Classical education is first and foremost the education which flows from a certain understanding of reality. There is the modern way of understanding reality and there is the pre-modern way and they are radically different from one another. Classical education is education based on the pre-modern way of viewing the nature of man and the nature of the universe. The first pre-requisite to teaching in a classical school is not learning a certain set of methods or adopting a certain curriculum; it is becoming well acquainted with the difference between these two mindsets and immersing oneself in the thinking and imagery of the pre-modern mindset.
Thomas Howard calls the two opposing views “the old myth and the new myth” and describes them in the opening to his book Chance or the Dance?
There were some ages in Western history that have occasionally been called Dark. They were dark, it is said, because in them learning declined, and progress paused, and men labored under the pall of belief…Men believed in things like the Last Judgment and fiery torment…They believed that they had souls, and that what they did in this life had some bearing on the way in which they would finally experience reality… And they believed that God was in heaven and Beelzebub in hell and that the Holy Ghost had impregnated the Virgin Mary and that the earth and sky were full of angelic and demonic conflict. Altogether, life was very weighty, and there was no telling what might lie behind things. The ages were, as I say, dark.
Then the light came. It was the light that has lighted us men into a new age. Charms, angels, devils, plagues, and parthenogenesis have fled from the glare into the crannies of memory. In their place have come coal mining and E=mc2 and plastic and group dynamics and napalm and urban renewal and rapid transit. Men were freed from the gear of the Last Judgment; it was felt to be more bracing to face Nothing than to fave the Tribunal. They were freed from worry about getting their souls into God’s heaven by the discovery that they had no souls and that God had no heaven…Altogether life became much more liveable since it was clear that in fact nothing lay behind things. The age was called enlightened.
The myth sovereign in the old age was that everything means everything. The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything.
Either everything has meaning or there is no meaning and “nothing means anything” which is the same as saying that we can assign any meaning we want to things since meaning is just a figment of our imaginations.
Howard’s title Chance or the Dance? suggests an image which can help us understand what we are doing in classical education; we are equipping children for participation in the Great Dance. What is the Great Dance? It is an old image or metaphor, conceived sometime during the Middle Ages, for reality, for the nature of the universe. It is a view of reality that extends beyond this world and encompasses “all things visible and invisible.” It was universally understood and accepted by those living in Latin Christendom: God was the Cosmic Choreographer; Christ was the Lord of the Dance; and each person was created to play a unique part in a cosmic ballet. And so Howard is asking in his title, What explains reality? Is it an accident of chance, or is it a planned and intricate unfolding of events?
What’s involved in this image of reality? How is the universe like a dance? First of all, reality is choreographed just like a dance; there is a pattern into which all things fit and each individual thing or person plays a part in something much bigger than itself or himself. All things have meaning and find their meaning as unique parts of the whole. “All things are made for the Dance.” There is meant to be a harmony among all things. And it is harmony; not all things are the same. There is unity and diversity within reality, not sameness and uniformity. It is a dance, not a march; one leads, another follows; one lifts, the other is lifted. The whole is harmonious, but everyone is not doing exactly the same thing. Inequality, not equality is at the heart of things, in the universe as in the dance.
The Great Dance is a good image for the nature of things because dance involves the union of form and freedom. Understanding reality involves understanding that form and freedom are two important aspects of reality. On the form side, we see order and patterns, predictability and laws. There are rules and limitations we must observe; we learn early that we can’t fly off our beds by jumping and flapping our arms. On the freedom side, we see uniqueness, unpredictability, creativity, spontaneity, even mystery, in reality. No two people are exactly alike, and their actions are not predictable.
In dance we see the perfect marriage of form and freedom. Steps must be learned, practiced and mastered–the form. Only then is one free to move in perfect harmony with one’s partner and the music. Here is the true meaning of freedom as opposed to the modern view of doing whatever one pleases without regard for anyone or anything else. Howard says in Chance or the Dance?: “Your freedom in the Dance is to be able to execute your steps with power and grace, not to decide what you feel like doing.” And so in life, we find the freedom only when we submit to the form of what is, when we conform to the universe as it is–not in the narrow understanding of the modern materialists, but we conform to the universe in its true and largest sense. Howard explains:
For it is in these limitations that the old myth found the definition of freedom. Whatever freedom was, it was to be found, ironically, via the strait gate. It was thought of not as a matter of self-determination but rather as a matter of the capacity to experience one’s own perfection as joy. The question for Adam and Eve was not that they enjoy
a realm in which no strictures existed: it was, rather, that they learn to will what was, in fact, the case–what they couldn’t escape anyway…they had two possible types of freedom open to them: either assert their autonomy, live in illusion, and find out in the end that it was no autonomy; or to assent to the way things, alas, were, and see if the matter of freedom weren’t something vastly different from what they might have supposed it to be.
This vision of reality stands in stark contrast to the modern vision, the “joyless cosmology.” Autonomous man is central; there is nothing bigger for him to submit to. There is no structure, no pattern, no moral order to which he must conform. Autonomous man finds truth and meaning within himself. Lewis calls this view “subjectivism” and explains that if we deny that there are any objective qualities in the world outside of ourselves, there is no reason to assume that the judgments we make and the minds with which we make them are any different from everything else. In his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism” he says:
At the outset, the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe; first of its gods, then of its colors, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account; classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions… While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe… as ‘things in our own mind’. Apparently we had no mind of the sort required. The Subject is as empty as the Object. Almost nobody has been making linguistic mistakes about almost nothing.
When modern man makes himself “the measure of all things”, the possibility of objective truth is gone, the possibility of separating subject from object is gone. All becomes subject and there’s no basis for knowing whether the subjective is real or significant. We call this view reductionism. While the pre-modern view sees reality as encompassing invisible realities (angels and demons, truth, goodness, and beauty) as well as visible material reality, the modern view has reduced reality to that which can be seen and touched, dissected or measured.
One more mark of the modern myth is that egalitarianism has replaced the understanding of a hierarchical reality such as that pictured by the Great Dance. Modern thinking has turned the political idea of democracy into a false doctrine that goes beyond equality under the law to declare that all men are equal. Anything that smacks of superiority or hierarchy must be cut down. In an essay called “Equality” Lewis says that people have a “craving for inequality”; they want to look up to someone. Monarchy for the medievals reflected something about the nature of the universe.
Monarchy can easily be debunked; but watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers. These are men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut; whom no rumor of the polyphony, the dance can reach –men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
Once again we see that anything less than a vision of reality as the Great Dance is soul-deadening; the view is too small and goes against who we are made to be. It is, in fact, a view that Lewis argues leads to the “abolition of man”.
So what kind of education equips one for participation in the Great Dance? First of all, it must be an education that takes into account what we were made for. We are not primarily economic animals or social animals, and thus education is not primarily about being equipped to be a wage earner or being prepared for fitting into society. We must be aware of the danger of confusing means with ends, and we must keep our eyes on the end of education.
Education in the old view is not mainly instructional, but formative; it has as its end the ennoblement of embodied spirits; it is about nourishing minds and souls and equipping students to be what they were made to be–reasoning, choosing, creating beings who can think about what is true, choose what is good, and create what is beautiful. It is involved in imparting knowledge that leads to virtue. This is education according to the old view.
A proper understanding of form and freedom as seen in the image of the Great Dance helps one to carry this out. As one writer on education put it: “We must insist that our educational framework produce neither automatons nor hellions. The individual must be free to choose, yet must be provided with the framework of values within which meaningful, civilized choice takes place. Our quest is for ‘structured freedom’.” We want neither automatons, learning all the rules and patterns and performing by rote, nor hellions, practicing self-expression with no limits; rather, we want our students to be individuals capable of creative thinking and choosing within the limits and structure of what is.
Good education then is like dancing lessons; it is primarily about form, hence the term “formal education.” Form precedes freedom; the form– the rules, the vocabulary, the scales, the steps (the grammar as classical education calls it)–must be learned before freedom to read, to communicate clearly, to play Mozart, to solve a complex problem is possible. Yet it is not form for form’s sake; form is not the end of the matter. Participation in the Dance is the end. Grammar, phonics, times tables are not ends in themselves; they are just the tools we need
to use our minds and make sense of the world. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are equipping children to be free thinking and choosing adults able to discern the truth amidst all the false claims. We want our students to become adults with the right kind of independence. For this they must learn something about self-discipline, hard work and perseverance, delayed gratification, and submission to authority without becoming automatons. They must also be helped and inspired to be imaginative and creative, inventive and original, rhetoricians of the right kind, without becoming hellions. To do this we who teach them need above all a clear vision of this pre-modern understanding of reality.
Thomas Howard explains how the Great Dance gives us a true picture of the form and freedom built into reality:
What is the glory of the sun and moon and stars? Is it not at least partly that they exhibit a solemn and mathematical precision in their courses, a great astronomical sarabande or minuet?…Whatever their glory is…it does not involve either self-determination or randomness. Similarly, what is the freedom of the athlete? His excellence is a ma er of power–the power to do the thing beautifully. The perfection of the jump stands at the far end of a program of renunciation, in which his inclinations were subordinated to the demands of that very perfection…And the sonnet: here words dance in their highest dignity and beauty; here is language at its most excellent–but it is language dragooned and hedged and crowded and thwarted by rules. But, ironically, at the far end of those awful rules there emerges perfection…
The old myth would have seen all these phenomena as images–images of some paradox that lay at the heart of things: that freedom for a thing is that state in which it appears at its highest performance (its perfection, in other words), and that this is a state that lies on the farther side of rigor and austerity. And it would have seen all these images as suggesting not a moral servility for that unique creature man, but rather the brilliant display, under a thousand forms, of the Dance, which goes on aeon a er aeon, and which waits all breathless with hope for the Man to recognize the pattern, see his place, assent to it, and join.
Classical schools informed by this view of reality are equipping students for participation in the Great Dance.