3-What Is Classical Education?

As I conducted my research into the world of homeschool curricula, this question more and more frequently popped up in my mind. When I asked the few people I knew who were classically homeschooling their children the above question, I felt a fog creep over my mind as I heard their answer. I heard words but didn’t understand the concept. If you’ve ever learned another language, you may have experienced this: you can pick out a lot of the individual words another person is saying but still not understand the overall idea he just communicated.

Now that much of my personal philosophy of education leans classical, I’ll give a shot at explaining classical education. But first—I have so far recommended three books for your homeschooling journey: Cathy Duffy’s book 101 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, Teaching the Trivium by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, and The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. These books will explain this much better than I can, especially the latter two, as they are specifically about classical education.

But second first :), two disclaimers regarding the latter two books, which I highly recommend:

  1. Don’t think you have to read the whole tome to get the big picture. The books are intimidating (700 pages average), and I procrastinated before actually reading them. I haven’t finished every page. I just read the chapters most pertinent to me—some of them repeatedly.
  2. Both authors, Bluedorn and Bauer, have succinct explanations or articles defining classical education on their websites and/or blogs. So you could try there first.

But I will try to put one more explanation of classical education out there. Big breath. Here we go.

(In this section I’ll say “Bluedorn” when referring to the book Teaching the Trivium, and “SWB” for Susan Wise Bauer, the main author [along with her mother who homeschooled her] of the book The Well-Trained Mind.)

Classical education is a resurgence of a model and method of education that was used in ancient and medieval schools, which structured their curriculum around three subjects (as Bluedorn calls it, the Trivium). The first subject is called Grammar—meaning back then, the student was taught the vocabulary and grammar of a language, usually a classical one, Latin or Greek. Then he was taught Logic, giving him ability in critical thinking. The third subject was rhetoric, or using the knowledge he learned and learning how to creatively and persuasively present it to others.

Dorothy Sayers caused a resurgence of recognition of these elements when she wrote an essay called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” An easier and better read would be Douglas Wilson’s book Rediscovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Sayers used those three classical subjects to define the stages of educational development that a child goes through.

Sayers saw that the child goes through a Grammar stage when he’s gathering up facts “like a sponge.” It’s easy for the young child to memorize facts. In fact, he loves it and parrots everything you say. So some call this the poll-parrot stage.

Then he goes through a Logic stage, where he’s more curious and analytical—you’ll hear a lot of “why’s” in this stage. Finally he hits the Rhetoric stage, when he learns to express the facts he’s learned in a logical and persuasive manner. Some Christians see these stages in the terms Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom in Proverbs.

About here in the conversation is where I used to go fuzzy. I heard the terms, but how did that practically apply to educating my child? Was there some curriculum that structured subjects and learning around these stages? SWB’s practical suggestions for how to classically educate your child in each subject at each grade level helped clear the fog for me but also raised another question.

I got confused because when I read The Well-Trained Mind, SWB recommends curricula that are not specifically classical, meaning that those curricula, for the subjects she recommends them for, did fine for that subject using the classical method in that subject. For example, one of her recommendations for elementary math is ABeka, a traditional scope and sequence curriculum. I originally thought that to be a classical educator, you couldn’t use traditional scope and sequence textbooks. But Bluedorn has a helpful chapter (ch. 10) called “Different Methods and Approaches to Homeschooling in the Light of the Trivium,” and this chapter helped clear things up for me quite a bit.

Bluedorn made a distinction between the “method” and the “model” of classical education. The Trivium “method” is to apply this understanding of the child’s stages of learning to each subject. Every subject has its own grammar—the knowledge level—basic facts, rules (like the multiplication tables in math); then logic—or understanding the relationships between facts and rules—how all the parts fit together (story problems in math or theorems in geometry); and rhetoric, or wisdom, in verbally expressing and practically applying what we know and understand (applying math to accounting or engineering, for example). In each subject the student will progress through those stages to be a master.

Some solid Christian curricula teach individual subjects in this “method,” starting with facts, moving towards logic and critical thinking, and then applying it. But not many use this philosophy as the actual “model” of education. The “model” of classical education will think of the children in stages; generally grades 1-4 is the grammar stage. Young children are great at memorizing: fill them with facts. Those facts are like pegs on the wall, that later you’ll come back and hang clothes on. Then grades 5-8 generally is the logic stage, and 9-12 the rhetoric. You decide when they have moved to that logic stage, whether it’s at age 9, 10, or 11, and that’s when you start adjusting their education for the next stage.

Understanding the practical applications of the philosophy of classical education is difficult, because there seem to be different approaches to classical education from within its own camp, and even mild disagreements about the importance of different elements. But here are the most distinctive elements that usually comprise classical education:

  • Great Books

Classical education proponents want children to be engaged in “the Great Conversation,” as Mortimer Adler called it in his book How to Read a Book (a classic in itself!) All through history, great minds have continued the Great Conversation as recorded in the Great Books. This is so important that SWB and others propose teaching classic literature at each learning stage.

For example, some classical educators will have the grammar stage read a picture book version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, then read a children’s chapter book version of it in the logic stage, then read the actual thing and write an essay on it in the rhetoric stage. Why three times? SWB’s thought is that if a young child is introduced to great literature in a non-threatening way, it won’t be intimidating to him when he’s older, because he “already knows this story!”

  • Classical languages (Latin and Greek)

Historically, another foundational aspect of “true” classical education was learning Latin and/or Greek. Many classical educators today feel that you really can’t cut out the classical languages and say that you are educating your children classically. “But recently,” says Cathy Duffy, “emphasis on the structure of the trivium and reading the Great Books seems to have displaced the study of Greek.” Bluedorn recommends for Christians that if you only learn one classical language, learn Greek, because that’s the language of the New Testament and therefore most important.

  • Emphasis on memorization (in elementary)

There is debate amongst classical education proponents on how to apply this concept—how much memorization, which facts, and when?

  • Logic (and Socratic discussions)

Classical educators recommend the formal study of logic for 2-4 years. A popular logic textbook is Nathaniel Bluedorn’s book Fallacy Detective and its sequel The Thinking Toolbox. Other more formal textbooks have been published by Memoria Press, a classical curriculum publisher. During the logic and rhetoric stage, Socratic discussions (asking leading, thoughtful questions to help a child learn from the knowledge he’s gleaned from his reading) are encouraged, and in some curricula, scheduled or even scripted for the teacher.

And here are some practical aspects of classical education that you will see in many classical curricula, but not all:

  1. Using phonics to teach reading.
  2. Teaching world history chronologically, rather than mainly American history, using timelines and mapwork.
  3. Using dictation, copywork, and narration as teaching and evaluation devices.
  4. A grammar program that emphasizes rules and memorization from a young age.
  5. Art and music appreciation (learning the masters and great works of both subjects).

Cathy Duffy summarized some of my thoughts regarding classical education:
“Personally, I think the greatest value of classical education is that it engages learners with the most important ideas—ideas about God, about life, about purpose. Classical education challenges the vocational orientation of most modern education by instead concentrating on learning which forms the inner person. At the same time, classical students learn how to think, how to learn independently, and how to present their own ideas—all of which ultimately prepares them for a wide range of vocations.”

If you are interested in classical education, I would recommend you at least read The Well-Trained Mind. Then you will have to decide which elements of her approach to classical education, if any, you agree with and place importance on. The Well-Trained Mind is to me a layman’s guide to implementing classical education. SWB’s writing style is interesting, practical, and succinct (though you might not think so when you see the size of the book!) You might not do everything exactly according to her plan but regardless will find many helpful tips and suggestions.

Teaching the Trivium is written by pioneers in the field of classical Christian education. The Bluedorns will give you a Christian perspective on how to implement classical education.

And finally, a book I would like to read, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern. Supposedly this book explains the different approaches to classical education objectively, so that you can decipher which model of classical education you most agree with.

So how did I do? Are you foggy still? Asleep long ago? If I only raised more questions for you, let me know. If I am able, I will do my best to thoughtfully answer! It’ll be good for me to work through the issues and organize my thoughts personally.

3 Responses to 3-What Is Classical Education?

  1. Renier says:

    Hi there

    Thank you for your explanations. I run a small Christian school in South Africa, and we are looking at switching to a classical, Christian curriculum. Do you know of any classical schools in SA? Where in SA are you based? If possible, we would love to pick your brain about doing classical, Christian education in Africa.


  2. Pingback: First Language Lessons~Grammar Comparison | Ita Vita

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