Six Brief Descriptions of Classical Education

1. Classical education is the study of our Western heritage, based in the languages and cultures of Classical Greece and Rome and the spiritual foundation of the Hebrew people. The Western world owes its existence to three ancient cultures: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. From the Greeks we receive our philosophical and literary heritage. Almost any philosophical idea, good or bad, can be traced back to some Greek. The first great epic poem and the entire Western theatrical tradition have their origins there. Our practical and political knowledge can be credited to Roman civilization. Romans were the great builders of roads, aqueducts, and buildings, many of which remain to this day, 2000 years after their construction. They were also masters of administration, governing an empire that spanned the known world. In addition, our form of government borrows heavily from the constitution of the ancient Roman Republic.

The West received its spiritual and moral heritage from the Hebrews. It is from the Jewish people that Jesus the Messiah was born and our Church was founded. The Church’s understanding of the faith, however, was mediated through the concepts and language of Greek philosophy (e.g., the nature of Christ’s relationship to the Father as stated in the Nicene Creed; Aquinas’ use of Aristotle in his proofs for God’s existence). 

Over the centuries the Church in Europe adopted and adapted the classical heritage, making its own contributions to the liberal arts curriculum. Our own country is indebted to the classical heritage, as the Founders were deeply affected by classical philosophy as they constructed our polity. To understand the West, the world we live in, we must learn how it was shaped by the Catholic faith and by the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome.

2. Classical Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. Why should we spend time in school on anything other than “the best which has been thought and said”? (Matthew Arnold) Human beings are profoundly affected by what they see, hear, and study. If we want children to love goodness, beauty, and truth, we need to surround them with literature, art, and ideas that are good, true, and beautiful. Goodness, beauty, and truth are attributes of God, and being immersed in works that reflect these attributes is beneficial to the soul.

3. Classical Education teaches how to think (logic and reason) and what to do (morality and ethics). What have the best philosophers and poets, both pagan and Christian, said about what it means to be a good man or woman and to lead a good life? The ancient Greeks and Romans believed in the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, moderation, and prudence/wisdom. While the classical cultures lacked divine grace, these natural virtues gave a solid foundation for living a good life. To these necessary but insufficient cardinal virtues, the Church added the vital theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Through the study of great literature, history, and philosophy that embodies these cardinal and theological virtues, students can be inspired to goodness and greatness.

4. Classical education is the study of the liberal arts. The word “liberal” comes from the Latin adjective “liber,” meaning “free.” The liberal arts curriculum was considered the form of education suitable for free men and women who govern themselves. This course of study conveyed the generalizable intellectual skills you use no matter what subject you study or what your job is.

The liberal arts are divided into two categories: the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium refers to the first three arts, which have to do with language:

  • Grammar is the study of the structure of language.
  • Logic is the study of the structure and rules of rational thought.
  • Rhetoric is the study of the rules of persuasive speech.

The Quadrivium refers to the four quantitative arts:

  • Arithmetic is the study of discrete number.
  • Geometry is application of discrete number.
  • Music is the study of continuous number.
  • Astronomy is the application of continuous number.

In medieval Europe, when you had mastered the seven liberal arts, you were considered ready to take on the “Queen of the Sciences”: Theology.

5. Classical education is a maturing education.  Children aren’t born with a lot of wisdom and discernment. But if your course of study follows the great achievements of the past 2500 years in fields such as poetry, drama, law, philosophy, theology, science, politics, and history, the result is an experienced minda mind that can make use of the accumulated wisdom of humanity to make good decisions today. It is a kind of borrowed wisdom. How would a person who could see the world from the perspective of 2000 years of human experience think and act differently from one who could see only the present? How much wiser decisions could he make? We need to know the past in order to live well in the present and make prudent decisions for the future.

6. Classical education has as its goal the “good man speaking well (Quintilian).  One major purpose of education is to ennoble a person and to inspire him to greatness of character and deeds. Teachers foster the moral and intellectual virtues in students, so that they can become the best version of themselves. As Catholic mothers and fathers, we not only want our children to know and love Christ and the Church, but we want them to be great communicators of the gospel and all that is good. We want them to be eloquent and persuasive in speaking the truth to our world. Through the study of rhetoric, students become masters of language and are able to effectively communicate their thoughts and ideas to others.