The answers, as one can well imagine, differ and reflect the discipline's varied pedagogical history.
My stance and view of classical education's enduring value and refreshing purpose are clearly outlined on this site. But one doesn't have to read my opinions (however researched and valid); one needs only to focus on the adjectival phrases I just used (“enduring value”, “refreshing purpose”) to realize I support classical education with militant dedication. For better or for worse—for the better, of course—classical education has convinced me it needs support and propagation.
But what classical education do I actually support?
There are many types, and often the types most advertised to the general public are metamorphosed versions of philological, classical education. In other words, they are decidedly classically inspired modes of education and indoctrination instead of a directly connected study of Greek and Latin language and literature.
In many ways, the commonest form of classical education in primary schools is a blend of Judeo-Christian values with some necessary additions: namely, elementary Latin and Greek, striving for “truth”, support for classical ideals of beauty (formality, restraint, and symmetry), and nearly unwavering praise for the “trivium.”
These elements are admirable in their goals, but provide a more medieval education than classical education. This needs emphasizing, especially in regards to the gulf Matthew Arnold suggested lay between Hebraism and Hellenism (from Culture and Anarchy, chapter 4)
The final aim of both Hellenism and Hebraism, as of all great spiritual
disciplines, is no doubt the same: man’s perfection or salvation…Still,
they pursue this aim by very different courses. The uppermost idea
with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea
with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. Nothing can do away with this
ineffaceable difference. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires
is that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew quarrel with them is that
they hinder right acting...
The Greek way sprouts from Homer's Iliad, gains polytheistic spirituality in Hesiod, and carves a deep furrow through the Archaic Age of Greece's poets, tyrants, and Presocratic Philosophers. The Classical Period (whose art earns the most praise from classical, liberal arts schools of today) refashioned man's relationship to the divine and opened up arena for doubt, discussion, and a true flowering of philosophy before being wholly transmogrified by Plato's superhuman fealty to rationalism as the only guiding force for human perfection and happiness.
After Plato, nothing was the same, nor could the earlier ages of Greece's aristocratic individualism be recaptured. Earlier ages and the men that defined them had changed.
Aristotle organized the pieces, and the Hellenic Age idealized its own, Greek past. Indeed, its writers did so with enough persistence to energize a “conception of humanity and its dignity” (Lesky) that would pass into subsequent times as the idea of humanism. This concept (made famous by Cicero's humanitas) seeded Rome's own flowering (“Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio”) and supported the tumultuous changes in life and learning after Rome's decline and the orient of Christian doctrine.
The Middle Ages inherited the refashioned classics from St. Augustine, Jerome, and other Church Fathers and packaged it into the trivium. Along the way, a pious scholasticism replaced the classical conception of humanism as central to humanity, i.e. as an idea concerned “with all [humanity's] distinct capabilities, talents, worries, problems, possibilities.” (Kristellar)
Religion assumed the central place where classical man once stood. Only after the thought and study of Renaissance Humanists were in full swing did the idea of man in his present, terrestrial circumstances once again predominate.
This quick romp through cultural history serves only to underscore that classical education offers each of us a banquet of interpretations. The Greeks and Romans spoke, wrote, and passed into the hands of scholars for refashioning and re-teaching.
What is an actual classical education depends on the point in history at which one draws his or her source material. A classical, liberal arts education is Judeo-Christian only in the ways we recognize early Christians needed Greek and Latin classics to maintain their own educational efficacy. Early Christians used classical authors (bowdlerized and with often heavy allegorical commentary) to promote their own standards. That a classical idea of beauty came through with the refashioning is testament to the power of original, ancient Greek and Roman sources.
Likewise, an austere classical education of philological purity must choose its own point at which the classics cease to be classical and become traditional inheritances. Is this fifth century Athens? Something earlier? (Why fiddle with the tragedians when we have Pindar and Homer?) Can we include later periods and risk impurities of new thoughts? And if we truncate our times, what fresh insights do we lose, what meaningful reinterpretation of a beautiful poem or cogent philosophical writing do we now lack?
AOTON believes that if we are to teach our children, they must primarily learn sources for classical education before they absorb and mimic the epigoni of Greece and Rome. The epigoni, however, also have much to teach, but they are boats on the deep, often strange, undercurrent of ancient Greek and Roman ideas.