The “What, How, and Why” of Classical Education
— Sarah Boss · Saturday, July 16, 2022 —
My first exposure to classical Christian education (CCE) was at Covenant 15 years ago, when I started the school as an 8th Grade student. Thanks to a summer of early morning Latin camp and a homeschooled 7th Grade education (in which I was taught The Odyssey by THE Mrs. Boss, who had me skip all the gory parts — about 40 percent of the epic poem), I felt ready enough to begin my journey into classical education. However, I realized how little I actually understood about CCE during a random encounter in the most uncomfortable of all social situations: the hair salon. The encounter went something like this:
Hairdresser: So are you on summer break? When do you go back to school?
14-year-old me: August 12, I think.
Hairdresser: That’s a Saturday.
Me: I’m pretty sure it’s when I start back.
Hairdresser: I know it’s a Saturday because it’s my birthday. You better double check when your school starts.
Hairdresser: What school do you go to?
Me: Covenant Classical School.
Hairdresser: Classical? What’s that?
Me: We read old books. Like Plato. And we learn Latin.
Hairdresser: That’s interesting.
Then 40 minutes of silence ensued.
I’ve had the past 15 years to reminisce on the awkwardness of this conversation, as well as what CCE really is. There are three aspects of CCE — and how it relates to Covenant’s mission and vision — that I would like to address here: the what, the how, and the why.
Out of these three questions, the what is usually the easiest to answer. When it comes to CCE, however, the definition is surprisingly elusive. Over the past few decades, the standard definition of CCE has changed. Is it the inclusion of ancient languages and emphasis on humanities that makes it distinctive (as my younger self claimed)? Or the organization of classical schools into grammar, logic, and rhetoric? Or the utilization of Socratic dialogue? Or something else altogether? Rather than delving into the nuances of how CCE has been redefined in recent years, I would say the answer is all of the above. One of the key aspects and values of CCE is holistic integration. This entails viewing the K-12 education process as a trajectory with a common purpose (as described in the Portrait of a Graduate); treating the student as a complex yet holistic being comprised of mind, body, and spirit and seeking to educate all parts of their nature; and interweaving subjects and disciplines across the board, from science to history to theology and everything in between. The what of CCE is not only about a particular kind of pedagogy in the classroom, but also a lived-out commitment to educating the student’s whole being, no matter the grade or class.
Just like the what of CCE, the how is also more than pedagogy, more than hours of Socratic dialogue or a commitment to reading Plato and Homer exclusively (although wouldn’t that be fun!). The how of CCE involves active commitment and partnership from students, parents, and teachers, and on all parts a healthy measure of rigor. Here rigor is meant as focused, purposeful hard work, on the behalf of all parties involved, but perhaps most evidently on that of the student. What sets the classical school apart from the college prep school is that students are expected and encouraged to work hard not for the sake of high grades and standardized test scores (although these do tend to be a byproduct of such work), but rather for the sake of learning itself. Covenant students are taught to think for themselves, appreciate logic and beauty, and discover truth and love in what they learn. These are aspirational goals that even most adults would balk at, but it is through rigor and hard work that students may draw closer to achieving them.
Finally, the last and most important question: Why? Why be a part of a CCE school, why does CCE really matter, and why talk through these questions and other aspects of Covenant’s mission and vision? And, as many students often ask, and as my former hairdresser most certainly wondered, "Why in the world learn Latin?" The answer can be found in the motto Covenant has had since I joined 15 years ago: “In all things Christ preeminent.” The goal of CCE and Covenant in particular is set before students' lofty Christ-centered goals and equip them to strive towards them with passion and rigor. The why of CCE is not to produce young adults who can espouse Plato to give Latin monologues, but rather to raise up wise, virtuous, and diligent individuals who will be lifelong learners and reflect on their time at Covenant as a microcosm of the challenges, values, and skills in their lives later on.
And ideally they’d be able to recite at least a line or two from The Aeneid, too.
by Sarah Boss, CCS Upper School Humanities Teacher