What is Classical Education?

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Classical education is like a very large museum with many beautiful, wonder-filled rooms that could be studied over a lifetime. It is a long tradition of education that has emphasized the seeking after of truth, goodness, and beauty and the study of the liberal arts and the great books. What are the liberal arts? They are grammar, logic, rhetoric (the verbal arts of the trivium), arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the mathematical arts of the quadrivium). This approach to education also includes the study of Latin. (You can read more about the study of Latin in Why Latin?) The classical approach teaches students how to learn and how to think.

What makes classical education so effective? It is largely because of its approach to how and when students are taught. Regardless of their learning style, children learn in three phases or stages (grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric), known as the trivium. In the grammar stage (K-6), students are naturally adept at memorizing through songs, chants, and rhymes. If you can get children in this stage to sing or chant something, they will remember it for a lifetime. In the dialectic or logic stage (grades 7-9), teenaged students are naturally more argumentative and begin to question authority and facts. They want to know the “why” of something—the logic behind it. During this stage, students learn reasoning, informal and formal logic, and how to argue with wisdom and eloquence. The rhetoric stage (grades 10-12) is naturally when students become independent thinkers and communicators. They study and practice rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speaking and effective writing that pleases and delights the listener. Again, it is this approach to teaching students based on their developmental stage that makes this approach so very effective. (For more info regarding the stages, see the chart below.)

classical-ed-pic1-sm.jpgIt is precisely this kind of education that has produced countless great leaders, inventors, scientists, writers, philosophers, theologians, physicians, lawyers, artists, and musicians over the centuries. Classical education never really disappeared, but it did diminish starting around 1900 with the advent of progressive education. In an effort to restore this most proven form of education, the liberal arts tradition has been being renewed and expanded again over the last thirty years. More than 500 classical schools (including private and charter schools) have started during that time, and tens of thousands of homeschooling families are educating with the classical approach.

Of course, there are many myths out there about this method of teaching and learning. The Ambrose School in Meridian, Idaho, has done a superb job of explaining four of the most common myths, which are: 1) It was fine back then, but we need modern education in a modern world. 2) My child is not intelligent enough to attend a classical school. 3) It is too extreme. 4) It is unnecessarily difficult or harsh. You can read the school’s responses to these myths here.

Resources to help you go deeper can be found here.

Stages of the Trivium

Chart taken from pages 14–15 of the Discover pamphlet found here.