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C lassical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth. The keyword here is inquiry. – David Hicks, Norms & Nobility

In David Hicks’s seminal work, Norms & Nobility, he sets out his definition of classical education. In it, he emphasizes one keyword, inquiry. When I first read this, I was surprised at the simplicity of the idea. Could this habit of mind be the central habit for this vast tradition? If it was, I was certainly relieved. I have, as I know others have as well, a tendency to get lost in the lofty and philosophical underpinnings of classical education. I sometimes have trouble getting back to how to walk it out. At the same time, it is the walking it out that is most fulfilling. What is the classical spirit of inquiry? Why is it important? And how do we cultivate it in ourselves and our students?

David Hicks outlines three parts to the classical spirit of inquiry: general curiosity, imagination in forming hypotheses, and method in testing them.

General Curiosity

“The first of these is general curiosity, as opposed to the systematic or specific interest of modern science. One does not launch a classical inquiry with a preconceived methodology or from the point of view of an established academic discipline. Consequently, the field is open for all sorts of questions, whether regarding the nature of true happiness, the cause of the Persian wars, or the source of the Nile.” – David Hicks, Norms & Nobility

General curiosity is one of the things that, in my estimation, we are born with as humans. I’m reminded of the verse “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter and the glory of kings to search it out.” We were made to want to know. The desire runs deep. Many times life and fears can diminish one’s outward expression of general curiosity. Maybe we had parents who dismissed our questions, who ignored us when we wondered about things. Perhaps we were laughed at in school when we asked a question. Maybe our schools bred a culture of being seen and not heard, where we got the sense that questioning was discouraged. Perhaps we are afraid of where the questions would lead. Whatever the reason, sometimes one resists letting the inquiry happen, but we all most certainly wonder, we all have questions, and we all make connections as we read and experience life.

General curiosity is an open and broad interest in life and ideas, in other words, an openness to wonder. After all, as Socrates says, wonder is the feeling of a philosopher. It begins with wonder and in many ways ends in wonder as well. General curiosity is embodied and made alive in the question. It is the question that holds all that is present in the child as the awe and wonder about a new thing fills their mind, where all that wonder and longing to know breaks through in the question “What is that, momma?” Before the question, they have wondered, but now they can know. This power is seen in the teen who asks out loud for the first time ‘How do I know God is real?’ Before that moment there is silent wondering, but never coming to terms with the question. You cannot answer a question that has not been asked. It all begins with the question. I think this is why it is said, that “the quality of one’s life is determined by the quality of one’s questions.”

How do we cultivate general curiosity in our students? I think we must first recognize that interest is already there. We can stimulate and direct it, and we can create a space that makes wondering and all the questions okay. It begins with each of us as individuals, the mom, the teacher. We must make discovery of truth the highest good in our own minds. It takes bravery for sure, bravery to remember that our questions matter, and bravery to ask the questions that may lead us to unfamiliar places. What we wonder about is beautiful. Let’s ask our questions. Write them down and speak them out. Live by example.

Second, general curiosity must be present in the atmosphere and culture of our classes. This is an extension of it being present in us as individuals, but the distinction here is the classroom management aspect of it. Even if we are asking all sorts of questions and generally curious, if we allow other students to dismiss, interrupt, and shame others in response to their questions, the inquiry will be killed. We need to think through how we will handle these situations and have a plan ready. Love your students and teach them how to love each other.

 Imaginative Hypotheses

“Second, one responds to these questions by forming imaginative hypothesis. The very nature of the questions, being far-flung and wide-ranging, often makes impossible what qualify today as scientific hypotheses.” – David Hicks, Norms & Nobility

A hypothesis is “an assumption taken to be true for the purpose of argument or investigation.” David Hicks often uses the word dogma to describe the assumption mentioned above. He says, “Yet a classical education presents the right way, not with the intention of stifling future inquiry, but as a necessary starting point for dialogue. In this sense, dogma can resemble art: it confronts man with some truth about himself, a kind of truth that might have taken a lifetime of error and misdirection to arrive at for himself…”

This part of the inquiry is part demeanor and part skill. The attitude of the inquirer is one of acceptance, playful speculation, and humility. The inquirer goes through a process of collecting propositions, playing with drawing conclusions, but holding it all loosely as he seeks to understand and come to terms with his question.

We help the student in this process of developing imaginative hypothesis by teaching them the skills of close reading and classical rhetoric, especially the five topics of invention. We also support the work of the student by continuing to cultivate an atmosphere of loving the truth and our neighbor.

One example of this is how I have my students track things while reading. They take notes in the margins of their book or a dedicated notebook while they read. As thoughts occur to them when they see a theme, motif, or common human experience or a line reminds them of something in life or literature they record such observations in their book or notebook. I have them try their best to turn any statement or proposition into a question. This keeps the mood generative and the loudest voice the author’s. We are not in a position to draw conclusions yet, but we should be asking all the questions that occur to us. Presenting thoughts and propositions as questions is a very gentle way to direct students to make imaginative hypotheses in the course of a class or a discussion.

Methodical Testing

“Third, one completes the inquiry by devising methods for testing the hypothesis. Again, the restrictions placed by modern science upon methodology are not adequate. The method used to test the hypothesis formed in a classical inquiry may involve reason or observation, logic, or experimentation. The inquirer may even seek confirmation for his hypothesis in an emotional or religious experience. How else, ultimately, does one test the value of a poem or the validity of God’s love?” – David Hicks, Norms & Nobility

In ancient times, what qualified as a legitimate way to justify or prove something varied significantly from what we, in modern times, accept as valid methods of establishing proof or justifying knowledge.

Today, we are led to believe that we can only prove something through empirical means. However, the ancient, they were free to make use of all seven liberal arts as ways of justifying some piece of knowledge or coming to terms with some question. The seven liberal arts are the arts of truth perception. Jain and Clark, in their book The Liberal Arts Tradition, say “From an ancient or medieval lens, the liberal arts would have been the seven ways in which knowledge was justified. The art used had to fit the subject matter at hand. Aristotle recognized that a persuasive poem would not provide justification in a mathematical matter any more than geometry could wholly provide proof for the justice of war.”

The methods we use to test these hypotheses varies based on the nature of the subject. Each thing we study has a tradition, in other words, each has its natural edges and possibilities and modes of embodying, and thus seeing, reason at work. Different arts provide different kinds of certainty; different subject matter requires varying levels of certainty in justifying the subject matter.

How do we teach this part of the classical spirit of inquiry? We teach the seven liberal arts. As a student matures and gains more mastery of the various liberal arts, his powers of perception will grow along with his ability to grapple with the questions necessary to become a truly educated human being.

If we follow the example from my class, the various questions we noted while we were reading give us our method in this instance. We are reading a work of literature, that work is from a specific time and place, it is part of a literary tradition that means something. Our method, therefore, is to first seek to understand the world the author has created and how he intended us to experience it. Once we get that we have the right framework to put those questions to the test and see where they lead and if honest conclusions can be drawn.

The classical spirit of inquiry is central to a classical education. As the classical homeschool parent or teacher, we can be stewards in cultivating this in our students’ lives by modeling and honoring general curiosity, asking all the questions, teaching our children how to read closely and ask questions, and teaching the seven liberal arts.

“This bent of mind allows the educated man to go on educating himself or extending the realms of knowledge for his fellows. In the process of asking a wide range of questions, of forming hypotheses, and of testing their consistency with known facts, the student learns about the nature of his subject and about the methods appropriate for mastering it.” – David Hicks, Norms & Nobility


Jennifer Dow, the founder, and owner of The Paideia Fellowship is a classical teacher, writer, and speaker. Jennifer has completed the CiRCE Apprenticeship program as a CiRCE certified Classical Teacher and has taught humanities, rhetoric, and the fine arts since 2009 throughout the local and online homeschool community. Jennifer researches, writes, and speaks about classical teaching, serves as the director of the Paideia Fellowship Homeschool Community, teaches online at St. Raphael School, works with Classical Academic Press on the Scholé Groups team, and is the co-host of The Classical Homeschool Podcast. Jennifer’s published works can be seen on the Paideia Fellowship blog and other blogs and podcasts across the web.

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