Classical Education Grows

A return to teaching the foundational disciplines of communication & reasoning



Classical Education is a fast-growing movement. Its emphasis has shifted from a close attention to linguistics to a broad focus on those subjects that particularly distinguish humanity from the beasts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The ancients called these the Trivium. The fact that our word trivial comes from that says a lot about how education has confused its priorities! We might better explain and define the three subjects as communication, thinking, and persuasion. These are the “liberal arts” which define us as free men and women who, uniquely in creation, possess self-knowledge — who know that we know. The subjects of the Trivium, unpacked, embrace literature, language, law, logic, politics, and ethics, and within that embrace are all the specialties that have stemmed from them.

In my view the Classical Education movement is in essence reactive. It is a bulwark against galloping specialization; its proponents are in effect saying that we’ve gone too far, that “the center cannot hold,” that specializations, though they have their value, are not the right place to start but rather should be built upon a sound initiation in the basics. There must be a return to teaching the foundational disciplines of communication and reasoning, the Trivium in fact, before we specialize in anything, indeed before we are capable of specializing capably in anything.

Over the past few years, classical schools have mushroomed worldwide. Most of them are still small, sometimes very small, but they are growing fast — hopefully not too fast. Small is good in a world where traditional “legacy” educational institutions apparently see growth as their primary goal, the only indicator of success.

Classical Education sometimes runs into trouble in the current climate, for the foundational disciplines of the Trivium have traditionally been based upon the three cultural pillars of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. It is thus hardly surprising that we are regularly exposed to accusations of sexism, Eurocentrism, and its even more “wicked” stepdaughter, colonialism. Several years ago the Ramsay Centre offered to fund courses in Western Civilization at a number of leading Australian universities. Astonishingly some of the leading ones, including Sydney and ANU, declined the offer, despite the fact that they already hosted a wide range of specialized centers on their campuses. Yet they quailed before the prospect of taking what was widely perceived as a Eurocentric viper to their bosom!

Apart from the strong links with Europe and with Christianity, supporters of Classical Education have another challenge to meet: The very word classical has connotations of excellence and superiority, and these are notions that are utterly repugnant to an intellectual tradition that has been corrupted by post-modernism.

But the Western Tradition which we have inherited has nothing to do with race, or with “gender” for that matter; as Christopher Dawson reminded us, “Christianity is not bound up with any particular race or culture. It is neither of the East or of the West, but has a universal mission to the human race as a whole…” The Christian Tradition is generally called the Western Tradition by a kind of historical accident. We sometimes need an effort of will to remember that the founders of Christianity were all Asians — Jews, to be precise — and that there have probably been at least as many African and Asian saints and martyrs as European ones (and as many women as men). Let’s not forget either that the epicenter of Christianity was in Asia long before it spread to Europe, and that the greatest and most honored of all human beings was a woman.


David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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