Classical Education
Isn't Smart

By Travis Copeland

As a teacher, my goal is not
to graduate smart students.

That might be a shocking statement to hear from a teacher! It certainly would never make educational TV ads or quick written blurbs on the state of education. Yet, seeking “smart” as a goal is vain, wearisome, and ultimately futile. To be smart or not to be smart is a false dichotomy. Students, especially younger ones, bring with them a “smart scale” and an assumption about where they land on it. Some think they are smart and therefore proud, some assume they are dumb and play the part, and some land in the middle, content with meeting expectations and keeping their elders happy. However, classical education isn’t about being smart. One of the tasks of classical educators is to turn back this dichotomy, to not merely change the scale but shatter it.

As this is no small task and one that is constantly needed, the job of the teacher is constant and often laborious, but it is absolutely essential to a solid classical education. Indeed, it is essential to human flourishing. The road toward “smart” is a false one, which leads not to flourishing but only to pride or despair. The result can only be feeling superior or inferior to a fellow classmate, co-worker, or friend. Even if it stings to hear at first, any teacher who steps into a student’s life and stops this progression does a good thing. Students need to hear plainly: you are not here to learn to be smart.

While classical schools and their educators may be aware of this, I encounter (and sometimes embody) teaching to “make students smart.” Knowledge does not drive out practice, and being smart still slips through the gaps. Even more, when I lapse into this disparaging mode of teaching, I can still acknowledge that “smart” is too ambiguous a concept to adequately pursue. Any classical classroom founded on these principles will foster pride, resentment, and forgetfulness; more than that, it will wander and waver, attempting to constantly redefine “smart” on immediate, popular terms. Students will be pressured to obtain and then retain knowledge in a computer-like way. Input and output expectations will make the students pseudo-machines. Ultimately, it will teach them to value their worth by the amount of knowledge obtained and regurgitated correctly. It is the foundation for cram-and-forget assessments. This method of educating, when exhibited, disregards human nature. 

How should we respond? To begin, every classical classroom, whether a homeschool or established institution going on forty years, should constantly set before its students a multifaceted set of words that are the collective aim of their educational development: virtuous, astute, thorough, considerate, responsible, wise, or respectful. All students should not be put in one container. 

An ounce of prudence is worth a pound of cleverness.

Placing them in that container or setting out regurgitation or factual knowledge goals that must be met constantly, without grace, and in the same manner year-to-year is to assert that an extremely specific set of knowledge is the marker of “smart,” something that with careful consideration we should reject.

This is not to say that education should not have a particular telos, which grasps subject matter in certain categorical ways. Instead, it means that a true, classically educated student should have the rug of “smart” pulled out from under them, because the education experience, even for people in the same room, is not identical. Without going into detail, this should, consequently, directly impact assessments, standardization, testing, and end-of-year results.

While most classical schools do not do this explicitly, they do this implicitly. Contending with the cultural invasion of making smart students should be a fight that teachers willfully labor at on a consistent basis. Additionally and with those aims in mind, education should be unique to the personal image of the immediate class, usually differing widely. They should be so distinct that an outcome for several of the same class being taught in the same year by the same teacher can appear kindred, but not homogenous. American history students will, year-to-year, understand different aspects of the Antebellum era, its virtues, vices, and importance. To assert that a student is smart because of their factual knowledge of the information is to regard regurgitation as the highest aim of learning. Teachers have to combat this often, portraying the beauty, complexity, and individual nature of education, stating plainly that their goal is not to fit them into a neat box at the end of the year, but to help their formation and flourishing into total human persons. 

How students learn to relate to knowledge teaches them about who they are and who they ought to become. Virtue, wisdom, and knowledge come together to form particular students and a particular place, and there is definitely a place for knowledge. Knowledge only lives well in the mind of a student when accompanied by the dual pursuit of wisdom and virtue. This is not to say that I don’t wish for my students to have knowledge of the Roman Emperors, the Æneid, the Brontë sisters, or Shakespeare. Instead, my pursuits, what I consider “success” as a teacher, and the results of a thoroughly classical education, are not enlarged brains. They are hearts and minds connected to love the true, the good, and the beautiful. Any student of middling grades and adequate essays who is wise, honest, respectful, upright, and loving is a student of value. Where they would not exemplify the model student in a school with its mind set on making “smart people,” classical education should be proud of sending students like that into the world. When we praise that student and hold them up, we contend with the brain-only anthropology of modern education; we assert that humanity is more than information or production. True education is about nurturing practiced virtue and wisdom, supported by truthful knowledge about the world, in every student that enters our classroom.


Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal; Mr. Copeland has also written us a profile of Benjamin Franklin and a discussion of the Federalist Papers, and we have also briefly analyzed the history of the liberal arts in the original Medieval context. And be sure to tune in to our weekly podcast, Anchored.

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