Timothy Hall on “Classical education: sharpening students’ humanity for the 21st century”

What is classical education, and how is it distinct from other educational models?

Many educational models take the instrumentalist approach, which helps students achieve vocational goals. But from a practical standpoint, vocational goals have a limited scope.

I think back to my granddad, who told my father to work in the steel mill because “steel is forever.” It wasn’t; the steel mills are gone. My father told me to aspire to the paper mill; “paper is forever.” It wasn’t; paper mills are gone. Vocational goals are a means to an end, not the end.

Other educational models draw on the progressive approach, which focuses on developing good citizens in a democracy.

Yet that, too, is an insufficient end. Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers of Western tradition, was sentenced to death by a democratic Athens. He was convicted by good citizens, those who followed the customs, rules, and laws of their democracy. And he did not. And yet, who do we think was right in the conflict between “the best city” and “the best man”? So good citizenship is not enough either; it can be a good means, but not an end itself.

The classical approach differs from the previous two approaches. Rather than aiming for a mean, it educates for the humanity in each of us—an end in itself, not a means. In our humanity we can fail, but we can also triumph in the face of unsurmountable obstacles. In our humanity, we come to know and appreciate ourselves, and then appreciate the communities to which we are connected. Remember your Socrates: “Know thyself!” This admonition is the beginning of classical education.

But how can we go about doing this? Classical education continually asks the same essential six questions of Socrates:

  • What is virtue?
  • What is moderation?
  • What is justice?
  • What is courage?
  • What is good?
  • What is piety?

That is exciting stuff! And it is important stuff.

These are questions that students need to reflect on time and again. Each time they do, they will sharpen their humanity. It will change their lives; it will change your life, whether you teach in the classical approach, or are a parent of a classically educated student. And, its emphasis on cultivating our humanity can change our culture for the better.