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What Is the Effect of a Classical Education?

People often associate the phrase "classical education" with a kind of elite intellectual endeavor, as if a classical education is only for especially bright students. I think this is because a classical education is perceived to be an almost entirely intellectual pursuit. It is not. In fact, an overemphasis on the intellect -- and a narrow part of the intellect at that -- at the expense of the rest of the human person, is one of the grave faults of modern education.

Classical education is concerned with the whole person - his whole intellect, his emotions, his passions, his appetites. These do not exist separately in a human being but, rather, are integrated in each person. A complete education addresses all of these attributes both in regard to the materials used in education and in the way education is pursued. If education is simply about knowing things we will go about it in a particular way. If it is more properly about understanding things, we will go about it in a very different way. Is it more important to know the facts or to understand what they mean? I suggest it is the latter.

That does not mean that possessing information is not important. To understand the facts one must first know them. But who better understands what a horse is, the girl who knows facts about horses - quadruped, single-toed, eleven month gestation, vegetative diet - or the girl who lives with horses, takes care of them, touches them, speaks to them? Which girl would you want to take care of your horse? The second girl knows the facts but she also knows something else. Absent direct experience of horses, is there a way to obtain the kind of understanding that the second girl possesses? Or to obtain that kind of understanding about any human experience and about what things are whether we are in the realm of materiality or the realm of ideas?

A great deal has been written and said about the ways and means of helping students acquire information and develop particular learning skills - reading, writing, measuring, calculating, memorizing. Two skills that have been neglected, and that are essential to a classical education properly understood, are the arts of speaking and listening. I am not referring here to formal speech-making or to listening to speeches and lectures, though being adept at those activities is certainly desirable. I am referring to the arts of speaking and listening in conversation, or discussion, and in particular to discussion about ideas and human experience. The exercise of these two human faculties, speaking and listening, in an effort with others to discover and understand what is true, activates the mind in a manner that simply reading or listening to lectures cannot. It also activates the emotions and passions and gives the student the opportunity to grow in intellectual and emotional maturity. Students who have the good fortune to participate regularly in such conversation in conjunction with reading the great texts of Western civilization can acquire a wisdom that is akin to the wisdom that comes with direct life experience.

I once read that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated person is that, if the need arose, the educated person could re-found civilization. This thought provides us with a useful measure of educational progress. Can the students coming out of our nation's high schools re-found civilization, or further its progress? Will your students be able to do that? What is it that will most enable them to do it? Will it be their knowledge of the periodic table of elements?

The word "civilization" comes from the Latin word civitas, meaning city. Civilized people can live cooperatively and peaceably in large groups. These groups are formed for the benefits that can be had by participating in the cooperative effort. Uncivilized people cannot live peaceably in large groups. Barbarians do not form large peaceful cities of free men. Why not? In our cities there are areas where it seems that civilization has virtually disappeared. Just what is it that has caused this? Is it that there has been a loss of the knowledge of math or grammar? Or is something even more important, more necessary to civilization, being lost?

Imagine that the rest of the world is suddenly gone. Only you and your neighbors are left. You must rebuild civilization. What is most needed? It cannot be done without cooperation. What is needed in order that you and your neighbors can cooperate? Two essentials are that you be able to communicate well with one another and that you possess the virtues that make cooperation possible. The more skilled you are in the arts of speaking and listening and the more patient, temperate, and prudent you are in your relations with one another the more successful will you be. Reading and discussing the great texts of our culture foster both of these essentials.

There is something else that is fostered by this classical way of education. It is the realization and understanding that there is much that binds all human beings in all times and places. As students read about and discuss suffering, pleasure, disappointment, hopefulness, anger, revenge, love, and the whole array of human experience, they come to have a broader and deeper understanding of what it means to live a human life. They develop a compassion for others, a knowing that life is not simply about technological advancement and economic production. This is a mark of a civilized person and, consequently, of civilization.

Socrates said that the end of education is to learn to love what is true and beautiful. Why? Because that is what gives a person the best chance to live a good life, to be happy, and the end of education should serve the end, or goal, of human life. Even on the natural order that end is to be happy. Every man, every woman, every boy, and every girl wants to be happy. Is that not, in fact, why you go to all of the time, trouble, and expense of educating your children? You want to give them the best chance to have a good life, a happy life. Possessing the skills of learning - knowing how to read and write, measure and calculate, to consider and judge, to speak and listen - is important and helpful toward the end in view. But the acquiring of skills and learning what is true and beautiful [the facts] is not enough. Socrates knew that simply knowing things does not fill the heart of a man or a woman. A full human life, a happy life, is marked by love.

For our students to learn to love what is true and beautiful they must experience it - see it, hear it, feel it. They need to get a taste of it and after doing so, they are far more likely to pursue it. Conversation about ideas and human experience promotes this. A truly classical, fully human, way of educating fosters this and helps to produce a civilized person. Might we say that a civilized person is one who loves what is true and beautiful and is able to convey that to others in a continual re-founding and furthering of civilization? Is that not what we try to do each day in our lives - to inform, to be informed, to be courteous, to build, to make comfortable, to appease, to love, to protect? These acts require more than a trained intellect and a truly complete education addresses more than a student's mind. Classical education does this. S.B.