Plato and Play

kids at play








As a classical educator and consultant to classical schools for about 20 years now, I have often been amused and sometimes gratified by the ways scientific research rediscovers what classical educators have known (or at least believed) for centuries. For example, “studies now show” that the study of Latin will help you with your English vocabulary and verbal section of the SAT or GRE (classics students do better on the GRE verbal section that English students). “Research also shows” that multi-modal instruction (using the pathways of the eye, ear and body) enhance learning and memory. The classical pedagogy for younger students that involves chanting, singing, hand and body motions, all while viewing charts, song lyrics or diagrams turns out to be… multi-modal. Similar things could be said about Socratic teaching (collaborative learning) and having students actually teach other students (docendo discimus—by teaching we learn).

Most recently, “research now shows” that play actually enhances the way young students learn (NPR piece: Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build a Better Brain). Sergio Pellis from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta says, “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain… and without play experience those neurons aren’t changed.”

I quote directly from the NPR piece:

“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Another scholar and researcher from Cambridge advocates (along with over 100 additional English experts) that formal schooling should delayed from age four to seven. David Whitebread of Cambridge writes:

In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four.  A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph  (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).

Whitebread stresses that this conclusion is based on numerous studies:

There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies.

He grounds these conclusion in neuroscientific, psychological studies:

Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

I am gladdened and gratified (and yes, slightly amused) by these reports. Often scientific study confirms the conventional wisdom gained by accrued human experience. We humans have been working at training up our young for a while now, and have generally considered it a very important enterprise. So play is a critical part of the education of young children—neuroscience apparently confirms this. But it is worth pausing and asking–who said this first? Classical educators (and to be fair, scores of progressive educators) have acknowledged play as a key to the learning of young children. Children re-enact on the playground what they learn in the classroom. Teach the civil war to 6th grade boys (or the Peloponnesian War) and what do you get at recess? And how many of us have found our children “playing school or homechool” in the back yard on a summer day?

The Greeks would have the boys wrestle regularly outside as part of their education (I will pass over the fact that they did this the nude). They wrestled outside of class, and no doubt they wrestled in class with some noteworthy clarity (with tunics on). They wrestled outside hand-to-hand, then inside head-to-head. Ask any third grade teacher: Are students better prepared for a math lesson before or after recess? Recess remains in our schools (and doesn’t even need such a name in our homeschools) 2500 years after the Greeks integrated it into their curriculum.

So who said it first? It was likely Plato who first recognized the educational value of play. In Book VII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that play is where education should begin: “Don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each is naturally directed towards” (537a).

In the same context, Socrates goes on to say that forced or compulsory learning is fleeting:

“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” (536e)

We are very familiar with the cram-pass-forget cycle of American education, in which we “learned” material for a test, only to forget it a day or two afterwards. Plato says that such learning is a farce which would obtain “no hold on the mind.” Play, however, is the natural way young children learn, what they want to truly embody and possess knowledge. To the Greeks, there is a linguistic relationship here too. The Greek word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. It is preserved in a distant way in our phrase child’s play. There is a kind of play innate to a child that makes it a play proper to a child, even part of what it means to be a child. A child plays. A child learns as he plays. Much of his learning, from one perspective, is child’s play.

Can this insight be distorted? Yes it can, and often is. If we extend this insight about how children learn too far, we have children deciding at every juncture what and when to study, and we adults will ask nothing of them—for that would be “force and compulsion.” We must not forget that the purpose of play is to learn how to live in the drama of a real life, when sticks will be exchanged for swords, and the puddle for a roiling sea. The little girl who is a fairy will one day be running a household or a hotel.

This means that play is preparation and that play is in fact a serious matter. While children must be given a wide swath of freedom (recess should have as few rules as possible, and I think sticks must be legal), they also must be directed and they must be taught. In other words, the classroom and the playground work hand-in-hand. The teacher teaches, the students run outside, their heads full of Latin words, lines of poetry, tales of ships, battles and heroic feats of all kinds; the play back the lessons of the classroom in unpredictable, creative, delightful ways. They learn again, as only a child at play can.

Can play be imported into the classroom? Yes, in wise ways appropriate to the classroom—even as teaching can be taken outside, in wise ways. We might say, to change vocabulary, that there is way of weaving together informal and formal ways of learning. The wise teacher will know how to this to the best advantage, not permitting her classroom to become a playground, nor the playground a classroom.

When you look at a child to you see a pais, made to play (pazein)? To switch to Latin, when you see children, do you see liberi—the free ones? Do we teach them as free spirits?  Could we benefit from the mindset of the Romans who called their school for young children a ludus—also their word for child’s play?




Classical Education–The Best Preparation for STEM






For some reason, the last month has featured a flurry of articles about the importance of STEM education and the relevance of the liberal arts. No doubt the country has become increasingly aware of the “global marketplace” and we continue to wince over our math scores in comparison to other developed countries. From time to time countries such as Finland (population 5.5 million) and Singapore (also 5.5 million) are cited as examples we should emulate.

During the last few years, the liberal arts have come under increasing scrutiny as many are questioning the value of studying English, history, philosophy, and the so-called “humanities” if we expect to produce graduates who will be able to compete in the global marketplace that seems to require more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers.

Well, this is not a new conversation or debate. In the United States, the debate started around 1890 with the establishment of the Committee of Ten, the national education committee (!) that made a study of education in the US and made suggestions for improvement. That was the inauguration of the progressive era of education, in which the liberal arts came under scrutiny, suspicion, and then attack—for many decades. As one small example, progressive theorists critiqued the study of Latin as a subject good for . . . the study of Latin. In other words they argued that the study of Latin had no “mental training” value, no transferable skill to other kinds of learning in other subjects. Latin was good for learning Latin, and not much else.

I won’t attempt to rehearse the last 100 years of educational history, but I highlight the beginning of progressive education and one small example to point out that the current STEM conversation is nothing really new. It is rather a continuation of America’s argument about what an education is and should be. Is it the cultivation of a human being or is it job training? In what ways could it be both?

As America possesses a large strain of pragmatism, there is naturally always going to be a loud voice arguing for a practical education—education that is really more vocational training than anything else. It is the American pragmatist who asks of the English major, “What are you going to do with that?” and of Shakespeare “What is Shakespeare going to do for me?” It rarely occurs to the pragmatist to ask, “What will Shakespeare do to me?”

But here is the paradox: One of man’s chief practical needs is not to be a pragmatist (that’s Chesterton by the way). Studying the liberal arts actually does impart a freedom of soul, mind, conscience, and spirit that makes men and women the best versions of themselves and thus, yes, better workers of all kinds—better scientist, engineers, and computer programmers. In fact, a liberally educated engineer (a rarity) appears today almost as a god. The engineers, who can ask the large questions, integrate knowledge, work across disciplines, and write and speak beautifully and persuasively, they are the engineers who start companies or rise up as division managers and CEOs.

Might you find counter examples? Sure. We know well the stereotype of the English major waiting tables or working at Starbucks. What we don’t know well is the fact that English majors are also more likely than many other majors to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Others more informed than I make these points well. This concept is the larger thesis of Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap. His research shows that the skills that government, military, and business leaders want in their employees are the fruits of . . . a liberal arts education. His list of the seven survival skills needed today indeed is the fruit of a liberal arts education:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

I should also cite the common (almost clichéd) examples of technological leaders arguing that liberal arts training is a part of what makes technology sing. Steve Jobs described Apple as the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Mark Zuckerberg studied Greek and Greek philosophy. Damon Harowitz, the in-house philosopher at Google, has written an article entitled “Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Humanities PhD.” What Horowitz says is insightful: technological work tends to keep one’s head down, focused on the particular. The humanities lift your head up to consider the larger world, the ideals that make us human, the general.

Yes, with college costs continuing to rise, there are competing calls for what education should be and for what students should major in. Senator Marco Rubio encourages students to think twice before majoring in Greek philosophy (like Mark Zuckerberg), but a professional chemist writes that she needs chemists with a liberal arts education.

Let me offer what I think can help both sides of this debate: return to K–12 liberal arts education. College ought not to be the time at which one must chose between chemistry and classic literature. It is possible, and used to be common, to get a robust liberal arts education before college (and during college). Many classically educated college students I know are opting for double majors (yes, even English and chemistry).

We should also note that the liberal arts traditionally includes the mathematical arts—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the study of harmony and ratio), making it a false dichotomy to pit the “liberal arts” against science and math. This is a large weakness in the debate: we no longer know what the liberal arts are, nor why they are called “arts,” nor why they are called “liberal.” Without understanding the very words we are using in debate, we are doomed before we begin. A good study of the trivium arts (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) would prevent this.

I will conclude with two points. First, let me restate the point above. The liberal arts are not opposed to STEM education, but rather incorporate a good deal of STEM education—in particular mathematical and scientific education. My daughter graduated in a class of four from a local classical school. One graduate is in medical school, another is a PhD student in physical therapy, another is designing apps for the iPad with a tech company in Philadelphia, my daughter is studying for her master’s degree in counseling at Villanova.

Second, many predict that more than 50 percent of the jobs that will exist in the next ten years don’t exist now. In other words, we need to educate students who are nimble, adaptable, agile, and innovative—the fruit of a classical education.






Teaching Is … an Art

Gilbert Highet wrote a book in 1950 called The Art of Teaching. Highet was a well-regarded teacher of classics at Columbia University (a colleague with Jacques Barzun) and he knew very well that the teaching profession was rapidly being transformed into a science by his fellows at the nearby Columbia Teacher’s College.

The Columbia Teacher’s College has been the single most influential institution for the advancement of progressive education—I think few would dispute this. In 1950, however, Highet disputed one central claim set forth by progressive educators everywhere—the claim that education should be studied, assessed, advanced and practiced as a science. There were reasons for the ascendency of this view of things.

Much progress had been made in science and technology by 1950. The car had long since revolutionized society (America in particular) and the airplane was coming into its own—with the advent of jets. In just 19 years we would land a man on the moon.   The social sciences were also growing rapidly and growing in respect. Since World War I, psychological testing was being used to assess aptitudes and predict what kinds of occupations and jobs would be fitting for hundreds of thousands of human beings.

Perhaps, using the scientific method and the insights of the new social sciences, we could indeed transform education into a predictable, controlled process that would ensure our preferred results. Perhaps we could apply tested techniques that would “socially engineer” the kinds of citizens our growing nation needed. Just maybe we were on the cusp of a revolution in education, much like we had experienced in transportation and industry. It certainly seemed worth a try—

Still, to the contrary, Highet argued that education is an art and not a science:

It seems to me various dangerous to apply the aims and methods of science to human beings as individuals, although a statistical principle can often be used to explain their behavior in large groups and a scientific diagnosis of their physical structure is always valuable. But a “scientific” relationship between human beings is bound to be inadequate and perhaps distorted. Of course it is necessary for any teacher to be orderly in planning his work and precise in his dealing with facts. But that does not make his teaching “scientific.” Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are outside the grasp of science. A “scientifically” brought up child would be a pitiable monster. A “scientific” marriage would be only a thin and crippled version of a true marriage. A “scientific” friendship would be as cold as a chess problem. “Scientific” teaching, even of scientific subjects, will be inadequate as long as both teachers and pupils are human beings. Teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction: it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter. You must throw your heart into it, you must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils, and your self.

Note how Highet does give science its due respect and commendation. Science does inform education in many rewarding ways, though teaching itself is not a science. This distinction is important and where the controversy lies. Classical educators should pay attention to much that scientific inquiry discovers that is relevant to education. Neurology, educational psychology and educational sociology can provide us with insights to how, and when, and in what setting we teach. We can learn much from scientific research that informs (even enriches) our teaching. Still, teaching itself is a human art, governed primarily by our anthropology, our view of what human beings are and their purpose. Christians in the classical tradition, will view humans as enfleshed and created souls, that while having some things in common with animals, transcend the animal kingdom.

Thus Highet essentially argues that “scientific teaching” is a kind of a category mistake. Humans are not raw material (like metal and rock) to be fashioned into products. Nor are humans mere animals that should thus be best trained by behavioral conditioning (though we should not deny that such conditioning can in some ways change behavior—we just are hesitant to call modified behavior education). Our inherited vocabulary for education hint at uniquely human aspects of teaching. The traditional approach to education sought to fully “humanize” people by teaching “the humanities.” The traditional goals of education were wisdom, eloquence and virtue—traits that no animal could ever possess.

James K. A. Smith has said (in Desiring the Kingdom) that every pedagogy assumes and anthropology. Some 65 years ago Gilbert Highet said much the same thing. Is education an art or a science? Much depends on preceding questions about the nature of humanity itself.



Dr. Peter Kreeft on the Benefits of Classical Education


Peter Kreeft (professor of philosophy at Boston College) has written several celebrated books on theology, philosophy and apologetics (Socratic Logic, Practical Theology, Summa of the Summa, Handbook of Christian Apologetics—just to name a few.) He has also written the foreward to the Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain). Here is an excerpt from his foreward in which he argues for the classical education in his ironic way. I particularly enjoy the way he turns the typical objections to classical education on their head and shows how they are indeed arguments for classical education. Enjoy—and pick up the Liberal Arts Tradition if you have not read it yet. It is well worth the read as Kreeft suggests. You can peruse Kreeft’s books here and learn more about the Liberal Arts Tradition here.

Foreward to The Liberal Arts Tradition

by Peter Kreeft


Plato said a lot of foolish things in his Republic about an ideally just society, but one very central thing that he said in that work was not foolish at all but very wise: the single most important thing that makes a society good, and just, and wise, and happy is education.

Do you want the very best middle and high school education for your children? Then read this book and find a school that believes and practices its principles.

This book is about a complete education in the “liberal arts,” which are the fundamental subjects that students will need as a foundation to build on for the rest of their educational life, no matter what specialized subjects they take later, in college and graduate school. Most important of all, these are the subjects we need to know for life, for a life that is free and not slavish (thus the term “liberal education”).

Just look at this book’s table of contents to see how much is included in this. It’s more than the old “seven liberal arts,” but it builds on them.

It is an education of the whole person, not just the calculating intellect. But it is not less “intellectual” for that, but more so.

It is based on the “tried and true” tradition of liberal education invented by the greatest minds in history. Here you will meet Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Christ, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis. It is the best of the old and the best of the new. It is not the “politically correct” education offered by our ever-declining and continually dumbed-down state schools. In fact it compares to that as a Jane Austen novel compares to a pothead’s addled dream.

As our culture becomes more decadent, spiritual survival reactions to it become tougher and tighter, just as the body’s white corpuscles organize to combat an infection. As bad gets worse, good gets better. And the contrast gets clearer and stronger.

This is not “mainstream” education. And the educational establishment feels deeply threatened by it, and offers at least eight silly objections to it that are really advertisements for it.

  1. It’s “divisive.” It’s not what everyone else is doing. It marches to a different drummer. It cultivates excellence rather than conformity. Yes it does. And this is actually sometimes used as an objection rather than as a selling point!
  2. It’s old, outdated, unfashionable. Yes it is, like honor, courage, integrity, and honesty. It doesn’t try to tell the truth with a clock; it doesn’t practice chronological snobbery. In an age which has embraced every novelty, the true rebel is the traditionalist.
  3. It’s not in line with modern philosophies: skepticism, cynicism, subjectivism, relativism, naturalism, materialism, reductionism, positivism, scientism, socialism. That’s exactly right. It’s not. It’s countercultural. It harnesses teenagers’ natural proclivity to rebel and turns that force against “the bad guys” who are now the “establishment” instead of against “the good guys.”
  4. It’s “judgmental.” It believes there really is good and bad, true and false. The typical modern education is judgmental only against being judgmental, and skeptical of everything except skepticism.
  5. It’s small. It’s private. It’s grassroots. It’s implemented mainly in small schools, not big ones. This is true, and it’s another plus rather than a minus. “Small is beautiful.” The bigger the school, the more standardized it has to be and the more the person tends to get lost in the system and get identified with his or her race, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, or political party.
  6. It seeks the truth for its own sake, not primarily for pragmatic uses. It aims at wisdom, not wealth. It makes its graduates philosophers instead of millionaires. This is also true. But it’s not a fault. As Chesterton says, “Man’s most practical need is to be more than a pragmatist.”
  7. It’s not specialized. It doesn’t include courses on underwater basket weaving or pickling and fermentation (which was actually a major at Ohio State). It doesn’t teach you clever ways to outguess Microsoft word, or the government, or lawyers, or your professor, or the standardized tests. It just teaches you how to think and how to live. But businesses, law schools, and government agencies don’t want specialist drudges and drones; they want people who can read and write and think logically and creatively.
  8. It’s religious. It’s Christian. It doesn’t pretend that the most important man who ever lived never lived, as our public education now does. It assumes that the supernatural is not the enemy to the natural, that “grace perfects nature rather than demeaning it,” as light perfects all colors.

This little book is a description of that educational program. It’s precious—because children are precious.

Yes, Small is Good

small school






Most of us are seeking to educate in small settings—in our own homes, in community co-ops, in small classical schools. One might think we are doing so because we are in retreat, having left the big institutions (like the public schools) to do what we must do on our own, because the big schools have gone sour. In other words, one might think we are public school refugees.

If the big schools would simply return to the ideals of a classical, liberal arts education—wouldn’t we return to them? I doubt most of us would. This is because education is done best in small communities with teachers who love their students. Christ says that when a student is fully trained he will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40). Now to be fully trained by a teacher assumes a meaningful relationship, as the context of Luke 6 makes clear (how does one remove a speck from a brother’s eye?).

We are a small company serving a small segment of American education. We are glad to be a growing company, but also glad to be a growing small company. We enjoy each other, and have meaningful collegial relationships here at CAP. We love our work and love each other. We trust that this true of most of you too—educating in the setting of your home or a small classical school. These small knots of love and learning add up to something of countless value and enormous impact.

So as we celebrate the coming of Christ as a baby born into a humble Jewish family—we raise a glass to all of you who are loving and cultivating your own in the small ways that can transform the world.

The Liberal Arts and the Fate of American Democracy

This article below is posted with grateful permission from Dr. Scott Samuelson and Rhodes Magazine in which the article appeared in November, 2014.

Scott_SamuelsonThe Atlantic
Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class. There are three big reasons for this. First, it befits the leisure time of an upper class to explore the higher goods of human life: to play Beethoven, to study botany, to read Aristotle, to go on an imagination-expanding tour of Italy. Second, because their birthright is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, members of the aristocratic class require the skills to think for themselves. Whereas those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values. Finally (and this reason generally goes unspoken), the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible.
“Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers:
Liberal Arts and the Humanities Aren’t Just for the Elite”
Scott Samuelson

In the democracy of ancient Athens and the republic of ancient Rome, freedom was only for the few. Slaves, servants, and women had to toil so that free men could cultivate their minds, participate in the government, and enjoy the highest goods of human life—in short, so they could learn and practice the liberal arts.

Our government takes inspiration from Athens and draws on the model of the Roman Republic, but we also inherit the Enlightenment ideal of freedom for all, even if our history has never quite lived up to it. My view—inspired by a long line of American thinkers going back to Thomas Jefferson—is that in a democratic republic the liberal arts should not be the exclusive privilege of the few. We should all have access to an education in thinking and judging for ourselves. The main goals of elementary and secondary education should center on cultivating the liberal arts, and citizens should have the opportunity to study the liberal arts in college without incurring onerous debt.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have opportunities for job training in our educational institutions. The reason that ancient Athenian and Roman citizens could devote themselves whole-heartedly to the liberal arts was precisely that the servile did the work necessary to sustain freedom. Part of the genius of the American educational system is that it mixes liberal and technical education. A just democracy requires that we all pitch in when it comes to the economy.

If anything, I’d like to see more real technical education in elementary and primary schools. There’s no reason that a person with a high school diploma shouldn’t be expected to know something and to do something. Furthermore, I’m grateful that our colleges and universities help their students get employable skills. But the dominant note of an education in a liberal democracy should be the cultivation of freedom, not of employability. We rightly want people to have gainful employment, but American citizens should do their work with a spirit of independence, creativity, and self-reliance.

The powerful trends in education right now are all about standardization, rubrics, passing tests, and compliance, which read as forms of servility rather than freedom. Insofar as the private goal of education is about jumping through the hoops necessary to get hired and the rationale for public education is about growing the economy, I worry that we’re striking a blasé Hobbesian bargain of giving up our freedom to big corporations and government agencies in return for the promise of security.

At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we’d reached “the end of history,” by which he meant that all peoples would eventually settle into liberal democracy. It’s not simply the authoritarian capitalism of China and the violent theocratic movements of the Middle East that challenge his thesis. It’s that we ourselves run the danger of becoming illiberal.

A century ago, when America was tilting toward inequality and empire, the great American philosopher William James said, “Nothing future is quite secure; states enough have inwardly rotted—and democracy as a whole may undergo self-poisoning. But, on the other hand, democracy is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure. Faiths and utopias are the noblest exercise of human reason, and no one with a spark of reason in him will sit down fatalistically before the croaker’s picture. The best of us are filled with the contrary vision of a democracy stumbling through every error till its institutions glow with justice and its customs shine with beauty.”

In the decades following James’ stirring remarks, our country stumbled toward institutions and customs that glowed with a little more justice for workers, women, and black Americans. Twentieth-century America gave birth to a world-class public educational system that, for all its flaws, gave an astonishing number of people a distinctive liberal education. Unfortunately, for a few decades now we’ve been walking with misplaced confidence toward inequality and empire once again.

But we should refuse to “sit down fatalistically before the croaker’s picture.” As a new world order is taking shape, we have the opportunity to shine like never before as the country where, with the help of the liberal arts, citizens widely participate in the government, workers have a voice in an innovative economy, and the widest number of people enjoy the best of the human inheritance.

Scott Samuelson, the author of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone (University of Chicago Press, 2014), is giving the lecture “Suffering and Soul-Making: On the Deep Value of the Liberal Arts” on January 15, 2015, as part of Rhodes’ Communities in Conversation series.

Lincoln and Liberal Education

We are delighted to present a blog post  by Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’ s College in Annapolis, and a national spokesperson for the liberal arts.
St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly, through study and discussion, with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. You can find this article and many others at          
This article is published with permission from St. John’s College.

Lincoln and Liberal Education

Christopher B. Nelson

Chris_Nelson_2014_01Abraham Lincoln remains alive to us these days, in part because of the extraordinary performance by Daniel Day Lewis in the film Lincoln. In one thoughtful scene, Lincoln sits in a teletype office and wrestles with the question of human and racial equality and the awful institution of slavery. He harkens back to one of the great foundational texts of western civilization, Euclid’s Elements, a beautiful book of elementary geometry written over 2,000 years ago.

In the film, Lincoln cites Euclid’s first common notion: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” He calls it true “because it works, always has done and always will do.” And then he reminds us that Euclid called it “a self-evident truth”, putting us in mind of another great work of civilization, America’s own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Lincoln, self-educated, a versatile and critical thinker, questioned prevailing assumptions of his day, and, in his search for truth, drew upon mathematical axioms as a storehouse of principles he might apply to his political philosophy. This is what liberally educated people do, people who are broadly and deeply educated in the great movements of history, in the foundational texts and fundamental insights of physics and philosophy, literature and biology, music and theology, sociology and yes, mathematics — people who have acquired a kind of worldly wisdom that allows them to rise above and see behind the barriers to understanding and action, and take the imaginative leap that is often necessary to solve a problem or find a solution. These are also the people who have developed the skills of listening attentively, speaking persuasively, arguing logically and working collaboratively to bring an idea to fruition.

Lincoln was a practical man, a worldly politician, not just a theoretical thinker. Was it true, he must have asked himself, that the truths proclaimed in the Declaration were self-evident? And if self-evident, then why were they not universally recognized and slavery abolished? So the practical man in Lincoln must have come to the conclusion that if they were not self-evident or their self-evidence not sufficient, they would have to be proved — some four score and seven years after the writing of the Declaration. Thus, his Gettysburg Address changed the terms of the question from “holding a self-evident truth” to “dedicating oneself to a proposition” that all men are created equal. No longer an axiom of mathematical logic accessible to reason, this would become a proposition requiring proof in action, following an act of will, in a great civil war, dedicating thousands and thousands of lives in the interest of securing freedom for those who had been denied the right to claim equality under the law. And still more, Lincoln asked “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…”

This rhetorical change in our founding document represented a momentous re-founding of our nation, from one resting on an axiom of reason to one requiring our dedication to realizing the dream of equality through an act of liberation.

This commitment to liberation, to the principles of liberty, to freedom of speech and action, is what undergirds our nation. And it is our national duty to assure that each generation of citizens is well educated in the arts of freedom to protect them from attack and from atrophy. It ought to be the first concern of our schools, from pre-kindergarten through college, that our young acquire the freedom to make intelligent choices concerning the ends and means of both their public and private lives. This requires the cultivation and practice of the art of reason and understanding and discipline in analysis, argument and interpretation so that they may be free from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions and inherited prejudices.

Our nation was founded on the idea that good government is grounded in its citizens’ intellectual freedom; our strength depends upon this idea. Our economy is grounded in the notion of free enterprise; the freedom we have to test our ideas against the needs and demands of the community has helped build the prosperity we have enjoyed as a society. This too depends upon the intellectual freedom of our citizens. And so it is with our social order and moral character.

For the sake of our country, then, we need our citizens to have two kinds of education that are in a very healthy tension with one another: (1) an education in the political and intellectual foundations, including the economic, scientific and social traditions and principles that have shaped our nation, and (2) an education in the arts needed to question and examine those very foundations and traditions in the light of reason, so that we may keep them vibrant and alive, and so that we may redefine and improve on them when we discover we have good cause. These are called the arts of freedom because they are grounded in the kind of free inquiry that helps us understand our world better and inspires in us a sense of wonder and longing to learn more.

Our nation’s liberal arts colleges were established to help cultivate this freedom of intellect through examining the seminal texts that underlie and inform our understanding of the world, and through developing the arts of inquiry. These colleges are dedicated to cultivating the arts of freedom to develop the self-sufficiency that is fit for our republic—fit for a republic that champions the right of all of its citizens to pursue the happiness that belongs to them, for making a life worth living, one that brings opportunities for success in making a living too.

We who are responsible for our nation’s liberal arts colleges take this to be our public trust, one to which we give a full measure of devotion. We serve the common good, and this in turn serves our nation well, keeping it strong and vibrant, able to undertake the challenges of tomorrow because it has a citizenry that has some understanding of the intellectual and moral virtues required and the strength of will to use them well—a fitting legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

I confess to taking special delight in the response to the Lincoln movie by many members of the St. John’s College community to which I belong, celebrating that scene where Lincoln was shown to have read Euclid’s Elements, a seminal book read by every St. John’s student, just as every St. John’s student later reads this country’s founding documents and Lincoln’s speeches. The spotlight shown by the film on all of these texts rightly justifies our calling them great and transformative, words that we apply to the liberal education they make possible.


The Common Core and the Classical Tradition

comon coreWhen I first heard the Common Core discussed in a news report, I had a schizophrenic reaction. Being an ardent advocate for the classical tradition of education, I responded positively to its captivating name. Classical educators love and support the idea that there is a “core curriculum” –-a core (even a canon) of great books, great ideas and great arts that should be studied. We also support the notion that these great ideas should be the common study and treasure of the entire nation. Much of this thinking is embedded in E.D. Hirsh’s Core Knowledge curricula, for example.  But then I had another reaction: what I heard of this Common Core, turned out to be nothing like the classical tradition, but rather something quite uncommon to it. As I read and listened, it became clear that the Common Core Standards (CCS) were progressive education theory with a classical name. The name connotes or suggests something that it is not—at least to anyone familiar with traditional and classical education. Continue reading

What the Liberal Arts Give Inside and Out

In the classical tradition, the study of the liberal arts enabled one to most fully realize one’s humanity—to become the best version of oneself. Put another way, the arts helped a man to live well, to craft a life worth living. Living such a “good life” was regularly contrasted with merely earning a living. The liberal arts, therefore enabled free men (those with the time and means) to remain free and to acquire capacities and virtues that blessed the man and those he served. There was both an internal and external aspect to a liberal arts education: the study of the arts were an end in themselves (personally humanizing and enriching) but also capacitating and equipping one to serve with excellence and wisdom.

John Henry Newman describes the capacities and virtues imparted to one by a classical, liberal arts education. He summarizes these capacities and virtues as the “perfection of the intellect:”


That perfection of the intellect which is the result of education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the fine mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.


Newman wrote this describing how he would create an ideal university (from his book The Idea of a University). In another place Newman summarizes what he calls a liberal education: “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom.”

These are all attributes which are desirable for their own sake—but who can deny their practical value for anyone possessing them? Newman makes this very point, while stressing that “liberal knowledge” alone “stands on its own pretension, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.”

Thus we encounter a paradox of liberal learning: by not focusing on the practical, we become quite useful to others. This warrants some reflection. Of course there are many important “practical arts” (servile arts, manual arts, mechanical arts were older designations) worthy of study and mastery. Right now, there is quite an emphasis on the utility of students learning coding, for example.

The liberal arts, however, make a man practical by making him a master of language and mathematics and by enriching his mind with a storehouse of stories, poetry, history, geometry and physics—the best that has been thought and said. The trivium arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric enable men to make things out of words: poems, speeches, letters, essays and arguments. Doing these things really well—is good for what? Well Newman would say these things expect no compliment and refused to be informed by any end. They are a good unto themselves, “free” from any obligation to a particular use. And yet… and yet great speeches, poems, essays and arguments make anyone in any profession interesting, compelling and effective. A man with a perfected intellect—with calm, accurate vision, prophetic insight and supernatural charity—who would not want such a person as pastor, politician or plumber?

Classical Education: Christian and Secular














I cut my teeth on classical education as a headmaster of a Protestant classical school for ten years here in central Pennsylvania.  Having studied history and classics in college, I knew at least the rough outline of the liberal arts tradition—at least enough to know that the Greeks and Romans studied a good bit of grammar, logic and rhetoric.   I read Plato’s Republic in which he describes his ideal education for the ideal guardian for his ideal society.

It is indisputable: classical education existed during the classical periods—before the coming of Christ. Yes, there is a lot of talk about Classical Christian education, and for two good reasons: 1) Historically, the Christian church assumed the mantle of classical education, modified it, calibrated it to serve the Christian gospel and then greatly extended it. Thus a great deal of what we know as “classical education” has been “Christian” as well. 2) The recent renewal (over the past 25 years or so) of classical education has been initiated and led by Christians, particularly Protestants.

Number 1) remains a historical fact, though there are numerous examples of classical, secular schools and institutions that have carried on successfully, especially since the Enlightenment. Many schools that started as classical and Christian schools, are now secular even if retaining some classical elements. Most of the Ivy League colleges for example (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) started as classical and Christian institutions, and are now certainly not Christian, and a mix of classical and progressive elements.

Number 2), the recent renewal of classical education, is changing and extending. While there are at least 240 Protestant classical schools (the number of schools that are part of the Association of Classical Christian Schools)  in the U.S. that have started since about 1990, there are many schools that have started outside of Protestantism and outside of the Christian church generally. A number of Catholic schools have returned to the classical approach and new ones are starting. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has started to support this effort. Several Orthodox schools have begun as classical schools too. Homeschooling continues its rapid growth in America and the classical approach to homeschooling is one very popular approach that is represented by Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics. Classical Conversations advocates for classical homeschooling and in my estimation attracts mainly Protestants, but also has Orthodox and Catholic participants. Aquinas Learning supports classical homeschool education for Catholics as does Laura Berquist’s Mother of Divine Grace School.

Those outside the Christian church are also rediscovering classical education, and finding it part of their heritage too, even if they sift out the religious elements almost always intertwined with classical education (see number 1). There are approximately 100 classical charter schools that have started around the U.S. in the last ten years—and more are on the way. The Great Hearts Academies association of Arizona has started 19 classical charter schools, with plans under way to start more in other states. Secular classical homeschooling is also on the rise—I note the rapid growth of Hip Homeschool Moms (not officially classical, but with many classical homeschoolers) and Sandbox to Socrates as examples.  The Well-Trained Mind Forum contains thousands of classical homeschooling parents and a separate group for secular parents.

I find this very encouraging, and I say this as a citizen and a Christian. Why? As a citizen, I support better education generally. I would rather see a classical public school (likely a charter school) in my neighborhood than a troubled, progressive public school. A secular classical education is superior to what we have today, and a secular, truly classical education, will be by nature friendly to religious tradition.  How is that? The ideals of a secular classical education hold forth the reality of truth, goodness and beauty and the life-long pursuit of these transcendentals. Virtue is regarded as real, paramount and attainable. The Great Hearts schools describe this as philosophical realism, rooted in teaching extending back to Plato.

However, I am a Christian and deeply love the Christian classical tradition that assumed, transformed and extended the liberal arts studied by the Greeks and Romans. This is part of a large story not worthy of this short essay, but we can note that large numbers of pagan Greeks and Romans became Christians, were the first Christians, and they adopted and transformed the classical curriculum, putting theology at the head as the queen or governess. Up until about 1900 education was “classical” and largely Christian as well.

I have labored (imperfectly) to give my children a Christian classical education. To my colleagues and friends outside the church, I say give your children a classical education. Study and seek after wisdom, eloquence and virtue, after truth, goodness and beauty. Like so many Greeks and Romans centuries ago you may find that the church (and her theology) the extension of your search, the fulfillment of all that you dream. If not, you will remain my esteemed colleagues laboring for the common-wealth of our children and nation.


Next blog article in this series: Why the Liberal Arts Are for Every Human

Then next after that: Do Classical Charter Schools Threaten Classical Christian Schools?