Column: The rebirth of classical education | People
The revival of the classical school has raised the debate on how best to educate children to a whole new level. But as often happens in any conversation of consequence, misunderstandings abound, there are also questions, the first being the most obvious: what is it? What is classical education?
The story begins with two fundamental disciplines: arts and sciences. Our familiarity with both is usually little more than the Bachelor of Arts or Master of Science degree that we maybe got in college. But what do the words mean, what were they talking about? Understanding this will tell us what education is, and in particular what classical education is.
When most of us hear the word “art” we think of a painting or a sculpture, with a brush or chisel nearby. But the backdrop of the story gives us a broader definition. The word “art” comes from the Latin word ars, which is closer to what we would call a skill or profession. So you might have soldiers who have learned the art of war or doctors who practice the art of healing. An art, therefore, in the classical context was a craft that you perfect, a skill that you develop, a skill that you master.
Likewise, the term “science” is now closely linked to what we call the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics). But the Latin root word sheds light once again: scire means “to know or to understand” and scientia means to know. So, for classical thinkers, science was simply an organized body of knowledge. In this context, history and literature were as much a science as astronomy.
This distinction was, and is, extremely significant. Here’s why: the arts and sciences, properly defined and understood, historically comprised the two essential divisions of the educational program, with three branches each. In the arts, for example, you had manual arts, fine arts, and liberal arts. Note the differences:
The manual arts were concerned with the use of one’s hands, as “manual” comes from the Latin word manus for “hand”. This can include all trades (carpentry, mechanics), household chores (cooking, cleaning) or, in modern times, electrical / technical work that requires more kinesthetic skills.
The fine arts have cultivated the poetic and aesthetic beauty of the human and the divine through the different genres of music, dance, art and theater. The fine arts were ends in themselves, without any utility or practical value. The word “good” comes from the Latin finis, which means end (as opposed to means). We do not sing, act, paint or dance for any reason other than the satisfaction it brings us.
Finally, the liberal arts. As the art of liberation or the arts of freedom, these provided the foundational thinking skills needed not only to free the mind from ignorance, but also to form and maintain a free society. In the classical tradition, you had (1) the trivium: basic linguistic literacy (the grammar and vocabulary of Latin, Greek and English) and (2) the quadrivium: basic mathematics calculus (mastery of facts basic arithmetic and mathematical operations / equations).
At the same time, in the sciences, there were the moral sciences, the natural sciences and the theological sciences.
The moral sciences, also called “human sciences” or “human sciences”, speak of the concerns and ideals of human beings. Literature as a moral science was not only about reading books, but about learning which books were worth reading, guided by the high bar of classical and biblical literature. Culture as a moral science involved an examination of the threads of the cultural fabric, from the past to the present, of a specific people in a specific place.
The natural sciences were concerned with different aspects of the natural world, and the two main strands included the life sciences (biology, zoology and botany) and the physical sciences (chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy), incorporating the scientific method where necessary. .
And the theological sciences represented those bodies of knowledge related to God and the supernatural. Historically known as “the queen of science,” the traditional extensions were dogmatics (what we believe), apologetics (why we believe), logic (how to think), and ethics (how to live).
So it is the arts and sciences – the skills and the content, the how and the what – that have become the double-edged sword of a classical education. It was the program that nurtured the tastes of Augustine and Aquinas, Washington and Adams, giving birth to Western civilization and our current way of life.
In contrast to the modern versions, one can not only begin to better understand the genius, poise, and continuity of a classical education, but can also perhaps appreciate the reason for its rebirth.