Where Can the Definition Be Found?

Definition GraphicOne of the questions that naturally presents itself when we discuss classical education is the very definition of our topic. What is it? The truth is, there are many ways to define classical education, and a reasonable case can be made for some of them. What happens, then, when conflicting definitions or understandings arise? If I think classical education is one thing, and you think it is something else, how will we reconcile those differences?

If we take a step backward…well, that’s not going to be far enough. We’re going to have to back up quite a long way. We are talking about classical education, after all, which has roots that reach back in history almost two and a half millennia. A staggering number of voices have contributed to the Great Conversation as it pertains to education. The necessary process of educating the young has been the concern of civilization from the beginning.

When the question “what is classical education?” is presented, we have a cacophony of voices, clamoring to be heard, who would be glad to inform us. Some of them, by virtue of being more recent and easier to comprehend, speak a little more loudly. The distant voices of educators from the past…Erasmus, Milton, Comenius, Plutarch, Quintilian, Cicero, and Plato (to name only a few) speak with conviction and authority, but the distance of time, language, and culture muffles their message.

Ultimately, each of us chooses the voices we will attend to. Because the question of how to define classical education is open to so much disagreement, I think the question is better phrased more pointedly, to emphasize this state of affairs: “Whom will you allow to define classical education for you?” Many things have a clear, precise definition, universally accepted and illuminating. Classical education is not one of those things, and we will not all, perhaps, answer that question in precisely the same way.

Among the contemporary voices are a majority who have chosen to allow Dorothy Sayers to define classical education for them. A smaller, but vehement, faction adheres to the definition that is based upon “what they did” (learning Latin and Greek and reading the traditional ancient texts in those languages). That particularly narrow definition of classical education may be worth preserving for the sake of classical scholarship, but that narrow definition relegates it to an education for a privileged minority, and not for everyone.

For this reason, I use the term “classical tradition” most of the time, rather than “classical education,” particularly because the traditional curriculum of classical scholarship (reading Homer in Greek and Caesar in Latin) can be followed without ever touching the heart of the classical tradition, which is about inquiry, ideas, and character rather than intellectual achievement. It is this harder-to-define aspect of classical education that contains the vital elements that have tied the educators of the past together, in spite of their superficial differences. It is the spirit of the classical tradition, which urges high ideals and a constant seeking for the truth, that can breathe life into education in every age, including our own.

Charlotte Mason, of course, found much to inspire her in the educational efforts of the past. She, too, used the term “classical tradition” to refer to the ethical nature of the classical methods.

The medieval Church preserved classical traditions. It endeavoured to answer the Socratic inquiry: “What ought we to do and what do we mean by the words ‘ought’ and ‘doing’ or ‘acting’?” and it answered, as far as might be by way of object-lessons, visible signs of spiritual things signified. (School Education, p. 131-32.)

The never-ending inquiry into what we ought to be doing, which seeks for normative, moral ideals which should inspire and elevate us to act virtuously according to wisdom, is the heart of the classical tradition. It is possible to mistake outward appearances for the genuine article.

In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks quotes the Greek poet Archilochus, as he cuts past the superficial bearing of an ideal hero to the heart of what truly matters:

“I do not like a tall general, nor a long-shanked one, nor one who is proud of his hair, nor one who is partly shaved. Give me one who is short and bandy-legged to look at, but who walks firmly and is full of courage.” (Archilochus, quoted by David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 46)

David Hicks adds:

Archilochus’ ridicule of the heroic stereotype of a military leader clarifies the truth of the Ideal: that true generalship is a matter of courage, not bearing. Ancient literature thrives on this sort of dialectical attack on nonessential characteristics attaching themselves to the ideal. (Norms and Nobility, p. 46-7)

I would like to mimic Archilochus, aiming my dialectical argument at the non-essentials that have attached themselves to the ideal of the classical tradition:

I do not like a diploma from a prestigious alma mater, nor a Latin quotation, nor a teacher who is proud of his knowledge. Give me a man who knows what he does not know, but speaks the truth, asks the right kind of questions, and is full of wisdom.

A heroic general might not look the part on the outside, although he possesses the finest qualities of a leader and commands the respect of all who know him. A classical education might lack the adornment of a few degrees or the ability to construe a Latin paragraph, while yet containing the the living, beating heart of truth that has inspired the learner to be the very best that he or she can be.

I’m reminded of the Biblical principle that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. The heart of classical education may be carried forward with or without the non-essentials that have attached themselves to it, but the non-essentials without the heart are scarcely worth our consideration.

My introduction to classical education came through twentieth-century authors. I was encouraged to read contemporary authors who based their ideas largely on Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning, but she also was a twentieth-century thinker. I knew that if her ideas were right, I should be able to find the roots of them by reading the classical authors. I read Plato, Erasmus, Quintilian, and others, and when I found no correlation between their ideas and Dorothy Sayers’ about stages, I felt that “classical education” was an undefinable, nebulous idea that could not be understood.

Ironically (and yet, not ironically), it was another twentieth-century author who shed light on the classical tradition for me, and allowed those nebulous ideas to coalesce into a solid foundation upon which educational methods could be built. When I read Norms and Nobility, I was able to see that classical education was more than I had previously perceived.

Suddenly, Plato, Milton, Erasmus, Comenius, and Augustine spoke in unison—-not because they prescribed the exact same process or curriculum, but because they shared a common desire to educate men to be the very best that it was possible for them to be—-to make the best humans they could be. What ought men to do? What ought men to think? What is right for a man to know? What knowledge can man not do without? These kinds of questions should be asked again and again, in every generation, and the answer should be sought because it is both new and old—-old, because men have answered it before, and new because the answers act as a germinating seed in the heart of every thinker and learner who seeks them, producing new ideas and avenues to explore.

For example, in Consider This, you will find Karen Glass quoting Charlotte Mason, who is quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is in turn articulating an expression of Plato:

“He desired not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting room, but to place it in such relations of circumstances as should gradually excite its vegetating and germinating powers to produce new fruits of thought, new conceptions and imaginations and ideas.” (Coleridge, quoted in School Education, p. 125)

Education is the science of relations. Every new mind is fertile ground for old ideas, giving new life and vitality to questions that have been asked again and again and answered afresh for everyone who has had the privilege of exploring them. This is why the classical tradition has endured, and this is why Charlotte Mason embraced the living ideas of the thinkers of history and presented them freshly to her generation. Even in her lifetime, the classical education of Britain had lost much of its living heart and grown stale.

Mark Van Doren’s book Liberal Education offers a passionate plea not to allow the life-giving ideas of the classical tradition to wither away, and offers an explanation for how it can both change and endure.

The great tradition is a tradition of change and growth; ideas have never stood still. It is also–and indeed for this very reason–astonishingly stable. Where there is so much life there is bound to be sturdiness; strength is not incompatible with equilibrium. (Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education, p. 155)

The proposition I have urged in Consider This is to look past “what they did” in the classical past, and to ask “why did they do it?” Within the answers to that question lie the common threads that bind together the classical traditions of Plato and Augustine to those of Charlotte Mason, through many ages and thinkers and countries and languages.

While Charlotte Mason did not use the word “classical” to describe her ideas, she was well aware that they had their roots in the lively pursuit of truth which has been the business of classical educators as far back as we have records. She tells us of her principles, “Some of it is new, much of it is old” (Philosophy of Education, p. 27). She truly meant it.

One of Charlotte Mason’s colleagues and a founding member of the PNEU wrote, in the foreword of his book which he dedicated to her:

Sound principles that are old may easily be laid on the shelf and forgotten, unless in each successive generation a few industrious people can be found who will take the trouble to draw them forth from the storehouse. (Thomas Godophin Rooper, Educational Studies and Addresses)

The truth is, we need contemporary voices in every generation to remind us of the truths of classical principles. But the contemporary voices, if they speak truly, will echo the same principles and ideas we find in the educational writings of history. As Charlotte Mason told us, the answer will not be a clear list of instructions to “do” this or “do” that, but rather an invitation to “consider” this and “consider” that. One of the things we must consider is the subject of this article: Whom will you allow to define classical education for you?

Karen Glass, Copyright 2015

4 thoughts on “Where Can the Definition Be Found?

  1. Thank you, Karen, for your thoughtful reflections on the classical tradition. The goal of the ancient ‘paideia’ (education) of the Greco-Roman world was an enlightened, mature mind which affirms your gentle suggestion to ‘consider this.’ After many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that authentic classical is more of a philosophy or way of thinking about education than a method. Charlotte Mason embraced the classical philosophy as did many of the notable men you mention. Thankfully, there are many today who also interpret the classical tradition this way, and they are preparing their to grapple with the deeper truths of life. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

Comments are closed.