If one were to look into the depths of human history, you would find yourself nestled in the heart of the ancient world, the birthplace of what we now term as 'Classical Education.’
Classical Education, in its purest form, is akin to an expansive essence of wisdom, harmonizing the three profound pillars known as the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
In the classical trivium, the art of grammar imparts the ability to decipher the world, providing the toolkit to construct and deconstruct language, the blueprint of thought.
Logic, the voice of reason, is the capacity to navigate the labyrinth of syllogism and fallacies, nurturing discernment and sharp intellect.
Rhetoric, the crowning gem, encourages eloquent expression, inspiring not just persuasive argumentation, but also an appreciation for the beauty in effective communication.
In the generations that have passed, the fragrant bloom of this Classical Education forged minds capable of deftly combining literature, philosophy, theology, and science into a cohesive understanding of the world and one's place within it.
A study shows that those exposed to a Classical Education were 37% more likely to demonstrate critical thinking skills and 42% more inclined to engage in civic discourse. According to a 2018 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), only 17% of college graduates could identify the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the Gettysburg Address), speaking to the decline of civic knowledge.
Education used to be a wisdom that was steeped in understanding rather than doused in a bunch of information, it molded statesmen, scholars, and citizens alike who valued the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.
With the modern intellectual landscape, which, bereft of the guiding light of Classical Education, there is a lot of stumbling in the darkness. It has been reported, only 24% of high school seniors are proficient in critical thinking, a steep decline from decades past. A world without Classical Education is like a rudderless ship in turbulent waters, stripped of the compass of wisdom and reduced to the mechanistic regurgitation of facts.
We have forsaken our classical roots, and risked diluting the richness of thought and discourse, the capacity for discernment and the eloquence of expression, which were once the hallmarks of a well-rounded education.
Our intellectual inheritance is not some relic of the past that can be casually discarded, but a vibrant symphony, reminding us of what it truly means to be human. I think it is extremely evident that the path to intellectual richness, wisdom, and informed citizenry winds its way back to the classical past, guiding us towards the shores of a brighter future.
From Athens to the Enlightenment: How did classical education evolve from its origins in ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, and what were its influences on prominent historical figures and early educational institutions in the United States?
Classical Education was born in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was the privilege of the free and the noble. It was based on the study of the liberal arts and humanities, which aimed to cultivate the mind and the soul of the student.
The Greeks and Romans valued reason and inquiry, truth and beauty, virtue and eloquence. They would go on to produce some of the greatest works of literature, philosophy, history, and art that shaped Western civilization. They also developed various forms of teaching, such as the Socratic method of dialogue, the rhetorical exercises of declamation and disputation, and the academic institutions of the Academy and the Lyceum.
Athens stood for intellectual exploration. The ancient city, teeming with burgeoning thinkers and philosophers, was truly the epicenter of classical learning. The Athenian ethos was imbued with a deep yearning for seeking wisdom. The central figure of this uprise was Socrates, an unassuming man, whose influence was anything but.
His method, went between questioning and answering, it was about opening the gates to a novel approach to education – one that prioritized reasoning, continuous inquiry, and critical thinking. It was not a pedagogy of spoon-fed information, but where minds were shaped and refined through the crucible of critical thought.
This method was a dialectic approach – a conversation. Instead of simply depositing raw data into passive minds, Socrates engaged his students in active intellectual discourse. He believed, quite radically for his time, that the answers to life’s biggest questions lay dormant within each person, waiting to be awakened by the right prod of questioning.
Socrates would kindle the flames of wonder and curiosity, unraveling preconceived notions and deeply held beliefs. He sought to examine the 'why' behind every 'what,' delving beneath the surface of accepted truths. In his view, an unexamined life was not worth living.
Question followed question, each one peeling back the layers of ignorance, revealing the wisdom beneath. From ethics to politics, metaphysics to aesthetics, the Socratic Method sparked a continuous cycle of inquiry, challenging each pupil to delve deeper, think harder, and understand better.
The Romans expanded on this form of education too, with leaders like Cicero and Seneca championing the trivium and quadrivium as the pillars of civic virtue. This was an empire renowned for its engineering marvels, military might, and judicial wisdom. While Rome's physical achievements are undisputed, its contributions to Classical Education, while somewhat overshadowed, were equally profound.
Going back to Cicero, he was a statesman, orator, and philosopher, and a fierce proponent of classical learning. He championed the triumvirate of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, as the building blocks of intellectual discourse. Cicero saw these disciplines not as academic pursuits, but as pillars supporting the very edifice of civic virtue.
In Cicero's view, grammar offered the canvas of language on which thoughts could be artfully painted. Logic provided the chisel to sculpt reasoned arguments from the marble of raw ideas, while rhetoric lent the polish, transforming cold facts into persuasive, moving discourse. He believed that the mastery of these arts was essential for meaningful participation in society, be it law, politics, or simply for a meaningful conversation.
In a similar vein, Seneca emphasized the quadrivium - arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy - as paths to understanding the harmonious nature of the universe. In Seneca's philosophy, these subjects transcended their practical applications.
Arithmetic and geometry revealed the order of the world, while music and astronomy echoed the beautiful symphony of the cosmos. Seneca saw the quadrivium as a window to wisdom, an understanding of the cosmos and our place within it.
From here we head to the Middle Ages, and Classical Education finds the monastic and cathedral schools, safeguarded by scholars and monks who recognized its value. Figures like Thomas Aquinas blended classical knowledge with Christian thought, creating a harmonious marriage of faith and reason.
During this era, approximately 30% of men and 1% of women in Europe had access to some form of education, a significant number considering the societal structures of the time.
The Renaissance had a rebirth of classical thought. It was an era where the human spirit rose again to embrace the wisdom of the ancients. Scholars such as Leonardo Bruni and Marsilio Ficino rediscovered and translated ancient texts, forming an intellectual milieu ripe with Platonic, Aristotelian, and Ciceronian thought.
By the Enlightenment, thinkers like John Locke were advocating an education emphasizing wisdom and virtue, heralding the classical vision in their writings.
Classical education survived and thrived during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, adapted by different cultures and religions. It was enriched by the contributions of Christian thinkers, such as Augustine and Aquinas, who integrated faith and reason in their pursuit of wisdom.
It was revived by humanists, such as Petrarch and Erasmus, who rediscovered the ancient texts and languages and promoted a new learning based on them. It was also refined by scholars, such as Comenius and Locke, who proposed reforms and innovations in pedagogy and curriculum.
And who were the fruits of this fertile tree of Classical Education? The list is a veritable pantheon of thinkers and leaders: Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln, among others.
Classical Education influenced the establishment of the first schools in the United States, where it was seen as essential for forming good citizens and leaders. A lot of the Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson and Franklin, were educated in the classical tradition and drew on its principles and ideals in their political writings.
Many of the early colleges, such as Harvard and Yale, were founded with a classical curriculum that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy.
The Exodus: How has the transition to a more 'practical' and STEM-focused approach in modern education affected the holistic wisdom, intellectual rigor, and critical thinking fostered by classical education, and what are the long-term implications of this shift?
Classical Education did not remain unchanged or unchallenged in the course of history. It faced many changes and challenges in modern times, especially in the 20th century, when it was gradually pushed out from mainstream schooling.
A study found that there was a decrease of 40% in students studying classical languages between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marking the beginning of the relegation of classical education to the periphery. This signaled a change in educational priorities that began to lean towards so-called 'practical' and 'applicable' domains.
The slow demise kind of went like this: the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, marked by smoke-billowing factories and mechanical rhythms, brought with it a new social order. The economic landscape shifted from agrarian to industrial, creating a demand for specialized labor skills over classical knowledge. The rise of urbanization, immigration, and globalization created new social problems and demands that required new solutions and skills.
Education, in response, began to favor the tangible and immediate over the abstract and eternal. The classical curriculum, which was based on the study of ancient texts and languages, was seen as irrelevant or elitist by many who favored a more “practical” approach to education. The classical ideals of truth, beauty, and virtue were also challenged by the emergence of new philosophies and ideologies that questioned the validity and value of these concepts.
Political influences played a part too. The rise of progressive ideologies, championed by figures like John Dewey, advocated for an education model that was adaptive, focusing on social efficiency and practical skills.
They saw Classical Education with its emphasis on ancient languages and seemingly distant wisdom as outmoded, a relic unable to keep pace with the rapid societal evolution.
The two world wars, the Cold War, and the civil rights movements also had a strong impact on the political landscape and culture of the world. Classical Education, which was rooted in the Western tradition and culture, was criticized or rejected by some who saw it as imperialistic.
Classical Education, which aimed to foster civic virtue and engagement, was also undermined by the rise of nationalism, totalitarianism, and consumerism that threatened the ideals of democracy and freedom.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we see the education system become heavily emphasized by STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics - and pivoting towards standardized testing. The rise of modern pedagogical methods, such as problem-based learning and technology-driven classrooms, began to replace the Socratic dialogues and rhetorical exercises of yore.
Key players like the National Education Association and policy movements like No Child Left Behind further entrenched this shift. Standardized tests, seen as efficient and objective measures of educational success, took center stage. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by the early 2000s, 94% of American students were taking standardized exams annually.
Classical Education, which focused on the liberal arts and humanities, was deemed insufficient or inadequate by many who advocated for a more vocational or technical education. Classical Education, which sought to cultivate wisdom and eloquence, was devalued by the dominance of efficiency and productivity that measured success by material standards. A true step backwards in the evolution of our education system.
So now, ask yourself: Are we risking the intellectual rigor, critical thinking, and holistic wisdom that Classical Education imparts, and if so, what is the implication of this loss?
The Flickering Flame of Inquiry: How has the absence of classical education in our school systems impacted critical thinking, creativity, and moral grounding in society, and what are the long-term implications of this growing intellectual gap?
Removing Classical Education from school systems meant that there would be a growing intellectual gap between those who received it and those who did not.
Classical Education, as we have learned, aimed to cultivate wisdom, virtue, and eloquence in students by engaging them with the great books and the liberal arts. It also taught them how to think critically, creatively, and morally about the perennial human questions.
Those who received Classical Education had a rich and well-rounded intellectual culture that enabled them to appreciate and contribute to the best that has been thought and said in history. The flame of inquiry, once stoked by Socratic dialogues, began to flicker in the gusts of standardized curricula. It all became about memorization and mechanized learning.
People without a Classical Education become subjected to a narrow and reductive form of education that focuses on isolated facts, skills, and outcomes. They were not taught how to reason and communicate effectively, nor how to discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, virtue from vice.
This intellectual gap also had an effect on the critical thinking, creativity, and moral grounding in society. It is crucial for living a good and virtuous life in a diverse and pluralistic world. The expanse of imagination, once flamed by the artful narratives of Homer and the mesmerizing geometries of Euclid, contracted under the strict confines of test scores and rigid curricula.
Students began to be taught to accept information uncritically, to conform to tests, and to follow social norms. They were not challenged to think deeply or broadly, to create or discover, or to act with integrity or responsibility. They were not prepared for the intellectual, moral, and civic challenges that they would face in their personal and professional lives.
The moral compass, once calibrated by the profound reflections on virtue and ethics found in classical literature and philosophy, began to falter. In a lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson, "The Necessity of Virtue," the moral and ethical dilemmas explored in classical literature have invaluable lessons for personal development and societal cohesion. With their decline in educational settings, we began losing the compass that had guided humanity for centuries.
This eclipse of classical education also left quite a mark on our societal fabric. Classical education, with its emphasis on civic virtue and shared cultural heritage, creates a sense of communal identity. As it receded from mainstream education, a fragmentation of societal cohesion ensued.
Things became eroded and corrupted due to the lack of critical thinking, creativity, and moral grounding among the people. Societal cohesion became weakened by the rise of ignorance, apathy, polarization, and violence among different groups. Culture was degraded by the loss of cultural literacy, aesthetic appreciation, and artistic expression among the masses. The political landscape was distorted by the emergence of propaganda, populism, corruption, and tyranny among the leaders.
To grasp the magnitude of the transformation, let us delve into a comparative study of students who received classical education versus modern education. A report showed that students who followed a classical curriculum consistently outperformed their peers in standardized tests across all subjects. More importantly, they demonstrated superior abilities in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication – the very skills lauded as essential for success in the 21st-century workplace.
There’s a video on Youtube called "The Lost Tools of Learning," where former students of classical education reflect on the profound impact it has had on their lives. They speak of an ingrained love for learning, a deeply-rooted intellectual curiosity, and a robust moral grounding – testaments to the enduring relevance of classical education. It’s a really good watch that perfectly exhibits the well-roundedness people who have studied the Classical Education curricula have.
The Resurgence: How has the grassroots movement of classical education revival reshaped our educational landscape and what promise does it hold for the future of learning?
Classical Education has been witnessing a quiet but impactful resurgence. Those who have felt the deep tremors caused by its absence are working to rekindle it, challenging the currents of modern education to restore the harmony of learning.
One of the most prominent examples of classical education revival is the classical education movement or renewal, which is a grassroots movement of parents, educators, and others who advocate for a return to a traditional education based on the liberal arts (including the natural sciences), the canons of classical literature, the fine arts, and the history of civilization.
This movement has been growing since the late 20th century and has resulted in the establishment of many classical schools and homeschooling initiatives across the world, especially in America. These schools and homeschools follow various models and methods of classical education, such as the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), the great books, the Socratic dialogue, and the Christian worldview.
Another example of classical education revival is the revival of classical languages, especially Latin and Greek. These languages have been essential for accessing the original sources of classical wisdom and culture, as well as for developing linguistic and logical skills.
Many schools and universities have even reintroduced or expanded their offerings of Latin and Greek courses, clubs, and competitions. Many students and adults also take advantage of online resources and platforms to learn these languages independently or collaboratively. Some examples of these resources are Duolingo, Memrise, Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, The Latin Library, The Perseus Project, The Paideia Institute, The Classical Association, etc.
The resurgence is not limited to formal schooling. Many parents, unhappy with the current educational landscape, are taking matters into their own hands. Homeschooling initiatives centered on classical education, like the Well-Trained Mind and Classical Conversations, are thriving. They offer resources and community support, empowering parents to give their children the enriching experience of a classical education.
Parents, educators, and policy-makers each have a crucial role to play in this revival. Parents, as the first educators, can instill the love of classical wisdom in their children, creating a solid foundation upon which formal education can build. Educators can design curricula that integrate the trivium and quadrivium, fostering a learning environment that promotes intellectual rigor, critical thinking, and moral grounding.
Policy-makers, on the other hand, drive systemic changes that facilitate the reintroduction of classical education. They advocate for more flexible curriculum standards, allocate resources for teacher training in classical methods, and support research into classical education's benefits and best practices.
Modern technology is a powerful ally in this endeavor. Digital platforms bring the great works of literature, philosophy, and science within reach of every student. Online forums help simulate the Socratic dialogues of yore, sparking vibrant discussions that transcend geographical boundaries. Educational technologies can also make the learning process interactive and engaging, keeping students motivated and curious.
In this future, students will not graduate with just a transcript of grades, but with a deep understanding of their cultural heritage, an appreciation for the arts and sciences, and a moral compass to guide their way. They are empowered with the tools to navigate not just the digital economy, but the complex moral and social issues of our time.
“Classical education is not an end in itself, but a means to the highest end of human existence: the contemplation of God.”