact-finding, analyzation, adherence to truth, and the problem-solving skills of which Classical Education specializes. Secondarily, it works: children taught by this method routinely exhibit academic proficiency.”

Read, now, the article called “Tools of Learning”, by Dorothy Sayers, to which reference is made in the quotation. It is available as Annex 1 [in a different article in this same blog].

Read, now, the article called The Three Laws of Learning, that I placed as Annex 2, to which reference is also made in the above quotation (as a link, that I removed). [Annex 2 is in a different article in this same blog.]

I believe that by now you realize that what is called Classical Education (disregarded the religious underpinnings Christians may try to give to it) is a very serious attempt to help children develop three fundamental competences and skills that they will need whatever they may decide to do or make of their lives:

  • Competence in the use of language – first, the mother tongue, then forein languages;
  • Competence in thinking and reasoning – which is language independent;
  • Competence in communicating effectively – which is a mixture of language, logic and to some extent individual and group psychology (and which includes marketing skills, the ability to speak in public, etc.)

People in classical times knew that these were ESSENTIAL human competences and skills. That is why some elements of Classical Education are sometimes also called Essentialism.

And people in classical times also knew that these competences and skills were not sufficient – that is why they added the Quadrivium to their Trivium. But they knew the Trivium was the foundation that supported all the rest.

4. Classical Education and Classics Education

To finish what is already a very long letter, I want to  briefly discuss the following question: can a classical education be promoted through the reading of the classics?

My answer is simple and short. Sure, it can. But not all children will want to. Many will prefer to read mystery stories or contemporary novels; others will prefer to read scientific fiction; still others may not prefer to read much and will prefer to watch or even make movies; others will become interested in engineering, in business, in finances…

Rest assured that no matter what sort of activity children eventually choose to dedicate themselves to, they will have to develop the competences and skills which constitute the Trivium – and several more.

So, a final five-prong pedagogical counsel.

First, do not worry too much about Olivia’s education – avoid anxiety: relax and enjoy the task of helping her

Second, offer her first a loving environment, which I know you do.

Third, offer her an environment rich in learning opportunities – which I also know you do.

Fourth, trust her natural curiosity, her desire to learn: that is almost an instinct to her.

And fifth, fight whomever and whatever tries or tends to make her learning compulsory, painful, boring.

5. Notes

[1] [Note added on 2/Jul/2017] Unfortunately this site, consulted in 2003, has been since then removed and replaced by a set of YouTube videos.

[2] [Note added on 2/Jul/2017] Unfortunately this site, consulted in 2003, has been since then removed. Emphases added.

[3] [Note added on 2/Jul/2017] Unfortunately this site, consulted in 2003, has been since then removed and replaced by a set of YouTube videos.

Transcribed here in Salto, on the 4th of July 2017


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