Common Core Education vs. Classical Education: A Thomistic Approach


Objection 1. It would seem that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is not contrary to classical education. For, as the classical education movement is aimed at broad-based learning, Common Core education provides standards that are broadly applied across the country to prepare students with twenty-first century skills to collaborate and compete in the global economy.

Objection 2. Further, as classical education concerns itself with the best that has been thought and said in Western Civilization, Common Core education follows in the same manner by employing the best information and communication of Modern Civilization, enabling collaboration between states on a range of structures and policies, including the development of new textbooks, cutting-edge digital media, and other modern teaching materials aligned to high quality standards.

Objection 3. Further, as classical education is considered education that is for all, the Common Core education develops and implements comprehensive systems to meet the common needs of all, together with assessment systems to measure student performance, ensuring that all students are equally provided with a program of clear expectations designed to meet the requirements of colleges and careers.

Objection 4. Further, educational analysts and experts agree that the American education system is failing; and while the classical education movement applies tradition-based solutions, the Common Core also applies innovative solutions through the implementation of a direct approach to solve the problem of education, leveling the playing field for students with standardized measurement criteria and providing materials and systems that instill critical thinking skills.

Objection 5. Further, as classical education is for the sake of human excellence, and the objectives of the Common Core are also for the sake of human excellence, it seems that Common Core education is not contrary to classical education.

On the contrary, G. K. Chesterton states, “The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards, by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions.” Therefore, as Common Core education is concerned with what is learned, guided by measurable standards, and classical education is concerned with the art of learning, guided by standards that cannot be measured, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is contrary to classical education.

I answer that, The idea of classical education is contrary to the idea that presupposes that, on its own, the intellect cannot be educated. The mind can be filled with information, but as Plato says, without experience and wonder, there can be no knowledge or wisdom. For the intellect is dependent on the experience of direct or indirect objects of sense and emotion. As the Philosopher says, nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses. Sensory and emotional experiences have a cognitive value that is rooted in the truth of things and, hence, in understanding. Classical education revolves around unprejudiced, unstructured, interpersonal considerations of those realities, works, and ideas that are eternal—experiencing them purely on their own merits, without outlines or textbooks. Classical education arises from conversation, not from commentaries. The scientific method is a way of registering means—of thinking about things in terms of their utility or their action. Education that is systematized, however, is for the sake of some arbitrary measurable end, not for spontaneous human interaction and experience. Classical education is not a method—it is an art; and art, as Cardinal Newman says, is not science. Teaching according to a classical method is antithetical to programs because the teacher must be an irreplaceable component, not dependent on or limited by systems or structures. Classical teaching and learning are free from predetermined utilitarian ends, considering those things that can be known and enjoyed in and of themselves and for their own sake. Such things are the best things—things that are good, true, and beautiful.

Reply to Objection 1. Classical education is broad-based education, meaning it addresses a broad base of subjects rather than a broad base of students. The aim of classical education is to form the whole person according to timeless, intrinsic values, rather than train a whole people to conform to a contemporary set of uniform standards. Thus, classical education responds to the universal truths of man rather than to the specific particulars of the multitude. The Common Core shrinks learning into a one-size-fits-all centralized set of information designed to achieve success by narrowing the focus of human learning to basic facts for measurable recall. This requires a reduction of the human person to an empirical calculus and ends in a lowest-common-denominator paradigm.  Contrarily, classical education lifts the minds of all students to the highest aspirations of man, encompassing a student’s capacity for imaginative and emotional appreciation of reality, as well as for analytic and scientific habits of mind, toward the formation of character.

Reply to Objection 2. Classical education, as its name intimates, is focused on the classics: i.e., those works that have endured throughout the ages and evoke the eternal, transcendental truths of the world and the human condition. It is, therefore, concerned with looking back rather than looking forward, so that students may draw from the wisdom of the ages and apply immutable realities to their own lives and perspectives. It is through the old that the new is judged, and therefore classical education provides an encounter with traditional views in order that the developments of the day may be properly assessed and harnessed. For the ancients, the end of action was the conformance of the soul to reality for the sake of wisdom. For the moderns, the end of action is the conformance of reality to the soul by means of technique. Excesses of technique have been seen, however, to dull the desire to experience through the distance they create from reality, and thereby dull the ability to learn according to a classical mode.

Reply to Objection 3. Classical education focuses on what all people should know as knowers—the truth. It assumes a Christian anthropology that includes treatment of the human person as an image of God in possession of appetites, intellect, imagination, and will; and thus cultivates wonder as the root of inquiry. The Common Core defines people as “change agents,” cut off from divine and moral agency and reduced to a set of numbers. The modern curriculum subordinates the higher inclinations of man to the acquisition of knowledge that is purely functional and utilitarian to meet servile ends, preparing students for a very limited scope of activity. Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas upheld the contemplation of truth for its own sake as one of the highest pursuits of man, which is the end of classical education. This philosophical perspective goes beyond mere knowledge and rises above the accumulation of facts to a general framework that allows for the interconnectedness of all things understood in their proper relation to one another. This was considered by the ancients to be the special mark of a liberal education and prepares a student to live a full and good life.

Reply to Objection 4. The educational reform required in the country would best be accomplished by returning to the original sources of wisdom and culture. The Common Core system focuses on innovation and new methodologies. A surer strategy would be a restoration of those traditional approaches that are the foundation of Western Civilization. Classical education centers on these works and ideas, and holds that the process of learning is an experience to be had, not a problem to be solved. Unlike the Common Core approach, classical education is not critical—it is accepting. Post-modernity has inherited a Cartesian scientism that posits that following a mathematical protocol will produce the truth in every subject; but this does not conform to classical education, which includes in its scope the mysteries witnessed through imagination, emotion, and wonder—mysteries which defy measurement.

Reply to Objection 5. Classical education ascends to excellence in cultivating the virtues, leading towards self-knowledge and a knowledge of reality that comprehends the proper order of all things. To know the whole truth of things and to think well for the sake of living well is the excellence classical education strives for: to gain self-rule and the habit of virtue. Common Core education, on the contrary, considers man’s excellence to consist of means: to work rigorously for the sake of living well—to gain self-sufficiency and the marks of worldly success. The current concept of worldly success is for the sake of economic excellence, while classical education’s end is for the sake of human excellence.

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • R. K. Ich

    Yes, but for the sake of completeness, may we see the Latin version of this article?

    Nevertheless, good article! Thank you for your eternally significant service.

  • Chesterton as the “authoritative source” for the sed contra? I like it!

    • sibyl

      I know, that’s what I thought! But really, Chesterton is fully on the par with “The Philosopher” in many ways. Uncanny, really.

  • Steven Jonathan

    A masterful analysis Mr. Fitzpatrick, well done! If one does not object vociferously to the Common Core after reading this critique, I would question more than just his literacy. The Common Core State standards are so many technical generations removed from all real notions of education: read “formation of the human person” that they are progressively darker and darker shadows of shadows no longer even projected onto the cave wall, but only dimly shining in the skulls of the state affirmed and shackled mind.

    • John Uebersax

      Well said! “Shadows of shadows” indeed. We are no longer developing an education policy for living human beings, but rather for abstract *outlines* of human beings as given by extremely limited economic, sociological, and psychological models.

  • John Albertson

    The Archdiocese of New York has adopted the Common Core without any consultation of pastors or parishioners. No wonder its school system is in free fall and parishes now are paying a new high tax for the schools in addition to the regular tax on collections, and all to keep these Common Core schools on life support.

  • Vincent

    This is a great article, I agree wholeheartedly. But as a middle-aged Roman Catholic American I think it’s important to realize that long before the common core was proposed and forced on the education system that St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were pushed out and diminished in secular and catholic schools. It seems that people in the leadership positions (i.e. Bishops, priests, and religious) are no longer Thomistic in outlook and thinking but adhere more to the New Theology. The true, good, and beautiful seems to have gone out the window a long time ago not just now with the common core. How do you propose that we as Catholics recover Western Principles when our Church seems to no longer espouse them or encourage them?

    • R. K. Ich

      One Crisis reader a while back proposed each head of the house learns to read AND SPEAK Latin, and teaches his wife and children the same — then go out in public with the whole brood and converse in Latin. I agree with this!

      On a less-than-ambitious note (and I speak as a sympathetic Anglo-Catholic outsider looking in), God did not promise the Church’s leaders would always be pristine models, so the laity must forge ahead and be the agents of reform (in its most proper sense). Here’s my short list of what *I* can do to help the general malaise:

      (1) Shut off and/or kill the TV.
      (2) Religiously do family Scripture reading and catachesis every night. Biblical and doctrinal ignorance is what landed us here to begin with.
      (3) Flood home with sounds, words, and images of Christian high culture (no joke here) and classical culture.
      (4) Beg your local parish priest and/or bishop to offer regular Latin Mass (our English Mass is simply the best thing this side of Heaven, so if I were Roman Catholic I couldn’t do anything but the Latin)
      (5) If you can, have many kids and teach your kids to be fruitful as well.
      (6) Home school if a classical, catholic-friendly private school is not possible.
      (7) Related to #2, family should together memorize large swaths of Sacred Scripture. You’ll be amazed as to how well-armed you will be against the devil.
      (8) Attend Mass regularly and invite friends and neighbors. If my catholic friends invited me to Mass as a kid, my spiritual odyssey would have been very different.
      (9) Pray regular for the state of Christ’s church, from bishops to religious. No battle may be won without God’s favor.

      The list is easy to make; the living it out will require grace upon grace.

      • OLO101

        Or the wife could teach the husband Latin, too.

        • R. K. Ich

          Of course, Ma’dam. And the kids could teach their parents. But do I really need to delineate the permutations in light of the general principle? All the same, your point is well taken: just do it!

      • sibyl

        R.K., what a good list! I hope you do these things to the extent you can — and remember, your journey isn’t over yet. You may want to inch even a little closer to the Tiber. We are waving from the other side!!

        • R. K. Ich

          Sibyl, I can practically see the white of your eyes. 🙂 It’s frustrating. But until my intellect can catch up to my heart, this is where I must remain. I want to convert as an *honest* Roman Catholic, not a “believe everything but…” type. I’m sure your communion is flooded with these.

      • Vincent

        Thanks for the list! I think it’s the right treatment plan for the problems being faced.

    • hombre111

      You might have a point here. When I was in the seminary in the late 50’s and early ’60’s, we did not read Socrates, barely read Aristotle or Plato, and did not read Aquinas at all. Interesting that Vincent does not mention Augustine. Didn’t read him either. That is because our theology was not based on a study of the original sources, but on the study and virtual memorization of “manuals” which digested Catholic teaching for us, and spooned it out. Our philosophy courses were Neo-Scholastic, which taught the concepts of Aristotle and Aquinas without demanding any extensive reading of those great teachers.

      • ForChristAlone

        So you only read what you were forced to read by the syllabus. Not much of a student here. I am sure your seminary library (or perhaps the closest public library) would have had copies of Socrates, Aristotle and their ilk. It is always strange how poised liberals always are to place the blame for shortcomings on someone else.

        • Tony

          Don’t be too hard on Fr. Hombre. You ought to look at the digests of Thomas et alia, by Fr. Farrell OP, and a Belgian Dominican whose name I can’t remember. They were pretty sophisticated digests; the problem, which Maritain and Gilson were crying out against, was that the students did not encounter Thomas directly, much less Augustine. There was indeed in many quarters a deep suspicion of the original texts. It gave Thomism a bad name. And when this deracinated neo-Thomism fell, there wasn’t much immediately available to step into the breach; Bultmann and the textual critics; Paul Tillich and the cultural critics; and downhill from those already dubious hilltops. It’s why, too, men like Dietrich von Hildebrand had no great love for Thomas … because of the company that Thomas was at that time forced to keep.

          • Vincent

            Can you explain what you mean by a deep suspicion of the original texts in many quarters? Looking at it from a crime show perspective… Did Thomism fall by accident on his own… or was he pushed? If he was pushed was it an accident or was their something sinister?

            • Tony

              I teach at a Dominican college, and so my friends, many of whom are Dominican priests, go back a very long way; and I’ve seen some of the textbooks they’ve mentioned to me. They’ve told me that the general consensus was that students and seminarians should not encounter Saint Thomas unless through the interpretation and the distillations of those who were summarizing the teachings. This second- or third-hand Thomism wasn’t vigorous enough to withstand the onslaught of the sixties. A lot of those priests originally trained on those textbooks didn’t know what to do when they encountered both the textual-historical critics (grossly overrated, but at the time they were startling) and the cultural critics (also overrated).

  • Christopher Check


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  • WRBaker

    Notice that the various dioceses don’t seem to offer a classical education at all?

  • HV Observer

    This is a sufficient reply to the objections 🙂

  • hombre111

    Nice parallel to the style of the Summa. Aquinas would be proud.

  • John Uebersax

    I agree completely. In the white paper “Materialism, Idealism, and Higher Education in California” I argue precisely that the current emphasis on “preparing students to compete in the new global economy” is wrong, because our need today is to promote Idealism, not Materialism:

  • WRBaker

    Diocesan schools had their share of problems even before Common Core
    officially came on the scene.
    For instance, I would survey the Quinque Viae with my middle
    school students, teach them a little Latin (and incorporate it into altar
    serving, as well), have them read The Keys of the Kingdom, etc, and you
    would have thought I was teaching heresy. Though my students always scored well
    above the national average in the yearly ACRE tests, all these things (and more)
    came to an instantaneous halt by a principal with a theology degree from a CINO
    university (where, apparently, they know nothing of the Memorare, etc,
    etc, etc).
    I would tell my students that in order to defend our Faith, it is essential
    you know as much as you can about it. Too bad not everyone agrees.

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  • John Uebersax

    On a lighter note, forgive me if I inquire: if Aristotle is “the Philosopher”, what does that make the other gentleman flanking St. Thomas?

    • STF

      The Forerunner.

  • Tony

    Sean — I was just in your neighborhood. Back in RI now. We should get together one of these days so I can see the new St. Greg’s, though I can hardly believe it’s as nice as the place you used to have on the mountain in Elmhurst.
    A question: has Bishop Bambera gone along with Common Chloroform?

    • STF

      Professor, Good to hear from you. We would be honored to welcome you to the academy once again. Though are facilities are not as romantic as once they were, we are now able to claim the romance of being exiles. There are few joys like quixotic joys – and there are enough giants on the horizon for everybody! The report of rumor is that the Common Core standards are being transitioned into by the Catholic schools in the Scranton Diocese. So the world continues to fall into madness – confusing and confirming those whose madness puts at least a handful of knights errant on the road. But our countenances will not be sad forever. Mountjoy! AOI!

      • Tony

        Sean — I needed to hear that cry of Mountjoy! And the mysterious AOI!
        Why, why must our bishops ever be so simpleminded?

        • Michael of Walsingham

          Because, following S Chrysostrom, the road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.

  • Tony

    Recently I was told that the wonderful priests in charge of Saint Pius X High School in Roseto, PA, had to get word out to the locals that, contrary to reports, the Diocese of Allentown had NOT adopted the Common Core. They were afraid that the false rumor was responsible for a sudden drop in enrollment.

  • Amber

    This was fantastic. Thank you!

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  • Many people will surely get a good insight about this kind of thing. This two different type of education is really interesting to be apply in your education if you wanted to learn something through it.

  • Lola in SC

    I think I can make this brief: we are tossing out principles and methods that for three thousand years have been proven to work, in exchange for principles and methods that within three years have been proven not to work.

  • millanreview

    Very essentials points are declared here. Great approach is discussed between
    Core Education vs. Classical Education

  • Deborah

    Very well said! This has proven true for my family as we have moved from a Commom Core public school education to a Christian Classical education. Formerly bored and frustrated with the education they were receiving, my children, spouse and I have since been inspired to a love of learning and an inquisitiveness into all subjects and the world around us, and helped to shape our thinking and actions towards each other and others in society for the better.