The British Model of Classical Education
- August 07, 2023
- Steve Macias
Celtic Christianity and Classical Education
The early missionaries to the British Isles brought not only Christianity, but also Western culture to the regions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Early 5th Century missionaries like St. Patrick, St. Columba, St. Ninian, St. Kentigern, and St. David were responsible for establishing churches and monastic communities that provided opportunities for education through the Christian Church. These early monastic communities provided the infrastructure for what would become schools and libraries.
A Celtic scriptorium was a place within a monastery or other religious community where monks and scribes engaged in the labor-intensive task of producing handwritten manuscripts. These manuscripts included religious texts, literary works, historical chronicles, legal codes, and more. The term “scriptorium” is derived from the Latin word “scriptor,” meaning “writer” or “scribe,” and it refers to a dedicated space where the copying, illuminating, and sometimes composing of manuscripts took place.
In the context of the Celtic world, especially during the early medieval period, Celtic scriptoria were vital centers of scholarship, artistic creativity, and the preservation of knowledge. The meticulous copywork of Celtic scribes contributed significantly to the preservation of ancient and classical texts. During periods of political upheaval and cultural change, these scriptoria were vital in safeguarding and transmitting valuable knowledge across generations.
Oxford and Cambridge: The University in British Education
- University of Oxford: located in Oxford, England, is one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world. Teaching began at Oxford as early as the 12th century. Monastic influence was significant in its establishment with early figures like John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), a Scottish Franciscan friar and philosopher. The earliest scholars had their roots in monastic communities that gradually evolved from a collection of scholars to a more structured educational institution.
- University of Cambridge: Similarly, the University of Cambridge, located in Cambridge, England, also has monastic roots. The university traces its origins to scholars who migrated from Oxford during the 13th century. The Church played a prominent role in medieval education, and official recognition from the pope aligned the university with religious and academic authorities. In 1317, Pope John XXII issued a papal bull known as “Super Cathedram,” which recognized the validity of degrees conferred by Cambridge University throughout Europe.
Monasteries played a significant role in medieval education and intellectual life. They were centers of learning, scholarship, and manuscript production, which were crucial aspects of early education. Monks were often well-educated and engaged in the study of various subjects, including theology, philosophy, mathematics, and the classics. These monastic communities provided an environment conducive to study, discussion, and the preservation of knowledge.
The development of universities in England, like Oxford and Cambridge, marked a transition from individual scholars working independently to structured institutions of higher learning. Over time, these universities expanded their curricula, established formal academic structures, and became centers of intellectual and scientific inquiry.
While Oxford and Cambridge are perhaps the most well-known examples of early universities with monastic origins, the establishment of universities across Europe was often influenced by religious institutions. Monasteries, cathedrals, and other religious centers provided a foundation for the growth of learning and scholarship that eventually evolved into the university system as we know it today.
Classical Education as a British Reform Movement
Following the industrial revolution, education began to shift from an exploration of the humanities to a tool for preparing a workforce. Industrialization necessitated a larger, more skilled labor force. This led to a push for mass education and a change in educational priorities. Education became a means for social mobility as the collection of skills could provide opportunities for employment. You didn’t need to know Latin to work in a factory. Instead, education would change its methodology to ensure consistent outcomes, mirroring the uniformity seen in assembly line production. Often at the expense of the humanities likes art, music, history, philosophy, and language.
As a reaction to the mechanization of society, many individuals sought solace and inspiration in the artistic and intellectual achievements of ancient Greece and Rome, viewing classical antiquity as a source of authenticity and cultural depth. Education in the classical sense was an exploration of truth and beauty, rather than the development of specialized technical skills.
British Classical Education Leaders
Classical education experienced a resurgence in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its intellectual groundwork having been established by figures such as John Milton (1608-1674) generations before. Milton’s influential work “Areopagitica,” named after the Athenian council’s debating site on a hill, serves as a defense of intellectual curiosity and an advocacy for classical education in the 17th century.
Milton’s famous quote on education remains pinned in our school office at Canterbury:
“The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.”― John Milton
Early Leaders: Rugby School and Rev. Thomas Arnold
Education reforms in the Victorian Era used classical emphasis on character and academic virtue to rescue a failing British education system. “At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the English public school was seen very differently from the revered British institution it was to become by its end…” according to Dr Heather Ellis, Liverpool Hope University. “A public school education was remembered by many former pupils as a depressing, brutal, and academically fruitless…”
Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) was a prominent educator and headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841. The game of Rugby owes its name to the school and the school under Arnold was the inspiration for the modern Olympic games. At the core of Arnold’s perspective on what he termed “manliness” was an idea he frequently contrasted with the perpetual childlike or boyish behavior he aimed to help his students outgrow.
He valued a deep understanding of the literary culture and history of the Greek and Roman world that a classical education could offer. This was not solely for personal growth, but because he saw Greek and Roman civilization, except in their religious and moral aspects, as the pinnacle of human achievement. Arnold believed that this classical culture exemplified the potential of a society in its advanced stage of development, akin to Vico’s “third period of full civilization” or adulthood. He thought that it provided an unmatched model for the intellectual progress of 19th-century Britain and Europe.
Classical Education and the Trivium
St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was a prominent figure in the 19th century known for his significant contributions as a theologian, philosopher, and eventually as a cardinal in the Roman Church. Born into an Anglican family, he initially found himself immersed in the intellectual and spiritual currents of the Oxford Movement, a revival within the Church of England that sought to restore traditional elements of English worship and doctrine. However, Newman’s journey would eventually lead him to embrace Roman Catholicism.
During Newman’s early association with the Oxford Movement, he advocated for the return to the Catholic roots of Anglicanism, aiming to reinvigorate the Church of England with a deeper sense of the patristic tradition. He was an author among the controversial “Tracts for the Times,” a series of pamphlets that aimed to reassert the importance of sacraments, liturgical practices, and apostolic succession.
One of Newman’s most enduring legacies is his profound influence on Classical education. His treatise “The Idea of a University” advocated for a liberal art education in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
Education was to be both Christian and Classical:
“I am speaking of University Education, which implies an extended range of reading, which has to deal with standard works of genius, or what are called the classics of a language: and I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of a sinful man.”
“While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind.”
20th Century Classical Education : Charlotte Mason and Dorothy Sayers
Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was a British educator who overcame orphanhood to become a champion for “liberal education for all.” Her education philosophy is often associated with a holistic approach and she herself described “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” Like classical teachers before her, she started with character formation and habits and then used short lessons and a child’s natural curiosity to foster a love for learning.
As Charlotte Mason put it,
“The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”(School Education, p. 170-171)
Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) delivered the influential essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947, advocating for a return to the medieval Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in education. Like many today, She believed that modern humanistic education had lost its way, and students were not being equipped with the essential tools of learning that would serve them well throughout their lives.
Dorothy Sayers was a colleague of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford. Her essay called back to mediæval forms of education that created Oxford, Cambridge, and the great universities of Christendom.
“The combined folly of a civilisation that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”
“The Lost Tools of Learning”