C. S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man

C. S. Lewis’ 1944 book The Abolition of Man is widely considered to be a classic work in the history and philosophy of education. The National Review, in fact, chose it as number seven on their “100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century.” In this seminar, we will examine the central themes of this important book
and the key arguments Lewis makes throughout it for absolute values and the training of students’ affections, as well as their intellects. We will work sequentially through each of the three chapters of the book, discussing both the progression of Lewis’ thought and the practical educational implications of his treatment of concepts like “men without chests,” “the Tao” and “the abolition of man.”

David Diener

Dr. David Diener began his post-secondary education at Wheaton College, where he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and ancient languages. After putting his philosophical training to work by building custom cabinets and doing high-end finish carpentry for an Amish company, he moved with his wife to Bogotá, Colombia, where they served as missionaries for three years at a Christian international school. He then attended Indiana University, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy, another master’s degree in history and philosophy of education, and a dual doctorate in philosophy and philosophy of education. He has taught at The Stony Brook School on Long Island, served as Head of Upper Schools at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth, Texas, and currently is the Head of School at Grace Academy in Georgetown, Texas. He also teaches philosophy courses at Taylor University, is an Alcuin Fellow and offers consulting services through Classical Academic Press. He is the author of Plato: The Great Philosopher-Educator and serves as the series editor for Classical Academic Press’ Giants in the History of Education. The Dieners have four wonderful children and are passionate about classical Christian education and the impact it can have on the church, our society and the world.

The Monastic Tradition of Education

In this seminar, we will trace the history of classical education as it resided in the Western monastic tradition. At a time when many are considering “The Benedict Option,” it is worth studying Benedict (480–543 AD) and the tradition of monastic education that preserved and extended classical Christian education. In one of the great ironies of history, Benedict sees the corruption of his university education in Rome and simply prays for three years at Subiaco (near the ruins of Nero’s “party palace”) and then emerges to become the one who safeguards the best of Christian and Roman culture. Remarkably, it is a man who seeks God in prayer while Rome is crumbling who becomes the leader of a monastic movement that preserves learning and piety for centuries to come. Benedict starts 12 monasteries in his lifetime, each with a school for educating the monks. By 1300 AD, many thousands of monasteries permeate Europe. Through several cycles of growth, stagnancy, corruption, and renewal, we will see that without Benedictine education, we would lack many of the riches that we inherit as classical educators. In this seminar, we will note the pedagogical and liturgical practices that characterized monastic education—many of which may serve to inspire and renew our own classical schools today.

Chris Perrin

Christopher Perrin is the publisher with Classical Academic Press, and an author and speaker for the renewal of classical education. He serves as a consultant to classical schools, schools converting to the classical model, and classical homeschool co-ops. He is the director of the Alcuin Fellowship and former the vice-chair of the Society for Classical Learning. Christopher received his BA in History from the University of South Carolina and his MDiv and PhD in Apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was also a special student in literature at St. John’s College in Annapolis. He has taught at Messiah College and Chesapeake Theological Seminary, and served as the founding headmaster of a classical school in Harrisburg, PA, for 10 years. He is the author of the books An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents, The Greek Alphabet Code Cracker, Greek for Children, and co-author of the Latin for Children series published by Classical Academic Press.

American Civil (lr)religion and Christian Peoplehood: Education and the Intuition of Membership

In recent years, there has been a widespread recovery of an awareness that education (like discipleship) is a process of formation that addresses the imagination and the affections. This process involves embodied practices (“liturgies”) within communities that have speci c moral and theological horizons. Because children are likely to be malformed by many conventional practices in contemporary nihilistic society, their guardians (i.e., parents, teachers, and clergy) need to be more diligent and deliberate in enculturating them: conveying to them a way of life tting for who they are. Leaders in Christian schools often sense that they are more attentive to the challenges of formation than are many parents and clergy. In this workshop, Ken Myers will argue that one reason that families, schools, and churches seem to be working at cross- purposes is because of a low view of the Church, her role in the project of redemption, and her identity in the world. He will suggest ways in which non-denominational schools can keep the “Church” in “parachurch,” encouraging a more emphatic recognition of participation in the culture of the people of God.

Ken Myers

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by historic Christian thought and practice. He was formerly the editor of This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. Prior to his tenure at This World, he was executive editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine. For eight years, he was a producer and editor for National Public Radio, working for much of that time as arts and humanities editor for the two news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. A graduate of the University of Maryland and of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Mr. Myers is the author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Crossway Books, 1989). He has wri en for numerous periodicals, including The Wilson Quarterly, Discipleship Journal, and First Things. He writes a regular column in Touchstone magazine called “From Heavenly Harmony,” has served on several evaluation panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, and lectures frequently at colleges, universities, seminaries, and churches around the country.

The Christian Liberal Arts: An Education for True Freedom

George Sanker

George Sanker has served as Headmaster of The Covenant School since 2011. Working in education since 1996, George has served as principal of two charter schools in Washington, DC and Longmont, CO. George graduated from Colgate University with a BA in Political Science. He also received an M.A. in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. George and his wife, Jeannette, have seven children.

How a Theology of Wisdom Undergirds Education

“Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the squares she thunders!” (Prov 1:20). The figure of speaking Wisdom is more than just an interesting literary device. Jewish and Christian tradition saw in a theology of Wisdom a foundation for what we would call classical education. In this presentation I propose to show how the theology of Wisdom presented in Proverbs and later Jewish and Christian texts presents us with what I call a traditional and transcending pedagogy. This traditional and transcending pedagogy is the antidote to the fragmentation of the modern world of education, specifically to three problems: scientism, technicism and pragmatism. These three -isms share the feature of reductionism, i.e. they reduce the educational endeavor to less than it is. A theology of Wisdom, however, has the power to unite all the dissected ideals of education.

Jason Barney

Jason Barney recently joined the faculty of The Geneva School of Orlando as Upper School Latin and Greek Instructor. This last year he was the Director of Instruction for Languages and Faculty Development at Clapham School, a classical Christian school in Wheaton, IL. He served as Clapham’s Head Latin Instructor for the last six years. In 2012 he was awarded the Henry Salvatori Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Hillsdale College. In May 2014 he completed a MA in Biblical Exegesis at Wheaton College, where he received The Tenney Award in New Testament Studies. Jason’s research interests include: the foundations of classical education in the biblical texts, especially the Theology of Wisdom in Proverbs; the great philosophers of education from the classical era to the present (Aristotle, Quintilian and Aquinas are current favorites); and, in particular, the importance of Charllotte Mason’s philosophy of education for classical schools today.

The Sine Qua Non is Christ

Christian classical education is, we believe, the most excellent form of education. But why? What makes our theory and practice good, true, and beautiful? At its heart, Christian classical education both mimics and evokes God’s intended purpose for human flourishing. We are guided in our quest by two books: the laws of general and special revelation. Thus, our pedagogical uniqueness in fact emerges as a summary of all that is good, true, and beautiful in other educational systems, unified in submission to the glory of God in Christ.

The Sine Qua Non in Theory

The purpose of education generally is to teach students to pursue and achieve excellence in their chosen field of study. Excellence, or virtue, according to Aristotle, is doing things in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons, all of which are determined by the way the world is designed to function.1 Thus, excellence has intellectual, technical and ethical dimensions, and these must be learned and practiced for students to flourish as human beings.2 Many educational systems recognize this holism.

Christian education, as practiced in a Christian school or university, adds to this general aim for excellence a specific submission of all excellence to the glory of God (Col. 3:23).3 Christian education for excellence trains students and faculty to submit every thought, word and deed to Christ in addition to the laws of nature by which He established the creation. This requires a depth of life-and-learning integration “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). As Calvin puts it near the beginning of his Institutes, “Nearly all of the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”4 Such personal formation extends human flourishing to our communities and society at large (Matt. 5:13-16).5

Many have pursued excellence in the field of teaching, or pedagogy, and collectively discovered several “natural laws” of learning that together form a coherent theoretical narrative with a beginning, middle and end: learning begins with engagement, develops in stages, and culminates in excellence. As general truths of the created world, they apply equally to all educators.

Students become engaged in a subject when their curiosity is sparked—for students are more like fires to be lit than buckets to be filled.6 The spark comes from the sudden strike of a student’s own concerns against the hardness of the world, be it an intellectual, technical, ethical or any other kind of difficulty.7 The spark of curiosity must be sheltered from the harsh winds of fear and anxiety—fear of being wrong, anxiety over unknown consequences—so that students can take the risks that learning will require of them to satisfy their curiosity. A spirit, or pneumos (breath), of levity or playfulness fans the flame at any stage but especially at the beginning.8 As the psalmist wrote, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2).

Just as one builds a fire from a spark by adding sequentially larger pieces of wood, learning also develops in hierarchical stages. Many educational theorists have noticed this truth and posited their own version of these stages. For instance, John Dewey observed the Five Steps of Good Thinking;9 Gregory articulated the Seven Laws of Teaching;10 Sayers popularized the Trivium as Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric;11 Bloom and colleagues built the Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning;12 Vygotsky argued for a Zone of Proximal Development between the stages of Dependence and Independence;13 and Wenger narrated the social learning journey from Novice to Expert.14 All of these paradigms have their various uses in the life cycle of the classroom, from curriculum development through implementation and assessment, depending on whether the theory is phrased in terms of the teacher, learner, classroom, intellect, emotions, actions, or social relationships. Nevertheless, they share an emphasis on sequential development of increasingly complex, independent problem-solving skills.

To simplify this discussion, I focus on the central cognitive outcome of each stage for the individual student, which together are summarized best by the Trivium model as Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, often used in Christian, classical education.15 Grammar consists of the basic vocabulary of a subject, such as “atoms,” “reactions,” and “compounds” in chemistry. Logic details the rules or theories governing a valid argument in a subject, that is, its peculiar form of reasoning (which must also accord with the general laws of logic). Chemical logic, for instance, includes atomic orbital theory and stoichiometry. Rhetoric is the original, self-authentic expression of new questions and persuasive arguments in the field. There is an aspect of individuality, beauty and elegance that is produced in the rhetorical stage, the mark of what many would call “mastery” of the subject as it echoes the ancient tradition of master craftsmen. Any expert-like activity, no matter how simple, requires rhetorical skill, whether it is calibrating glassware, designing experiments, or developing paradigm-shifting theories.

*1st: Increasing breadth create
engaging spark, then Fundamentals (Novice) Compound Concepts (Journeyman) Entire Field (Master)

• Observation
• Labeling
• Memorization

• Deduction
• Inference
• Good guessing

• Survey • Review

• Categorization • Diagramming

• Research essays • Debates

• Copy-change • Study design

• Inventory
• Calibration • Designing

alternative taxonomics

• Hypothesis generation

• Error analysis
• Report Writing • Presentations

• Novel questions • Inventing new

methods • Theory


Therefore, these stages apply to every scope within a field of study. That is, there are stages (depth) to mastering the nested scopes (breadth) of a subject, from its fundamentals to compound concepts to the entire field. To achieve a state of competency and especially mastery at any scope, the student must eventually use a particular knowledge or skill in expert-like situations. An example might be the challenge of using a pipette correctly: this is a fundamental chemistry skill, but it will not be mastered by listening to instructions or watching others do it—it must be practiced by the student in the lab.16 Moreover, as Wenger notes, much knowledge is tacit, only communicated by mimicking others in the same community of practice until the novice imitates the master so closely he becomes the next master.17 In developing the stages of learning, then, the task of the teacher is to recreate a series of increasingly complex and independent expert-like events that lead students from fundamentals to comprehension of the entire field under study.18 These pedagogical principles dictate certain types of teaching practices for each stage of mastery and each scope of study (Table 1).

The Sine Qua Non in Practice

After the students have been engaged with some felt difficulty, the next step is to master fundamentals of the field. These educational practices begin with observations, labeling, and memorization to build vocabulary. Once this mental structure is present, we find the weak spots through categorizing and diagramming new exemplars. To master the fundamentals, students need an expert-like fundamental activity, for example a simple, real-life taxonomy project like taking inventory of one’s lab equipment.

At the next level, students expand their knowledge of the field by combining fundamentals into compound concepts. Teaching/learning practices here include making predictions, debating positions, and creating written and visual arguments. Every field offers plenty of real-life situations where these skills are practiced, and most can be brought into the classroom, e.g., hypothesis generation, error analysis, report writing, and oral presentations.

At the final, most expansive scope of excellence, teaching/ learning practices aim for broad comprehension of the field. The grammar stage involves exposure to surveys that review the field. The transition from analyzing to synthesizing this vast amount of information can be difficult; the first step should be to copy and yet slightly change a master’s work. With this basic example of their own creativity in mind, students can design their own approach to the teacher’s chosen object of study or research question. To master creativity at a broad scope, a real-life, expert activity could be to choose a topic at will and then invent new methods or theories for investigating it.

The end of learning is excellence: wisely applying this comprehensive knowledge to real-life situations. Thus, it is paramount that students learn to practice true moral and philosophical principles of human flourishing.19 In Christian higher education, this is the purpose for integrating our Christian faith and our learning, which requires its own educational practices.

Integration of faith and learning is a competency like any other insofar as it develops in stages of increasing scope. Mastery in this area is marked by the explicit and appropriate consideration of the things of God in every field-specific endeavor. Such consideration always has an ethical or moral dimension, as we are to do all things— including lab experiments—with the integrity commanded by God. But if doctrine and theory make claims about the same things, Christian doctrines may also require a Christian student to modify her understanding of a particular theory in her field. This is the case in the study of origins and much of social science and the humanities, since those fields make claims about biblical subjects such as God, man, and morality. Thus, one of the fundamental skills of integration is recognizing when it is appropriate and when it is not. The subsequent ability to modify and mutually adjust theories requires increasing creativity as the scope in focus increases. Eventually, the real-life learning situations become real life itself, the whole of one’s life as lived in community before the Lord. Yet though we aim for this total submission, we will not realize it until Glory.

In summary, the task of Christian, classical education has many dimensions. Here, I have laid out two (cognitive depth and breadth) that apply to the individual. As I strive to implement these educational practices for the individual, I unavoidably run into the other dimensions of learning.

I see how social interactions—including my own role modeling—enable or disable independence. I learn which teaching practices create a safe and playful classroom. I discern the difference between experiential learning and experiential entertainment. I recognize when and how a learning challenge is a spiritual issue. Indeed, teaching is part of my own journey to integrate my own faith and learning. My faith requires that I learn to submit my thoughts, words, and deeds as a teacher to the glory of God and the good of others. Because I am a fallible teacher, I am fundamentally a student in my own classroom, learning to pursue Christian excellence alongside my pupils. In fact, this is the telltale. The sine qua non of Christian, classical education is not a disembodied concept of “virtue.” Rather, it is Christ Himself. His glory and lordship extends not only to our educational theory and practice, but also to our very selves—for in Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Transmitting the Knowledge of the Past

A common problem of education in postmodernity is that of “fragmented knowledge.”1 In most schools today, subjects are taught as discreet units. Literature, history, science, and philosophy (when it is taught at all) are treated as disciplines that can be studied nearly in a vacuum. Some reference might be made to complementary subjects, but the active study of, for example, history and literature together is often absent, as the school system, with its tidy system of periods, shuffles students off to different teachers for each subject.

The history of ideas, however, is not neatly divided into subjects. Ideas in science, literature, and philosophy, for instance, are tied together with history by innumerable interwoven strands. One cannot thoroughly understand modern scientific practice unless one knows the history
of the Enlightenment, one cannot fully understand our modern political system unless one understands Hobbes’ Leviathan, and one cannot understand Stoker’s Dracula unless one knows a bit about Queen Victoria and her England. As John Henry Newman says, “[The various subjects] are necessary mutually to explain and interpret each other.”2 Thus, the postmodern problem of “fragmented knowledge” is that while students may know things about subjects, they often do not fully understand them because they have not been trained to think of knowledge as a unified whole.

The idea of knowledge being a unified whole is ancient and Christian; thinkers from Socrates to Montaigne to J.P. Moreland have asserted that no subjects can be properly understood in isolation from one another. Indeed, Newman says, “A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge.”3 The same standard can be applied to any institution claiming to teach general knowledge, including high schools. Though one may go on to specialize later in life, it has traditionally been foundational to first get a “liberal” education: one that gives students a broad understanding of the history of ideas.

An additional problem of the fragmented method is the way that the subjects are taught; not only are students not making connections between areas of study, they are often not actually learning anything of value within subjects. Literature, and to an even greater extent, history, are often taught using anthologies, textbooks, and lectures. Facts are often emphasized over ideas. Certainly learning facts is important; Sayers emphasized the acquisition of a great deal of facts, formulae, and skills in her articulation of the grammar stage of education.4 The problem occurs when this emphasis on facts extends beyond elementary school when students ought to be learning logic and rhetoric.

Classical teachers believe that students are not receptacles to be filled by the transmission of facts. The purpose of education, according to Sayers is to teach students to think5. She says, “Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned— that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” In short, students know facts but fail to know what to do with them. Opening up the disciplines to inform each other provides dissonant content that will help students move from mere consumption of facts to dealing with conflicting ideas and come to a deeper understanding of them.

Going beyond the goals of teaching students to think and to re-integrate knowledge, learning about the past, specifically, does something particularly important. G. K. Chesterton, in his column in the Illustrated London News once said, “Education is simply the soul of society as it passes from one generation to another.”6 The article in which this quotation is found is urging the readers to maintain good traditions that are worthy of being passed down to future generations. As he says in the same column, “…we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves.” Chesterton believed that education, when done well, will maintain civilization and inspire virtue in students. The modern focus on science, however, cannot do this alone, because it has little to say about society’s “soul.” He argues that without a thoroughly good “soul” society can only hope to produce barbarians.

What then does this passing on of the Western “soul” look like? Robert Hutchins argues that, “The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to this present day.”7 The Great Conversation, according to a classical philosophy of education, is the dialectic between the authors and artists who produced or recorded ideas. It is St. Thomas’ dependence on the Philosopher Aristotle; it is T. S. Eliot’s allusions to Dante; it is W. H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” in which he comments upon the painting The Fall of Icarus. If these writers and artists are dependent on each other, it would be difficult to understand any of them without looking at the books that, as Hutchins says, “… are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository of our tradition.”8 This tradition is similar to Chesterton’s idea of a “soul”; one could say the “soul” is passed on through participation in the Great Conversation. We could certainly chuck the entire thing and choose to pass on a very recent iteration of that soul, but we would be the poorer for it. The historic soul is hard to escape, at any rate, when new television shows about outlaw bikers are a retelling of Hamlet, popular science fiction writers use Dante’s Inferno as direct inspiration, and our basic beliefs about our current economic system are rooted in authors from the 18th century.

What do we look to when looking to pass on the historic soul of our society? In the West, at least, the Great Conversation can be traced from Athens, through Jerusalem, and on to Rome, Paris, London, New York, and beyond. Students ought to read the important works from each time period and place. In addition to looking at the facts (who did what and when), and in addition to learning about the craft of authors, we ought to be looking at what those in the past knew and how that knowledge informed what they did. We must honestly assess this knowledge; it is far too easy to dismiss older beliefs. In fact, it is quite popular to discredit, for example, anything to do with Christianity and its “uninformed” adherents. While it may be true that we know more things about how the world works, about ancient history, or about psychology, it is not true that those in the past were unlearned. The rich history of ideas in the Great Conversation still ought to inform our beliefs; as Chesterton would say, our ancestors ought to have a voice in our current society.

The past is also often treated as fodder for ridicule. We mine it for examples of what not to do.9 How often have you heard sermons treating the disciples as prideful and hot-headed? Surely none of us in the modern age would ask St. Thomas’s questions! Surely none of us would deny Christ! We would never be backwards enough to accept something like slavery. We would never step aside as Hitler overran Europe. Aside from the obvious misunderstanding of human nature, this view of the past keeps us from a very great opportunity to look to those who did do well, and whom we should emulate. Certainly we want to be as courageous as Joan of Arc, we want to be as good as St. Edmund, and we want to be as self-sacrificial as the clergy during the fall of Constantinople. In looking at honest failures and triumphs, we also see God’s work in the world and truth about human nature.

Given that we want students to have access to the knowledge of the past, we must look at everything that contains this knowledge. It is certainly contained in real history books. It is also contained in the literature of the time period, as well as its philosophy and theology.10 Literature, in particular, can add a depth of understanding to history because a society’s literature shows the outworking of its beliefs in a meaningful way. A few examples will show this.

If students are studying Tudor England, we not only want them to look at political and military history, we want them to understand what the English believed about God, themselves, and their world. We want them immersed in the “soul” of Tudor England. This is not to say that we want to pass on Tudor beliefs wholesale; rather, we want them to understand the knowledge of the past in order to better understand God, themselves, and their world, as well as understand the interconnectivity of ideas in the Great Conversation. Thus, in addition to reading a good history text, they will need to read philosophy and theology from the time period, and they will need to read literature. Shakespeare’s works are an obvious necessity. However, we cannot look at these things separately and think we know about the Tudor era. The transition from the Wars of the Roses to the Tudor dynasty has serious implications for the future of the monarchy in England. When reading Shakespeare’s Richard III, we not only want to look at it as a work of literature, we want to look at it as a way of understanding Elizabethan attitudes toward the Plantagenets and the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. Shakespeare played an important role in the demonization of Richard III in favor of the favored Henry Tudor. The play is, in part, a commentary on the English Crown and legitimate government. This raises interesting questions about the nature of monarchy and government, and Richard III, being literature, is as much a part of the Great Conversation of these topics as political philosophy.

Likewise, if students are studying Soviet Russia, an appropriate literary choice would be One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Though it is a fictional account of life in a Soviet gulag, it contributes a first-person perspective on the harshness of Soviet punishment. Solzhenitsyn’s commentary, and even the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication, contribute to the Conversation in ways that a “purely historical” study cannot.

In conclusion, classical educators have a unique opportunity to teach about the past using several genres of text, an opportunity not afforded to most teachers. We need to keep in mind the totality of the Great Conversation, and not be tempted to treat different kinds of texts as isolated from each other. Though history and literature are often not studied together, when taught holistically, they can help students understand knowledge of the past in ways a study of each alone cannot. We ought to make sure that our questions help students make connections between texts, so that, as Chesterton says, they can inherit the soul of society, not in pieces, but as a unified whole.

The Centrality of Virtue in the Ancient understanding of Education

In the contemporary discourse about education, discussion of virtue as the goal of education is strikingly absent. If “virtue education” is mentioned, it is generally treated as an add-on to the curriculum, not as the overarching goal of everything that is studied. This is at least partially due to the fact that in the 21st century most people simply assume that the primary purpose of education, if not its only purpose, is to equip students with the knowledge and technical skills that they will need in order to go out into the world and “be successful.” Typically the definition of “success” people have in mind in this context is to a large degree financial. In other words, the common assumption in contemporary culture is that education is a necessary means to an economic end. Even among educational leaders discussions focus overwhelmingly on the “how” of education, on how educational methods can be tweaked to better serve this economic end, while the consideration of any further “why” of education is almost completely overlooked. Very little is usually said, for example, about the kind of human persons that we should be trying to cultivate through education or about the role that virtue plays in guiding how we go about the process of education. In 1944 Sir Richard Livingstone summed up this illiberal approach to education in a way that trenchantly depicts our current educational milieu quite well:

It is characteristic of to-day that, when we discuss which subjects should be studied, or which languages should be learnt, the first consideration is nearly always utility; we ask what is most useful for the machine, not what is most likely to make a good human being . . . At times, the right motto for our education seems to be Propter vitam Vivendi perdere causas: ‘For the sake of livelihood to lose what makes life worth living.’ The material in life tends to dominate . . . Spiritual and moral life is forgotten: wisdom and even judgment recede into the background.1

In a 1975 essay Wendell Berry similarly writes that, “We think it ordinary to spend twelve or sixteen or twenty years of a person’s life and many thousands of public dollars on ‘education’ – and not a dime or a thought on character.”2

What is remarkable about these descriptions of education is that they stand in stark contrast to the centuries-old tradition which views the formation of virtuous character as the highest and most important goal of education. The vast majority of great educational thinkers throughout history have understood that the primary task of education is to cultivate people’s character, not to equip them for specific occupational tasks or functions within society. The ultimate goal of education, in other words, is to form people of virtue. While this understanding of education can be seen across a wide swath of thinkers throughout history, I am going to examine the centrality of virtue in the ancient understanding of education by focusing on two key ancient thinkers: Plato and Aristotle. Both Plato and Aristotle were seminal thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition, and their understanding of education has had a profound and pervasive effect on educational theory and practice from the time of the Greeks and Romans onward. While Plato’s and Aristotle’s educational views differ on a number of points, both thinkers accord virtue a central place in their understanding of education. Both agree that the primary purpose of education is not to transfer to students a body of knowledge, or to teach practical technical skills, or to prepare students for a specialized vocation. Rather for both of these thinkers, the primary purpose of education is to cultivate students into virtuous human beings who have a robust and wise disposition toward learning, themselves, and the world around them. To demonstrate that this is so, in the following I offer a brief examination of the central role that virtue plays in each thinker’s understanding of education.3


Throughout his works Plato is explicit that the purpose of education is to form people who are virtuous. In the Republic, for example, he writes that, “The final outcome of education, I suppose we’d say, is a single newly finished person, who is either good or the opposite.”4 He goes on to argue that, “The form of the good is the most important thing to learn about” and that, “It’s by their relation to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial.”5 In the Laws he similarly clarifies that what he means by “education” is not training for a particular trade or business but “education from childhood in virtue.”6 He goes on to explain that this virtue consists in having one’s loves properly aligned such that one adores what is good and abhors what is not: “There is one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this is the correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, which makes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love what we ought to love. Call this ‘education,’ and I, at any rate, think you would be giving it its proper name.”7

This understanding of the goal of education significantly affects how Plato understands the value and purpose of various curricular subjects. In fact, he is explicit that the subjects he thinks should be studied are selected not on the basis of their content per se but rather because of their ability to turn the soul away from darkness and toward goodness and truth.8 He admonishes that, “Each of us must neglect all other subjects and be most concerned to seek out and learn those that will enable him to distinguish the good life from the bad and always to make the best choice possible in every situation.”9 Plato thus recognizes that the curricular subjects are not ends in and of themselves but are educationally valuable only insofar as they promote the formation of virtue. To put it another way, for Plato the principal question that must be asked of any educational proposal is not what practical or economic impact it will have but whether or not it fosters virtue in those toward whom it is directed.

Plato furthermore maintains that knowledge without virtue is worse than useless – it is pernicious. The goal of education is, therefore, not merely to impart knowledge but also to nurture in students the virtue and wisdom necessary for that knowledge to be used for the good. In the Republic, for example, he points out that, “The one who is most able to guard against disease is also most able to produce it unnoticed”10 and that the person who is clever at guarding money “must also be clever at stealing it.”11 Knowledge, in other words, is not an intrinsic good, for without a moral compass to guide its use it can bring about great evil. Thus the most significant educational question according to Plato is not what a person knows but how a person lives. In the Laws he is explicit that the acquisition of supposed goods such as wealth, health, knowledge, etc. must not be taken to be the purpose of education: “A training directed to acquiring money or a robust physique, or even to some intellectual facility not guided by reason and justice, we should want to call coarse and illiberal, and say that it had no claim whatever to be called education.”12 The purpose of education is therefore intrinsically moral in nature, and the ultimate goal is to form students who are equipped with wisdom and an understanding of the good such that they can use whatever knowledge they may possess in ways that are virtuous.


Aristotle’s understanding of the purpose of education is grounded in his understanding of human beings’ purpose. Thus before examining some of his comments on education in the Politics, I am going to begin with a brief overview of his understanding in the Nicomachean Ethics of the telos, or purpose, of human activity.

At the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes that every craft, line of inquiry, action, and decision seeks some good and that he wants to examine what the highest good is that all of these ultimately seek. The question, in other words, is what the ultimate goal or
end of human activity is. The answer he gives is that the highest good is eudaimonia, or happiness.13 According to Aristotle happiness is the highest good because all other goods are desirable for its sake and because it is desirable in and of itself, not as the means to some other good. After describing various common views on happiness, Aristotle concludes that, “With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs activity in accordance with virtue.”14

In Book X Aristotle returns to his analysis of happiness as the chief end of all human activity. He again emphasizes that happiness is an activity that is desirable in and of itself and is not merely a means to some other end. Virtuous actions are of the same nature, he argues, since doing noble and good deeds “is a thing desirable for its own sake.”15 He thus concludes that happiness “does not lie in amusement . . . The happy life is thought to be one of virtue; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”16 He claims that complete happiness consists in activity in accordance with proper virtue, and he furthermore contends that this activity is the activity of contemplative study since contemplation “alone would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating.”17 Thus the highest good of mankind consists in a life of virtuous contemplation.

This discussion of humanity’s highest good plays an important role in Aristotle’s understanding of education, for it is through education that people are able to achieve their ultimate purpose of virtuous contemplation. Thus with a brief overview in place of his understanding of the chief end of man, we are now positioned to understand his treatment in the Politics of the goals toward which education should be directed. Regarding the relationship between virtue and education, he writes that, “There are three things which make men good and virtuous; these are nature, habit, reason . . . We have already determined what natures are likely to be most easily molded by the hands of the legislator. All else is the work of education; we learn some things by habit and some by instruction.”18 In other words, according to Aristotle education plays an essential role in the actualization of mankind’s ultimate purpose by directing students toward a life of virtue.

In his discussion of the rationale for teaching subjects such as reading, writing, gymnastic exercises, and music, he reiterates that leisure, which facilitates happiness, is the goal: “It is clear then that there are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake; whereas those kinds of knowledge which are useful in business are to be deemed necessary, and exist for the sake of other things.”19 Children should be taught drawing, for example, “not to prevent their making mistakes in their own purchases, or in order that they may not be imposed upon in the buying or selling of articles, but perhaps rather because it makes them judges of the beauty of the human form. To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls.”20

In considering what other subjects should be taught, Aristotle notes that, Occupations are divided into liberal and illiberal; and to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without making mechanics of them. And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is mechanical; wherefore we call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind. . . . The object also which a man sets before him makes a great difference; if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends, or with a view to virtue, the action will not appear illiberal.21

It is important to note that Aristotle does not mean to imply here that learning mechanical arts is necessarily worthless. His point is that the reason for which something is learned is of the utmost importance in determining its value. Learning carpentry, or foreign languages, or economics can be worthwhile, provided that it is learned “with a view to virtue.” He is highly critical, however, of his fellow Greeks who fail to embrace a system of education “with a view to all the virtues, but in a vulgar spirit have fallen back on those which promised to be more useful and profitable.”22 The purpose of education is for Aristotle therefore not primarily utilitarian in nature. Rather education’s highest purpose is the formation of human beings who can fulfill their highest purpose – living a life of virtue.

Both Plato and Aristotle thus take the development of virtue to be a central and necessary component of the well-lived life. They, furthermore, both consider the primary purpose of education to be helping people fulfill their ultimate purpose by fostering in them virtuous thought and action. The development of virtue, in other words, is the sine qua non at the heart of what education is all about.

In closing, I want to emphasize that this centrality of virtue in the understanding of education is not particular to Plato and Aristotle or even to the ancients. Rather it is a commonly accepted understanding of education that endured for centuries and was supplanted only in the second half of the 19th century. Far from being the historical anomaly, this view is thus the dominate conception of education that throughout history has undergirded Western educational thought and practice. In our contemporary society, the prevailing paradigm conceives of education as a completely secular and “value-free” enterprise. In the course of history, however, education has almost never been thought to be a solely secular enterprise but rather one that is intimately connected to the development of morality and virtue in students. The contemporary charade of value- and virtue-free secular education is thus not only a philosophical and practical absurdity but also demonstrates a stubborn refusal to accept the nearly universal recognition of the importance of training in virtue that has existed throughout the history of education.

How to Get the Education You Never Had

Those who are teaching students how to think, how to act, and the basic story of the civilization they live in are already doing classical education, whether they know it or not. But in order to do it well, parents and teachers need to know these things themselves. Classical educator Martin Cothran gives you practical advice on what you should know and what you should read in order to get the classical education you never got.

Martin Cothran

Martin Cothran is a writer and teacher who lives in Danville, Kentucky. He holds a B.A. in philosophy and economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from the Simon Greenleaf School. He is a prominent voice in Kentucky on public policy issues and is a regular guest on radio and television. He is author of Traditional Logic: Books I and II and Classical Rhetoric.

History of Ancient and Medieval Education

Explore the educational practices of the ancient and medieval worlds in this hasty overview of the curriculum, pedagogies, and philosophies that preceded conventional approaches.

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, founding author of The Lost Tools of Writing, co-author of the best-selling book Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, which he wrote with Dr. Gene Edward Viet, and is an SCL board member. Since establishing CiRCE as a research and consulting service to classical educators, Andrew has trained teachers, led board retreats, and assisted with institutional development and start up in over 100 schools. Andrew helped start Providence Academy in Green Bay, WI in 1993, where he served as “Lead Teacher,” Foundations Academy (now Ambrose School) in Boise, ID, where he served as Director of Classical Instruction from 1996-2000, The Great Ideas Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he served as Headmaster from 2001-2003, and The Regent Schools of the Carolinas where he served as Dean of Academics from 2006- 2008. He and his family live in North Carolina.