All Section, Education & Culture

Classical education is countercultural, It’s time to bring it back

Published : 28 Feb 2020 07:09 PM | Updated : 06 Sep 2020 06:37 AM

Matthew D Walz

During each of the past two summers, I have conducted a daylong seminar with administrators and teachers of a Catholic parish school who are adopting a classical curriculum and culture. And last summer I helped run a weeklong seminar with teachers from various schools in a Catholic diocese whose bishop is aiming to infuse his schools with a more classical character. 

Courage and joy permeated these seminars—courage to “think outside the box,” to cut against the grain of the ruling conventions regarding elementary and high school education; and joy that arises spontaneously when teachers realize they are building themselves up in a manner that enables them to nourish their beloved students with wholesome food for mind and heart. As for myself? Simply put, I’ve been humbled and inspired by their courage and joy.

A recurring question I have asked myself, especially right after a lively discussion during one of these seminars, is: Why not classical education? It is a question that I, as a Catholic, address in my imagination primarily to bishops and those in the church who determine curricula and influence the culture of Catholic schools—although I consider it a question that anyone dissatisfied with the current state of elementary and high school education might ask.

There is a growing conviction among many educators that implementing a classical educational model, little by little and step by step, is the way to go. It has found a home in a host of private, religiously affiliated schools across the country, and it has spread more expansively by means of public charter schools, especially in states like Arizona and Texas whose state legislatures are friendly to such endeavors.

What perplexes me, though, is not why Catholic diocesan schools are at the back of the line in the classical education movement, but why they aren’t at its very head. Indeed, given the depressing statistics about the decline of Catholic education in our country, this is a puzzle. After all, the church’s own educational heritage is at stake.

A challenging transition

When I introduce myself to administrators and teachers at these seminars, I thank them for permitting me to play a role in an important development—perhaps, in fact, a necessary survival tactic—in the life of their school. 

They have made the brave decision to dive headlong into the waters of classical education, waters that are ultimately refreshing but that may feel chilly at first. For them to adopt a classical model is to cast out into the deep, the unfamiliar, perhaps even the off-putting, but to do so with the confidence that they will be responding to their educational vocations more authentically.

They will have to learn about the trivium and the quadrivium. They will need to rethink their approach to mathematics and the natural sciences. They will have to read new books and perhaps memorize a lot of poetry. Indeed, over time, they may need to become classically educated themselves. So yes, these administrators and teachers can find the transition challenging but also invigorating and life-changing.

That they find it challenging is unsurprising. Providing a liberal, classical education has always been a challenge. It always cuts against the grain; it is always countercultural. This is because it invites students and teachers to search for standards that exist beyond those of the given culture in which they live. Classical education encourages teachers and students, therefore, to put current cultural standards to the test. Such a process can be painful, perhaps even disillusioning.

Given the state of contemporary culture, moreover, we may sense that imparting a classical education to our students is more difficult than ever before. Whether this sense is accurate or not, one thing is true: It has been and will remain difficult, because defaulting to more utilitarian, culture-conforming modes of education constantly lurks as a temptation.

Reinvigorating Education

While finding the move to a classical model challenging, these same administrators and teachers are happily surprised by how reinvigorating it is. Indeed, classical education has always been reinvigorating for teachers and students alike. The reason is simple: A classical education aims to be a human education, period—as full a human education as one can manage. In other words, it engages students and teachers in every dimension of their existence, at every level of their humanity—spiritual, intellectual, moral, psychological, emotional and physical.

Or, to make the same point differently, a classical education puts students and teachers in touch with the whole of reality in its truth, goodness and beauty. Thus it is integrative; it unites students and teachers in their shared humanness, enabling them to engage the wholeness of human experience and, therefore, to become more whole themselves. It also reveals that what is true is good and beautiful, and that what is good is beautiful and true.

To clarify the distinctive qualities of classical education, it helps to contrast it with aspects of the elementary and high school education usually offered nowadays.  To do so requires generalizing, of course, and thus painting something of a caricature of the current condition of conventional elementary and high school education. 

Still, the contrast illuminates classical education against the backdrop of the ruling educational culture, not to mention the economic, moral and political climate out of which conventional education has arisen and within which it persists. A classical education unites students and teachers in their shared humanness, enabling them to engage the wholeness of human experience and, therefore, to become more whole themselves.

(To be continued)

Matthew D Walz is an associate professor of philosophy and Director of the Philosophy & Letters and Pre-Theology Programs at the University of Dallas as well as the Director of Intellectual Formation at Holy Trinity Seminary.