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What is Classical education?

We celebrate Catholic Schools Week beginning January 28th. That day also marks the feast of the patron of Catholic schools, St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that “whoever teaches the truth enlightens the mind, for truth is the light of the mind” (De Veritate, 11). The student, however, does not receive this light passively, Aquinas says, but, with their teacher as guide, should actively seek to realize their potential to know.

As so many students have lost their love of learning, some schools have returned to the wisdom of the Catholic tradition for new inspiration. In particular, classical education has taken root across the country, with one entire diocese and over two hundred Catholic schools adopting it. The Archdiocese of Denver has two classical schools, Our Lady of Lourdes and Frassati Catholic Academy, as well as a classical track at Bishop Machebeuf High School.

But what is classical education? Some think it must be an advanced curriculum only for elite students. Rather, classical education takes us back to the basics: how to read, how to think, how to speak. These three skills are often referred to as “the three ways,” the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Classical education focuses on inspiring students to read more, think about what they read, and communicate effectively about it. It is called classical, as it looks back to Greco-Roman civilization and the Christian culture of the Middle Ages for inspiration, both in approach and in content matter, such as classical language.

This approach does not focus primarily on practical outcomes as the goal, but the formation of mind. Ironically the approach has proven that it does prepare students well for their future. No matter what students will do for their careers, classical education gives general preparation through deep thinking, problem solving, and creative expression, which help them to excel. It has been proven that as children become more immersed in technology, they fail to develop these skills. As the workforce becomes more automated and computer driven, classical training will be more in need and will not be replaced by machines like other practical skill sets.

There are a number of books that can help us to learn more about the classical approach and the Christian tradition on education. First, An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents by Christopher Perrin (Classical Academic Press, 2004) provides a short, basic introduction. It leads the reader through a short history of classical education, the key approaches of the trivium and quadrivium, the importance of classical languages, and the general stages of learning.

Second, Gene Veith Jr. and Andrew Kern provide a more in-depth introduction in Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping the Nation (Capital Research Center, 3rd ed., 2015). The authors offer an ecumenical perspective, but also note that “Catholic education has always contained a classical element, and today there are a variety of classical forms within the orbit of Catholic education, including home schools, home school cooperatives, parochial schools, and private schools” (59). As they note, the classical movement has started small and has been building steady momentum.

Third, for those interested in a more substantial treatment, Fr. Francis Bethel, O.S.B traces the power of classical education through the life of one impactful teacher, John Senior (John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, Thomas More College Press, 2016). Senior co-founded the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas with the goal of awakening wonder and helping students to open their eyes to reality. Fr. Bethel summarizes Senior’s education philosophy as “poetic” in that we “must ground all intellectual and effective life on the experiential and imaginative level. This concrete way of nourishing Realism underlay everything he taught and the way he taught it.” Senior’s approach provides a model for classical teaching in grounding education in a direct experience of what is taught.

The classical approach provides Catholics an opportunity to rethink education in a time of transition. As many public schools experience failure and Catholics schools continue to close, it may be time to look back into our own tradition in order to move forward in a fresh and creative way. The Catholic tradition offers the light of wisdom, described by Aquinas, that can enlighten the minds of our children.

Jared Staudt
R. Jared Staudt, PhD, is a husband and father of six, the Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver, a Benedictine oblate, prolific writer, and insatiable reader.
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