What is Classical Education?

Overview

The form of education that most people are familiar with today is a very new phenomenon in the history of education. It is a philosophy of education that, for the sake of efficiency and practicality, views the purpose of education as “college and career readiness.” This approach is called “progressive education” and was largely influenced by John Dewey in the early 1900s.

With the widespread adoption of progressive education by both public and private schools alike, there arose a need to distinguish progressive education from the more traditional approach that had existed for over two thousand years prior to its arrival. For better or for worse, the word “classical” has become the most commonly used term to distinguish that difference. And while different schools and different educators interpret the word “classical” in very different ways, what almost all people within the “classical” movement agree on is that education is about far more than preparation for college and career. It is about the attainment of wisdom and virtue and the developing of habits of mind and heart that free a human being to be who God is calling them to be.

Below we discuss some of the key elements that differentiate classical education as well as share a variety of resources that we recommend to help familiarize yourself with “classical,” or traditional liberal arts education.

Classical Education is focused on forming the whole person.

“The glory of God is man fully alive.”

The aim of classical education is to develop children in the fullness and freedom of their humanity—mind, body, and soul—equipping them to live an upright, virtuous, and joyful life. In a Christian context, classical education is oriented toward the realization of each human being’s potential to live in union with God, love others, and enjoy the goodness of God’s creation. As a result, a Christian classical education renews human society by forming children into adults with powerful minds and high moral character who will transform the culture from within through the way they love and serve their neighbors, friends, and families.

Conversely, modern education is focused on the acquisition of skills, social and technological awareness, and academic achievements that enable students to access prestigious universities which will, in turn, help them enjoy rewarding careers. While these things are good and flow naturally from a classical education, they are not the primary aim of a classical school. Indeed, classical schools recognize that orienting education primarily toward economic and social goods lays a shaky foundation on which to live a good life, one that is often narrowly focused on material possessions and self-fulfillment to the detriment of virtue and self-giving.

 

Classical education draws deeply from the Western Tradition.

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

A classical curriculum emphasizes the intellectual, cultural, and moral heritage of the Western Tradition, which underpins the culture and institutions of much of today’s world. Through the study of literature, history, arts, and language, students interact directly with the great minds whose works have shaped Western culture and institutions.

Unlike many modern schools which readily adopt the latest fashionable content and trends in education, a classical school recognizes the immense wisdom to be gained from reading old books—classic works that have stood the test of time. Whether through learning the lessons of Aesop’s Fables, memorizing the poetry of Longfellow, acting out the scenes of Hamlet, or analyzing the theorems of Euclid, engaging with the richness of the Western Tradition sharpens the mind and develops the moral imagination.

Importantly, a classical school’s emphasis on the Western Tradition does not exclude the study of non-Western cultures or traditions, but rather recognizes the foundational importance of Western thought in shaping the society and culture of the Western world.

Classical education is rooted in the Trivium, an integrated approach to learning that is aligned with a child’s natural stages of development.

“For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the three stages of classical education, known as the Trivium, that build upon one another and are aligned with the natural stages of a child’s development.

Grammar stage (grades K-5).

In the grammar stage, the minds of students are filled with facts and knowledge that lay the foundation for the logic and rhetoric stages. At this age, children are naturally curious about the world and take delight in absorbing new information. Thus, examples of typical grammar stage activities include memorizing songs and poems, correct spelling of words, multiplication tables, historical dates, state capitals, and so on. In addition, children use their powers of observation to learn the names and characteristics of things in the natural world such as plants, animals, rock formations, and constellations.

Logic stage (grades 6-8).

At this stage of development, children naturally ask “why” and “how” questions about their studies and begin to express their own opinions and arguments with greater clarity. In the logic stage of the Trivium, subjects (history, literature, mathematics, etc.) are used as training grounds for children to exercise their faculties of reason. Students learn to analyze historical events and works of literature, argue their position in classroom debates, and study the logical underpinnings of ethics. As students learn to think in a clear and logical sequence, they also learn to express their thoughts in the form of essays. During the logic phase, students often study Latin, whereby they learn the grammatical structure and underpinnings of English (and many other languages) and acquire a vocabulary that permeates the great works and institutions of Christianity and the Western Tradition.

Rhetoric stage (grades 9-12).

As the name implies, students in this stage develop their ability to communicate and defend their ideas clearly and persuasively, both in written and spoken word. In addition, students are ready to employ the tools of learning and analysis they have acquired from the previous stages to deepen their understanding of academic subjects and disciplines. As students mature, they may begin to specialize and focus their studies on areas of knowledge they find attractive.

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