Every educational model flows from some idea of what it means to be human. Even if such a philosophical worldview is never made explicit or even consciously considered, it is still at work in all practical education, since educators can only profess to improve their students if they have some sense of what those students are meant to be. For at least the last century in the West, there has been no clear consensus on the goal of education or on the meaning of human nature, though in practice the tendency has been to measure human value in terms of socio-economic utility. According to this metric, a “good” human being is identical to a politically or economically productive one, so recent educational initiatives have focused almost exclusively on imparting the skills and information that can best serve present social needs. The STEM method and the Common Core standards are clear applications of these utilitarian principles.
The classical model of education stands in conscious opposition to this confused philosophical anthropology, and seeks instead to establish its curriculum and pedagogy upon a more robust idea of human nature that considers the human person primarily as an end, rather than as a means. A classical worldview recognizes that the human being’s value stems not from his or her usefulness for broader social goals, but from human nature itself, from the dignity of personhood, and from individual moral excellence. In practice, therefore, a classical education cannot aim only to equip students with information and skills that will make them effective in the workplace; rather, it must strive to improve the most fundamental personal capacities of its students–namely, their minds and their hearts–according to objective standards of truth and goodness. The whole structure of classical education thus depends upon clear and correct conceptions of these fundamental human faculties.
The post-Enlightenment age offers only trivialized and reductive accounts of the faculties of mind and heart. It is nearly impossible now to conceive of the mind as anything other than a complex set of human capacities for gathering information. We habitually conflate knowledge with “data,” as if it were something that could be extracted from the world, processed, and retained, without having any marked effect upon either the knower or the thing known. Within such an epistemological framework, the human mind remains essentially isolated, disconnected, and “free” from external reality. But in the classical Western tradition, we find a conception of the mind that is far more profound and essential to the person. Within this context, “mind” refers to the innate human capacity for union with truth, where “truth” is a principle of intelligibility that belongs to reality itself, rather than a mere quality of human knowledge. In other words, the mind is not an essentially “blank slate” to be written upon and erased at will, but a capacity that connects, conforms, and unites the human person to the truth of reality. A well-educated mind, then, would be one which is most of all united in knowledge to the highest truths.
Our notion of the human heart has suffered from a similar “hollowing out” and loss of meaning. The most common tendency has been to reduce the heart to a subjective realm of private feelings and sentiments that are ultimately “free” from all real values and external goods. While such reduction usually aims to preserve individual autonomy and freedom of the will, it necessarily relegates all matters of the heart to the realm of fiction. Classical tradition opposes this trivialization by emphasizing the fundamental reality of human love: just as the mind serves to unite the human person to reality in the truth, so the heart is an innate capacity of the human person for union with real goods that belong objectively to the very nature of things. It follows, therefore, that a “well-educated heart” would be one which is most of all united in love to the greatest goods.
The classical tradition thus holds that a good human being is not necessarily one who is socially or economically productive, but one whose mind conforms to what is True, and whose heart conforms to what is Good. And since education is the activity of forming good human beings, it follows that the classical educator’s primary task is the cultivation of deep and abiding relationships between the minds and hearts of students and their objective corresponding values of truth and goodness. Clearly, this notion of education as “soul-craft” presents the classical educator with a great practical challenge, as it is not immediately evident how one could ever “teach” abiding relationships with what is True and Good. But if human persons are in some sense real ends, and not mere means, then only such an effort to shape minds and hearts could ever be called true education.