A Little Child Shall Lead Them

By Matt McKeown

Classic education continues to thrive because it answers the desire of the human heart.

The public focus and rhetoric of the classical renewal movement in education tends to be upon curriculum. We here at CLT frequently frame our mission in terms of authors whose work has “stood the test of time,” as opposed to whatever material happens to be fashionable in academic circles.

However, there is another element at work here, one that merits special attention during Student Appreciation Week: students. Utilitarians who decry a humanist or liberal education as “useless” show, in so doing, a kind of contempt (doubtless unconscious) for the humanity of their students; in seeking nothing more than to outfit young people as cogs in the economic machine, they ignore the native dignity, curiosity, and imagination that their pupils possess. The attempt—however well-meaning—to feed their practical needs ends in a famishing of their spiritual hungers.

But many other authors exemplify a different approach to education, one that treats students first and foremost as human beings. Aristotle’s maxim that “All men by nature desire knowledge” is not wholly forgotten. I’d like to recommend three of these authors today.

First, we may consider Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), with whom many of CLT’s homeschool fans may already be familiar. Mason herself was educated primarily at home, and went on to become a teacher and a lecturer. Her philosophy of education placed the humanity of each child first and foremost. Far from the often intrusive approach to “socialization” touted by some teachers and policy-makers of today, she placed great faith in her pupils, writing in one essay:

Provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself: for normal children are persons of good will, with honest desires toward right thinking and right living. All we can do further is to help a child to get rid of some hindrance—a bad temper, for example—likely to spoil his life.

Education is the taming or domestication of the soul's raw passions—not suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy—but forming and informing them as art.

Secondly, we have one of the great heroines of the classical renewal movement, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). Her celebrated essay The Lost Tools of Learning lays out not only the essential infrastructure of a classical education, built upon grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, but articulates why it is so effective: each stage corresponds to the typical interests and talents of children at the age when they enter it. (She playfully labels these phases of maturation “the Poll-Parrot,” “the Pert,” and “the Poetic.”) Not that every child follows the pattern exactly, of course; as Sayers herself remarked in her sarcastically-titled address Are Women Human?, “What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.” But the classical model proper serves a great many, perhaps a majority, of students exceedingly well—it has endured for centuries for a reason.

Third, let us turn to Mortimer Adler (1902-2001). A professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Adler helped create the Great Books of the Western World collection, a major influence upon our Author Bank; additionally, he served as editor for its encyclopedic index, the Syntopicon, which has helped guide our ongoing Great Conversation series. He was also a collaborator with Scott Buchanan, who launched the famous great books program at St. John’s College right here in Annapolis. Although his teaching was at the collegiate level, most of Adler’s (extremely prolific!) literary output was intended for a lay audience and not an academic one. He viewed our intellectual heritage as precisely that—a heritage, a birthright common to people in general, not the special property of the ivory tower.

It is, of course, impossible to generalize about “what children want” for the same reason it’s impossible to generalize in that way about any subset of mankind. And it is all to the good that no single model of education should be universally imposed. But if there really is any one thing that every child craves, it is to be taken seriously by their elders. Perhaps the best thing about classic education is that, whatever form it takes, it does exactly that.

Suggested reading:
Mortimer Adler,
Aristotle for Everybody
How to Read a Book
The Paideia Proposal
Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought
Charlotte Mason,
Formation of Character
❧ Towards a Philosophy of Education

Dorothy L. Sayers,
Are Women Human?
Gaudy Night
The Lost Tools of Learning
The Mind of the Maker


Matt McKeown is an alumnus of the University of Maryland, College Park, where he received a degree in Classics. He is a proud uncle to seven nephews and a staff writer for CLT, and lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out our seminar series, the Journey Through the Author Bank, hosted by professors from institutes of higher learning all over the country. You might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.

Published on 24th March, 2022. Page image of a class at Anacostia High School, an integrated school in Washington, DC, taken in 1957.

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