The Message and Method of Classical Education

I would like to dedicate our annual back-to-school post to our new community of Classical Conversations gathered in Newton, MA. Good strength and success to students and teachers everywhere, and may God grant us all a good and prosperous school year.

class-is-boring-1092x400“I mean, like, with culturally relevant teaching…[?]…” her high-pitched voice droned, lilting upwards at the end of the phrase as if everything said was more of a question than a statement. Was she really that unsure of what she was saying or was it a habit learned from an academy which no longer believed truth to be something definitive? I was sitting through yet another required teacher training seminar wondering if I was the only one in the room more interested in the message than in these interminable lectures on teaching methods. Yet this particular post-modern drill sergeant took the message/method dichotomy a step further than I had ever heard it taken. She delivered a conclusion to her talk that can only make sense to a brain thoroughly washed in ideology and completely abandoned by common sense: “It doesn’t matter what we teach our students…[?] as long as we teach them with the right method.”

Really?! A method towards what end or purpose? What are we really talking about when we make meaningless the entire reason for learning anything, i.e., to inspire the soul with what is true, beautiful, and good. But perhaps modern education no longer believes in the existence of the soul and thinks that human creatures are motivated by a mere aggregate of emotional and social desires. Irregardless, Christians who believe in the existence of the soul must learn how to feed that soul with good nourishing food and to pay no mind to the trendy food of popular culture.

Two seminal essays form the core of my own philosophy on soul formation. One from a British writer and contemporary of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, establishes the basis for a home school support group that our family helps to direct. Sayer’s essay entitled The Lost Tools of Learning advocates for a return to a more classical mode of learning wherein rote memory work and Socratic dialog engage with the rich content of modern subjects like history, science, English, and mathematics. Her words are a rallying cry for those tired of an educational system whose only goal seems to be the mere skill of literacy and numeracy:

girlFor we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

The other essay which has formed my own thinking especially speaks of the need to form vulnerable souls with the powerful and godly virtues displayed so vividly and persuasively in the classics of Western literature. Forming the Soul was an article begun by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose in 1982 and then re-titled and adapted later by the Sisters of St. Xenia Skete in California. In it, the good monastic fathers and mothers in Christ outline what we miss if we aim for a higher spiritual life without first establishing a lower foundation for the soul’s ascent to God:

fezziwigWe have almost forgotten the sight and sound and feel of the sublime. To regain it we must return to a time when the gray, gritty moral fog had not yet settled over the world: a time when men’s sight was still clear and their souls still keen. If we cannot manage the uplands of the soul we shall hardly be able to touch the peaks of the spirit. Hardened by the din and moral cacophony of our world, our hearts are cold and our consciences numb. We are little moved by pity, honor, nobility, purity, because we seldom or never see them. We are even little moved by beauty, because we hardly know what it is. Like most value-terms, “beauty” has become almost contentless, a word empty of any absolute meaning…. 

We must learn again what beauty is. We must learn what it is to be carried on the thunder of a fugue, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer’s flowering springtime.

As we all begin a new school year together, may these two essays light a path for you towards an educational pasturage that is clear and sunny. And may we learn never to relativize or compromise our eternal message for the sake of the latest worldly method.

2 thoughts on “The Message and Method of Classical Education

  1. Love –love– the Sayers quote.

    The comment on method’s virtues (above any content) reminds me of the Sophists: ‘We will teach you how to make a successful argument or persuasive speech before the people, will give you the techniques you need in speaking persuasively — whatever your position. (See below for our hourly rate.)’ We should be as dismayed as Plato. Here’s to hoping that the instructor meant something else, and was just confused.

    • Right. The work of the sophist charlatans is unfortunately very much alive and well. Love the charitable remark about the instructor. That is my hope for everyone who utters nonsense. That they are themselves just confused and inwardly desire the truth as much as any of us. Long live truth, beauty, and goodness! The salvation of us all, not just for the powerful and clever elite.

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