It should be noted that “classical,” as is discussed below in more detail, properly understood includes certain “reforms” – actually “returns”- to authentic classical educational models, including the Paideia reforms and the study of original texts: The Great Books, in high school, as advocated and promoted by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler and the renowned Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, for many years. “
We should not assume everyone shares the same understanding of what a “classical” education consists. Classical education, in the strict sense, refers to the educational approach of the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, rooted in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic. For this and other reasons, learning both ancient Greek and Latin are usually considered important elements of a classical education. Plato’s model was developed into the medieval curriculum of the seven liberal arts by Martianus Minneus Felix Capella (fl. c. 410-420 A.D.), divided into the three arts of language pertaining to the mind, called the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics); and the four arts or sciences of quantity, called the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).
The trivium, in modern language, teaches students how to read and write, speak eloquently and persuasively and how to listen. These are the arts of language. In modern, expanded, terms, the “arts” are often referred to as the humanities, to which have been added history, literature, political science, and more recently, philosophy and theology.
The “sciences” have expanded to include mathematics, the natural sciences and the “soft sciences” about human behavior, as psychology, anthropology, and sociology (cutting back on that expanded meaning of science, “STEM” schools refer to the “hard sciences”: science, technology, engineering, and math – basically jettisoning the soft sciences).
The three language arts of the trivium are necessary for the study of the humanities, just as mathematics is necessary for the study of the quadrivium and all the sciences. There is a deliberate structure to classical education, that is ordered towards truth and freedom (“The truth shall make you free”-John 8:32), and lasting happiness, which Catholics understand is only attainable in the Beatific Vision of God.
The great classics of Western civilization – excluding here for simplicity the great masterpieces of music and the fine arts – contain the thoughts and wisdom of their great authors, preserved for us in their books. These include the great classics of literature, history, philosophy, theology, politics, and science, written by the greatest scholars, sages, and saints (Sacred Scripture being the greatest of the Great Books). When we read these great books, we partake of the genius and brilliance of their authors, become familiar with them, and are influenced by their wisdom:
“We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with the great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their genius becomes ours.” – Mortimer J. Adler
An education in the liberal arts (from the Latin liberalis: “free,” and ars: “art or principled practice“) is thus general in nature, and aims to equip the student with a broad, well-rounded grasp of reality and a coherent view of the interconnectedness and purpose of things, which is provided by culture, largely transmitted by formal education. The closer the culture corresponds to reality, the better such a grasp it conveys.
Classical education does not include vocational training, business courses, or professional schools such as law, nursing or medicine, or research. In short, it is general in nature, not specialized and not career-oriented or technical. It contrasts with a specialized education, which should come later, after a general education. Here is the danger of having only an illiberal (vocational, specialized) education, described by Ortega y Gasset:
“Civilization has had to await the beginning of the 20th century, to see the astounding spectacle of how brutal, how stupid, and yet how aggressive is the man learned in one thing and fundamentally ignorant of all else. This new barbarian is above all the professional man, more learned than before, but at the same time more uncultured – the engineer, the physician, the lawyer, the scientist.”
The specialist serves as a striking concrete example of the species, making clear to us the radical nature of the novelty. For, previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.
Professionalism and specialism, through insufficient counterbalancing, have smashed the European [Western] man in pieces. Culture is an indispensable element of human life, a dimension of our existence, as much a part of man as his hands; … but [without which] it is man crippled. The same is to be said of life without culture, only in a much more fundamental sense. It is life crippled, wrecked, false…the contemporary university has abandoned almost entirely the teaching of transmission of culture.”
Classical education, expanded as detailed above into liberal education, until the beginning of the 20th century (as noted by Ortega) was the traditional academic program in Western higher education. The central academic disciplines in liberal arts colleges typically included three areas: social sciences, arts, and humanities, including philosophy, logic, linguistics, literature, history, political science, sociology, and psychology. Unfortunately, our so-called liberal arts colleges have almost entirely removed the study of Greek and Latin from their curricula. In opposition to the classical approach which emphasizes study and critical analysis of the great ideas of Western civilization, many courses added recently are designed to indoctrinate with specific political ideologies. An example is the fraudulent 1619 history project being adopted and made mandatory in many secondary and collegiate schools, which attempts to redefine the United States as a slave state that began in 1619 rather than the Republic that emerged from the Revolutionary War of 1776. This is just one of many such specialized courses, such as women’s studies, and a multitude of various ethnic, gender or sexuality studies.
Well under 5% of colleges and universities now offer what could have been described 100 years ago as a liberal education such as that described by St. John Henry Newman in his The Idea of a University. As a result, there is no movement to return to a “liberal education model,” as it has been so corrupted in modern usage.
It may also be observed that no curriculum used in any modern school, college or university offers a classical curriculum in either the ancient or medieval models – all are more expansive –and yet some no longer include what most scholars would consider essential to a fully “classical” education, such as Latin and/or Greek, rhetoric, dialectics, and this is critically important: studied in original texts, the Great Books, rather than in 5th-rate textbooks written for commercial or political purposes and subject to the careless or shameless deliberate falsification of the thought of the great authors in modern textbooks, even to the point of directly contradicting what they actually wrote. Only the use of their original texts can avert this.
So, caution is warranted when schools use the term “classical”. Today many programs use the word “classical in a broad sense and not in the sense that classical education has been over the centuries. Today, the term has a rather wide flexibility in modern usage, and with reference to the four years of high school studies often fails to include the essential element of the extensive study every year of the original texts – the Great Books – and so its use needs examination to determine reasonable integrity and applicability.