The Liberal Breadth of Classical Education

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Those new to the term “classical education” might be familiar with an older name for it: “liberal arts.” But even that term is often misunderstood. A “liberal arts” focus in college is sometimes denigrated as a way to get out of real academic work. No doubt some students have hoped this to be the case, and maybe even found a compliant school. But as a discipline, “liberal arts” is not necessarily easy, partly because it’s such a broad area of study. There may be a perception that it lacks focus, but this perception fails to understand the meaning of liberal in the term “liberal arts.”

Liberal derives from libertas in Latin, meaning liberty, or freedom. Someone trained in the liberal arts is ready to undertake the discipline needed to exercise the liberty of a free society. Such a life can take a person in any morally good and ethically noble direction. So the focus of a person’s classical education is intentionally broad, until that student is ready to narrow it, based upon what has already been learned and mastered. It also includes the assumption that there is such a thing as objective truth, able to be known, discovered, and learned. Furthermore, truth is not detached from morality and ethics, so they also have a place of honor in the liberal arts.

The alternative approach to education would impose a narrow focus much sooner, perhaps even as early as the lower primary grades. Examples can be found of education experts and politicians who want to begin training children as early as possible in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) oriented subjects, at the expense of subjects that are deemed less useful to present-day society (such as languages, world history, handwriting, and music). This has been the trend in progressive education since John Dewey (1859-1952) masterminded a progressive reform of American education theory a century ago. But by specializing the education of a student too soon, the student is deprived of a true mastery of those things needed to function across a spectrum of disciplines, and more importantly, many things needed to live as a free citizen who can think for himself.

In classical times, Greek and Roman society was divided sharply between the privileged and the unprivileged. Those who did most of the manual labor were slaves. There were ways they could become free, but until that happened, their skills were tightly focused and specialized in the areas of their work. A liberal arts education would seem to be a waste of time and money for a slave. Besides that, if slaves were educated to think critically and creatively as free people, they might begin to think they should be free people. An early specialization in the education of slaves (or lower-class, if you prefer) is preferable, both for efficiency, and for the preservation of a stratified society.

Since the Revolution, America has always been partly about the radical proposition that every human being is inherently capable of being a citizen of a free society. Previously, it was assumed that some few people were born to rule, and others only to be subjects of their rulers. American society, as envisioned by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, replaces rulers and subjects with the people: a body of free citizens, equal in value and equal before the law. It was much easier to describe that shift in America’s founding documents than it was to put it into practice, but it was mostly realized in the adjustment that followed the Civil War. The 19th Amendment and the Civil Rights movement were the last steps in that direction. This radical proposition at the foundation of America means that a liberal arts, classical education should be available to every American citizen, perhaps even a sine qua non.

The latest fad in progressive education, promised to fix what’s wrong (again), is the Common Core Standards Initiative. While it has drawn a lot of fire, there are some good things to be said about it. For example, the desire to have high standards for the overall learning of students is unquestionably good. Here is a sentence from the “Myths vs. Facts” web page for Common Core, described as a fact: “The standards are designed to build upon the most advanced current thinking about preparing all students for success in college, career, and life.” This shows that Common Core is yet another iteration of the Progressive reform of American education, which places the highest value on “current thinking” (like contemporary education psychologists rather than the work of brilliant teachers from Aristotle onward) and on the narrow focus of college and career preparation. As well-intentioned as it is, Common Core ends up determining the content that is taught in every participating school, leaving little to no room for a broader liberal arts focus, or the classical pedagogy. The “Myths vs. Facts” page also says, “Teachers know best about what works in the classroom. That is why these standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.” In other words, teachers and schools get to decide how to teach, but only the Common Core Standards can say what to teach. And if teachers are limited in this way, one can be sure that parents are not even granted a seat at the table.

The utilitarian ends of the Common Core Standards are at odds with the liberal breadth of a classical education. This was also the case in previous iterations of Progressive education. Classical education seeks to equip and enable students to be disciplined, experienced, articulate thinkers in their own right, with a solid moral foundation, a rich awareness of human history, and deep appreciation for that which is good, true, and beautiful. Thus, students will be able to handle anything the unpredictable future may bring, adapting their knowledge and skills as needed. A free society needs such citizens to remain free. Progressive education, on the other hand, seeks to prepare students “for success in college, career and life,” which means early specialization for the capacity to perform the vocations anticipated by their educators and test-writers. After a century of increasingly Progressive education, it’s no wonder when many American citizens are easily swayed by demagogues or prefer to relinquish their civic responsibility.

Someone may wonder, “Why are you bothering to teach Latin to first-graders at Columbia Lutheran School?” Because Latin has an important place in a classical, liberal arts education (and western civilization too), along with the other subjects we teach. “Why do you make your students memorize rules of grammar and math?” Because those rules are required for a thorough understanding of these things. “Why do your students memorize so many Bible passages?” Because (among other things), the Bible is the basis for our understanding of what is right and wrong, and our knowledge of God. None of those things would be taught to Roman or Greek slaves, unless their work required it. They are also not emphasized in Progressive education. But they are at the beginning of a Classical education, and will continue to serve our students as their education broadens through all aspects of a free citizen’s life.

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