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What Makes Classical Education Different
Since taking charge of a classical studies program a couple of years ago, I have faced the challenge of articulating to interested families the reasons why they should choose classical studies over the standard modern educational program. Often times, I must make that case in situations that require me to sum up the differences quite succinctly. But it is hard to be succinct about all that makes classical such a hopeful alternative to the modern educational system. I have strained my mind to pare down my thoughts to what is most essential about the distinction between classical and modern education. Here is what I have come up with:
All courses of study, in one way or another, are intended to prepare students for what comes next in their lives. All curricula have a future-oriented horizon. In this respect, classical education, in all its permutations, mirrors the standard modes of education prevalent in our society.
The differences start showing up when we ask how modern educators conceive of the future awaiting their students, and the correspondent act of preparation required to ready them for that future. To an overwhelming extent, the future laid out before students enmeshed in our standard educational system is one that is predominantly economic in nature. On this understanding, students will be workers, and ideally workers with a bent towards upward mobility. They will be parts of the “twenty-first century economy” or the “global marketplace” or some other cant phrase casually thrown around by bureaucrats these days when they talk about our schools. Even the recent radicalization of our schools provides evidence of this career orientation; the verbiage of “woke” is just the lingua franca of the board room and the government agency, in which aspiring youth must become fluent in order to advance through those arenas.
So the course of study that students follow in a modern school is intended to prepare them for their economic roles. Since they cannot jump into these roles immediately, they must be prepared for the intermediate steps that lead to them: first for college, then for graduate school, then for the workplace. At its core, the modern educational system is primarily vocational; it is jobs-training with some pep rallies thrown in for diversion.
The classical educator conceives of the future of students in a far more compendious fashion. To be sure, he or she grasps the fact that work will constitute an important facet of a student’s life after graduation, and that preparation for the workplace is one important consequence of an adequate course of study. But the classical educator realizes that the student will grow up to be not only a worker, but a spouse, a parent, a citizen, a partaker of art and culture, a congregant. For these roles too a student must be prepared. The fact is that if you ask any adult which arenas of life provide them with the most satisfaction and meaning, some may place work near the top, but most will cite things like family, faith, and community. It is in these spheres of duty that human beings most typically find their happiness, and classical education is, above all things, about helping our students become happy. And so the classical course of study is meant to prepare students to be great fathers and mothers, great citizens and neighbors, great lovers of beauty and truth.
Modern education prepares students for the workplace. Classical education prepares them for life. What is the difference? To succeed in the workplace, one needs a set of discrete skills and knowledge. To be a successful accountant, one requires a facility with numbers and flowcharts. To be a successful lawyer, one requires a command of case and statutory law. The most advanced levels of these skills and bodies of knowledge depend upon more elementary ones; every accountant must start by learning arithmetic, every lawyer by learning grammar. In this sense, everything that is learned in the school points forward to the next step in the process, culminating with the job that lies at the end of the process. Nothing is ever learned for its own intrinsic value, but only insofar as it advances the conveyor belt towards wealth and status. So in the modern educational system, the future-oriented horizon is all-determining. The end of everything taught in school can only be articulated by some reference to what comes after school.
In a classical school, it is entirely different. Here too, as I indicated, a future-oriented horizon is at work. All schooling is a mode of preparation. But what is it the classical educator is preparing his or her students for? For happiness. And how does one learn how to be happy in the future? By learning how to be happy now. Happiness is a way of being in the world, a disposition; it is not something to be systematically explicated, but something to be routinely fortified. Therefore, the future-oriented horizon of classical education points directly to the present-oriented horizon. What the modern school wants to impart to its students is primarily skills and knowledge, and these can only be acquired in some distant present. But what the classical school wants to impart to its students is primarily habits, and these must be practiced today if they are to take root tomorrow. Because the classical educator conceives of the child’s future in a much broader way, and the preparatory aspects of education in a much fuller way, the day to day activities in the classical school assume an intrinsic value they cannot acquire in the modern school.
What follows from this, I believe, is a course of study far more invigorating and enlightening than its rival in the modern school. Because the work of every day is intended to fortify the intellectual, moral, and emotional habits upon which happiness is built, the work of every day has an immediately apparent relevance to the students. They are not being asked to languish through years of skill-building and knowledge-acquisition, with the promise of a pay-off more than a decade hence. They are being engaged daily, challenged daily, urged towards their growth and improvement daily, in the expectation that these daily acts of soul-making will leave them more than prepared for the future that lies ahead of them after graduation.
This present-day orientation of classical education colors every last activity in the classroom. Writing instruction is not only learning how to do research and compose structurally competent paragraphs, in order to excel on college term papers; it is playing with sentence structure, with verbs and with adjectives, in order to take delight – now, today – in the expressive resources the mind discovers in the expansive stylistic facility these exercises impart. Calculus lessons do not just provide an opportunity to get into that outstanding engineering program; they are a chance to meditate – right at this moment – on the ineffable mystery of number’s power to represent the world. A reading of the Federalist Papers is not only intended to prepare a young person for law school; it is intended to awaken his mind – at this very instant – to the concerns of justice and authority that continually occupy a free person. The expansion of the reflective and aesthetic capacities which such activities can effect awaits no justification in later years. It is a present good, in and of itself, and enriches every portion of life. Every day in a modern school is an opportunity for young people to prepare for what they are supposed to do with their lives. Every day in a classical classroom is an opportunity for a young people to do exactly what they are supposed to do with their lives.
I suppose that is not a very succinct account after all. But it is really the best I can do. Hopefully, by repeatedly calling attention to the enormous gulf between classical education and modern education, we can continue to convince families that a classical school is the only sensible option for their children at this time.