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Which is Better a Classical or a Modern Education?

written by: zbrown • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 1/20/2012

The classical revolution is trying to grab us with promises of greatness, claiming a "different" approach to education and a system that has been effective for over the last 2,000 years. In reality though, how does this play out? Is it the real deal, or simply a lot of hype to get us to shell out?

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    Here is a question for the ages: which method/theory to use, classical, or modern? There really is no easy answer to this question. There are those who are ardent supporters of classical pedagogy and those who cringe at the thought. Both sides of the issue tend to fling mud at the poor sap on the other side, and if he happens to be a classicist, he will sit in his ivory tower and act superior (probably because he knows Latin), and he may write a poem about the experience. If he is a promoter of the modern educational theory, he will more likely try to prove himself “scientifically” and, using modern “irrefutable” data will make his case. The real question with all this going on is whether it actually does any good for the students they are teaching.

    In this great country where everyone has a chance to stand up and say what they believe, there seems to be a severe lack of those who are willing to learn. The problem here is that speaking without learning is not beneficial. That being the case, let’s attempt to learn something from history, religion and culture. I say this because these are more or less the three issues that are more hotly debated in education circles when it comes to classical vs. modern.

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    History

    Probably the most rudimentary level on which to start with this discussion is history. Historically, Classical Education (C.E.) methodology has a very definite edge, in fact, a double-edged sword. Even our results driven society has a difficult time arguing with classical education, we look at the end product and come to a simple conclusion that it is better. The other side is that C.E. has been providing this for over 2,000 years. It’s hard to argue with that much “success”. C.E. even has the edge in the so-called scientific revolution of the renaissance. Most of the greatest scientists were classically educated. So how can I possibly come down on C.E. if there are so many great things and such a tremendous history? Let’s talk methodology and sociology.

    Two-thousand years ago, C.E. was made possible by an extraordinarily affluent society. This means that where affluence did not exist, neither did classical education. So the educational system was one of the upper class, anyone below the line was left out. This meant a huge number of people were left out. Indeed, we find the same results when we study history, that the lower class was left to get their education from their dad (the town carpenter, or a farmer), and they were doomed to a life of lower class. Those great thinkers that we love to cite (with a few exceptions), for the most part wrote because they had time, they did not have to worry about survival, they had all their basic needs taken care of. So while classical education makes sense in a society where the freedom to advance was virtually nil, it does not work in a society (like the U.S.A.) where class advancement is the foundation.

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    Method

    Methodologically, C.E. in times of yore was vastly different than what is called C.E. today. Historically, C.E. was built on a three tier time frame for education that was not bound by a student's age, but skill level. This is the framework whose parts are known as Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. How these stages work are based upon a student's ability to process certain types of information, as well their understanding of the process itself.

    In the grammar stage it is generally agreed that the student is a sponge, they want to see the dots all connected and have someone show them how they connect. In the Logic stage the student wants to see the dots, but wants to begin connecting them himself. In the final stage, the Rhetoric stage, the student is to synthesize all he has learned, not only connecting the dots, but producing them as well.

    Understanding this is to further explain that historically, students were forced to memorize and repeat in the first stage, at penalty of whip lashings if they did not. Moreover, most students were either the only one being trained by the tutor, or one a very few. But the biggest issue here is advancement. Historically, a student was not advanced unless he was ready to advance as determined by the master. This meant, potentially, that students of different ages could be at the same place in their education.

    Now, the historical problem with C.E -- it doesn’t fit in society currently. Current society is concerned with students advancing as they age, not according to their actual abilities, and we are so stringently stuck on this ideal, that even if a school were to be out there that did model true C.E. (and to my knowledge there isn’t), we wouldn’t use it, because we are driven by a competitive mindset that tells us that our student has to move with the rest, or be left behind.

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    Religion

    If one were to take stock of all of the classical schools currently in America, he would find that the majority of them are “Christian.” Now, why are Christians so stuck on C.E? I think that to answer this question we need to take a trip back to Plato. Plato is generally understood to be the father of Western Philosophy, or at least Western Philosophical Thought. Plato saw a truth in the divine, though not calling it God necessarily, Plato addressed it. However, Plato was deeply in tune with culture and society and recognized that there was a necessary synthesis that had to take place in order to fully understand the universe.

    Plato was concerned with the “absolute” good. The good to which all other goods looked. As this played out through the ages, we come to the renaissance and the reformation and we find that man is anew beginning to ask questions of the good. As intellectualism spreads, the intellectuals strive more and more to understand God outside of faith. This creates the need for intense education as you can imagine and with the advent of the printing press more and more people are jumping into the ring of education and intellectualism.

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    Potential Problems

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that education and intellectualism are necessarily “bad,” but they did create a problem. Eventually people became more and more focused on the intellectualism and less and less on the real purpose for it, to discover the good. Analyses of good things became rote exercises for the sake of intellect. This led to another revolution, the humanist.

    As man became more and more intellectual, he also became more and more selfish, as a probable result of constantly studying man’s great accomplishments. Eventually there was once again a turning to look at the divine, but instead of the divine being an existence outside of man, it became attainable by man; enter Transcendentalism. We learn that we can supersede the mundane, because we are divine. This also separated divine and mundane and education became considered mundane, human. As a cause of this, education started to become a vocational practice, and one everyone deserved and eventually one that was required for everyone.

    Since that time classical education has struggled to find identity among scoffers, but as the spiritual is once again finding a place in our society, C.E. is there to prove the “absolute” good, by the evidence of good. Christians are behind this, largely because they want to prove that the absolute good is God. The trouble is that since recorded history, God has not been proven through philosophy, and I will warrant that He never will be. For the Christians however, since their forefathers were intellectuals who tried to prove it, then they ought to seek that same standard. Really, it becomes an issue of competition again, can we attain to the great things of our forefathers. “They founded a great country because they believed in the search for the “absolute” good, what can we do to top that.”

    I have already touched on the cultural reasons for classical education, so I will not belabor the point here again, suffice it to say that true C.E. methodology is not attainable in our current culture. So why would you call it classical? It really is just an advanced form of modern education whose methodologies follow right along with modern.

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    The Choice is Yours

    So in the end, who wins? You be the judge: C.E. with its history and philosophy and rigor, or Modern Education with its cultural applicability and results based outcome? What do you think? Post a comment and let us know.