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.

COMING UP: Going crazy for classical education

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Going crazy for classical education

Bishop Machebeuf High School adds classical track, following trend

With Our Lady of Lourdes school’s wild success after implementing the classical education model, other Catholic schools are also taking the leap to try it out: Frassati Catholic Academy launches in August, and now, Bishop Machebeuf High School plans to open a classical track with the incoming freshman class this fall as well.

Deacon Marc Nestorick, principal of Bishop Machebeuf, said that after seeing its success in other schools, especially as it integrates so well with Catholicism, the high school wanted to follow suit.

“The classical track is something that the community has been discussing before I got here, and it complements the direction of where our school is going,” Nestorick said.

So far, five students are enrolled and they hope to enroll 15-20 when the doors are opened.


What’s so special about classical?

So what is it about the classical education model that works so well?

“I think integration makes a huge difference, the integration of faith with science and social studies…looking at it holistically is very appealing,” Nestorick said. “It’s focused on learning the truth, instead of how to get a job in the future. Learning is truly about coming to know and love God, and classical education really helps with that.”

Ryan O’Connor, assistant principal and theology teacher at Lourdes, believes that the growing trend of classical education in Denver is because this more holistic approach to learning produces tangible effects on the kids.

“One of the reasons I think the classical education trend is growing in Denver is we have a growing number of parents (and teachers/administrators) who are increasingly uncomfortable with the utilitarian approach to modern education (e.g., Common Core),” O’Connor said.  “They have a higher purpose in mind for their children, so they are naturally drawn to the original purpose of education, which is now called ‘classical.’”

“I think all the skills, reading, writing, thinking — a love for learning is the biggest thing, I think [in classical education]. It starts with the purpose of training human beings, not human-doings. It focuses on developing the human person,” O’Connor said.

There are many factors for the school’s success using the classical model, from the teachers that the school attracts who are on fire for their faith, to the structure of classical education itself and how it ignites a love for learning in students.

“It demands more of the teachers because [the curriculum] has to go through the mind of the teacher first…when teachers are on fire for Christ, it’s very contagious,” O’Connor said.

“The [students] enjoy the classes, it’s more discussion-based…when doing Socratic discussion…it’s just more effective, there’s more retention of information,” O’Connor continued. “Instead of saying, ‘Memorize it,’ we discuss it, and they remember it that way, and they behold the truth.”

Classical education, which has its roots in Greek and Roman learning methods and subjects, also aims to incorporate an appreciation for what the Greeks called “the Transcendentals”: truth, beauty and goodness. And the perfect integration of this philosophy is found in Catholicism.

“The Greek and Roman roots from classical education in fostering man’s natural aptitude for wisdom and integration…the only way that happens is through Jesus,” O’Connor said. “The Church’s vision for education is classical. The Catholic faith holds the framework for classical education, and truth, beauty and goodness is found in Jesus Christ.”

“Whether students come to behold a truth in math class, are inspired by heroic virtue in literature class, or are mesmerized by the order and beauty of nature in science class, these encounters with the Transcendentals are ultimately encounters with the person of Jesus Christ, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Incarnate,” O’Connor added.


Parents are seeing the difference

Orderly thinking, wonder, imagination, the joy – this is why it’s so successful with students — and their parents.

“My daughter is so much more aware…of developing a faith life that is based on Catholic doctrine…my own understanding has been strengthened by what she’s been doing in school,” said Joan VandenBurg, whose two children both attended Lourdes before the switch to the classical model. Her daughter, a fifth-grader, still attends.

“She’s a huge reader, and she loves Latin and talks about words all the time. She’s in the fifth grade and is reading Jane Austen and has the logic skills to understand [it],” VandenBurg said.

“When I look at her writing test compared to what my son had, who only had two years of the classical education [he was moved to a different school because of learning challenges]…her writing is much better. They do so much more scaffolding that supports [learning reading and writing],” VandenBurg said.

Liz Myers, whose son, Dominic, also attends Lourdes and is enrolled in Bishop Machebeuf’s classical track for next year, also spoke highly about the before-and-after effect.

Before attending Lourdes, Myers said, Dominic didn’t remember much of what he learned; but since the switch, she’s seen his “natural enthusiasm for learning” grow.

“I really like classical education because it’s all I can remember, and before [starting at Lourdes in 2011], I can’t remember anything [I learned],” Dominic said. “It’s not just a lecture…they let you be a part of it so that you can feel more accomplished.”

Accomplishment is one benefit, but ultimately, classical education teaches students how to grow in virtue.

“Virtue is the purpose of classical education, and of course, that’s in line with what the Church wants to do,” O’Connor said.

For more information on Bishop Machebeuf’s classical track, visit machebeuf.org/admissions/AdmissionsHome; for information and applications to Frassati Catholic Academy, visit gofrassati.org.