What is classical education?

By now, you’ve all heard the question countless times, and perhaps asked it yourself at some point. When George King, the Director of Operations and Program Development for the Barney Charter School Initiative, came to the Hillsdale College in the summer of 2019 he began by asking professors, school leaders, board members, and the BCSI staff to define classical education. Of course, he got as many answers to the question as people he asked. Why is that? 

As Mr. King will say, the best answer to the question doesn’t come as a quick elevator speech or a short definition. Showing someone what a classical education is happens best in a conversation. It’s important to explain it in terms that are helpful to the person asking, and to allow that person to ask questions along the way. 

But, it’s still helpful to have a few ways of explaining classical education in our toolboxes. Here are some that I’ve found helpful over the years. 

Classical education is an education for its own sake. 

There are many good things that may come to a person who has a classical education, like impressive academic performance, higher SAT scores, and acceptance to good colleges. But these things are secondary benefits that come when one learns for the sake of learning. Classical education teaches us to love learning first, and someone who loves to learn will do well academically.

Classical education is an education in the liberal arts. 

The liberal arts are the arts that make us free, the things that we study that equip us to understand the world around us and our place in it. By studying the liberal arts we learn to read, write, think, and speak, and to understand our place in the world. The study of the liberal arts fills us with wonder. By studying the liberal arts we become interesting and interested. 

Classical education is well-rounded, not specialized. 

Students in a classical school are not asked to decide what they’re going to be when the grow up. Instead, they are given foundational knowledge that will serve them well no matter what they decide to do as adults. Whether you are a philosophy professor or a plumber, a biologist or a stay at home mom, an education in literature, history, math, science, the fine arts, and language will serve you well and equip you for a life of virtue and knowledge. 

Classical education is an education for both the mind and the heart. 

Education is more than memorizing facts and information. We need information to begin forming opinions, and so it is important that our educations include history timelines, the parts of a cell, the birth and death dates of famous composers, and the like. But we must not stop there: classical education must teach students why this information matters and how to use it. More than that, we must work with parents to shape the moral imaginations of our students and teach them how to live well by practicing the virtues. 

Classical education is the education the American founders received. 

If you read the letters of Thomas Jefferson, The Federalist Papers, or Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, you will see that the people present at the founding of our country were well educated, curious people who believed that they had a rare opportunity to found a country based on ideas. They had studied Ancient Greece and Rome, anatomy, botany, zoology, and physics. They had studied geometry, arithmetic, French, and Latin. Their well rounded educations equipped them to make important decisions in difficult circumstances, to understand the consequences of their actions over the long term, and to build through reason and speech a government that rests on eternal truths about human nature. They were statesmen, involved in politics and strengthened by their study of the most important and best things. 

Becky Holland, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the BCSI, is a practically minded person and a very good antidote for me when I get too abstract. Over the years she’s written the following, which explains the education our students receive in concrete terms. 

Classical education is not fluff.  It is real content that spans the ages.  It includes excellent stories: classic and timeless tales from literature, the stories of people and places and events of history, the stories of people, inventions, discoveries, and creative pieces in science, music, and art.  For the youngest students, the best classical schools will include all of those things and emphasize the importance of learning to read and spell through an explicit phonics program, and include the mastery of basic math facts and the building of conceptual mathematical understanding. Teachers will know and love their content, and they will help your child begin to develop an understanding of how the different subject areas work both independently and together to tell us about ourselves and human nature. Teachers will do this through dynamic, teacher-directed instruction; your kids won’t be left on a device all day and they won’t be self- or group-taught through projects. Most importantly, virtue and character will be intertwined through the conversations about both curricular content and student behavior, so your young children will begin to understand what it means to be a good citizen, and these conversations will complement what you are trying to teach them at home.”

Whether you are a school board member, a parent of a student in a classical school, a school principal, or a high school student trying to explain to a friend why your classes are different, I hope this will help you understand and articulate the goodness, truth, and beauty of the education a classical school provides.