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Classical Education – What’s the Big Idea?

Deciding whether classical and Christian education is right for your children is sometimes difficult. Parents are naturally attracted to the notion of their children receiving an education that is better than what they themselves received, and that stands apart from other methods of education. Parents new to the classical scene, and often parents who are familiar with it, sometimes struggle to understand the “Big Idea” behind the trivium and its attendant concepts of the paideia (to educate) and arete (excellence). To be sure, there are some very big ideas behind the classical model.

Classical Greek civilization was devoted to the idea of arete, or excellence in every human endeavor. Sometimes translated as virtue and always associated with active pursuits of the mind and body, arete was absolutely central because it ultimately distinguished between the enslaved (literally, or to fear, ignorance, and laziness), and those who were free. Indeed, in Athens, the cradle of classical education, arete was thought to be a condition of citizenship. In his treatise The Republic, Plato asserted that only men of virtue (arete) should be citizens. The free-born of Athens were expected to participate in the public life of the polis and their contribution to civic life bore the stamp of arete. Free-born Athenians sent their children to the paideia where, using the trivium, they learned how to achieve excellence in every aspect of their lives. In other words, they were not taught a trade or a skill, but rather they received training for a life of liberty and beauty in which they lived up to their fullest potential.

The purpose of the paideia was to produce successive generations of Athenians that were fit to take-on civic responsibility (service), and capable of expressing their humanity in ever-greater ways. Much was at stake in all of this for the Athenians believed that their freedom and the future of their sacred democracy were in the hands of the next generation. The question is every bit as compelling for our society. What is at stake in the education of the next generation? Will our children lead lives of principle and service, or will they be slaves to selfishness and appetites? Will they be slaves of the flesh, or will they be distinguished as the aristocracy of the mind?

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