What is Catholic classical education? Simply put, it is an education that strives to form students in faith, wisdom, and virtue by drawing on the richness of the Church’s intellectual tradition and educational approach. It sees as its goal not simply the transmission of facts or training in skills, but the formation of whole persons who are capable of genuine freedom as sons and daughters of God. Such an education strives to empower students to discern the truth, love the beautiful, and choose the good. Because we affirm that God is the source of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, we believe that this education ultimately enables students to fulfill the end for which they were made: “to seek, know, and love God with all their hearts, minds, and strength” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1).

Catholic classical education is rooted in a philosophical and theological understanding of the human person and his relationship to the Truth. It flows from the following convictions that stem from our Catholic faith:

Catholic classical education emphatically affirms the existence of Truth. This principle distinguishes Catholic classical education from ideologies, which deny that the truth exists or which posits only relative or subjective “truths.”

Because of this conviction, Catholic classical education affirms that God reveals His truth both in creation and in human history and culture. The search for truth thus motivates all our studies, whether in science, math, history, or literature. We also believe that God’s truth was ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who Himself proclaimed: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). All who genuinely seek the truth are, therefore, ultimately seeking Christ. This principle sets Catholic classical education apart from secular education, which removes the search for God from the educational enterprise.

Because human beings are made in the image of God, who is the source of Truth and desires us to seek Him, Catholic classical education affirms that the human person – though his intellect is clouded by the effects of original sin – is created with a desire for and capacity to know the truth through the gift of faith and the right use of reason. As Christ taught us, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). This principle distinguishes Catholic classical education from ideologies, which claim that the truth cannot be known, or reject faith as a source of knowledge.

Because God is a unity in diversity – One God in Three Persons – the Truth which flows from Him reflects this principle. All Truth is at root unified, yet different fields of study reveal that Truth in manifold ways. All fields of study are, therefore, ultimately a search for God, and all intellectual disciplines ultimately point back to the unity of the truth in Christ, the Logos. This principle distinguishes Catholic classical education from pedagogical approaches that artificially fragment and isolate academic disciplines from each other.

In keeping with the tradition of classical philosophy, Catholic classical education holds that all that is True is also Good and Beautiful, and all that is authentically Good and Beautiful is also True. This principle distinguishes Catholic classical education from aesthetic and moral relativism, which asserts that beauty and goodness are merely matters of opinion or taste rather than rooted in objective truth.

Finally, Catholic classical education asserts that our education asserts a moral claim on us: we are called not only to know the truth, but also to live our lives in accordance with it. Thus, Catholic classical education sees virtue as both a necessary aid to pursuing and the highest form of wisdom.

The Methods of Catholic Classical Education

Because of the philosophical commitments of Catholic classical education, such education adopts a distinctive pedagogical approach. This approach affirms that the human person is made with a God-given capacity to know the truth and strives to teach in accordance with that capacity. While this is not an exhaustive list of everything that makes Catholic classical education distinctive, here are a few of the key features our found in our Catholic classical classrooms:

Because education is, ultimately, a search for God, it is a journey that flows from and leads to love and wonder. As St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Catholic classical education thus seeks to foster wonder: wonder in beholding God’s creation, in learning the achievements of God’s creatures, and in coming to understand the order embedded into the world by the Creator. Thus, in a Catholic classical classroom, ample time is provided for observation, contemplation, and reflection.

One goal of Catholic classical education is to empower students to enter the “great conversation” of those who have striven to discover the truth and live their lives in accordance with it. Emphasis is therefore placed on reading primary texts and texts that have withstood the “test of time” as the best of human achievement. The texts we select must, in their content and style, encourage students to see the pursuit of truth as a high and noble goal and inspire them to seek excellence with zeal, modesty, diligence, rigor, and courage.

Because Catholic classical education is rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition, pride of place within the curriculum is given to this tradition, which has come to fruition and flourished within the historical legacy of “Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem” and the tradition of Western civilization. We believe that our students are heirs to this tradition, and it is our responsibility as educators to pass it down to them.

The human mind and its intellectual faculties are made to know and contemplate the truth. Classical pedagogy seeks to sharpen those intellectual faculties through the cultivation of attention, memory, imagination, logical thinking, and precise use of language. Thus, in a Catholic classical school, you will see an emphasis placed on rigorous intellectual disciplines such as memorization, which fills the storehouse of the memory and imagination with rich content; logic, which reveals the implications and interconnectedness of ideas; and rhetoric, which teaches students how to clearly and effectively articulate what they have learned in beautiful and compelling language.

In a Catholic classical school, materials are selected on the basis of how they may form the moral and aesthetic imagination of our students. Books are selected that will inspire students to aspire to heroic virtue, and we surround students with beautiful works of art and music that have and will continue to endure throughout the centuries.

Socratic instruction is the cornerstone of classical pedagogy. Human beings have been described as “why”-asking creatures, and Catholic classical education honors our questioning nature by using Socratic instruction to help students approach the world with wonder and see the unifying order embedded into created reality. Socratic instruction empowers students to evaluate the truth, goodness, and beauty of any intellectual artifact – whether a mathematical equation, a scientific hypothesis, an essay or a story, or a work of art. It also empowers students to question their own thinking and distinguish truth from mere opinion.

Instruction is intentionally integrated and interdisciplinary to reveal the unity of truth. By teaching in an integrated fashion, children learn to see the interconnectedness between history, literature, and developments in science and math, and to develop an appreciation for the rich wisdom of the past. They also begin to see God’s providence at work in creation and human history and start to understand their place and vocation in the time and culture in which they themselves live.

In a Catholic classical school, we seek not just to learn about the academic disciplines we are studying, but to learn from them how we ought to live. Thus, for example, in literature class we teach virtue by telling and reading stories of great men and women who exemplify virtue. In science, we learn about the natural order as God created it, which leads to moral reflection on how we are called to steward the natural world and what our place as human beings is in the order of creation.

Because the truth has its source in God, the proper beginning and end of our academic labor is prayer. Through prayer – both the public prayer of the Church’s liturgy and the personal prayer we offer individually and in our classrooms – we offer our academic work to God and orient all of our intellectual endeavors towards Him as our ultimate goal.

Further Resources

To read more about Catholic classical education and classical education in general, see:

The following documents provide an overview of classical education though they are not specifically Catholic in outlook:

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