Characteristics of Classical Education: Education as a Path

Earlier, I discussed how a classical education is a humanizing education. It teaches a person how to think and speak with those around him, it nurtures him instead of constantly assessing him, and it feeds him with books and ideas that will nourish his intellect and soul.

Today we’re going to talk about another characteristic of a classical education: those who practice classical education view it as a path. But first, what other analogies do some educators use to describe education?

Process

The first one that comes to mind is “process.” This seems to make sense. The student goes from one grade to another, gradually building upon what he has learned in the past. Information from one class mixes with information from another class, creating a whole new compound.

However, the subtle dehumanizing of students in many schools becomes obvious when we look at other things that get processed. Meat gets processed. It gets cut into steaks and roasts that will offer a savory dinner. Butchers use bone saws to separate the rack of ribs that we’ll grill during a Sunday afternoon tailgate party. And sausage, well, we don’t even want to know how that’s made.

Are we treating our students like sausage?

In what ways are we taking our fillet knife and separating parts of our children’s intellects out from the whole? All in the name of intellectual specialization, of course.

Gruesome, I know.

Right of Passage

I know kids who viewed their own high school educations like this. I was one. To me, there was nothing special about high school graduation. Everybody graduated. And if you didn’t, you were some special kind of loser.

Maybe my teachers and parents didn’t expressly view my education like this, but the culture sure seems to. How many kids are taught that they have to go to college to get a good job? Only bad jobs are left for those who didn’t jump through the hoops.

Besides being patently false (I know many men who have held fantastic jobs and won plenty of bread for their families, even without a college degree), this view of education implies some misery will accompany education.

Like a frat party hazing ritual, our students are suffering and humiliated on their way to the prize of a high school diploma or college degree. Yet when they arrive, many realize the worthlessness of the prize. That college degree didn’t automatically land them their dream job. They never got to learn things that really interested them during high school.

Speaking for myself, I feel like my real education finally started when I got out of formal school. And I was an eager learner all through high school and college. I wonder how those kids who hated high school felt as adults. Liberated, probably.

The Path Has a Guide.

Now, I’m sure no self-respecting public or private school teacher wants to look at her job either of these two ways. It doesn’t even take that benificient of a teacher to view education as a path, but most public school teachers are working within a system that makes this view difficult to susain with any optimism.

The homeschooling parent is not bound by that system, which makes it much easier to view herself as a guide along the path of learning. We are not assembling parts on an assembly line, nor are we overseeing a miserable hazing ritual. We get to walk alongside our students, introducing them to new sights, sounds, and smells.

The path of education necessarily views the “teacher” more in the capacity of “tutor.” Mystie wrote a great post on this topic.

Pacing is Determined by the Student

If education is a path, the student must walk using his own legs. He cannot be pushed along by “the system.” Homeschooling moms risk doing this just as much as public and private schools. We have curricula that we follow. We want to get through the whole text in a year, too.

Individualized pacing means that sometimes our student is crawling on hands and knees up a steep slope, and sometimes she’s frollicking and cartwheeling in the meadow. But if the tutor or the curriculum carries the student, the student doesn’t learn anything. For an education to be the student’s own, the guide must slow down or speed up, or take the easy route all in response to the needs of the student. Notice, I didn’t say in response to the desires of the student.

Truth Orients Us

Truth determines what we should learn. Let that simmer for a moment, because it’s so contrary to how the rest of the world does things. The world pays lip service to truth, but does not submit itself to the Truth almost ever, let alone in its schools.

Truth helps us orient ourselves around the world’s ethical pitfalls, political propaganda, and the thousand other things that can make us stumble.

This is why classical educators don’t shy from teaching their feisty junior high students formal logic. If they’re going to be argumentative, let’s at least teach them how to form a sound and true argument. We want to raise our kids up to be grown ups one day, not just larger humans operating on a logic of narcissism.

So in our analogy, things that are good and right are like our guideposts along the path. They tell us we’re heading the right direction. They help us keep our bearings in what is sometimes a very dark and confusing world.

The path to wisdom and virtue is just that, a path with an end goal. The best guide directs the student toward these goals, helping the student stay on track as much as it is possible to direct sinful people toward thinking and acting that is Good.

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