A Complete Guide to Classical Education
Classical homeschooling is an educational approach that features the Classics in its curriculum. A classical approach to homeschooling means you will be following in the footsteps of some of the greatest men who’ve ever walked the planet – the likes of Galileo, Isaac Newton, and St. Paul of Tarsus. Compared to traditional education as seen in public schools today, Classical Education advocates rigorous mental discipline to achieve outstanding academic results for students. This is done through the trivium, a set of three learning levels consisting of the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages.
Children who learn using classical homeschooling methods tend to excel because they learn how to learn in a disciplined manner instead of just learning what they need to know for the test date, as so many modern-day students do.
Rather than treating a child’s mind as a receptacle to be filled, classical educators believe in giving the student information and then teaching them to assess and sort through it using critical analysis skills they’ve learned.
On this page, we’ll cover:
- Famous People Who Had a Classical Education
- The Definition of Classical Education and the Classical Approach
- The Trivium and the Quadrivium in the Classical Homeschooling Method
- How Christian Classical Education is Different from Modern Education
- Why Choose Classical Education?
- Possible Problems with Classical Education
- Is there a Homeschool Curriculum with a Classical Approach?
Let’s get started…
HDIH is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
Famous People Who Had a Classical Education
Classical homeschooling, which has its roots in antiquity, has produced a plethora of influential people over the centuries who now heavily influence our culture and values (some for better, others for worse).
Indeed, some of these people who have been schooled in the classical approach include:
- St. Paul of Tarsus
- Leonardo da Vinci
- William Shakespeare
- Martin Luther
- Isaac Newton
- Christopher Columbus
- Thomas Jefferson
- Albert Einstein
- Charles Darwin
- George Washington
- John Adams
All this is to say that if you choose a classical education, you join company with history’s movers and shakers!
Classical Education and the Classical Approach
Definition of Classical Education
Classical education (as we define it) is a learning approach that’s based in antiquity. It usually involves the trivium (or the quadrivium); the grammar stage, the logic stage, and the rhetoric stage which is based on Dorothy Sayer’s Lost Tools of Learning.
The term ‘classical’ usually refers to the Graeco-Roman world; the classic age covered about 1,000 years of history. Classic education exerted a massive influence on the culture around the 7th century BC to the 5th century AD. In our Western world, we can track our culture to the Graeco-Roman world.
This being said, there’s no patent on the term ‘classic’. As Douglas Wilson explains in his book, The Case for Classical Christian Education (affiliate link):
No one holds the copyright on the word classical, and given the nature of the word, there has been something of a scramble in the various manifestations of classical education. This is not surprising, especially in a time when classical can refer to a ’57 Chevy, an original cola formula, the early Beach Boys, or a classic rock radio station. (p.81)
In fact, Wilson’s definition of classical education refers more to our Christian heritage instead of the Greek heritage definition I used in the above. Wilson profers his definition of Christian classical education, saying:
So what then is the definition of classical education?…classical education, as I am using the phrase, refers to a particular pedagogical approach together with an emphasis on passing on the heritage of the West. The pedagogy refers to our commitment to Dorothy Sayers’s basic insight – that children grow naturally through stages that correspond nicely with the three elements of the Trivium. We teach the grammar of all subjects to the younger children; we teach dialectic to the children of junior-high age; and we teach the rhetorical disciplines to the high school students. (pp. 84-85)
He then goes on to add the reason we study Western culture most in Classical education is that we want to understand our Christian culture; and simply, the West has had the best advances in the Christian faith. Therefore, to omit a decent study of the West’s culture in Classical education is like trying to study the history of the early church while omitting all references to Constantine; it is an incomplete history and representation of facts.
As you can see the definition can vary, depending on the reference point of the speaker. Because the definition varies widely, there are a number of things a classical education can refer to as we’ll discuss below.
Different Types of ‘Classical Education’ Common Today
There are a number of different education’s that ‘classic’ can refer to. Roughly, five types of classical education mentioned in Wilson’s book are:
- Classical Christian Education (CCE – the Augustinian approach) – teaching what can be known with systematic rigour, in the context of humans being sinful and needing God’s grace; it also explicitly acknowledges God’s sovereignty. Promoted by the Association of Classical and Christian Schools.
- Democratic Classicism (Aristotelian approach)- promoted by Mortimer Adler in Paideia schools. Proposals geared towards reforming public schools and more secular than the CCE.
- Moral Classicism (Platonic approach) – this educational theory is constructed around trying to find ‘the ideal’ and the belief that education should be a ‘path to virtue’. Moral Classicism is promoted by David Hicks whose approach is like the classical humanism of the Renaissance.
- Elite Classicism – a difficult to define approach used in elite schools like the Thomas Jefferson School in St Lois. They offer an extremely rigorous education in expensive elite schools. But, their approach might be more eclectic as opposed to being a strict adherent to one of the schools of thought above.
- Classic by name – used in schools who like the term ‘classic’, and who introduce just enough of the classic theme to convince parents (i.e. by offering a Latin elective), but aren’t truly classical in their foundations. (Even worse, a school might add the word ‘classical’ to their school and not change a thing.)
By these definitions, we can see we have to be careful about what a person means when they talk about classical education. What school of thought are they coming from and does their curricula value Christian foundations and reasoning?
How the Classical Approach Works
Classical education, as referred to in the first definition, generally employs three stages (the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages) to give us a systematic, memorable framework to teach human knowledge. This is the trivium. (The quadrivium is the trivium plus theology as mentioned below.)
Teaching the Trivium is done primarily through seven liberal arts:
- Grammar – rules governing clauses, sentences and so on.
- Dialectic – a conversation between two people aimed at finding truth through argument.
- Rhetoric – the art of discourse aimed at persuasion.
- Arithmetic – a branch of maths. Literally meaning ‘number’.
- Geometry – another branch of maths looking at size, shape, space and the relative position of figures.
- Music – an art form which concerns sound organized in time.
- Cosmology – literally ‘the study of the world’.
Why study these arts? Andrew Kern from Circle Institute says:
The seven liberal arts are the ultimate refinement of common sense. They enable us to use the God-given faculties of reason to discover truth. They can even, if we use them in a sanctified way, help us overcome sin and folly… a Christian school that doesn’t teach the seven liberal arts is robbing its students of their heritage, because it was the Christian community that identified and refined these tools of learning into the superpowerful tool for thinking that they became.
But, classical education’s primary focus is the formation of virtue to:
- Love what is truly lovely
- Desire what is truly desirable
Classic education uses the trivium or quadrivium to teach us these things.
The Trivium and the Quadrivium in the Classical Approach
The trivium was an introductory course at a medieval university involving three subjects – grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
With the coming of Constantine, the Graeco-Roman world turned into the Christian world and the trivium became the quadrivium as theology was introduced in the 12th century.
The quadrivium can be likened to the medieval Beginners 101 university course.
The Grammar Stage in a Classical Approach
During the Grammar stage, children in lower school focus on the tools of the subject. This means they look at the tools we use in our language.
Just like a young child might notice a hammer has a rubber handle and a metal end, they’re learning the very basics of grammar, like what a noun does in a sentence.
Young children love this stage and the grammar stage is tailored to where they’re at. Unlike adults, younger children are like sponges and can memorize information easily. In this stage, they’re absorbing information, rather than thinking abstractly about it or arguing rhetorically as older children do.
Because young children in the grammar stage love doing things repetitively (i.e. reading the same book or watching the same movie), educators seek to pack in as much information as they can through poems, songs, rhymes, and dances.
They will repeat this information over and over and it will cement in their brains. Young children can learn a huge bulk of things in the classical grammar stage that they can make more use of later and remember forever.
In this stage we want kids to learn and store up lots of information so they can use it later to think deeply and critically about a variety of topics.
Latin in the Grammar Stage
Latin begins in the grammar stage because it is the basis of all the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and so on).
Learning Latin gives students a good head-start if they want to learn other languages in the future. It can also help with other subjects, such as biology where many of the names are based on Latin.
A lawyer I was speaking to recently also assured me Latin gave him a huge head start in Law.
The Logic Stage in a Classical Approach
Students are usually middle school age when they study the logic phase. The logic phase catches students as they are becoming more argumentative and questioning things they learned in the grammar stage.
During this period, we want children to develop a deeper understanding of different topics we taught them in the grammar stage.
Debate in Classical Homeschooling
A great way to develop a deeper understanding of a topic is through debate. In the logic phase of classical education, students start debating different information they learned in the grammar stage. Being forced to defend or attack both sides of an argument makes you learn it in greater detail.
By debating with each other, students learn how to:
- convert the facts they learned in the grammar stage into a coherent argument
- use the correct pace, tone, language and body language to persuade listeners
- gain a greater understanding of various subjects
- discern a logical fallacy
- learn a subject in depth
- argue to convince
- think quickly and
- work as a team
As Christian homeschoolers, we should encourage our children to debate in a loving and winsome manner. Nothing is so lovely as someone who has beautiful arguments and humbly puts them forward. In this case, not only are the points winsome, but the person is too.
Conversely, few things are as ugly as someone who is just arguing to win points – blind to their partner’s growing frustration and hostility! (Perhaps there are few things which adorn the gospel so awfully as this!).
Compare and Contrast in Classical Homeschooling
Students in the logic phase also do a lot of compare and contrast exercises. They are now trying to use the tools they discovered in the grammar stage.
Simply put, homeschoolers are learning what is similar and what is different. They are categorizing. (Of course, they’re doing this in all subjects they study, not just writing.)
Other Things in the Logic Phase
Rebekah Hagstrom, who started a classical school, said she also got her students to write from the perspective of historical and literary figures. She also teaches her students how to write (and this process happens also in the rhetoric phase).
The Rhetoric Stage in a Classical Approach
Students are usually high school age when they study the rhetoric phase. They are ‘becoming independent, forming their own opinions and starting to separate from their families’.
Classical education takes advantage, once again, of where the student is up to in their new phase of development. It capitalizes on the fact they can now analyze and synthesize the information they learned in the grammar and logic phases to develop their own opinion.
The rhetoric phase also focuses on teaching students how to communicate their views in an effective and winning manner. This reminded me of 1 Peter 3:15 which says, ‘…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…’
Of course, this is where debating comes into the picture. Students are immersed in the rhetoric stage as they learn to speak and write persuasively:
Studying rhetoric magnifies your influence and your ability to persuade others through language and is key to your influence as an employee, friend, family member and citizen. It makes you a better citizen; if you want to be a well-informed voter and citizen, you must be fully cognizant of the tactics and techniques used. Such knowledge empowers you to discern truth from fallacy. Knowing rhetoric protects you from intellectual tyranny; studying rhetoric puts up a defensive shield around your brain, allowing you to filter out external messages and follow your own inner compass. It makes you a savvy consumer empowering you for rigorous and constructive debate; one should know how to discuss and debate with vigor, intelligence and civility. Also, a firm understanding of rhetoric will help prevent you [walking] into a path of heated wars as you will be able to spot logical fallacies or unsound arguments. [Source: Liberty Classical Academy]
In the rhetoric phase, students can learn to transmit their views through speech and writing using five canons that underpin the rhetoric phase of classical education. These are:
- inventio (invention) – a systematic search for arguments.
- dispositio (arrangement) – a system for organizing arguments.
- elocutio (style) – mastery of the stylistic elements of rhetoric arguments.
- memoria (memory) – memoria is concerned with memorization.
- actio (delivery) – ‘pertains to the mechanics presenting the created speech or composition’.
These canons are derived from antiquity where it was very important to have polished speech as well as cogent and persuasive arguments. (See Apollos and his subsequent popularity due to his eloquent speech).
How Christian Classical Education is Different from Modern Education
Our current education system is morally inept. It used to be that an educated man was a virtuous Christian man. Now, someone who is highly educated can be a biblical fool.
He may be brilliant at engineering or mathematics, but to say someone is an educated man is certainly no longer synonymous with a virtuous man.
When comparing the curriculum of schools using mainstream methods (especially Common Core as seen in American public schools) and schools that employ the classical education method, the difference is startling.
Specifically, the noticeable differences are:
- Theological. Traditional education has no context – facts are in a meaningless vacuum; Classical homeschooling gives us a context in showing us where we fit in relation to God.
- Metaphysical. Traditional education is oriented towards getting a job to buy a big house to retire early and end in an upmarket nursing home; the Classical approach looks at Truth and says there is a concrete truth and I’m living with a plan that doesn’t end when I’m dead.
- Ethical. Modern schools were created with the purpose of ‘socializing’ children. Classical homeschooling helps parents develop children’s morality, realizing they are more than molecules.
Why Choose Classical Education?
In an age where students are getting lazier and more selfish, classical education propels students to reject the modern standard and chase something of higher virtue and worth.
The classical education continually asks a student to work against his baser inclinations (laziness, or the desire to watch another half hour of TV) in order to reach a goal — mastery of a subject. – Susan Wise Baue
A classical homeschooling education is not just about learning – it’s about fostering a love for learning and a love for truth. It is not just about thinking, it is about learning how to think.
Students who learn in this manner learn how to cover topics comprehensively, form an opinion and then persuasively transmit those ideas to others in a controlled, clever and winning debating style.
Possible Problems with Classical Education
My only fear with using a classical method in my home education is that my children will adopt the ‘wisdom of the Greeks’. Brian Douglas, a classical school teacher, put it like this:
Unless we carefully integrate biblical education throughout the entire curriculum, across every subject and grade, it would be very easy for our graduates to know more about Achilles and Dante than Abraham and David. The Word of God is our source for God’s wisdom; without it we only have the wisdom of man.
It seems the early church tended to accept too much wisdom of the Greeks in their theology around the first few centuries.
Because Greek wisdom is so brilliant, the Hellenistic (Greek) culture had pervaded almost every nation around the time of Jesus, including the Jews. The Sadducees became, in large part, puppets for their Roman rulers, and accepted much of Rome’s Hellenistic culture.
When Christianity came to Rome in the first century, there were not myriads of theological works available to keep people on track as there are now. Early Christians had to figure out their doctrine as was consistent with the early gospels and the old testament.
They had to figure out the essence of God (homoousious) and if there was a Trinity, for example. As a result, many of the early church fathers had some pretty dodgy doctrines. Most of these were made dodgy by the intermingling of Greek philosophy with Christian theology.
Origen of Alexandria [was] a third-century Christian scholar [who] loved Jesus, the Scriptures, and Neo-Platonic philosophy—a combination that Christians since have viewed as either the height of faithful theology or the depth of horrendous error.
Origen is the most fascinating example of this. Origen was (and is still) held by many people in the church, to be a heretic. Others thought he was a genius who was so far ahead of the pack that he had no one to peer review the amazing – and sometimes erroneous – doctrines he was producing. Among the doctrines Origen held were:
- Free will,
- The pre-existence of souls,
- Everyone will be saved one day – including the Devil and
- The Trinity is a hierarchy, with God at the top, Jesus in the middle and the Holy Spirit at the bottom.
Although these doctrines sound pretty far from the mark to many of us, Origen was working from scratch. There was very little that had been written on the Trinity, and Origen contributed heavily to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.
All this story is to say that my only fear with teaching my children the classics is that they go down the path of the wisdom of the Greeks. I think we need to guard against ‘the wisdom of the Greeks’ because, ‘… the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’ (1 Cor 1:25)
Temptations Classical Homeschooling Parents Face
Perhaps it is better to call the above scenario a temptation, rather than a problem. This is exactly what Brian Douglas does. I find it interesting that Douglas, who writes an article about five temptations classical educators face, confirms he would still choose a classical education. He calls it the best program available to students today:
Having taught at a classical Christian school for five years and followed the classical Christian education movement for some years prior, I have come to believe that it is the best approach to K-12 education available today.
He goes on to outline temptations classical educators can face. He relates many back to classical schools becoming institutions of excellence with a lack of virtue (the one he focuses on seems to be grace). Below are the salient points home educators should be aware of:
- ‘Overemphasise mistaken notions of success’ – as children learn so well, they might mistake the trappings of good education for education itself.
- Believing academic rigour and disciplined behaviour equals a good education – ‘Without God’s grace, we can only produce narcissists who are more focused on their own successes and failures than on the eternal reality of God’s love for his people.’
- Relying on our own goodness instead of relying on God working in the student’s hearts. ‘It is easy for classical Christian schools to feel like we have the moral high ground [amid] a fallen culture. After all, anyone who seeks out such a school believes it to be superior to other systems, especially secular ones.’ We need to humbly seek God’s guidance and stop relying on ourselves.
- Forgetting about God’s Word. Unless we seek to promote the Bible and its knowledge over the knowledge and stories of the Greeks, students can come out knowing more of Zeus and Juno than of Jesus and Moses. We need to remember a hundred ways to teach our children the gospel.
Is there a Homeschool Curriculum with a Classical Approach?
Because classical homeschooling is so popular, many curriculum providers adopt a classical approach when writing their books.
Arguably the best classical homeschool curriculum is Classical Conversations. I recommend it and I’ve briefly covered it on this page. Veritas Press and Memoria Press are also great options (also covered in the link above). You can also find a number of options for classical homeschooling curricula here.
My Father’s World is an eclectic homeschooling choice that claims to use classical plus Charlotte Mason and Unit Study methods. It’s definitely worth looking into.
A Classical homeschooling education offers a superior learning program to that which is offered in many schools around the world today. The Classical approach catches the interests of students by teaching them in a style that agrees with their mental level at the time. Classical education teaches children the tools of language, and then how to use them. It is also superior to other methods of education as it teaches children virtue and truth. As Christians, we seek the truth in our education also, and classical education, if done with a focus on the gospel, will do this.