What Is Classical Christian Education?

Begin With the End in Mind

I would like to propose a very important question. What do you think is the purpose of education? It is a question that the liberal teacher’s unions and progressive educators have thought much about. It is one you should think about too. I cannot think of a more important question that you will ever encounter as you decide what is the right path for your child’s education.

To consider this question requires that your begin by first thinking about the end. What are your goals for your child? For instance, a communist might think the goal of education is the train its citizens to carry on the work of the communist party and produce agricultural and industrial production. To achieve this goal their educational methods will limit freedom of thought, be heavily laden with indoctrination, and focus on tactical skills that will create a strong, submissive workforce, ready to go to work upon graduation (in many ways this sounds eerily like the mission of our public schools, does it not?!) It will be devoid of religion as the communists do not believe in God and want religion to disappear. “All religions so far have been the expression of historical stages of development of individual peoples or groups of peoples. But communism is the stage of historical development which makes all existing religions superfluous and brings about their disappearance.” Communist Principles #23

As I examined many different theories of education (we call these pedagogies) I ultimately came to the conclusion that my goals were best accomplished in a classical Christian education. As a Christian, we would say all wisdom and virtue ultimately comes from the Lord. And these ideals of wisdom and virtue are put in our hearts by God, who loves us and desires to have a relationship with us. The goals of a classical Christian education are first and foremost to come to a knowledge and saving relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ, through prayer and the study of the Bible. Additionally, the study of the great books and liberal arts and sciences are also valuable as they do all cultivate wisdom, virtue, and critical thinking skills in order to pass on and preserve Western civilization. But first and foremost is the Bible.

A saving relationship with the Lord is the most import thing we can lead our children to in their education. Many would say a classical education imparts wisdom and virtue, and that is true, but it is only through the Word do we fully understand these things. True wisdom is grounded in truth, and truth comes from the Lord. There are many public charter schools, like Great Hearts and others, which are prohibited from teaching religion, but still attempt to impart a classical education. I would maintain it is incomplete. Like looking through a keyhole you can see some – but not all. And these ideals of wisdom and virtue are put in our hearts by God, who loves us and desires to have a relationship with us. Our chief goal is to know Him, and our end goal is to serve Him and others.

But What “Job” Can You Get With a Classical Education?

One does not enter into a classical Christian education with the goal of having a trade or vocation by the time they graduate. Some do have that goal, and there is nothing wrong with that goal, it is just not the main goal of a classical education. A trade can be acquired at any time in life with only the effort of a little time and expense. What I find to be profoundly more important, while my children are still at home, is to teach my children how to think. That is what sets a classical education apart. It is the freeing of the mind. The ability to reason and critically think about any matter (logic) and even persuade others if necessary (rhetoric).

As Christians, learned in God’s Word, we are able to consider the morality or virtue of a matter through the guiding of the Holy Spirit and lens of the Bible. Daily we will teach our children to do the same, through Bible reading time, discussions in the car and at the dinner table, history lessons, and great literature read-alouds. In time, they will come to their own saving faith in the Lord and they will stand before the Lord, guided and admonished by the Lord himself. And all that we have taught them will be with them always. This is classical Christian education; and through this they will grow up to be wise and virtuous. This is the bedrock of all that is great about Western Civilization.

Teach Them to Think – And They Can Do Anything

It is an obvious and tragic problem in our society that so many people today do not know how to think. That is, in fact, the goal of the communist education. To create a labor force that obeys implicitly. This is why they hate religion. They know that as Christians we answer to a higher power than man. In classical Christian education we are doing the very opposite of indoctrination. We are teaching our children how to think – and when you give them a gift like that, they can do anything.

There is no issue they cannot think through nor any trade they cannot learn or acquire. We give them not only the gift of knowledge and wisdom, but the tools for how to find it and obtain it. The world and all of its vast knowledge is at their fingertips. They will graduate knowing how to think for themselves, reason through information, order and articulate their thoughts with the ability to influence others for good.

But what does it mean to receive a classical Christian education? What are its constructs so that we can achieve our goals?

What Constitutes a Classical Christian Education?

Many people find it difficult to define what a classical education is. Largely this is because there is so much confusion as to what words mean and how their meaning has taken on new meanings. We call this in academia “arguing over semantics” – which is to say you are arguing over the meaning of words. I find that people will often agree with one another if they would only stop first and define their terms. So often arguments are because we hold different definitions for the same words.

For instance – when you hear “Liberal Arts” you might think of the word “liberal” which today means more a political affiliation, especially those associated with the “left” or often what we would categorize as “amoral” or lacking in morals. But really, the word liberal comes from the latin word “libero (liberare) which means “to set free, liberate, or release.”

Or the word “arts” can also be very confusing. Most think of arts as things such a painting or dancing. But the word for art comes from the latin word “ars, artis” which means “skill, craft, method, way, knowledge”. So, to put the two together, “liberal arts” truly means “the skills that set you free!” So in the context of education, the ability to read would be a liberal art. It is a skill that sets you free. Or the ability to calculate and do mathematic sums would also be liberating skill. The liberal arts have always been about creating a critical thinking mind that is able to go on and do anything in this world, but above all, search out and find truth, goodness, and beauty, and create a better humanity.

In the core of a classical education there is more than just the liberal arts–there are actually three different “arts”. And also in the core there is the vast body of content that we call “The Sciences”. Together the arts and the sciences form the core of the classical curriculum. Let us dive deeper and analyze each in turn.

The Three Arts (Skills)

1) The Manual Arts

Remembering that arts means “skills”, manual arts would include things such as cooking, sewing, typing, woodworking, blacksmithing, gardening, beekeeping, etc. The word “manual” comes from the latin word “manus” which means “hand”. These skills are not included in a formal education which is why you won’t see them on the above chart. I think this is because, traditionally, for the last 6000 years, these skills were taught at home readily and easily. Only in the last 100 years or so have these skills fallen off the radar in our modern industrial age. It is sadly quite common for a child to have never seen plants grow in a garden, nor grow up without any idea how to sew or knit. Although these arts are not academic, I maintain that these skills should still be part of a classical education as they do have direct relevance to developing the human soul.

When my daughters went over to my elderly neighbor’s house to learn how to knit, it blessed her and her soul as they worked together with their hands and she imparted her skill of knitting that she has perfected some 70 years. When the girls worked together all last winter to knit their father a scarf it filled their soul with love and joy. Or when I go into my garden and plant a tiny seed, and watch it turn into a gigantic plant to provides food for my family, I am filled the awe and wonder at the hand of God and the awe-inspiring creation that He has made. I would recommend that the classical education we impart to our children really ought to have some manual arts in it. Our founding fathers certainly were versed in Latin, Greek, the Bible, and the law and yet also knew how to farm and shoe a horse. We are missing something dear if we only immerse ourselves in books.

I think this is why in the last century, schools and colleges have begun offering manual arts in their curriculum.

2) The Fine Arts

These skills are called “fine” because of the latin word for “finis” which means “end” (as opposed to “means”). These skills are an end in and of themselves. We do not sing for the purpose of learning the guitar. Singing in and of itself is the end. It is a joy to sing and that is the purpose of singing. Contrast this to a different skill, such as grammar, you do not learn grammar for the sake of that skill alone, but rather so that you can go on to be a great writer. The fine arts also have direct relevance to the human soul and should not be neglected. We praise the Lord by means of the fine arts. But careful discretion with the fine arts is advised. Much of the fine art that exists today is vulgar and does not develop the soul. Parents must be diligent in protecting their children.

3) The Liberal Arts

We spoke of the liberal arts above, these are the skills that set you free. Of the liberal arts, there are seven, which we break into two categories:

The Trivium

The Trivium encapsulates the basic arts (skills) of language. Thus, they are commonly known as Language Arts.

  1. Grammar – The art of the proper expression of language
  2. Logic – The art of applying language to proper expression and argumentation
  3. Rhetoric – The art of using language to persuade
The Quadrivium

The Quadrivium are the basic arts (skills) of mathematics.

  1. Arithmetic – The study of the discrete number (Discrete means here that it is defined for a finite or countable set of values; it is not continuous.)
  2. Geometry – The study of the continuous number
  3. Music – The application of the discrete number (this is not music as you typically would view which is as a fine art, but rather music in terms of the math that is involved in rhythm and pitch. An example of this is “Pythagoras had discovered that if a string be divided into two parts by a bridge, in such a way as to give two consonant musical tones when struck, the lengths of these parts must be in the ratio of these whole numbers. If the bridge is so placed that 2/3 of the string lie to the right, and 1/3 on the left, so that the two lengths are in the ratio of 2:1, they produce the interval of an octave, the greater length giving the deeper tone. Placing the bridge so that 3/5 of the string lie on the right and 2/5 on the left, the ratio of the two lengths is 3:2, and the interval is a fifth. Pythagoras would later build a tuning scale based on fifths which was used until the creation of just intonation and tempered tuning.” http://humanstudy.org/2016/12/24/the-mathematics-of-the-quadrivium-by-brian-k-davis/ Music is more math than we realize.
  4. Astronomy – The application of the continuous numberMathematics and astronomy were closely related in the ancient writings on science. Hipparchus in 192 BC used trigonometric functions and constructed tables for the sun and moon with the use of ingenious instruments. He could compute and predict lunar and solar eclipses, and his calculation for the average length of the lunar month comes within one second according to modern computation. Astronomy even today, still involves much math.

This concludes the arts. We learned about all three arts (manual, fine, and liberal). We also learned that the arts are skills.

The Sciences

The second division of the core classical education is the body of knowledge called the sciences. In its essence, one could say that science is primarily content. While we do use the arts (skills) in the sciences (we use arithmetic in chemistry, etc), when we speak of the sciences as a division of education, we are speaking of the information we learn that is primarily ultimate or final in nature – knowledge that is learned for its own sake. The word science comes from the latin word “scientia” and it simply means: knowledge.

The Three Sciences

1) The Moral Sciences (aka “The Humanities”)

This the organized body of science that has to do with human interests, ethics, and endeavors. We very often call this category “The Humanities” because it has to do with human nature. We spoke earlier of semantics and word confusion – often people will misuse the name “Liberal Arts” and really they are referring to this body of science – the humanities. They typically are not speaking at all of the language arts as I have explained above, which is rather skills such as grammar.

In moral science the focus is on man and examining his proper nature, examining him as he is governed by God’s moral laws, and how he relates to those around him.

We divide the Moral Sciences into three subdivisions: literature, history, and philosophy.

  1. Literature – the study of exemplary texts that have stood the test of time, that represent all that is good, true, and beautiful. These great works give us insight into man and ultimately point us back to God. If it does not meet this criteria it is neither great – nor literature (in my humble opinion). So much worthless trash has made it into the houses of publishing companies that parents must be on the alert as much as they are with the fine arts. Thankfully, many great trusted books lists are available on the internet, and also, once you find Christian friends who love to read, referrals abound.
  2. History – the study of people and cultures that have shaped our past. We have great interest in learning about the Greeks, the Romans, Jerusalem, and Europe, as these cultures uniquely shaped our Western Culture, which ultimately led to America. We study our past, its leaders, and their actions and influences, for good and for bad, to learn from them.
  3. Philosophy – the study of ideas. It takes ideas found throughout time and evaluates them in one of two ways:
    • Theoretical Philosophy evaluates ideas according to their quantity (the philosophy of mathematics), according to their sensible properties (the philosophy of nature), or according to their being (metaphysics).
    • Practical Philosophy evaluates ideas according to his ability to create (the philosophy of art) and according to the absolute good of man (moral philosophy).

2) The Natural Sciences

This is sciences as you most often know them. Bodies of knowledge pertaining to our natural world around us. There are two main divisions.

  1. Life Sciences – branches of science such as microbiology, zoology, botany, or ecology, that deal with living organisms and their organization, life processes, and relationships to each other and their environment.
  2. Physical Sciences
    • Physics (the study of matter, its motion and behavior through space and time, and the related entities of energy and force)
    • Chemistry (the study of the properties, composition and structure of substances, the transformations they undergo, and the energy that is released or absorbed during these processes).
    • Earth Science (the studies of Geology, Meteorology, Oceanography, Astronomy)

3) The Theological Sciences

Theology comes from the greek word Theos (God) and Logos (Word). Theology is the study of God and His Word. In Theology we divide it into three main areas of study:

  • Doctrine – the study of Christian belief
  • Ethics – the study of Christian morality
  • Apologetics – the study of defending the faith

The modern curriculum in classrooms today is often a randomized hodge podge of different subjects. Many of them are utilitarian in nature, designed to get students out and into the workforce, and of those that remain that even remotely resemble a classical education, they have been stripped of virtue and truth and filled with literature and textbooks that push lies, wickedness, and a godless amoral agenda. Even classical charter schools are still not fully enough. Being public schools they can only teach virtue, but virtue apart from Christ is meaningless in the scope of eternity. Our goal should not be to just raise virtuous citizens (although that is a goal) but rather to train up our children in the faith of Jesus Christ “so that when they are old they will not depart from it.” Being “good” is simply not good enough. “It is by faith we are saved and not by works lest any man should boast.”

First and foremost this requires we give them a solid foundation in Jesus and the Bible. And then secondly, we train them up as virtuous citizens of America, so that like Jesus, they may grow “in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with man.” Luke 2:52 A classical Christian education accomplishes both of these goals. We will teach our children Jesus and we will teach them to think. To reason, reflect, and choose freely and wisely, all the days of the their lives – that they may be used by God for His glory and for His kingdom.

Leave a Reply