Hicks: Norms and Nobility

August 20, 2019

Norms and Nobility
A Treatise on Education
David V. Hicks
(University Press of America, 1983)
167 p.

When one begins reading around in educational literature, one comes, from time to time, upon “classical education”. What is meant varies, or at least appears under different descriptions. Sometimes it means an education focused on appropriation of the Greco-Roman inheritance; sometimes it seems to be used to describe an education emphasizing a mastery of language, and the art and craft of writing and speaking well; sometimes, following the medieval model (and Dorothy Sayers), it refers to an educational programme divided into stages — grammar, logic, rhetoric — suitable for age-stratified progression as students develop.

Hicks, too, is writing about classical education, but he largely avoids these common approaches to the subject. His approach is deeper; he is working on the foundations. For him, classical education is, among other things,

“a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and conscience through myth.”

As this description makes plain, it is an education concerned not only with knowledge — though certainly that — but also with ethics and aesthetics. Entering on this terrain, therefore, we find ourselves enveloped by pre-modern habits of thought, in which a full human rationality involves truth, goodness, and beauty, all three, because this corresponds to our nature, but also because these three are, at the deepest levels, unified.

This pre-modern orientation is indeed a key to Hicks’ project, which draws on the ancients not so much as to subject matter, but as to sensibility and manner. Much of his exposition unfolds as a dialectic between ancient and modern, to the general detriment of the latter, but this method is itself instructive, and indeed illustrative of the kind of education he champions.


We do not know how to educate a child unless we have in mind the kind of person we want the child to become. From this modest beginning Hicks draws out several key features of classical education.

One has already been stated: we want the child to develop and flourish fully as a human being, exercising rationality in the fullest and richest sense, and therefore we instruct and discipline her in what is true, and what is lovely, and what is good. It is likewise true that we will address and honour all dimensions of the child’s being: personal, social, and religious. We will not construct an education simply around the future economic value of the student to society; this can be a legitimate consideration, but not an organizing idea. We will not pretend to teach “value free”, as though the child did not possess an inner life and stand in need of moral guidance to live well. We will not claim that religion is a private matter, not susceptible of public, rational inquiry, or a matter of negligible importance, not worthy of public recognition. Instead, we will do our best to cultivate an integrated life in the student, in which each of these dimensions is given due weight and treated with appropriate seriousness.

Since classical education is, therefore, necessarily in the business of teaching virtue, it considers how best to do so. The tradition proposes, broadly speaking, two methods: the philosophical and the rhetorical, logos and mythos. The former is didactic, argumentative, seeks clarity, and draws conclusions; the latter is imaginative, aspirational, and alluring. Both methods are important, and they co-exist in a fruitful dialectical tension. The rhetorical tradition, Hicks argues, is especially important for classical education on account of its reliance on what he calls “the Ideal Type”, an exemplar of virtue, “a metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth” — in brief, a hero. In the Ideal Type a student sees a man or woman who is better and wiser than he, but whom he can and should emulate, and, by emulation, become. And not just one man or woman, but many, exemplifying the many varieties of excellence:

“Classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices: the impassioned debate of the great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation, and his thoughts and actions become literally involved with the Ideal Type.”

Most of these exemplars the student will encounter in stories, and the stories in books, but there is, ideally, one example closer to hand: the teacher. Hicks places great personal demands on the teacher: he is to be living in the light of the Ideal Type as well, and is, we hope, further advanced along the path that leads to it. He is not dispassionate, but deeply involved in the very questions with which his students are contending. They wrestle together, and he learns alongside them. Classical learning thus cultivates a kind of friendship between teacher and student, for they are together focused on something of interest and importance to both, yet without undoing their unequal status.

Furthermore, Hicks argues, in one of the book’s most challenging sections, that the relationship of teachers and students in a classical school embodies the dialectical structure of classical education, and indeed the dialectical structure of thought itself. This dialectic is Socratic, and it is dogmatic in the sense that it requires both teachers and students to be committed to certain positions in order to test those commitments against experience. It is precisely the dialectical challenging of commitments that leads to intellectual and moral growth in students. This kind of teaching, and this kind of learning, is intrinsically personal, not analytic or abstract. It teaches students to read, for instance, not just to understand an author’s motivations, or to discover the main outlines of an argument, or to identify a leading theme — though these activities might legitimately form part of the process — but in order to become a better person, wiser, more sensitive, more courageous, or more just. A book is engaged with not at arm’s length, but intimately, as having personal significance.

There is a danger lurking here, of course. We are familiar with the habit of mind that merely “challenges authority” or “sees through things”. If indulged, it will strip-mine students’ souls and leave nothing behind. The point of the dialectic that Hicks advocates, as I understand it, is not to undermine dogma and personal commitment, but to search and find those dogmas worthy of committing oneself to, those founded most firmly in friendship with what is truly good, beautiful, and rational, and then, having found them, to hold to them tenaciously. Absent that transcendental posture, if pursued merely in a revolutionary distemper or out of cynicism, the dialectical method, precisely because of its effectiveness, leads on to disaster.


I was struck by Hicks’ stress on the normative, dialectical, personal nature of teaching and learning because I don’t know that I have ever experienced it myself. No, that is not quite true. There are certain books that, as I have read them, I have felt were reading me. Their effect on me has gone deeper than the merely intellectual. I can also think of one or two occasions on which a teacher — not a classroom teacher, mind you, but someone to whom I was disposed as student to teacher — posed a personal, existential challenge to me, exposed me to the penetrating, alluring light of the transcendentals, when I could sense the deep waters beneath my little lifeboat. But I wish this happened more often, and I believe that I do have an habitual analytic approach to what I read, and, for that matter, experience, that places a barrier between myself and the world. Hicks, I think, regards this as a vice, not in itself, but when not joined to a more passionate, rounded engagement with those from whom I could learn. And, quite honestly, I think he has a point.

If I flip it around, putting myself in the role of teacher, I see the value of his position more clearly. What teacher would not want to touch the souls of his students rather than just instruct them? Who would not be grateful to offer his students what he truly believes to be beautiful, good, and true, and to find his students receiving it with gratitude, finding himself a humble instrument in the service of something that falls on teacher and student alike as a benediction? Well, I don’t know that it would be possible to do this kind of thing consistently – the wind blows where it will – but that there could be an educational approach which aims at it, prepares the sails, and waits in readiness I did not suspect.


I believe that I have rounded out the main qualities of classical education as Hicks describes it: aiming at full human flourishing along both relational dimensions (personal, social, religious) and transcendental (knowledge, ethics, aesthetics), normative, dogmatic and dialectical, anchored to an Ideal Type. Such was, he argues, the best of the educational practice of the Athenians and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Romans.


It is worth asking about how Christian culture appropriated, or failed to appropriate, this tradition. We know from our readings in the history of Catholic education that early Christian thinkers, especially the Church Fathers, were themselves educated in the classical tradition. They didn’t think of it as ‘the classical tradition’; it was just ‘education’, and so they largely adopted it. In fact, Hicks argues that in several important respects the Christian tradition resolved long-standing issues that had dogged classical thinkers.

A principal problem for Greek educators was that the Ideal Type, around which so much of the education orbited, though beautiful and inspiring, lacked a transcendent justification or warrant. It was, in important respects, a merely human work of art, a beautiful dream, a creation of the mind, not something real or given. It was therefore fragile, vulnerable to doubt. Without the Ideal Type, however, the highest thing was merely the realm of the human, all too human, which bred in students a self-centeredness that undermined the development of virtue and fostered uncertainty in teacher and student alike. Hicks argues that though in some ways Christian culture in Europe failed to generate its own convincing heroes – the closest it came, he believes, was the chivalric knight, the legends of saints being too fabulous and simple – it did provide educators with the ultimate Ideal Type: Jesus himself, a real man, not an imaginative creation, having Divine authority, on whom the whole educational project could be focused.

A second problem for classical educators had been the problem of desire: an Ideal Type was all very well, but some positive force was needed to spur students toward it:

“The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.”

Plato had proposed eros as this positive force, the longing for goodness, truth, and beauty. Christianity agreed that love was the key, but went further by uniting love to faith, uniting knowing the good to doing the good, and, by understanding both as infused virtues, acknowledged both as having a transcendental source and warrant outside the will.


If the Christian tradition was not responsible for the loss of the classical tradition, what did happen to it? Modern education in the West springs from different sources; the thread has been cut. What happened?

The story is complicated, but for Hicks the dismantling of the classical tradition began in the early modern period. Descartes inaugurated a passion for clear, distinct ideas, and classical education’s Ideal Type, whose power was rhetorical rather than analytical, could not meet the standard. Modernity preferred a statistical mean to a Golden Mean. Rousseau, of course, was a watershed figure; he attacked directly the Ideal Type: if all men are equal, how can one be better than another? “What need has he of correction, to say nothing of conversion?” If, in a democratic society, each person is to be his own authority, the Ideal vanishes.

The advent of science also undermined classical habits, shifting the aim of education from self-knowledge to power over the world. The moral, aesthetic, personal, and religious aspects of a classical education were hard to align with this project. Indeed, as the sensible methodological limitations of the sciences began to morph into metaphysical blinders the sciences rendered European society increasingly unable to address moral, aesthetic, etc. issues rationally.

By the nineteenth century it was obvious that the sciences provided unprecedented control over nature, but equally obvious that they could not justify how that power should be used. The technological project therefore began to assume the qualities of an ideology: power not allied to reason. Materialists asserted that man is a wholly material being, and that therefore whatever defects he suffers are material and technology can improve them. In this way, technology can create a more perfect and orderly world. A grand social project was launched to do just this, and of course it has brought us many benefits, but things were lost too. The move from prescriptive and transcendent educational goals to immanent and technological severed us from the classical tradition. The power of the sciences does not extend so far as to make normative questions disappear, of course; each new generation of students continues to ask them. Teachers have just lost the means to answer them.

Given the damage that modernity did to what had, for thousands of years, been a consistent educational tradition, why were teachers, in particular, so ready to adopt the modern project as their own? If knowledge is really about power, then education is just a means to enhancing power, and this, on the face of it, is not noble or inspiring. Hicks identifies three reasons. One was simply that teachers, too, were members of society, and felt the allure of the technological project as others did. A second was that revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, will draw on a rhetoric of liberation, and Hicks argues that Europeans experienced the overthrow of the Ideal Type as a kind of liberation, a relief of responsibility. Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, a technological ideology gave a new power to the teaching vocation, making it a key enabler of the continued progress of society toward a more rational, comfortable, and free future by technological means.

A good case study of the sea change is the place of mathematics in the curriculum. In classical education mathematics was essential because it moved the mind from lower to higher levels of being, from the contingent and changeable to the necessary and immutable. It was evidence that the mind could know realities beyond the empirical, and it trained the mind to think clearly and systematically about abstractions, which ability was a preparation for the study of philosophy and other high matters. But in modern education the vertical dimension of mathematics has been flattened as the subject has been turned to technological ends, at least for most students. We study math so that we can calculate and build this or that.

Perhaps the clearest difference between classical and modern education can be stated this way: classical education educated for leisure, and modern education educates for work. The classical ideal was to cultivate in the student the ability to think and wonder about high things, to know the good and serve it, to act virtuously in the world, to accept responsibility for governance of himself and his affairs. Modern education, like modern society, has lost the capacity to speak about normative ideals; making a virtue of necessity, it adopts the pretense of ‘value-free’ education. It speaks instead about social utility, economic advantage, and democracy, justifying the educational project itself on largely utilitarian, and wholly immanent, grounds.


Given this state of affairs, what place can there be in the modern West for classical education? In a democratic, utilitarian society, classical education is asked to justify itself on democratic and utilitarian grounds:

“Of what value to society is an elite culture anyway? How does culture further the chief ends of modern industrial democracy, ensuring prosperity, security, and equal opportunity for all? … How does culture prepare him for the complications of day-to-day living in a highly bureaucratized, technological society?”

The truth is that the charges against classical education – that it is elitist and impractical – are true. But Hicks, in a neat turning of the tables, argues that it is, precisely for those reasons, what our democratic society needs. Athens, after all, the birthplace of classical education, was also a democracy. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles boasted that an Athenian citizen

“is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”

In what way is this inconsistent with the modern democratic ideal of self-governance? In fact, Hicks argues, what democracy needs to function effectively and wisely is citizens with elite, aristocratic souls. A society in which classical education were extended to as many students as possible would be one with citizens well-equipped to participate in democratic governance, precisely because they were rounded, thoughtful, conscientious, and articulate.

The sense of this paradoxical proposal becomes clearer if we look at from the other side: what kind of education would be especially apt to produce citizens who cannot govern themselves? Hicks argues that it would be precisely one which stressed rights, for if rights are seen as prior to duties (rather than dependent on them) they produce people who feel entitled to freedoms that they can exercise without need for justification. It is the old story with which we are all too familiar, because this is the kind of education we give, and the kind of political culture we get in consequence.

A second reason why classical education is especially suitable for modern society is that the modern industrial state has created the conditions in which a large proportion of the population has the leisure which, in ancient Athens, was available only to the aristocracy. It would make sense, therefore, for us to educate our citizens as the ancients educated their aristocrats:

Education, therefore, must impress on the citizen a lively sense of the responsibilities attending these privileges; his responsibility to the past, his obligation to govern and discipline himself, to contribute in every way he can to the preservation and development of his society’s purpose and sense of values, his duty to love the law and to carry himself before his compatriots in an exemplary manner, and the opportunity to use his leisure for the realization of his marvellous human potentials.

Those who argue that classical education’s elitism is inconsistent with our society – either from the elitist or populist side – both wrongly see the individual as having value principally in relation to society and the state – whether as custodian or worker – whereas in fact her value is intrinsic, and it is on the basis of that dignity that she merits the fullest, richest, most humane education that we can muster.


Another objection comes to mind. Even if we are convinced of the superiority of classical education, surely this whole project is quixotic? The entrenched powers are so formidable as to be invulnerable. It’s just not going to happen.

Hicks sees this objection as sophistical, in the sense of Sophistical:

A Sophist tended to accept the “givens”: an advocacy system that had lost the understanding of justice, a mob opinion no longer sensitive to the demands of truth and beauty. He taught his students simply how to do what had to be done to get along: how, when necessary, to make the weaker argument the stronger.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, therefore, he recommends critique and a refusal to limit the discussion to the terrain where the opponent is most secure. The ‘givens’ are contingent, and vulnerable in the long term.


Such is, I believe, a fair summary of the argument, although I have left out much of secondary or tangential interest. In broad outlines, we have a presentation and defence of classical education, and an unflattering contrast with modern education. The positive case is the most valuable; I’ve learned a good deal from it. Like Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, which is the only other book on classical education known to me that is of comparable depth, the approach is learned and humanistic, in the best sense. More superficial treatments of classical education might lead one to think it’s a matter of curriculum materials or staging (‘first teach them about the world, then how to argue, then how to persuade’), but these two books flesh out the deeper ideas and implications.

Of the case against modern education, I think it sound in its broad outlines. That modernity was a rupture with the classical and medieval traditions is hardly a new idea; that science has metastatized in the meantime from methodology to ontology is likewise a commonplace; that education has become less normative and personal and more technological and practical is touted in the public square by politicians who see it as a virtue. But I am concerned that he has drawn the contrast too sharply. Even granting that we are comparing apples and oranges, and prefer apples, one still must be careful not to compare only the ripe apples to only the rotten oranges. My education was partly in the modern tradition, and although I readily grant that it had defects – what I have been doing in this space for the past decade or more could be reasonably understood as an attempt to remedy those defects – I also believe that it gave me much of real value. I never understood myself to be a mere economic cog in a machine; no particular ideal for emulation was given me, but then school was not the whole of life, and I received that kind of inspiration elsewhere. My children have been in the public schools for a few years, and their experience has been, by and large, reasonably good. Not great – not so great as to keep them there, at any rate – but not terrible either. The truth is that schools founded on the modern principles are probably better than they have a right to be, just as our society at large is. Yes, at a theoretical level modernity has laid waste the intelligibility of beauty, denied itself the transcendental horizon of the good, and boxed itself into an immanent frame, but in practice people are still people, still prone to flourish along Aristotelian lines, still sensitive to the cross-currents of the wind that blows where it will. There is a crack in everything, as the poet said. That’s how the light gets in.

It is also worthwhile, I think, to consider a caution along the lines of ‘Be careful what you wish for’. It may be good and right to call for a normative education that challenges and forms the conscience of students, but if we try to imagine what might happen were it actually tried today, I think we would simply turn our schools into factories for social justice activists, the likely outcome so long as the ethical imperatives are confined, along with the rest of the school’s business, to the social, political plane, and not founded comprehensively on the Tao.


All this, believe it or not, in the first 100 pages or so. It is an exceptionally concentrated book, written in a terse, closely argued style. In the latter part of the book, practical matters are addressed. If one were actually to have a school founded on the principles of classical education, what might it look like? Hicks gives a curriculum proposal for grades 7-12, and then adds a number of essays on integration and cohesion of the curriculum across subjects and grade levels, preparation of teachers, and other matters. Were I starting or running a school, these sections would be valuable, but it seems to me that the centre of gravity of the book is found in the earlier, theoretical sections I have outlined here.

Unfortunately the publisher has slapped a steep price on the book, so that only those with deep pockets or generous spouses casting about for gift ideas are likely to get a copy. The publisher would do a good service to issue a new edition at lower cost.


[The ‘why’ and ‘what’ of education]
All wanted their instruction to bring man to a knowledge of his abiding self — a knowledge making man both wise and virtuous and enabling him to win insights into the lower levels of being. One fundamental principle guided this endeavour: why one studied, not so much what one studied, determined one’s level of achievement.

[Truth and beauty]
Whenever truth comes to man by way of beauty, it necessarily transforms his character and ennobles his behaviour.

[Rights and duties]
A man without the knowledge of the truth — a man ignorant of his obligations to himself, to his neighbours, and to God, and whose education has not aimed at instilling in him a sense of good and evil and a sense of the holy — has no use for rights. He has no knowledge of how to use them.

[Love and education]
Love is the principle of truth in philosophy and of beauty in art that draws the spirit of man off center to participate imaginatively in the object of beauty or truth. Love provides man with the means for answering the mandates of conscience and for breaking out of his egocentric prison. Unlike self-denial or self-negation, love is a positive force, but it requires an object above the self for which the self is transcended. Once the knowledge of this transcendent object is established, whether by reason, by example, or by faith, love binds a person to this object. This binding is the supreme aim of classical education, the union of knowledge and responsibility tantamount to the formation of the virtuous man; but without eros, even the best pedagogy is helpless to achieve this aim.

Do you want to give a certain elevation to the human mind, and teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantages, to form and nourish strong convictions, and keep alive the spirit of honourable devotedness? Is it your object to refine the habits, embellish the manners, and cultivate the arts, to promote the love of poetry, beauty, and glory? Would you constitute a people fitted to act powerfully upon all other nations, and prepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be their results, will leave a name forever famous in history? If you believe such to be the principle object of society, avoid the government of the democracy.”

2 Responses to “Hicks: Norms and Nobility”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    My thoughts exactly!! Thank you!

  2. blah deblah Says:


    It’s amazing how far one can get in life without recognizing such basic connections… so what is to blame, the fact that I dropped out of school or that I went there at all?

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