Classical vs Modern Education

Classical vs Modern Education

Classical vs. Modern Education: The Principal Difference

by Patrick Carmack

“The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to
attain the truth adequately, while on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but everyone says something true about the nature
of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.”
– Aristotle [Metaphysics, Bk II, Chap. 1]


Education can be viewed from many different perspectives. One view sees it partly as the transmission of the accumulated knowledge of a society, as per Aristotle, above. Children are born without culture – they grow up in one, molding their behavior and beliefs towards their eventual role in their society.

In primitive cultures, education often involves little formal education and perhaps no schools as such. In some, only one or perhaps a few sacred books are studied. In more complex societies the sheer quantity of accumulated knowledge can take many years of formal education to transmit to the next generation, even if broken up into specialized areas of study. Education itself in such advanced cultures becomes a matter of study since efficient and integrated means of transmission of knowledge become more and more critical. In this article we will take a brief look at classical vs. modern (principally American) progressive education, and the main reason why they do, or fail to, educate our children.

What do we mean by classical education? From the dictionary definition: the word classical means of, pertaining to, or in accordance with ancient Greek and Roman precedents. Classicism means aesthetic attitudes and principles based on the culture, art, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome… So classical education means the education of ancient Greece and Rome. What do we mean by progressive or modern education? From the dictionary definition: progressive education means of, relating to, or influenced by a theory of education characterized by emphasis on the individual needs and capacities of each child and informality of curriculum. Modern: of, or pertaining to recent times, or to the present; not ancient.


The Aims of Education

Above we mentioned that there are many views regarding education and its purposes, depending upon one’s perspective. Virtually no one any longer sees education as an end in itself. Education is a means to an end. Therefore any change in the end aimed at will necessarily be reflected in the means of education selected. If our goal is only to produce good coal miners who will work until they drop and cause no problems, then their means of education will be a simple affair. If, however, our goal is to produce well-rounded, cultured gentlemen and ladies, capable of addressing any problem or situation in life with the maximum likelihood both of success and personal happiness, then the means of education to do so will be a much more complicated affair. Any change of means may affect the achievement of the end.

As we noted above, modern, progressive education has as a goal fulfilling the individual needs, interests and capacities of the individual students. This emphasis focuses on what is individual to each student – therefore upon the differences among the students, as if such differences were paramount in determining the means of education employed. It is easy to see that if such differences as there are among students are secondary to what they share in common – their similarities – then the focus of progressive education is misplaced.

If children share only similar physical characteristics, given that no two bodies (not even of “identical” twins post partum) are just exactly alike, then differences in height, genetic makeup, health, test-taking ability, IQ scores, and so on – all those things which individuate them from their fellows — are indeed of primary importance since they are different in nearly all such things that can be measured physically. In that case, no two children are truly equal (except before the law, in some countries). However, if all children share something in common much more important than their similar yet differing bodies, then that shared commonality, that likeness will be of paramount importance in determining how best to educate them.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Different conceptions of the nature of man result in different educational goals and means. For those who think or believe that all men share a common human nature and like, immortal souls, then that reality becomes of paramount importance in determining the goals and means of education, which will certainly not be focused primarily on the less important measurable, individual differences of their physical beings (except perhaps in the most unusual cases of physical disability). Instead, education will be focused on the care of that shared human nature – on their immortal souls.

Now the prevailing view of the ancient Greeks, certainly from the time of Socrates on, was that we do have immortal souls. So their education aimed at the care and nurturing of the soul, as being more important than the body. Even so, “a sound mind in a sound body” was one of their key educational notions, but the body was nevertheless viewed as a sort of tomb or prison for the immortal soul – merely an instrument the soul must be housed in and use in this life – from which it would be released at death. Since he believed the soul was immortal and would have some eternal fate based upon its goodness or lack thereof (as do all the major Western religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism), Socrates’ views on education reflected that belief, as did that of his ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans who followed the Greeks. Hence Socrates taught that the one thing needful for the soul was that it should strive after goodness.

Since the fate of one’s immortal soul hinged on its goodness, then the pursuit of goodness became the principal occupation for the ancient Greeks. Goodness for them consisted of the virtues or habits of good action and thought, in proper order and harmony, leading to wisdom. So to pursue wisdom, and goodness, was to be on one and the same path. But how best to advance on this path? Socrates, beyond all of his philosophical dialogues, felt that one thing in particular was most important: “[I] thought that, because I loved him, my company could make him a better man,” [Socratic Aeschines fr. II c, p. 273 Dittmar]. This was the Socratic approach to education in its core: education through love. The emotions as well as the reason, since both are integral parts of human nature, must be included in any education leading to the good. Indeed, education did not mean for Socrates the cultivation of the intellect alone – to the neglect of all else – but since man is attracted to the good first by what is beautiful, education must first begin with the senses, proceed on to the memory, imagination, intuition and intellect, spurred on to all by love. Socrates clearly loved his students, who became his friends – as many as would.

Modern, progressive education, in either denying or ignoring the soul is left with nothing else but the body – the brain, to educate (with competitive sports added helter-skelter). The brain thus conceived as a sort of computer that moves about, rather than goodness or wisdom the goal of human education becomes knowledge in the sense of data storage and retrieval (in the better of the modern schools), and mere political indoctrination in most. Love is irrelevant in such an environment. Indeed, it becomes a distraction from the business at hand and it is considered a defect in a teacher to love his students as friends.

Here now we come to the single greatest advantage homeschooling has over modern public (or private school) education – love. No one can love a child like his or her own parents. A loving parent does, in fact, make for the better person at which Socrates aimed. What empirical science cannot measure (love and goodness), common sense and experience abundantly confirm. The opposite consequences of the absence of love are likewise confirmed.

What of the genuinely “abusive” home situation or parent? Hard cases make bad law. Because some men are thieves does not mean all men ought to be put in prison. A few rotten apples does not mean we all should quit eating apples. If the alleged abuse is real, then the state may step in, and some sort of public schooling may be the only alternative. But this – the unnatural case – says nothing about the norm, about how children should be educated in the vast majority of families where they are loved. In those families in does not “take a village” – it only takes a loving family.

In the same fragment quoted from above, Socrates stated he believed, “the love I bore…[allowed me to] draw honey and milk in places where others cannot even draw water from wells.” That is, love has a power to motivate, an attraction to goodness, beyond the rest of nature, bordering on the miraculous. Ignore the souls of children and so remove love from education and what do you get – modern, progressive “dumbing-down” education where fear and hatred stalk the halls and all too often explode into violence and despair.

Very, very few can learn well in such environments – as sinking test scores and poor academic achievement (such as the growing inability of high schoolers even to read) increasingly confirm.

Homeschooling is so successful relative to public and private school education, despite many obstacles and disadvantages, primarily because children have souls and thrive – in every way – in the loving environment of their families (however small that family may be – two can make a very loving family). Scratch the surface of a modern educator in our schools today and you will find either admirable, well-meaning, dedicated teachers who are increasing forced to truncate their personalities and genuine love for their students by a frustrating, bureaucratic, politically correct, progressive educational model, or someone who is simply up to no good. The newspapers are full of many examples of both types, almost on a daily basis.

In the Athenian custom, the ancient Greeks homeschooled their children until their seventh year, in the poetic mode described elsewhere in this issue. Modern, progressive education pushes taking children from their homes earlier and earlier. The adoption of the German kindergarten model in this country stole one more year from the natural, early home formation of American children. Plans are afoot now to allow the schools to reach back even earlier – to age 4, 3 and even 2 – to take children from the loving culture of their homes. So “successful” are our public schools that they imagine more of the same will solve the very problems they have created.

Classical elementary and secondary education is addressed in other articles in this issue, as is the “poetic” mode of educating via the senses, emotions and intuition. But lest we get lost in the details, it is important occasionally to remember the core of the classical, Socratic way of educating – love.