Classical Education in the Digital Age


The School of Athens (1509) by Raphael

Posted Wednesday, February 29, 2012 · BY MICHAEL SACASAS

The genesis of this essay was a little known work by the late Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan is best remembered for pithy phrases such as “the medium is the message” and “the global village” that captured the dynamic consequences of media and technology. He is widely recognized as a prophet of the digital age. When Wired Magazine, the flagship publication of the Internet era, launched in the early 1990s, it named Marshall McLuhan its patron saint. This was not a gesture that would have been lost on McLuhan who was, along with being the godfather of media studies, also a devout Roman Catholic.

Last year was a big year for McLuhan. It marked the 100th anniversary of his birth and a flood of retrospective articles and books were published. Scholars, journalists, and those interested in the relationship between technology and society revisited his classic works including Understanding Media, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and War and Peace in the Global Village. There was, however, one title that received very little attention if any. I should add that it is not at all surprising that this work received little attention. It was McLuhan’s doctoral dissertation at Cambridge and it remained unpublished until 2009. The title of the dissertation? The Classical Trivium.

This guru of electronic media, this prophet of the digital age cut his academic teeth on the model at the heart of classical education. Of course, to those who know McLuhan well, this is not all that surprising. In many respects, McLuhan is much closer in spirit to Thomas Aquinas than to the Silicon Valley set that has more recently embraced him. Yet, the juxtaposition is provocative nonetheless and it suggests the question: What does classical education offer us in the wake of the digital revolution?

This is, of course, not an entirely new type of question for proponents of classical education. Dorothy Sayers’ little essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” is something of a foundational text for the modern classical education movement. She wrote that if we are “to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.” She then felt it necessary to immediately address those who would dismiss her as a “reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti (praiser of times past).”

What C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” is the default setting of our society. Consequently, whenever it is suggested that we turn to the past for inspiration, guidance, or wisdom, the suggestion is met with bemusement and skepticism. The Church father Tertullian famously asked, “What hasAthensto do withJerusalem?” We might say that question, “What has the past to do with the present?” characterizes the way modern people tend to think about history.

That said, the question “What does classical education offer students growing up in the digital age?” deserves a thoughtful answer. But before saying a thing or two about what classical education has to offer the Digital Age, I’d like to take the opportunity to say a thing or two about what classical education is. Defining classical education, though, can be tricky. I’ve found that a simple answer to the question, “What is classical education?” can be surprisingly difficult to come by.

 Plato & Aristotle (by Raphael)

“Classical education is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at education and learning … The attitude we call classical education is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.”

Not too bad.

Of course, there are some more concrete attributes to which we could point. The logic of the trivium would be the most obvious. The movement from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric and what each of them entails is perhaps the easiest characteristic of classical education to point to and describe. And, indeed, we will say more about this later. But it is not unreasonable to say that classical education is, in part, a set of attitudes and dispositions regarding what learning is for. Given this set of attitudes and dispositions, classical education may safely take a variety of forms and there can be a good deal of diversity within the movement when it comes to methods and teaching styles.

There’s much that could be said by way of defining the attitude and disposition I have in mind. For example, those involved in classical education tend to resist the chronological snobbery we mentioned earlier and assume a more healthy posture toward the past …. My focus, however, is not the posture toward the past and the classics that classical educators generally share, but rather the general disposition toward the goal of learning that tends to characterize classical education. Let me venture this succinct characterization: Classical education is an orientation toward learning that takes wisdom as its goal.  (To be continued)

2 Responses to “Classical Education in the Digital Age”

  1. Great article but … what is meant by wisdom?

    I don’t mean to be pedantic. It’s just that I have a feeling that in the classical age wisdom meant “being able to function successfully in society”. That wisdom was seen as a practical characteristic and not as a lofty ideal that Romanticism has made of it.

    But I’m just improvising and I may be completely wrong.


    • I think you’re right. Classical education was certainly a much more complex process than this author suggests. And it had more practical aims than just the attainment of wisdom. Even the wise need to eat. But this is just the first of 3 promised articles on this topic by this author. If and when I see them, I will pass the information on, if it’s relevant……AlexK


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