A Classical Education for Modern Times

By Dr. Terrence Moore

“Yet learning increases inborn worth, and righteous ways make strong the heart.” — Horace

An increasing number of independent schools these days, both private and charter, are deliberately taking a classical approach to education. By “classical,” we mean a form of schooling that could be called “back-to-basics” at one end and a truly liberal education at the other, but in the school reform movement these days simply goes by the designation “classical.” Some might call it “conservative,” but we prefer the term “traditional.” That is, we adhere to a centuries-old view of learning and time-tested teaching methods. Such a choice might at first seem paradoxical or even out-of-touch with reality. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the age of the internet and iPhone, in a country that has long been addicted to the revolutionary and the novel, when almost everyone in the world of K-12 education is singing the chorus of “critical thinking skills for a twenty-first-century global economy,” should reform-minded schools root themselves so deeply in the past? Is newer not always better? What could today’s young people learn from old books? We must answer these questions clearly from the outset.

Classical education has a history of over 2500 years in the West. It began in ancient Greece, was adopted wholesale by the Romans, faltered after the fall of Rome, made a slow but steady recovery during the Middle Ages, and was again brought to perfection in the Italian Renaissance. The classical inheritance then passed to England, and from the mother country to America through colonial settlement. At the time of this nation’s founding classical education was still thriving. Jefferson heartily recommended Greek and Latin as the languages of study for early adolescence. One of the Founding Fathers’ favorite books was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Eighteenth-century Americans venerated and trusted George Washington in large part because he reminded them of the Roman patriot Cincinnatus.

Unlike the schools of earlier centuries, today’s classical schools do not make the ancient languages virtually the whole of the curriculum (though to be truly classical they must require several years of Latin study). Still, the modern classical school will remain classical by upholding the same standards of teaching, of curriculum, and of discipline found in the schools of old. Indeed, in these schools English will be taught using methods derived from centuries of teaching and learning the classical languages. This form of schooling takes stock in the tried and true rather than in the latest fads frothing forth from the schools of education.

Apart from this impressive history, an increasing number of schools and parents are embracing classical education as the surest road to school reform for at least four reasons. These reasons constitute a clear break from modern, progressive education and a return to traditional aims and methods. Classical education:

  1. Values knowledge for its own sake and for the public good
  2. Upholds the standards of correctness, logic, beauty, weightiness, and truth intrinsic to the liberal arts
  3. Demands moral virtue of its adherents
  4. Prepares human beings to assume their places as responsible citizens in the political order.

We shall discuss each of these pillars of classical education in turn.

Knowledge and Core Knowledge

The classical view of education holds that human beings are thinking creatures. Unlike other living beings, humans live by their intelligence. We want to know things. Specifically, we want to know the things around us and how they operate. We want to know who we are, where we come from, and how we might thrive. Beyond facts, we want to know what is true and good. Our desire to know begins in childhood. Children observe everything around them. They pick up language at an astonishing rate. As soon as they begin to speak, they ask the question “What is it?” of everything that catches their attention. Children demonstrate what is true of us all: we are all by nature learners. Any plan of education, therefore, should take advantage of young people’s natural curiosity. Schemes that stall children in their mastering material of real substance because “they are not ready for it” or it is deemed not “age appropriate,” or that use various gimmicks that sugar-coat learning as though children regard their books as they do their medicine, are not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive and insulting to the human mind.

The young mind constitutes a veritable arsenal of mental capacities: memory, reason, imagination, a sense of beauty, a facility for language. Yet a classical school does not just leave children to stew in their own intellectual juices. Rather, it directs and exercises and strengthens children’s mental capacities in the same way that sports exercise their physical strength and agility. The mind, like the body, atrophies when not well-trained. The emphasis on rigorous intellectual training is an essential difference between classical schooling on the one hand and modern, “student-centered” learning on the other. While children may be naturally disposed to learning, everything they need to know does not go to them unaided from nature or spring naturally into their minds. Students need explicit instruction to understand the world around them, whether in language, the operations of physical nature, or the achievements of human beings. As children grow, their questions become increasingly complex and their ability to understand concepts more advanced. Yet such maturity of mind only warrants further instruction. No orchestra can perform without a conductor. By stressing childhood “creativity” and “spontaneity,” while at the same time denigrating “mere rote learning” (and thus human memory itself) and without making children do much work or work on anything important, the modern school takes bright young children and puts them on the path to becoming bored adults who do not know very much. It is the old story of the tortoise and the hare. Falling in love with our talents — without making any real effort to improve them — causes one to lose the race. In this case, it is the all-important race towards becoming informed, moral, thinking citizens.

So classical education puts young minds to work. It leads young people to know and understand themselves and the world around them. Students do not learn in the abstract. They are unable to engage in so-called “critical thinking” (which used to be called plain ol’ thinking) without something in particular to think about. Young people must acquire specific knowledge in specific disciplines to participate fully and effectively in human conversation. One way to explain this axiom is E. D. Hirsch’s idea of “cultural literacy.” For people to communicate effectively, according to Hirsch, they must not only use the same language to express and understand complex ideas, they must possess a reservoir of common facts, ideas, and references known to all in a given social and political order. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the best example of a leader who relied on cultural literacy to convey his ideas. Like other Americans on the frontier, he had little formal schooling. Yet he read intensively the works of Shakespeare, the King James’ Bible, the fables of Æsop, Euclid’s geometry, and the documents of the American Founding. Few men in our history have been able to express so forcefully and with such economy the principles of freedom and human dignity:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg instantly knew that he referred to the “proposition” of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln did not have to retell the history of the war or that great document and the principles it proclaimed. His fellow Americans already knew that story. Therefore, the Gettysburg Address is not only one of the greatest speeches in our history; it is the shortest.

Conversely, a modern Lincoln (if one existed) could not count on such knowledge in his audience. Having been a teacher and professor for the past twenty years, and also having dipped into the realm of politics, I can avow that most citizens and most elected officials are alarmingly ignorant of the basic facts of American history and constitutional government. Young people today do not know either the Declaration or the Constitution and (when guessing as to their content) often confuse the two. Thus, we have largely lost the language of liberty. In Hirsch’s terms, “many young people today strikingly lack the information that writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted among their readers from all generations.” This decline in knowledge affects the realms of political economy, culture, ethics, and all other facets of American life. Nor is the business world immune. Employers are constantly amazed at what their employees do not know and therefore cannot do. Make no mistake. Cultural and civic literacy is not merely ornamental trivia or a “gifted and talented” program for a handful of students or an elective major in college. Our purpose is not to make Jeopardy champions or pad a résumé. Rather, cultural and civic literacy is essential to the flourishing of our nation. A culturally illiterate America cannot live up to the demands placed upon us by history and the present condition of the world. A culturally illiterate individual cannot comprehend and navigate the vast areas of human knowledge essential to his political, financial, and moral well-being. Jefferson knew that. So did Lincoln.

By embracing the idea of cultural and civic literacy, classical education invites us to break out of the cycle of ignorance and incompetence that modern culture and modern educational practices perpetuate. The students of classical schools study the traditional liberal arts that the curious, uncorrupted mind longs to know — language and literature, history and government, mathematics and the sciences, music and art — in a coherent, logical progression. The classical curriculum advances from the rudiments of literacy, arithmetic, and storytelling to the higher orders of thought and expression. All students ought to be immersed in this classical curriculum. Admittedly, different children have different talents. Some students catch on more quickly than others. We should always seek to challenge every student all the time. Yet we must regard any system of tracking that relegates certain students to an inferior curriculum as nefarious. Students do not all learn at the same speed, but all should be invited to run the course.

Upholding Standards

In addition to requiring students to know important things, a classical education also teaches young people judgment according to strict standards. To be “classical” means to uphold a standard of excellence. The classical works of Greece and Rome are not great simply because they are old. They are great because they employ harmonious language to depict remarkable human events, to reveal the heights and depths of human nature, and to explain the transcendent ideals of human existence. Each of the liberal arts has its own standard of correctness, logic, beauty, weightiness, and truth. The study of a language offers perhaps the best example, especially since human beings live by communicating. Everyone can speak, and most people can read and write at least on a “functional” level. A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students from an early age high standards of grammar, precision in word choice, and an eloquence that can emanate only from a love of the language. Throughout his education, the student will be exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers and speakers of the language.

“. . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” — Shakespeare

“There is a tide in the affairs of men . . .” — Shakespeare

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” — Shakespeare

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” — Paine

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” — Churchill

These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as “Bob is a big boy.” By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous “See Bob” sentence (usually not well written) we teach three things rather than just one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty. Our purpose is to introduce young people to the masters of the language so they themselves learn to employ force and beauty in their deployment of the spoken and written word.

Young people today are particularly in need of high standards of thought and beauty. Their speech ranges from the sloppy to the vulgar. The person whose only expressions of approval and disapproval are “that’s cool” and “that sucks” — who cannot make it through a sentence without recourse to the word “like” a dozen times — lacks not only a copious vocabulary but also the capacity to judge events according to their nature and gravity. Music is another area in which students are in dire need of higher standards. The logical thinking that comes from mathematics and the sciences is no less important. Teachers in a classical school do not fail to impart to students the standards of taste and reason that lift them out of the formless dross of the culture. Upholding standards is a principle of exclusion as much as of inclusion. A classical school does not pretend that all writing is equally good, that all human endeavors are equally important or beneficial to human life, or that all scientific theories are equally plausible. In choosing the elements of a classical curriculum — works of literature and art, events in history, and so on — our motto is that of Winston Churchill: “I shall be satisfied with the very best.”

Moral Virtue

Classical schools unashamedly teach young people the time-tested virtues of human civilization.

Education is a moral enterprise. Young people must make good moral decisions daily. The older they get, the more important the decisions are. “Should I tell Mom that I broke her favorite vase or pretend like nothing happened?” “Should I copy the answers of the person sitting next to me?” “Should I smoke the substance and drink the beer my friend just gave me?” “Should my boyfriend and I have sex since we love each other?” These are the timeless moral questions youth face today and have always faced. Anyone who thinks they are new should read the Confessions of St. Augustine. This patriarch of the church stole pears as a child and as a youth had an illegitimate child. His knowledge of sin came from his own inner struggle. Schools can approach the moral lives of children and youth in four ways. They can try to ignore moral issues altogether. They can open up moral questions for students to explore in a “non-judgmental” and noncommittal way. They can, through ideology or incompetence or both, undermine time-honored standards of right and wrong. Or schools can teach traditional manners and self-command.

The first approach simply invites failure. All schools must maintain an atmosphere of order and decorum for learning to take place. Schools that are laissez-faire in shaping the character of their students end up with major discipline problems and permit unseemly, untoward behavior without claiming to do so. The second approach might seem the most sensible for reasonable people. “Let us talk about morality in a non-judgmental way and let students come up with their own answers,” say the advocates of moral reasoning and values clarification. They even make moral discussion a part of the curriculum. What happens in these discussions is that teachers open up pre-marital sex, drug use, and other illicit activities as plausible “life choices” so long as students can explain those choices in terms of “their own values.” Predictably, research has proven that young people who are exposed to open-ended discussions of moral issues are far more likely to engage in vice. Usually in combination with “values clarification,” schools can also either advocate or talk too much about (“make students aware of”) types of behavior that are both physically and emotionally destructive. Lacking all sense, many school districts and even states ask questions about drug use in a way that signals it is perfectly normal to be a pot-smoking, coke-snorting, crack-head wastrel.

We embrace Aristotle’s dictum that one becomes virtuous by practicing the virtues. We believe that every young person has a conscience. It may be a conscience embattled against the individual’s own passions and the allurements of the culture, but it is a conscience nonetheless. Like the capacities of the mind, the conscience must be educated or it will lapse into lethargy. We insist that students, from the earliest age, always be attentive and polite. We require them to practice courtesy in their dealings with both adults and each other. We teach them to exercise self-government. Throughout their studies, they become intimately acquainted with the great stories of courage and self-sacrifice found in literature and history. These narratives reveal how actions have consequences and the clear differences between right and wrong. Just as we encourage students to emulate the intellectual virtues of writers and scientists, so we invite and inspire them to emulate the moral virtues of heroes and heroines. When students become capable of discussing virtue in more abstract terms, we do not present them with moral conundrums seemingly without right or wrong answers. Instead, we explain to them how striving for right and good leads to happiness in both the individual and for an entire people. As such, the history of classical education is in large part a history of the conjunction of learning and virtue. The Roman teacher Quintilian made the connection explicit:

My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such a one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but all the excellences of character as well.

Any classical school worth its salt expects no less of its students.

Civics and Citizenship

Classical education has always been concerned with the political order. Aristotle defined man as “by nature an animal intended to live in a polis.” Accordingly, for the Greeks education was essentially political. All free citizens bore the responsibility and the privilege of voting in the assembly and defending the polis from invasion. Young boys were taught from an early age how to speak and how to fight. The American Founders similarly hoped that schools would teach young people how to preserve the constitutional republic they would inherit. The Founders knew that free government depends not on the decisions of a few politicians but on the wisdom and virtue of a people. Political wisdom and virtue do not come easily. More than two centuries of American history have confirmed that this nation can be sustained only by citizens who understand, serve, and defend America’s founding principles. As much as the Founders hoped for a free people living under the rule of law, they feared the unchecked passions of an uninstructed multitude. In this light, we must regard the decline in civic knowledge in our day as portending untold danger to the safety and happiness of our people.

True classical schools provide a political education reaffirming our nation’s founding principles. They exalt the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as guaranteed by and realized through the American frame of government. They ensure that their students enter the world as citizens fully aware of both their rights and duties. They teach students that true freedom and happiness are to be obtained through limited, balanced, federal, and accountable government that protects the rights and liberties of a vibrant, enterprising people. Such political knowledge can only be gained by a thorough study of American history and government. That study must consist largely in reading primary sources: the words of the Founders themselves. If such explicit civic instruction appears to some as too patriotic, we must remember that James Madison, the father of our Constitution, considered a “reverence for the laws” a “prejudice” which even the most enlightened nations cannot afford to be without.

The End in View

Contrary to popular opinion, classical education is far from arcane, irrelevant, dull, and unimaginative. Rather, the classical view understands that a human being without knowledge of the world, without an understanding of civilization, and without a judgment formed by the standards of true greatness, is much like a man with amnesia. He does not know who he is or where he comes from. He does not know his rights or his duties. He knows neither his debts nor his debtors. Worse, he may easily become the pawn of the first huckster he runs into, so unfamiliar and strange will his surroundings seem to him.

While parents worry that today’s educational practices shortchange young people and fail to provide them with the cultural, moral, and civic literacy necessary to live productive and happy lives, they should see great opportunity in the resurgence of classical schools. Indeed, the growing demand for traditional education on the part of students and parents alike promises to be the surest means of reacquainting our age with the fundamentals all educated people used to know: the elegance and order of language, life-ennobling stories, the all-but-forgotten fine arts, the logic of numerical relations, the order of the physical world, and the great story of mankind’s quest for justice and freedom. Another way of saying this is that an increasing number of Americans today, even the young, demonstrate a longing for learning things that are good and beautiful and true.

This longing is the first step on the long road of reconstituting our schools — and of pursuing true happiness.

Dr. Moore is the principal of Ascent Classical Academy and senior advisor to the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. From 2008–2014 he was a professor of history at Hillsdale College and lead advisor to the Barney Charter School Initiative, which helps set up classical charter schools around the country. At Hillsdale, Dr. Moore received the Emily Daugherty Award for Teaching Excellence. He earned a BA in history from the University of Chicago in 1990 and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Edinburgh in 1999. He also served as a lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1990–1993.