Classical educators agree on the ends of liberal education, namely, the possession of the true, good, and beautiful, wisdom, and the development of the intellectual and imaginative powers that enable their attainment. But the pedagogical means to these ends are less obvious. Here is an attempt to set out a set of principles and claims regarding these means, with an eye to the ends we all agree on.
Creed 1: Content and pedagogy are focused foremost on the wonder of the subject matter and discipline itself, with the external indicators of mastery and its instrumental value for later courses and career only indirect goals.
Creed 2: Since classical education is holistic, both speculative (knowing for its own sake) and practical (oriented to character development and wise living), the content and method of teaching must aim at integrating both these priorities, and never one at the exclusion of the other. In short, classical education avoids both intellectualism and moralism.
Creed 3: Classical education, regardless of its religious affiliation, is grounded in a moral and philosophical realism that accepts, on the one hand, the objective reality, knowability, and attainability of moral goodness and universal truth; and, on the other, that, on these matters, we are all fellow inquirers and endless learners. Thus, although there are truths that can be defined accurately and known certainly, and sometimes these need to be articulated and defended, both skepticism and dogmatism about particular truths and universal principles are to be avoided, because they are both inquiry-stopping.
Creed 4: Since classical education’s openness to religious discourse is founded on its commitment to self-understanding, both as persons and as participants in a local culture, both teachers and students are free to express and argue for their core beliefs in class as related to the subject matter and lesson for the day. Teachers should keep in mind that they are fellow inquirers in these profound matters, as well as intellectual authorities in the classroom.
Creed 5: A lifelong passion for learning requires teaching that is both grounded in and ordered to definitive knowledge, and always open to further inquiry, expansion, revision, and correction. When answers are given, they should be rationally or experientially justified answers, and presented as either open to further inquiry or provocative of more questions. When questions are posed, we have the hope that true, rationally or experientially justified answers might be found to them.
Creed 6: Teaching, both in content and in method, should aim at beauty and order, whatever other particular educational goals are sought.
Creed 7: Some of classical education’s values: curiosity: teachers avoid busy work and arbitrary memorization; courage: classes are challenging and teachers inspire the overcoming of difficulties, not the avoidance of challenge; collaboration: although the teacher has authority in the classroom, he sees himself, and the students see her, as a fellow inquirer; conviction: teachers avoid both offering arbitrary answers and engaging in endless questioning, for both are inimical to the development of conviction; creativity: conformity of the mind and heart to reality is the essence of education, but such requires and is the foundation for human creativity, which alone enables us to participate personally in an ongoing negotiation with the real.
Creed 8: Mastery of the skills of the trivium, an integrated understanding of the whole of knowledge of which each discipline is a part, a philosophical understanding of reality in terms of its first principles, and good moral habits are the primary and unchanging aims of classical education.
Creed 9: Since both the a) development of the tools of inquiry and the habit of independent learning; and b) the attainment of knowledge and understanding of truth, are primary educational aims, a balance of both open-ended, unguided teaching (whether by seminar or Socratic tutorial) and guided/instructional teaching (whether by lecture or Socratic tutorial) should be employed in every course, even math and science.
Creed 10: Understanding reality for oneself through active inquiry and personal contemplation, instead of accepting the “right” answers from human authority or consensus, is, in addition to character development and decision-making skills, the ultimate goal of classical education; thus, dialectic and rhetoric are the two trivium skills most focused on in classes, culminating in the rhetoric stage where these skills find their fullest development.
Creed 11: The classical approach to teaching and curriculum not only applies to English and history, but also to math and science; thus, regardless of the substantial outside and practical pressure to conform to a non-classical approach in these disciplines, as well as the exigency of preparing students for the SAT, or college and graduate courses in the natural sciences and mathematics, the classical school will not compromise in its classical approach to math and science. This means that teaching to a test, memorization and regurgitation of an inordinate amount of scientific facts, theorems, and jargon, or the mere mastery of an algorithm at the expense of rich mathematical and scientific understanding will all be avoided. It is understanding the logic of the disciplines, more than short-term memorizing of particular facts and concepts, that is at the heart of classical education.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The School of Athens” (detail), by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, courtesy of Wikipedia.