The number of schools that offer a “classical education” is growing. It’s believed by many to offer a more rigorous alternative to the standard curriculum offered by the education system today.
But most people still view classical education as merely a nostalgic throwback to the past that fails to prepare students for the contemporary world and a tech-heavy job market.
The interesting irony, though, is that today’s version of classical education isn’t really that classical at all. It’s actually very modern.
Until relatively recently in history, a classical education meant an education primarily centered around learning the Greek and Latin languages. The education in ancient Greece and Rome was very grammar-heavy from about the age of seven, with the goal of preparing students to maturely read the great texts of the tradition.
The same language-focused education ensued in Christian Europe of the Middle Ages, though it was rarer for Western students to study Greek until the Renaissance. And, of course, there was a heavy emphasis on developing students' language abilities so they could delve ever deeper into the interpretation of Scripture.
And when America’s Founding Fathers spoke glowingly of a classical education, they meant an education that taught students to read the ancient classics in the original languages. For a student at the time of America’s founding to even be admitted to college, he had to be able to speak and translate Latin on the spot.
Though there were inklings beforehand, the shift away from Latin and Greek began more in earnest in the early part of the 19th century. It was actually considered “experimental” when some American and English colleges at the time began to teach English literature—to teach, as Francis March of Leicester Academy said in 1845, “English like Latin or Greek.”
Today’s “classical education,” however, often doesn’t begin teaching students the classical languages until sometime in middle school. And by the time those students are done with high school, they usually don’t have enough Latin to read any ancient Roman author in the original language, and their Greek knowledge usually consists of only a familiarity with the alphabet. (Here's a link to the books that are being taught at classical schools in America today.)
As journalist Tracy Lee Simmons has pointed out, most versions of classical education today are simply more effective versions of modern education:
“Thus nowadays may classical education refer to something not linked to the classical word at all—never mind the languages—and get equated with what might once have been called simply traditional or orthodox education. This is schooling based on ‘classics,’ on books of the Great Tradition, an education that serves to inform us of the best works of our civilization and to provide us with models for spotting ethical and aesthetic norms. These two functions the valuable ‘Great Books’ programs try to perform. Used in this way, classical education describes the quest for what has also been called a ‘liberal education’ or, more particularly, an education in the ‘humanities.’ And now legions of well-intending home schoolers rush to put dibs on the term and bask in the light of the glory they believe it to exude. To many home schoolers, ‘classical education’ simply means the opposite of whatever is going on in those dreaded public schools. We can sympathize with them. I will only say to all these good people that extending ‘classical’ to mark an approach or course of study without reference to Greek and Latin seems an unnecessarily promiscuous usage.”
Simmons’ last sentence alludes to a point I made at the top of this blog post. In our post-Enlightenment world, the very adjective “classical” is a turn-off to most people, as it has come to be associated with “irrelevant” and “impractical”. But the adjective itself is unnecessary, as this education actually aims at giving students the rigor and academic diversity so sought after by parents today, and plenty of exposure to modern “classics”.
Perhaps “classical education” needs rebranding.
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Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.