The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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The New Classical Schooling
Peter J. Leithart - 01/29/08

A similar analysis comes from Andrew Kern, Director of the CiRCE Institute, which bills itself as “the leading provider of inspiration, information, and insight to classical educators throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia.” In a book on classical education, Kern and his coauthor, Patrick Henry College provost Gene Edward Veith, insist that classical education is not nostalgic or traditionalist.6 Yet Kern thinks CCE is especially attractive in an “age of disintegration and homelessness” when parents and teachers “are looking for ancient roots.”7 Ken Myers, host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, characterizes the movement as a search for true humanism: “While some Christians thought that America’s ills were because of too much humanism, some Christians realized that our problem was not having enough humanism.” Evangelicals “by and large don’t have a strong ecclesiastically centered cultural heritage,” so they look outside their own world for educational models.8

Similar educational programs are found in some Catholic schools. On a twelve-acre estate forty miles west of Boston, students at the Trivium School meet in a turn-of-the century mansion known as Crownledge. Founded in 1979, the Trivium School teaches Catholic doctrine but also focuses on liberal and fine arts to inculcate the “intellectual skills and habits that prepare the student for life-long learning.”9 The Trivium School is not alone. On a website flanked by pictures of Christopher Dawson and Cardinal Newman, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education promises to serve “the Church by fostering Catholic liberal education through research, education and consultation.”10 And “Love 2 Learn,” an organization that assists Catholic homeschoolers, prominently features materials that help parents develop a classical curriculum.11

CCE establishes schools that do something Oakeshott might have recognized as education: not socialization or vocational training, but initiation into a cultural heritage, induction into the ongoing conversation of Western civilization. Classical educators also aim to recover the moral dimensions of education. “Classical education,” write Veith and Kern, “cultivates wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.”12 Nearly every word in this sentence—wisdom, virtue, soul, truth, goodness—has been expunged from the vocabulary of public education, but words like “wisdom,” “virtue,” “nobility” and “truth” are frequently heard in the corridors of classical schools.


The search for historical roots has taken many back to the Middle Ages—at least to the Middle Ages as related by Dorothy Sayers. In her 1947 essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Sayers, a popular detective novelist and translator of Dante, lamented the state of education and public discourse in England. She asked readers if they had “been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question”; whether they had “followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use”; whether they knew people for whom a school subject “remains a ‘subject,’ divided by watertight bulkheads from all other ‘subjects.’” She chose some embarrassing quotations in the venerable Times Literary Supplement to illustrate her judgment that “we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching [students] how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”13

Once, Sayers argued, things were different. Whereas today we indulge an “artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence,” young men in Tudor England set off to university in their early teens. A medieval student who went through the Trivium acquired the tools for learning, especially the tools of language.14 Once our culture had these tools as a common possession, but no more:

. . . today a great number—perhaps the majority—of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and newspapers, carry out our research, present our plans and our films, speak from our platforms and pulpits—yes, and who educate our young people—have never, even in a lingering traditional memory, undergone the Scholastic discipline. Less and less do the children who come to be educated bring any of that tradition with them. We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks.15

Sayers was not content to lament. Conceding her lack of teaching experience, she nevertheless outlined a modern curriculum based on the medieval Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Medieval theorists applied these categories literally to the study of language, but Sayers treated them more metaphorically, claiming that every subject has its grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar makes use of the faculties of observation and memory and involves the mastery of foundational facts; dialectic makes use of reason and examines the connections between facts; rhetorical training channels the student’s creativity as he learns to express the facts and logical connections he has learned with persuasive elegance.

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