The best education for the best is the best education for all.” – Robert Hutchins

For the last nearly 3,000 years, those in elite society or wealthy enough to afford the best education have insisted on a classical education for their children as representing the absolute best education to be had.  Classical education largely originated in the Hellenic (Greek) culture and became the education that elite or wealthy Romans sought for their children.  Early Christians who could afford it also sought classical education for their children as the best education that could be had.

Among the earliest of Christian schools to incorporate classical education was the “Catechetical School” of Alexandria under Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and his successor Origen (185-253).  This school of scientific theology included a broad study of Greek philosophy and science in its curriculum.  In Protrepticus 9, St. Clement envisions Our Lord using pagan poets and philosophers as part of an Orchestra under his direction.  He develops the concept that ancient classical education was a one of many streams feeding the “River of Truth”.  Stromata 1, 5 (Miscellanies)

These and other Saints answered objections from Christians concerned about some of the non-Christian elements in classical education.  They insisted that training in the classics was essential as a foundation for the study of Scripture and held within it certain truths worthy of study. St. Basil the Great (330-379), in his treatise “To Young Men On How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature“, uses the analogy of a bee which draws from flowers only what it needs.  St Gregory Nazianzen (a friend of Basil) (329-390), was, like Basil, a master of Classical learning and twice opposed apostate Emperor Julian forbidding Christians from including pagan literature in their courses.

St. John Chrysostom (347–414), himself classically educated, spoke of the need for intellectual training to develop morality for children in his Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children.  St. Jerome (339 – 370), authored two letters on the subject as well (107 and 128).

St. Augustine (354 – 430) was also classically educated and, in his first book of Confessions, spoke of his love for Virgil and dislike for Homer – both of which remain important elements of classical education to this day.  In his treatise De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine explains that just as the Israelites who, in flight from Egypt took their taskmaster’s riches, so Christians should make the best of pagan culture their own.

From 300 to 1600 (an even to present times for many elites), Classical education remained an important element in the education to be found in monasteries, cathedral schools, medieval universities, and secular schools.  Indeed, we must thank the early monastics for preserving the only extant copies of early Great Books that we still study to this day, and the medieval universities for developing Classical education to such advanced states.

After 1600, education began to move from primarily Catholic thinkers and institutions to those of a secular or modernist view. Despite that, education, even for those deemed the best and brightest by the secular world, continued to be classical.  Indeed, elements of classical education were an important foundation for students in the United States from its inception.  For example, in colonial America, before entering school at the age of fourteen or fifteen, students were expected to be able to speak Latin, and in college they were fined for not speaking in Latin, except during recreation. Latin was the language of most of their textbooks and lectures. The New Testament Greek was required for admission, and in Greek they also studied Homer and Longinus. In Latin, the chief authors were Cicero, Vergil, and Horace. A continued interest in the classics was usual. “Every accomplished gentleman,” says Wertenbaker, “was supposed to know his Homer and his Ovid, and in conversation was put to shame if he failed to recognize a quotation from either.”

Self-made men, like Benjamin Franklin, without the benefit of college, derived more from the ancient world than one would expect, but the more typical Founding Fathers meditated long and deeply on the ancient patterns of democracy and republics, and Jefferson was only expressing a frequent view of his time when he said of ancient literature:

The Greeks and Romans have left us the present models which exist of fine composition whether we examine them as works of reason, or style, or fancy… To read the Latin and Greek authors in the original is a sublime luxury.” The history, philosophy, and literature of the ancients did not seem remote or antiquated, but intimately present because permanently enlightening.

The return to an emphasis in classical education by the Angelicum Academy, many Catholic colleges, and even secular institutions is a recognition that much has been lost over the last 400 years, particularly the last 100 or so, and there is a need to return to the classical method if we are to learn to reason dispassionately and discover the truth.  This is particularly relevant today when the lack of a classical foundation leaves young men and women vulnerable and susceptible to the errors so prevalent in modern culture.

The following article by Robert Hutchins describes the critical important of a classical education today:

“The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.

At a time when the West is most often represented by its friends as the source of that technology for which the whole world yearns and by its enemies as the fountainhead of selfishness and greed, it is worth remarking that, though both elements can be found in the great conversation, the Western ideal is not one or the other strand in the conversation, but the conversation itself. It would be and exaggeration to say that Western civilization means these books. The exaggeration would lie in the omission of the plastic arts and music, which have quite as important a part in Western civilization as the great productions included in this set. But to the extent to which books can present the idea of a civilization, the idea of Western civilization is here presented.

These books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository of our tradition. To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we must do is to leave them unread for a few generations. On the other hand, the revival of interest in these books from time to time throughout history has provided the West with new drive and creativeness. Great Books have salvaged, preserved, and transmitted the tradition on many occasions like our own.

The books contain not merely the tradition, but also the great exponents of the tradition. Their writings are models of the fine and liberal arts. They hold before us what Whitehead called “‘the habitual vision of greatness.” These books have endured because men in every era have been lifted beyond themselves by the inspiration of their example, Sir Richard Livingstone said: “We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with 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 vision becomes our own.”

Until very recently these books have been central in education in the West. They were the principal instrument of liberal education, the education that men acquired as an end in itself, for no other purpose than that it would help them to be men, to lead human lives, and better lives than they would otherwise be able to lead.

The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason, it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.

The substance of liberal education appears to consist in the recognition of basic problems, in knowledge of distinctions and interrelations in subject matter, and in the comprehension of ideas.

Liberal education seeks to clarify the basic problems and to understand the way in which one problem bears upon another. It strives for a grasp of the methods by which solutions can be reached and the formulation of standards for testing solutions proposed. The liberally educated man understands, for example, the relation between the problem of the immortality of the soul and the problem of the best form of government; he understands that the one problem cannot be solved by the same method as the other, and that the test that he will have to bring to bear upon solutions proposed differs from one problem to the other.

The liberally educated man understands, by understanding the distinctions and interrelations of the basic fields of subject matter, the differences and connections between poetry and history, science and philosophy, theoretical and practical science; he understands that the same methods cannot be applied in all these fields; he knows the methods appropriate to each.

The liberally educated man comprehends the ideas that are relevant to the basic problems and that operate in the basic fields of subject matter. He knows what is meant by soul. State, God, beauty, and by the other terms that are basic to the insights that these ideas, singly or in combination, provide concerning human experience.

The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate well in all fields. He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important that is said in any field and can see and use the light that it shed upon his own. The liberally educated man is at home in the world of ideas and in the world or practical affairs, too, because he understands the relation of the two. He may not be at home in the world of practical affairs in the sense of liking the life he finds about him; but he will be at home in that world in the sense that he understands it. He may even derive from his liberal education some conception of the difference between a bad world and a good one and some notion of the ways in which one might be turned onto the other.

The method of liberal education is the liberal arts, and the result of liberal education is discipline in those arts. The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand, and think. He learns to reckon, measure, and manipulate matter, quantity, and motion to predict, produce, and exchange. As we live in the tradition, whether we know it or not, so we are all liberal artists, whether we know it or not. We all practice the liberal arts, well or badly, all the time every day. As we should understand the tradition as well as we can to understand ourselves, so we should be as good liberal artists as we can to become as fully human as we can.

The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable, nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he can attain. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.

The tradition of the West in education is the tradition of the liberal arts. Until very recently nobody took seriously the suggestion that there could be any other ideal. The educational ideas of John Locke, for example, which were directed to the preparation of the pupil to fit conveniently into the social and economic environment in which he found himself, made no impression on Locke’s contemporaries. And so, it will be found that other voices raised in criticism of liberal education fell upon deaf ears until about a half-century ago.

This Western devotion to the liberal arts and liberal education must have been largely responsible for the emergence of democracy as an ideal. The democratic ideal is equal opportunity for full human development, and, since the liberal arts are the basic means of such development, devotion to democracy naturally results from devotion to them. On the other hand, if acquisition of the liberal arts is an intrinsic part of human dignity, then the democratic ideal demands that we should strive to see to it that all can attain to the fullest measure of the liberal arts that is possible to each.

The present crisis in the world has been precipitated by the vision of the range of practical and productive art offered by the West. All over the world men are on the move, expressing their determination to share in the technology in which the West has excelled. This movement is one of the most spectacular in history, and everybody is agreed upon one thing about it: we do not know how to deal with it. It would be tragic if in our preoccupation with the crisis we failed to hold up as a thing of value for all the world, even as that which might show us a way in which to deal with the crisis, our vision of the best that the West has to offer. That vision is the range of the liberal arts and liberal education. Our determination about the distribution of the fullest measure of these arts and this education will measure our loyalty to the best in our own past and our total service to the future of the world.

The great books were written by the greatest liberal artists. They exhibit the range of the liberal arts. The authors were also the greatest teachers. They taught one another. They taught all previous generations, up to a few years ago. The question is whether they can teach us.”