Classical and Orthodox Education: What’s in a Name?

by Jul 29, 2021Education, From the Headmaster's Desk-Reflections on Classical Education

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

Part III-Classical and Orthodox Education: What’s in a name?

In their desire to set themselves apart from the nonsense going on in many public and private schools, many classical schools become knowledge mills. Students are expected to read and digest voluminous amounts of information because that is the “classical” thing to do, yet such things do not make a better or wiser student. They only serve to create students who rely on SparkNotes to pass the exam and move on to the next thing. Truly, parents and students should expect there to be a lot of reading in a classical school, but the texts should always be appropriate and serve a purpose other than checking off the “we read these books!” box.

Faith is Central to Education

The role of faith and its application within a school represents one of the final, yet vitally crucial differences among classical schools. Many classical schools rely on state and federal monies to fund their programs. This presents a quandary for school administrators and teachers since they are then limited in the breadth and scope of where their studies, teaching, and discussions go. They can take students on the proverbial “path to truth” and point out things that are good, true, and beautiful, but they cannot complete the journey for fear of losing precious operational monies. Their programs, thus, are incomplete and are unable to form fully the mind, heart, and will of their students. Now it should be noted here that there are many believing Christians and persons of faith in these schools. For them, as it was initially for me, 3/4 of the journey completed is better than giving up the journey all together. And to some extent they are right. They are able to reach, in some instances, three times the number of students they would have in private schools, and this is a good which should not be ignored. Yet, oftentimes, rather than having the hoped-for intent of leading students to saying, “wait a second, there’s more to this story than we are covering,” they often aren’t able to make that jump because the unifying, underlying principles have been glossed over the whole time they have been in school resulting in the most important things only being an afterthought. Worse yet are the students who complete these programs and become, for lack of a better term, “know-it-all pagans.” These are the students who know everything and believe nothing. Their knowledge is a series of propositions which have no order, beauty, or purpose and which can lead to serious intellectual errors, the travesty of which can be gleaned from reading the morning news. Those schools and educators that believe a complete, thorough education can happen without the faith are mistaken. Surely the child will be educated, and in many instances can be educated well, but his or her formation will lacking in fundamental principles which are essential to, if not the sole purpose of, their human formation.

Up to this point, we have explored how classical schools are similar, how they differ, and what things make classical education unique. But what is meant by a classical Orthodox school?

Brief Historical Overview

By Late-pagan Antiquity, the purpose and practice of learning focused on developing and pursuing the “good.” How, for instance, does one speak well? What is meant by the good city? How might one attain the good life? Various arts of learning developed in language (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) and numbers (Mathematics, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy). Right-ordered thinking was key to understanding and achieving wisdom and as such, all learning was directed toward that end.

With the Incarnation and the birth of Christian civilization, Christians both inherited and transformed the pagan Hellenic culture of the ancient world instead of rejecting it. Christians saw in the ancient writings “universal intuitions of the Logos” and “shadows of Truth.”  Thus, all early Orthodox Christian education was “classical,” that is, it read, memorized, understood, and contemplated pre-Christian texts and thought. Furthermore, as St. Justin the Philosopher states, they accepted the premise that, “Whatever has been uttered aright by any men in any place belongs to us Christians.” Added to this were studies and contemplation of the psalms, scriptures, writings, and sermons of the faith. Where classical wisdom fell short, Orthodox Christianity supplied what was lacking because of the theological premises it was built upon.

First, it recognized and understood that the Incarnation was the central event of all human history, and as such all things that are good, beautiful, and true, point to or flow from it. Secondly, it acknowledged objective, universal truths. These truths, flowing from or pointing back to Christ were true of all men, regardless of time, age, or circumstance. Thirdly, it built upon the importance of language and its proper use as essential to right belief. St. Basil points out that “to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task.” Furthermore, St. Photios of Constantinople states, “Even the smallest of signs, the mark of punctuation, wrongly used creates great heresy of every kind.” Rhetorical and logical arts, then, are key not only to speaking well, but also to developing a clear argument against error. Finally, Orthodoxy understands that man is born with the mind, heart, and will estranged from one another. Reason and judgement are obscured by the Fall, the heart turns toward the passions, and the will is weak, hence any learning that is true must first seek unite these three, thereby freeing the mind from error, the heart from passions, and strengthening the will to bring knowledge into focus. This is not always a pleasant experience since it requires humility and discipline, but as light first blinds us when it shines bright, it eventually makes clear all thing upon which it shines. After time, a well-formed mind will recognize those things not illuminated by the light and will be able to reject them as erroneous.

But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not enough. An intellect that focuses only on intellection endangers both the heart and the will, for to be fully human, there must be a union between all three. Thus, while knowledge and content are important, they are not the most important thing, or even the purpose of education. What is most important is making students fully human, a process which requires discipline, virtue, grace, and humility.

In a classical Orthodox school, the Orthodox Faith is central to the thought and practice of everything. It enlightens, corrects, and makes whole everything it touches. All things which are universal and permanent then make sense, complement one another, and form the foundation upon which the student’s soul is molded. He or she is not just a receptacle for the acquisition of knowledge, but rather a human being created in the image and likeness of God. The completeness of every human is judged by how much or how little they reflect Christ, the God-man. To raise up smart, reflective, virtuous, and grace-filled students who reflect the image of God in man is the raison d’etre of classical Orthodox education.

This is achieved by students being immersed in the stories of salvation history, the lives of the saints, and the history of the Church through the first eight centuries A.D. Students are taught to look at the whole of the created order through knowledge of its parts, gained from experience of those things in their own lives. Students will learn and memorize psalms, read the great orations of pagan antiquity, Scripture, and Christianity. They will weep with Alyosha at the death of Fr. Zosimas, and cheer for Achilles when he finally leaves the shore to embrace his aristeia. They will understand the importance and beauty of numbers and how there is a music of the spheres. Most importantly, they will live their Orthodox faith in real, substantive ways, recognizing that peace of soul is the foundation of the good life.


The Orthodox Faith brings a clarity and purpose to education which is not possible in other public, private, or charter classical schools. This is not to say that these non-Orthodox classical schools are bad; but they are incomplete and cannot fully furnish students with the proper tools they need to be fully formed human beings. While we do agree on some important things, there are other things which only an Orthodox school can know, understand, and impart to their students. It is not enough to have students who know lots of stuff. We must have students who know and understand the permanent things so they and those around them can be transformed by the grace and peace of Christ Jesus. Anything less than this is incomplete and unbecoming of our spiritual, moral, or intellectual formation.

In Christ,

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