An Introduction to Classical Education

by Kelly Allen

Classical Education has been around in one form or another since the time of Ancient Greece. When the great philosophers like Socrates and Plato became famous for their public debates, formal education also began to take shape. The Greeks believed that education should always progress through three stages known as the Trivium. The first stage is the Grammar stage, and it consists of the foundational knowledge needed to understand each subject. Students learn the vocabulary of each subject (terms that are used regularly in math, science, language, etc.), the basic principles that govern each subject, and how to perform basic tasks in each subject. The next stage is the Logic stage. It requires the student to begin training in logic and applying reason to each subject. Students begin to understand why they use certain process and why the information they are learning is true and useful. Students are encouraged to “test” previously learned rules and to “prove” the accuracy and truthfulness of the information they are learning. Debate and philosophy take on greater importance during this phase. The final stage is the Rhetoric stage. Students are expected to take what they have learned throughout their education and learn how to communicate it effectively and persuasively to others. Public speaking and writing take on a greater emphasis during this stage.

As the centuries rolled by, each major civilization drew from the one that came before. When barbarian tribes began to divide and conquer the Roman Empire, formal education almost disappeared; but the Church intervened. Monasteries began to collect and copy down the ancient manuscripts of the past. Along with the Bible, monks would spend their days studying the ancient philosophers like Socrates, mathematicians and scientists like Archimedes, and historians like Herodotus and Josephus. As time progressed, colleges and universities began to pick up where the monasteries left off. The most prestigious universities focused strongly on the “classic works” of the past. Latin and Greek were required courses so that students could read the classics in their original form. Great emphasis was placed on philosophy and virtue.

Today, Classical Education continues to hold tightly to past traditions. Teachers continue to use the trivium because research has proven its effectiveness. Students in elementary school are most capable of memorizing large amounts of information, and they often require concrete examples rather than abstract or theoretical examples. Students in middle school begin to develop the ability to think in abstract terms and are naturally driven to test boundaries, making logic a very important skill during this stage of development. In high school, students begin to develop greater poise and eloquence making rhetoric a natural fit as well.

Because Latin is a foundational language for English, most classical curriculums include a Latin program from 2nd grade through high school. Learning Latin helps students understand the English language better, and provides a unique link for vocabulary and spelling. It is also a great help for students who wish to go into sciences or medicine as these fields use quite a bit of Latin.

Because logic and systematic thinking is a very important element of a classical education, history is taught from beginning to end (starting with ancient civilizations and progressing through the Middle Ages, renaissance, age of exploration and modernization, etc.). Most classical curriculums expect students to go through history from beginning to end, three times before graduating from high school. This allows the student to confront each time period at different levels of complexity and detail.

The final defining feature of a Classical Education is that students are encouraged to learn every subject through “original sources.” Textbooks are set aside or used only as references while “whole books” are used to teach the actual content. Students learn about history by reading the books that were written during that time period. They may learn about the Greeks by reading the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Civil War by reading the Red Badge of Courage, etc. Classic literature is incorporated into every subject, and students are taught to pursue a wide range of sources to acquire a wider view of the subject matter.

Though Classical Education has received some criticism for its “elitism” and burdensome standards (i.e. requiring Latin in elementary school and lots of memorization of facts), it has a great deal to offer. Unlike pre-packaged curriculums, a Classical Education is a method (or style of teaching) that can be implemented as loosely or as strictly as needed. Parents can take from it what they wish, adding a level of enrichment to their homeschool experience that matches their child’s goals and aspirations.