While the bulk of the Classical Renewal Movement has occurred within K-12 education, a few colleges are working out a vision for classically oriented, entrepreneurially minded higher education. Thales College is one such college with a strong commitment to working out the general principles of classical education in a collegiate context.
Classical education begins with a right understanding of the human person. As Katy Faust notes, children grow in predictable ways. Classical education recognizes the stages of childhood development. In the earliest years, students have very little knowledge. Their minds are curious; they long to know. In those years, sometimes called the Grammar stage, stage, classical education asks students to memorize lots and lots of information. Here is the time to learn the fifty states, multiplication tables, timelines, and the periodic table. As they grow into middle school, students shift into the Logic stage: moving from concrete to abstract thought, students want to contemplate, to debate, to interrogate the information they have learned. Students move from mathematics to algebra and geometry, into increasingly complex literature and history; they begin distinguishing their culture from other cultures. The process culminates in high school study, where students enter the Rhetoric stage; as high schoolers, students are asked to engage in the conversation about the areas they study. The process culminates: they study, they interrogate, and then they speak. Ideally, a classically educated student has studied a topic deeply, and from that study, stands ready to enter the world of adult conversation.
While recognizing distinct stages in childhood development, teachers continually mix all three stages together. A middle school class might have a research project culminating in presentations to help each other learn better; an upper elementary class might have a debate, and then write a response detailing conclusions drawn after conducting the debate; high school students might need to memorize a poem to declaim it to their peers. Classical education recognizes the student as a developing human being and seeks to equip him or her with the knowledge, skills, and tools to steward his or her intellectual heritage.
The goal of such an education is to prepare a student for a lifetime pursuit of eudaimonia, the highest human excellence. Aristotle argued that virtue is the path which leads to this greatest excellence, so the most important element of education is training the students in right action. There are specific habits which result in a better life: honesty, integrity, work ethic, loyalty, temperance all result in better ways of living than vice. People who lack self-discipline, who exemplify laziness, who cultivate habits of lying and self-flattery, fail to position themselves to live well. A classical education seeks to prepare students to live well and do well for the rest of their lives. Through his study, the classically educated student is prepared to recognize goodness, truth, and beauty in the world, and then live in accordance with it. The goal is to help such students become excellent human beings.
A classical education employs specific methods to achieve these ends. The first of those is a clear expectation for moral behavior within the school environment. By clearly articulating expectations and enforcing those expectations through both positive and negative consequences, a classical school helps shape the student’s habits. Secondly, a classical school is filled with teachers whose passion for their subjects invites students to join them in deep study. Through Socratic dialogue, primary text exploration, reading, writing, and discussing great books, lab experimentation, studying Latin and/or Greek, encountering and creating beauty in the Fine Arts, and going as far as possible in their mathematical studies, students are invited to see the world as a place of beauty and wonder; their task is to receive that world, and take great joy in coming to understand it.
While schools like Thales Academy embody this kind of education, colleges like Thales College are pioneering the next step. What kind of advantages do students have who arrive at college well versed in history, literature, science, mathematics, and Latin? How can professors build upon the foundations laid in K-12 classical education? Thales College is working out the answers to these questions. Faculty seek to help students perceive themselves as creatures with dignity, worthy of respect. Through their studies, students expand their mental powers, practice virtue, and grow in wisdom and stature. Faculty work with students to help them master the material and form strong communities within the school. Together, they become excellent humans caught up in the study of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Josh Herring is the Dean of Classical Education for Thales Academy Apex JH/HS. He hosts a podcast called The Optimistic Curmudgeon, and tweets at @TheOptimisticC3. In his spare time, he is reading and writing towards a PhD in Humanities from Faulkner University.
This blog was adapted from an essay first published in the Carolina Journal.