The Education of a Human

By Mark McAfee

Classical education is the most proven form of education in human history, producing the greatest thinkers and leaders in Western Civilization from the ancient Greeks to the American Founders. Because of its inherent rigor, many parents ask themselves if classical education is the correct choice for children of varying academic abilities. We all know that nothing worth having comes easily. The law of the harvest states that we will reap only what we have sown. Yet, what exactly is the classical education harvest, and is it worth the sowing?

To frame the choice of classical education as purely a question of academic rigor, though, is to ignore what really sets classical education apart from the kind of education offered at most schools today. Many contemporary educational practices took root during the progressive era of the early 1900s. With their emphasis on vocational preparation and purely utilitarian aims, the progressive reformers moved American education away from the vision of the Founders, who saw liberal education as a prerequisite to self-governance.

The education that we strive to provide is rooted in the Western tradition, specifically the American liberal order, defined by concepts such as natural law, liberty, equality under the law, civic duty, democracy, free-market economics, and pluralism.

Rather than treating children as simple, carbon-based life forms whose heads we open and fill with facts and figures to a vocational end, classical education shapes the hearts and souls of students – as well as their heads. We can never lose sight that our students, regardless of their ultimate vocation, will grow up to be mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, citizens and voters, and will experience all of the joys and heartaches that come with being human. The highest things in life exist in these spaces and roles outside of the sphere of vocation. And the idea that we can raise virtuous and dutiful men and women through a morally-neutral education is complete folly.

Because we see education differently, we must reconsider what success looks like. Our students are more than their latest test score or the grade they received on an essay. Our educational philosophy has a different aim in mind. While most schools focus on a very narrow set of skills, they rob their students of the richness of a classical education, the benefits of which do not always show up on a standardized test (although they certainly may). A test cannot measure the heart of a student. It cannot quantify the enormous growth a student makes in living with virtue and wisdom.

At mainstream public schools, great books are seldom read for the sake of their beauty, their profound insights into the human condition, and their ability to help us live good lives. Rhetoric and logic are pushed aside. The soul-shaping effect of the arts on our youth has no place. The courage, responsibility, and perseverance of athletes on the field of play are of little to no consequence. The teachable moments that may stray from a lesson’s stated objective, but yield enormous moral benefits, are overlooked. History is taught out of sync. Our country’s Founding is disparaged. And the words “virtue” and “wisdom” are seldom spoken.

W.E.B. Du Bois said, “I insist that the object of all true education is not to make men into carpenters, it is to make carpenters into men.” But surely, we still need carpenters, and people who teach men to become carpenters. So, what are we to say about the skills necessary to compete in our 21st-century global economy? Well, it just so happens, when education prioritizes the development of moral character, students gain a greater capacity to develop vocational skills as adults. Once one has habituated virtues like responsibility and wonder, he increases his ability to become a successful carpenter tenfold. And don’t we want honest carpenters, too?

The ancients understood the role of education in shaping students to live the good life, inclining their hearts toward permanent things. The irony is that we are doing something so old and so traditional, yet schools like Ascent seem so innovative and different compared to their counterparts.

While classical education is difficult, we take the humble posture of Aristotle when he said, “What is easy is seldom excellent.” Classical education takes into account the whole human person, synthesizing the disparate parts into a beautiful unity of purpose. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis said, “The heart never takes the place of the head; but it can, and should, obey it.” Classical education is for every student, because classical education prioritizes the most important aspect of a good education — what it is to be human and live a full and flourishing life.