Insights on Education from Quintilian

Last weekend, I participated in a retreat for classical educator hosted by Alcuin Fellowship at Trinity Classical Academy. Last year, we read and discussed Milton’s “On Education.” This year, we discussed Quintilian’s “On the Teaching of Speaking and Writing.” Sitting around in small groups of about ten teachers and administrators, we spent two days chewing on the wisdom of one of the greatest educators in history: Quintilian.

Immediately, you might raise the question: What does a 2000 year-old Roman educator (a contemporary of the apostle Paul) have to do with us? That was initially my question, when I first read Quintilian several years ago. But the more I read these ancients, the more I find them relevant to us today, especially to Christian schools like Veritas.

One of the most important challenges I have received from Quintilian is his equal emphasis on cultivating a good and wise character and the training of skills (eloquence, in this case). This integration of wisdom and eloquence, or character and skill, is embedded into every aspect of education.

To begin with, Quintilian believes that the goal of education is to produce a “perfect orator,” who is defined as “a good man skilled in speaking.” By “perfect,” Quintilian means a “complete orator,” meaning that a vast majority of students, no matter where they are at the beginning, if given a proper and complete education, both intellectually and morally, can become a powerful agent of change for a good society. Without eloquence, wisdom is not effective; Without wisdom, eloquence is harmful. By “wisdom,” Quintilian has in mind something closer to the biblical definition of wise person—someone whose character is trained in the classical virtues (justice, fortitude, temperance, courage) and one who is committed to the good of their society. It is nothing like the practical wisdom of our age.

Someone might argue against making “a good man skilled in speaking” as the goal of education. That it is too narrowly focused on speaking. But again Quintilian’s purpose behind speaking is not mere communication. It is communication of virtuous qualities by virtuous people that will create virtuous society. It is a good approximation of biblical goal of “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Nothing in the modern vision of education comes close to it.

In sum, the challenges that Quintilian bring us are: 1) Education that has a clear hope of producing a virtuous society, 2) A clear conviction that the only way to achieve that goal is by training men and women to be good, 3) The method of training such good men and women are by mentorship (what we call discipleship), and training in eloquence.

In case you wonder what good results Quintilian produced, some of the greatest reformers of nations throughout history, including Luther, Calvin, Edwards, John Adams, Dorothy Sayers, all have cut their teeth on Cicero and Quintilian. They were all “good men (and women) skilled at speaking.” It would do us good to stand on their shoulders.