Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman takes first place, among authors of recent memory, for enunciating most clearly the principles and procedure of a Classical Liberal Education. He alone seems to understand fully the role of the seven liberal arts in the cultivation of the intellect, as well as the role of the fine arts in forming and refining the interior dispositions and emotions, or what some might call the ‘heart’. These two time honored traditions of the arts both liberal and fine, are the soil of “civilization”.
Many people use the word “classic” to describe old things. Books written by authors over one hundred years ago are classics. “Classical music” seems to be music that was written one hundred fifty years ago and before. A ‘classical curriculum’ probably means for many a set of courses that has some resemblance to the curriculum at an English boy’s school during the nineteenth century. At its best, the phrase classical education perhaps is meant to imply all those ‘time honored’ subjects and disciplines which work in developing the mind, and, as a consequence, have been handed down from generation to generation.
Education brings out the conservative in a parent. There is no mystery here. Novel approaches and innovative ideas might give the cutting edge in the market place, but in education one is suspicious of innovation as nothing more than ‘intellectual experimentation’. Intellectual experimentation is good for someone else’s children, but parents are the last ones who wish to experiment on their own children. The formation and instruction of the mind is such a serious and delicate work that it is easy to understand why parents would tend to be conservative in this area. Indeed, so jealous of this responsibility are a great many that the education of their children is not to be delegated outside the home. Busy parents do not have time to experiment on the minds of their children, nor would they wish to be responsible for harming their own child’s mind. The search for what is lasting, the perennial in education, will last as long as parents care for their children.
It is both fascinating and heartening to behold the extent to which parents are reclaiming the primary direction of their children’s minds. Home schoolers have evolved from something of an oddity to something very nearly fashionable. It is reassuring to see parents reclaim a more active role in the education of their children. At the same time one can only notice in parents a certain degree of haste to avail themselves of whatever means that are available for educating their children. Text books, Curriculum Lists, Reading Lists and “how to” books dealing with the education of the young no longer haunt the shelves of the professionals only. In this scramble for educational materials, parents of course keep an eye out for those things which work, and consequently have worked, the classic. “I would like my children to have a classical education” are words that any parent might utter with a sense of confidence that they are asking for something that needs no justification. If there is a sense of uncertainty about what classical education entails precisely, this uncertainty is offset by the conviction that Classical education is the education that has produced most of the great men in history.
Does “classical education” have a definition or is the phrase meant to imply simply all education up to the time of our grandparents? By “classical education”, let us understand nothing more than what is meant by ‘liberal education’ , a phrase itself more classic in describing what we mean. Liberal Education is the sort of education of which John Henry Cardinal Newman speaks. Liberal Education is the education of men like St. Thomas More.
Still, what is meant by liberal education is also something that has been given a very broad signification. Some think that liberal education teaches something about everything. Others think that it teaches everything about something. Both of these imply that liberal education is nothing other than a general education. Those who know something about everything may or may not have conviction about anything. Those who know everything about something in fact may have wisdom about nothing. Although liberal education implies a certain breadth of knowledge or “orbis doctrinae” as Quintilian says, mere general knowledge is not the same thing as liberal education. Again, liberal education does not exclude expertise or mastery of something. In fact the mastery of certain arts or skills is a sine qua non of liberal education. The particular choice of skills that we encourage our students to master is not an arbitrary one. In whatever manner ‘general knowledge’ is understood, it is important not to confuse general education with liberal education. General education may or may not imply intellectual conviction or intellectual formation whereas both of these are implied by Liberal education.
There are others who will speak about liberal education as consisting of an education in the liberal arts or humanities as if these terms were synonymous. As we shall see, the liberal arts have a definition that is quite opposite to that of the humanities. The difference between the liberal arts and the humanities will be of great use in our endeavor to specify what we mean by liberal education.
“Chronological snobs”, according to C. S. Lewis, are those who regard as significant only the ideas that belong to their own time. In our day one rarely hears the ideas of the past regarded with anything but contempt. I am refreshed, therefore, at what seems to me a growing interest in the education of the past, which is styled by many ‘classical education.’ Whatever is implied by the expression there is nothing snobbish in the attempt to rediscover it and give it to children. We can afford, however, to be more precise in defining what this education is which, in Ciceros’ expression, has stood the “test of time” (“Testis Temporum.”) Although there may have been periods before ours when the cultivation of the understanding and the development of the interior life was more generally understood and appreciated, nonetheless the proper formation of human beings is a process whose method belongs to every age.
A great deal more than children learning arithmetic and music hangs on the correct discussion of liberal education. In great measure, civilization itself depends on it. Newman himself sees this:
“…for we are but reiterating an old tradition, and carrying on those august methods of enlarging the mind, and cultivating the intellect, and refining the feelings, in which the process of civilization has always consisted.”