How a Classics Education Prepares Students for a Modern World

21st Century Skills

How a Classics Education Prepares Students for a Modern World

By Dana Weeks     Jun 19, 2018

How a Classics Education Prepares Students for a Modern World
Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

As described in our modern mythical tale, Jurassic Park, technology may not always lead to positive outcomes if implemented without critical thought, moral ground or inquiry. From cloning to social media, it is more essential to understand the ethical implications of an idea and how it will impact people than it is to build well-designed code.

With modern challenges, such as cyber-bullying or the increasing cost of medicine, a classical education, with its focus on philosophy and inquiry, can offer students the opportunity to gain knowledge and develop innovative thought, while examining issues through a moral lens.

But how does a philosophy that has been taught for centuries stay relevant in an education age immersed with iPads and apps, and careers driven by the digital economy, automation and personalization?

The need for thoughtfulness in our technocentric world extends beyond the creation and use of new tools. Today, students are charged with shaping policy and fighting injustice, and have endless information, and misinformation, pushed to them.

A classical education provides the academic excellence and moral framework to fight this injustice. It encourages students to pursue the why, how and who of ideas and decisions in addition to the what, and helps develop young people who own their power to enrich their lives and the lives of others. Directly and indirectly, a classical education offers a deeper, lasting preparation for college, careers and living a meaningful life by encouraging its two guiding principles—wisdom and virtue.

What Exactly Is a Classical Education?

Often misunderstood as a style incompatible to the modern world, classical education is more than pencil-to-paper, memorization and reading ancient text. A philosophy rooted in the history and culture of the Western world, classical education includes both a classical approach, encouraging deep and thoughtful reading and writing within a moral frame, and classical content, such as the study of Ancient Greek and Latin literature, history, art and languages.

Today, classical education can provide a roadmap for students to learn and grow. It begins as an exploration and celebration of the human condition, sharing the history of people and culture. Over time, it serves as a platform for developing critical thinking skills by asking questions along the way. Classical education emerges as a greater awareness of the moral imperative to others and the ability to create change and opportunity in the world—even when faced with resistance and obstacles.

Wisdom is the quality of having knowledge, experience, and good judgment.

Learning how words joined our language, where people came from, who debated or fought for what and why and the role of religion, art, music, animals and food on culture helps students better understand modern subjects and challenges from science to race. Students are taught to question, perceive and interpret, recognizing patterns and identifying themes that guide their thinking. This process helps to build skills in strategic and analytical thinking that can help develop a user-friendly app, position a company for long-term financial success, solicit buy-in to pass a meaningful law or resolve a conflict with a neighbor.

Students are asked to dig deeper into the meaning and purpose of words and stories, and to raise questions about reason and relevancy. Is an ancient “triumph” the original parade? Were debates, elections and revolts in Ancient Rome similar to the political unrest of today? Religion, right to bear arms, citizenship, violence and peace were topics of conflict and protest even in 100 B.C.

Classical education also encourages hands-on discovery to better understand people and culture. Students can visit museums and historic sites; tour churches, synagogues, mosques or organizations; meet with community members; volunteer; ask questions and research; and take action if they see injustice.

Virtue is conformity of one's life and conduct to moral and ethical principles.

Equally important as wisdom, classical education also encourages thoughtful inquiry and respect. Students are urged to consider the impact their decisions will have on individuals, families, and communities, and can gain perspective from stories, history, discussions, dialogue and experiences.

In fact, ancient mythology was developed to pass down important moral lessons without being boring or dull in a narrative format that engages the mind. Plato wrote dialogues about the conflicts in the Republic; Sophocles wrote tragedies about leaders; Euripides showed strong characters in unexpected places.

Distinguishing right from wrong, thinking before you act and considering how actions impact other people—these are all classic lessons about civility that are relevant in today’s world.

Embracing technology while teaching ancient lessons

It's a bit of a modern myth to say that classical education shies away from technology, but you will not see laptops dominating the classroom either. Ancient texts are explored in books and online, and research relies on libraries and Google. Technology is explored to supplement lessons, and students are prepared to use it strategically, not just because it is the next new thing.

In the Classics department at Germantown Friends School, where I work, we use iPads to interact with Latin texts, giving students the opportunity to supplement their reading and translation with notes and vocabulary help upon the click of a mouse. In first grade, students recently studied and wrote poetry—a very classical activity. To add a modern twist, the teacher recorded students reading their works, and developed QR codes that play their recitations so family and friends could also experience this interactive project. Using technology allowed students to share their lesson with others, while also exploring a modern tool.

Adapting the definition of classical

Teaching, learning, and technology are always changing and evolving, but contrary to definition, classical education can and should advance as well. Classical education will always provide a framework for students to become critical thinkers through deep reading, writing and inquiry, but can shift in form and even in content. The next step for classical education is to explore original cultures beyond Western Civilization. Offering lessons and knowledge from historic Africa, Asia and the Middle East will make the practice even more relevant and global.

There is immense value in an education that provides historic and timely perspectives, one that will help students leave our doors understanding that their power is rooted firmly in wisdom and virtue.

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