Classical Education and the Special Nature of Inquiry

Peter Vande Brake explains the importance of teaching students to ask the right kind of questions.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

At its core, classical education is about asking questions. David Hicks in, Norms and Nobility, states:

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned
with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry (18).

The Spirit of Inquiry

The special nature of the inquiry is fundamental to classical education. Every educational methodology known to humankind touts inquiry as an essential element, but it is the nature of the inquiry that makes all the difference. In classical education, the order and method of inquiry are crucial. The classical educator asks normative questions first; everything else follows from that.

Hicks divides questions into two basic categories: normative and analytical. Normative questions are questions that direct the inquiry and render value. Hicks offers some examples of normative questions as follows: “What is the meaning and purpose of man’s existence? What are man’s absolute rights and duties? What form of government and what way of life is best? What is good, and what is evil?” These are the kinds of questions that must “precede and sustain analysis” if a student is going to learn anything from his or her experience (Hicks, 64). Normative questions reveal the essence or nature of things and are especially concerned with human nature.

Analytical questions, on the other hand, provide information, but they don’t determine moral value or dictate order for inquiry. Some examples of analytical questions would be questions such as: What color is it? What are the results of the experiment? Who is the main character? What is the theme of the book? What is the sum of 2 + 2? Which army won the war? and What can human beings do? If analytical questions are allowed to lead the inquiry, then education inevitably devolves into relativism and subjectivism. Asking analytical questions may allow people to talk about values, but this line of questioning does not make any binding or absolute claims. Analytical questions are not bad or unimportant questions. In fact, they are necessary, but they do not force students to wrestle with issues that are of ultimate or absolute importance.

Thus, to properly implement classical pedagogy, normative questions need to come first in terms of chronological order and in terms of their importance for inquiry. When normative questions lead the search for learning, then the answers to those questions will guide our analysis of literature, art, math, politics, science, or whatever it is that we are trying to understand. The information that we gain from analytical questions then falls into place and is useful to us in our learning.

The Development of Conscience through Myth

Classical education, then, is a special kind of inquiry in which we ask the right kinds of questions in the right order. So, once we have the right questions, where do we go for the answers? Hicks tells us that we find the best answers in the great myths1 because it is in myths that we find the Ideal Type. The Ideal Type offers the best prescription for how we should live.

The record of man’s study of himself suggests answers falling into two broad categories: the prescriptive and the descriptive. The early record favored a prescriptive understanding of man embodied in myths . . . Myths whether they sang of the exploits of demigods or of heroes, caught in their perpetual flames a unifying vision and standard of man, an Ideal Type striding between the poles of human strength and human frailty (Hicks, 4).

The human condition, as it is described in myths, gives a picture of humans and demigods that are often heroic and courageous, but imperfect. The characters of interest are always flawed and frail in some way. They all have their “Achilles’ heel.” This manifestation of the Ideal Type found in ancient and modern myths provides an ideal that no human being can match and yet an example to which all people can relate. The Ideal Type is resolute in its expression and yet always requires improvement. It is prescriptive rather than merely descriptive. It provides a pattern, an example, a way of living that is desirable for all people in all times and all places. Hicks explains this concept and offers some illustrations of the Ideal Type in this way:

This Ideal Type was at once immutable yet ever in need of refinement. It was the metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth, empowered by education to metamorphose the diligent student. Both an elaborate dogma and a man, it defied comparison with any man, yet all men discovered themselves in it. The Ideal Type embraced Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu and David’s love for Jonathon, Odysseus risking his precarious safety to hurl gratuitous insults at the Cyclops, and Achilles deciding at the dawn of human history to die at the supreme moment of glory rather than to live through the long, wizening, connubial years. What made these stories valuable was not their historical authenticity or experimental demonstrability, but their allegiance to a pattern of truth. Whatever fit this pattern was retained and added to the education of future generations. What fell outside this pattern was judged superfluous to the education of the young (Hicks 4).

Thus, the characters in art and literature that embody this Ideal Type provide a pattern for education because it conforms to the more comprehensive and more important pattern of truth. Their lives, actions, and attitudes provide a template for living that is worthy of imitation.

They show us our potential for greatness and our penchant for weakness and self-indulgence. We are better people when we emulate their strengths, and when we learn from their mistakes and flaws, we avoid trouble and calamity. This pattern of truth is regarded as the heart of classical education. The central concern is how we should live and what we need to know in order to have a good life. In this way, art and literature become the conduit for learning and true education. Hicks describes this phenomenon as follows:

By insisting upon descriptions conforming to a prescriptive pattern of truth, our cultural forebears made art and language the midwives of sound learning, while behaving, to our enlightened eyes, like tribal doctors intent on making the disease match their cure. They never hesitated to prescribe good manners and proscribe bad taste by falsifying the infallible proofs of their five senses. Fabricated descriptions, mere imaginative inventions in homage to the Ideal Type, served the chief aim of their education: imitatio Christi, the incarnation of a metaphor (Hicks, 4-5).

So, we answer normative questions by appealing to myth. We point to the incarnation of a metaphor as an answer to the most important questions that we can ask— questions about the meaning of life, the nature of a human being, the best way to live, and what is good and what
is evil. We find answers to the most important questions we can ask by reading Homer and Vergil and Dante and Dostoyevsky, but our greatest and most definitive resource for answers to these questions is the Bible. It is in Christ, the hero of the Bible, that we find the incarnation of the Logos, who gives our lives new meaning and provides us with perfect concepts of righteousness and justice and humanity. The highest form of education is to imitate Christ, the true Ideal Type, who shows us perfect humanity without the flaws of hubris or self-interest or a vengeful spirit.

This is how classical education is done. We begin with the normative questions. We find answers to these questions in studying, analyzing, and imitating the Ideal Type because this is where normative questions find their best and strongest answers. Then we can go on to ask and answer analytical questions so that our experience may become valuable to us. Once we have rightly answered the first questions, we can fulfill the true purpose of education:

The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows (Hicks 20).

True education helps us to make the connection between knowledge and action. It goes beyond teaching us what we can do to teaching us what we ought to do. True education is not merely descriptive but prescriptive. It insistently and adamantly points us toward imitation of the Ideal Type.

The single greatest problem of modern education is that the hierarchy of questions has been reversed. The analytical questions have been given precedence in progressive education, and they guide how normative questions are answered. The prescriptive understanding
of man, the Ideal Type, is dismissed and tossed aside. The aim of education becomes descriptive, but not prescriptive. Hicks states:

Now, the modern educator is apt to dismiss prevarications told in deference to an Ideal Type, while he condemns the arbitrariness of a prescriptive understanding of man. He presumes to have found a method for replacing it, at least initially, with a descriptive understanding. . . . So without much sober reflection, the early record is quietly dismissed as unscientific—therefore, error- ridden and useless. In its place, the educator erects a sort of science without reason, random induction predicated upon gnomic utterances like those of Marshall McLuhan: ‘Data accumulation leads to pattern recognition’ (Hicks, 5).

The accumulation of information does not constitute a real education. As C.S. Lewis once said, this practice of educating people without prescribing values may have the undesirable effect of creating more clever devils instead of producing people of substance and virtue. The primary problem here is that the link between knowledge and action is severed. There are no guiding principles, no virtues. Information alone does not lead us anywhere without the help of normative inquiry to instill value and to guide our journey. Without knowing where we are starting from and going to, a map does us no good regardless of the level of its detail and accuracy. Only normative inquiry can give us a sense of direction and purpose.

The Development of Style through Language (in the Context of Relationship)

Finally, there is much that can be said about how a classical education can develop a student’s style through language that has to do with the study of language itself—Latin, Greek, Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric and all the rest. However, I will conclude by highlighting a different aspect of this development—personal engagement in the correction and formation of the language of a student. When we are teaching a student how to wisely and eloquently articulate his or her thoughts, whether it is in speech or in writing or in a work of art, it is always most effectively done in the context of a relationship.

Each student brings his or her own unique challenges to a teacher. They do not all share the same favorite story. They do not all enjoy poetry. They do not all see the beauty of math. They do not all find illustrations from sports insightful or revealing. They do not all respond the same way to correction and constructive criticism. For some, lots of red ink on a page challenges them to work harder and dig deeper, for others it makes them want to give up. It is part of the job for a teacher to be judicious in his or her critique and encouragement to bring each student, as much as possible, in line with the Ideal Type.

In a classical education, the special nature of inquiry takes place within a relationship between teacher and student that goes beyond superficiality or perfunctory mechanical delivery. A teacher who is trying to develop style in a student through language will know something about how to motivate and direct that student in the most effective way. The point of common interest, the heart of that relationship between teacher and student, is the inquiry itself and the maieutic process by which a teacher brings a student to a maturity of style and expression as he or she engages the mythology of the Ideal Type.

Classical education is not tied to any particular historical era; its methods are timeless. It is a spirit of inquiry that is concerned first and foremost with normative questions that lead us to wrestle with truths about human nature and virtue. In this quest for meaning, we look to heroes who teach us how best to live our lives. The ultimate and best answers for life are found in Jesus Christ who most completely and prescriptively manifests to us the perfection of our fallen but redeemable selves. It is through the archetype of Christ that we learn how to effectively connect our knowledge to our actions and live with integrity and purpose.