Virtue simply means “excellence,” and it usually refers to moral excellence, or excellence of character. Education is the process of forming excellent character in a student. The ancient Roman educator Quintilian famously stated that the true rhetorician is a good man speaking well. A person who speaks well is persuasive, but if that person lacks character, he or she would be persuading people wrongly. An education that fails to cultivate virtue in students is an education that fails.
For thousands of years, communities of God-honoring people have taught their children to love and fear God, for without a proper awe of God and a desire to please Him, wisdom and understanding are impossible. Classical education, then, recognizes that piety is the first step toward becoming virtuous. Without piety and the grace of God—most fully demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—it is impossible to live a life that truly pleases Him. However, a righteous Christian life does not happen automatically or haphazardly; virtue formation happens slowly and requires intentional practice. Students need to begin practicing virtuous actions as early as possible so that these practices will become habits before they reach adulthood.
While there are many virtues that students should learn, practice and habituate, there are seven virtues that Christian educators have historically emphasized: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance (the four cardinal virtues), and Faith, Hope, and Love (the three theological virtues). The student who has been trained to practice these virtues and who has begun to habituate them in his or her own daily life will be prepared for adulthood and the manifold complexities and responsibilities of being a spouse, parent, church member, employee, neighbor, and friend.
The primary place of virtue formation in the life of a child is not school: it is the home and the church. It is the responsibility of parents, within the authority of and through participation in the church, to train their children to become godly adults. However, the school, in its secondary role, offers specific support to the family and the church that neither of those typically provide.
First, pragmatically speaking, children spend more of their waking hours at school than they do anywhere else. If the culture and practices of the school are forming the child in a different direction than the family and the church, the latter will have a much more difficult time properly fulfilling their role. However, if the culture and practices of the school are forming the child in the same direction as the family and the church, then they will be supported and encouraged as they carry out the difficult task of training a child to live in a way that pleases God.
The second and more specialized way that the school offers support to the family and church is through its academic training. Classical Christian education provides robust, foundational academic training that follows the liberal arts tradition in cultivating virtue in students for the sake of restoring the glory of God’s image in them.