Classical and Orthodox: An Essay of Education’s Permanent Things

Part II-Classical School Distinctions

In last week’s post, I started a discussion about classical and Orthodox education. In this week’s blog, I will investigate those areas which make classical schools distinct.

What We All Agree On…

To begin, classical schools posit three generally accepted principles, and these principles can be found in some manner or form in all classical schools. 1) Classical schools focus on knowledge-centered learning that seeks to discover the good, the beautiful, and the true. This means that subjects like math, science, history, and literature are pursued for their own sakes, not for the utility they offer. Students are taught to memorize great poems, study classical languages, study history and learn not only the who, what, and where of time, but also the why and the how of those events. Goodness, beauty, and truth are real, substantive things which a knowledge-centered curriculum can reveal to students. 2) Classical education is content rich. It is not enough to know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC or that there is a harmony in the cosmos which can be proved mathematically. These things are important, but more importantly, why are these things true? Classical schools do not merely gloss over content, but delve deeply into it, getting their hands and the hands of their students dirty in the process. Classical schools foster a relationship with content which becomes part of the individual who is learning. In classical schools a student’s full formation is paramount, and anything less than content-rich curriculum robs the student of his or her legacy and birthright. 3) Classical schools supply a curriculum which frees the mind from error and allows it to be cultivated in its pursuit of wisdom. There is a reason why the liberal arts are called liberal: they free us from poorly formed ideas and habits. Wisdom is found only through thinking about, contemplating, and discussing difficult things after the mind has been freed from erroneous or poorly conceived ideas to do so.

What We Disagree On…A Few Divergent Practices

These three pillars represent areas we can, as classical education proponents, agree upon. But here is where schools begin to diverge. For instance, many classical schools emphasize acquisition of the virtues but disagree on what virtues are most important. Should we, for instance, emphasize the classical virtues, the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues, American civic virtues, four virtues, two virtues, or all virtues? In what order do we emphasize them? Should we have virtue cards, virtue points, virtue clubs? What is virtue? Unfortunately, while all agree that virtue is important, few can agree on why it is important, how it should be implemented, and whether a child who exhibits virtue is really virtuous, for the two are not the same. Of course, we want our children to learn the virtues, but can virtue find completeness outside of a Christiantelos or worldview? Truly, there have been many righteous (that is, virtuous) pagans, but their virtue was often incomplete. Virtue without grace seems difficult, and any pursuit of the virtues which does not culminate with participation in the Incarnation is merely a shadow of virtue, but not virtue itself.

Classical schools also disagree on what and how many texts a student should read over the course of a year. As the name implies, a classical school is going to read classical texts, but what texts and in what order is often debated. Is it really appropriate for a 2nd grader to read (yes read!) Plato’s Republic? Just because a student can read a book, does not mean that he or she should. Do students in high school have the intellectual capability to read, contemplate, and retain information from nine pieces of literature in one academic semester? Classical schools tout the “we are rigorous and therefore better than other schools” but I would argue that they do so to the detriment of students. We all agree that students should be challenged, but what does that look like? Is it better, for instance, to learn fewer things well even if it means we don’t do a particular Great that year?

In next week’s post, we will get into the nuts and bolts of Orthodox education and what that means for John of Chrysostom School of Lehigh Valley.

In Christ,

John W. Heitzenrater II A.B., M.H.M