Why Classical Education in Today’s World?

By classical education, we refer to the type of education that has been developed and passed down through centuries, from the ancient Greeks, to our Founding Fathers, to our grandparents. Classical education describes the time-tested curricula, materials, methods, and aims that have traditionally been used to educate our youth, and that have served to build and preserve our Western civilization, and our nation. It is the liberal arts education that includes teaching of objective standards, instillation of real knowledge, and instruction in moral character and civic virtue.

‍Education today has drifted from this traditional approach. In many schools, there has been a shift toward utilitarian ends, rationalized by the accelerating growth of technology and the globalization of the economy. There is emphasis on “college and career readiness,” as though the only aim of education were to “succeed”, get a job, or make money. Instructional methods have changed as well. Following trendy but untested theories of child development, they now favor “student-centered” learning, wherein students are encouraged to learn naturally through self-guided and group exploration. Modern educators have teachers act as a “guide on the side,” rather than a “sage on the stage.” They frown upon the teaching of explicit phonics and the use of sentence diagramming to understand grammar and sentence structure. Many great works in literature, philosophy, and history, foundational to an understanding of the human condition, have been dropped from school curricula in favor of more “practical” concerns.

The classical education movement views that students are best served by the more traditional approach. It considers that today’s “changing times” are not so different from the past. For instance, how does today’s unrest compare with that in the 1860’s, or the 1960’s? Is today’s technological achievement more revolutionary than the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the television, or the computer? Is today’s global commerce more transformative than the expansion of trade between Europe and the East that occurred in the Renaissance? In times past, these changes had great impact, but they did not alter fundamental truths of the human condition. They did not change essential knowledge of the good, the true, and the beautiful that should be the possession of every human being.

Winston Churchill defended the true purpose of education in a speech from 1946, a time of global upheaval and re-ordering:

“This is an age of machinery and specialization but I hope… that the purely vocational aspect of (education) will not be allowed to dominate… Engines were made for men, not men for engines. Expert knowledge, however indispensable, is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope.”

At Cincinnati Classical Academy, we believe that education should provide essential nourishment for the soul, as a requisite for human flourishing. Such nourishment should include a sense of belonging (in society and in history), a sense of purpose (understanding of what life is for), a sense of competence (personal value and capacity for contribution earned by mastery of challenging tasks), a sense of inspiration (that the individual is motivated to act), and a sense of transcendence (the mystery and awe of connection with something greater than ourselves). We further view that education should form the will to adhere to what is good and right. As Plato said, “education is teaching our children to desire the right things.”

The time-tested classical model achieves these aims through a curriculum that emphasizes the histories, literary works, and achievements that shaped our society and inform our understanding of what it is to live a meaningful life. It challenges students to master the works and subject matters of Western civilization’s greatest thinkers. In the true and original sense of the liberal arts, it provides an education that is fitting for free men and women, and that fits them to be free. It prepares youth to live their own version of “the good life” as flourishing individuals capable of personal self-governance. It fortifies the foundations for political self-governance in our Republic, that future generations may profit from its strength and longevity.

These are our aims at Cincinnati Classical Academy.