Classical Education: An Education for Happiness
“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.” So says Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, whose ideas inform what is meant by Classical education. Simply put, Classical education educates for true happiness, not for excitement or pleasure, which comes and goes, but for an enduring state of the soul, characterized by the fruits of peace and joy. Classical education seeks to perfect the human person, enabling the student to know Truth and live the Good Life.
Why Classical Education?
Unlike 20th century progressivist education which focuses nearly entirely on novelty and useful ends – for example, Common Core pursues “college and career readiness” – many emerging schools today seek to re-forge and recapture the classical roots of education not only familiar to our nation’s Founding Fathers but to the whole of Western civilization. There is nothing wrong in desiring to be prepared for college and a career, but these goals are what C.S. Lewis calls “second things” behind the more important “first things.” Good education puts “first things first.” Lewis says that when one aims for “second things” he misses out on both first and second things. However, if he aims for first things, he’s likely to obtain both first and second things. Anyone who has studied a foreign language for the sake of a decent grade knows this lesson. He spends years studying a language, struggling to maintain a grade, and falls well short of fluency. However, the student who learns a foreign language compelled to communicate with a loved one, gains fluency much more easily and the high grade was seemingly effortlessly obtained. In a classical school, students set their sights on first things. Students and teachers stand on the “shoulders of giants” and together engage “the best of what has been thought and said” in human history. This encounter with human excellence inspires, and with the guidance of a good teacher and God’s grace, students fulfill their potential, becoming the best versions of themselves. Not merely academically adept, they have souls properly formed to encounter the Truth and hearts willing to seek it, as well as the ability to discern what is good and what is bad with the practical sense to think, choose, and act rightly. Classically trained students become masters in the greatest sense for they are not slaves to ignorance or to sin but disciples of Truth. In terms of what is useful, they are prepared to be good to themselves, to others, and to the world at large. Colleges will encounter classically trained candidates who are articulate in speech and writing, logical in thought, respectful, poised, and knowledgeable with an unusual depth of understanding. Students of classical education are ladies and gentlemen as good education ought to form.
The Trivium: the Lost Tools of Learning
In her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers, a friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and a pioneer in the reemergence of classical education over the last few decades, outlines the importance of reestablishing in education the prominence of the Trivium, made up of the three disciplines of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, what Sayers calls the “lost tools of learning.” With these tools a student can learn and understand any subject, whether History or Computer Science. Thus, by the Trivium, a student learns how to learn, and hence, their fundamental importance and primacy in classical education. Grammar refers to the art of using words correctly, language that corresponds to reality. Logic refers to the art of right reasoning and understanding the relationship among things in reality. Rhetoric refers to the art of persuasive communication of reality to others. Sayers explains that every subject has a Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, that is, every subject possesses a content to know, a relationship among that content, and a proper way for it to be expressed. She also outlines how Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric roughly correspond to the natural development of children. During the Grammar stage of learning (through 5th grade), children are most disposed to memorizing facts, and education ought to prioritize the memorization of poetry, songs, catechetical truths, states and capitols. During the Logic stage (6th grade through 9th grade), children naturally become argumentative, a ripe time for the formation of good argumentation. Lastly, during the Rhetoric stage in the high school years, students ought to practice explaining to others the reasons for their knowledge and opinions, equipping them to be defenders of Truth with persuasive eloquence, particularly as preparation for the college environment. A Classical education at this level is just the beginning, however, not an end in itself or an accolade accomplished at high school graduation. Rather, Classical students are committed seekers of Truth and continue their various vocations as lifelong learners.
Why Classical Education in the Catholic Tradition?
Classical education seeks to form children in virtue, good habits of the soul, that allow them to know the Truth, love the Good, and take pleasure in the Beautiful. The classical Liberal Arts, including Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, teach students to read well, think coherently, and express the truth clearly and persuasively in writing and speech. The classical Liberal Arts of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, form students in mathematics and the natural sciences, cultivating a sense of wonder by observing the order and harmony of the created universe. Good poetry, songs, and stories about heroes provide examples of heroic virtue, living ideals of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. Ennobled by such role models, students, who are formed in wisdom and virtue, are prepared for a life of true freedom and happiness. Additionally, the physical aspect of the human condition reflects the fitness of the spirit. Exercise compliments the order of the interior person, and physical components such as dress and demeanor highlight the same. The interrelated nature of the classical education on the whole dovetails with the holistic experience of growth in our Catholic faith.
The Catholic tradition does not replace Classical education but fulfills it as grace perfects nature. An education in the classical Liberal Arts prepares the soul – or tills the soil – for the seeds of Christian Faith to take root and grow strong. Jesus Christ is the model of all virtues and the source of all that is True, Good, and Beautiful. The theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, then, fulfill the classical virtues, and the moral life culminates in the New Law of Grace, especially the Beatitudes. The holy saints, men and women, lived such lives and serve as our highest examples of virtuous character. Ultimately, beatitude fulfills the classical notion of happiness; the Beatific Vision is the ultimate fruit of the virtuous life and a Catholic, Classical education.
Resources for further reading:
One admirable school story is the story of St. Jerome’s Academy in Hyattsville, MD.
To view the school’s website use this link. A detailed view of their school curriculum is available on this site and gives the reader an extensive inside look at Classical Education.