Why is Classical Education Important Today?

OLMC's classical education curriculum teaches penmanship

OLMC's classical education curriculum teaches penmanship

In the world of education, we often hear it said that “the children are our future.”

At OLMC School we take this challenge to heart, raising up our students to be the scholars, artists, athletes, citizens and saints of tomorrow.

As parents and educators, if we are raising our children to be the world’s future leaders, we must prepare and equip them to meet whatever challenges face them in this world, 30, 40, and 50 years from today.

But consider how  radically the world has changed these past 50 years.

How can we prepare our children for the future if the future will be so different from anything we know today?

The time-tested answer to this question is nothing other than a classical liberal-arts education.

What ‘Liberal’ Really Means

Here's a hint: it has nothing to do with politics.

For centuries, the Latin adjective liber has meant "free" in the sense of "a man who is free to make his own decisions." Liberalis means "suitable for a free man."

However, when used as a noun, liber means "book."

The two meanings of this one Latin word hold the keys to the purpose of classical education.

  • A free man is a man who studies books, a man of knowledge

  • Knowledge leads to liberation

  • The purpose of the traditional liberal arts is to guide students to freedom

In his landmark essay “What Is Classical Education?” Jonathan Beeson emphasizes that the traditional liberal arts assert "a more expansive notion of freedom" than is commonly understood.

In brief, a traditional liberal arts education instills in students "freedom from vice and freedom for virtue." But vice and virtue, Beeson quickly clarifies, are more comprehensive concepts than their common usage indicates.

A virtue, he explains, is "the ‘perfection’ of a thing" while a vice is "the absence of a perfection which should be present in a thing."

He further elaborates on the different categories of human virtue:

  • Intellectual virtue - "The mind is made for the contemplation of Truth - its virtue is the ability to discover and enjoy truth and its vice is to be beguiled by error."

  • Moral virtue - "The hallmark of a liberally educated person is not that he knows what is right but that he knows why an action is right."

  • Physical virtue - The virtues of the body are "its beauty in appearance and actions." This is important both for one's physical well-being, and because "the training of the body can have an immense influence on the internal state of things."

  • Theological virtue - these are "Faith, Hope, and Love" which are traditionally understood as gifts of God's grace. A person finds full flourishing when he cultivates these gifts.

Beeson contends that a true liberal arts education will yield in a student the freedom to express these virtues, by helping the student "to develop habits of excellence in every area of life."

The Opposite of Liberal

By this point, you can probably guess that it's not "conservative."

Just as the opposite of liberty is servitude, the opposite of the liberal arts are the servile arts.

The goal of study of studying the servile arts is to acquire a specific skill or expertise.

In Roman times, the servile arts included training in pottery, masonry, metalworking, and the like; practical areas of competence that hold some value for trade.

In modern times, the servile arts include technical-skill acquisition like computer programming and electrical engineering and such vocational trades as plumbing and automotive maintenance.

The greatest difference between liberal and servile studies is their purpose.

Beeson explains that each of the servile arts produces "some useful or pleasurable good… which serves some higher end [but] which is not an end in and of itself."

For example, a craftsman might learn how to build carriages.

The carriage is a “useful good” which purpose it has of being pulled by a horse for the transportation of a person and/or his possessions.

There is great value in having honed this skill, especially if you had learned it before the year 1900 or so.

But what happens when the car comes along?

Education in the Servile Arts Enshrined

The servile arts are important to the material well-being of humanity, but they only have value in their limited context.

With a change in circumstance - or, in our modern world, with rapid changes in technology - any particular servile skill may become useless. This is what happened to carriage making at the turn of the century.

An example for our day could be computer programming. This art is useful today, and computer programmers can be well-paid.

Yet fifty years ago, this skill had no utility, and no job prospects. And again, ten years from now, computer programming will undoubtedly be different, in ways that are impossible to predict.

Education today is increasingly servile. When the Common Core champions “College and Career Readiness” this is exactly what is being advocated. With an eye to our children’s cubicle-enclosed futures, education today is focused on the acquisition of workplace skills.

What Happens if we Neglect the Liberal Arts?

Modern education, with its focus on preparing students specifically for the workforce, favors and prioritizes servile studies.

Meanwhile, the traditional liberal arts - the free-making arts - are neglected.

How many students, for instance, whether university-educated or otherwise, can even name the classical arts of the trivium and quadrivium?

Even among those who have studied Latin, the answer is: very few.

The trivium and quadrivium, "the place where three (or four) roads meet," are not specific skills. Rather, they are frameworks to approach any and every type of knowledge.

Students of the classical liberal arts learn how to learn, using time-tested methods that brought about the growth and greatness of Western Civilization.

Students of the classical liberal arts learn how to apply their knowledge in any and every context.

This means that if our students are classically educated, they are able to acquire new skills, no matter the circumstance or situation! This allows our children the freedom to be the scientists, carpenters, engineers, automotive technicians, computer programmers, and teachers of tomorrow.

With the proper approach and support men and women have tremendous capacity to learn, but if we focus only on a specific skill we become, in a sense, bound to that skill. We can only earn our living from that skill as long as that skill in in demand.

In classical times, the servile arts were predictable. Technologies were more stable than they are today.

But in our age, technologies change almost weekly. Entire industries appear or disappear within decades.

For example, computer programming - a servile art that hardly been around for 40 years - is in high demand today. Skilled programmers can usually find steady work with decent pay.

However, factory jobs that were abundant 40 years ago are now gone, either performed by robots, or else scattered around the world.

And almost every industry, from transportation to retail to home improvement, is being targeted for "disruption" by new technologies and business models.

In this environment, a classical liberal-arts education is the best bridge to your child’s future.

This is because the person who has learned how to learn - who has developed his or her human virtues - will be free to excel in any context.

This will continue to be true, regardless of what happens in the world.

The Enduring Value of Virtues

At its heart, classical education cultivates human excellence.

In a world that is increasingly disorienting, it is hard to hang on to the true value of education. We are tempted to view our children’s schooling as a way for them to simply acquire practical skills, which will then become their foundation for a comfortable life.

The servile arts are vital to the functions of this world, but the liberal arts show us a yet more excellent way.

Jonathan Beeson contends that "liberal studies primarily aim at valuable goods."

Beeson explains that valuable goods are ends in and of themselves:

"In addition to providing enjoyment, [valuable goods] qualitatively improve the human being. Acquiring valuable goods, in other words, is a “virtue building” enterprise.

"The classic examples of valuable goods are knowledge, health, and moral rectitude."

Now, if our sole concern in education is for our children’s future job prospects, the above statement is strange. After all, of what value are "knowledge, health, and moral rectitude" in the job market?

Yet on the other hand, if our children have those three valuable goods, how could they fail to find employment?

You choice of school matters

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, we believe that education should go beyond the acquisition of servile skills. Our goal is to guide each student to freedom, to excellence.

We know that, with a liberal-arts education, our children will succeed no matter their context. OLMC School’s time-tested approach is the bridge to your children’s future.

Graduates from classical academies all across America are proving us right. They are top performers in secondary schools and colleges, and they are thought-leaders and entrepreneurs in the world beyond.

As a classical Catholic school, we are committed to helping our families educate their children, to be the scholars, artists, athletes, citizens and saints of tomorrow.

Contact us today to see how we can serve you!

Rev. Daniel P. O'Mullane