Classical education became popular among homeschool families about the time The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer was published. It is important to understand, however, that there are many different schools of thought on what constitutes a classical approach to learning.
One distinctive that all classical approaches have in common is a method of educating the whole person. A truly educated person will exercise wisdom, and this wisdom is cultivated by reading and sharing ideas from the great minds of the past.
Such an education is not practical — in the sense that the objective is to prepare one for a job — but comprehensive in that the student will be adequately fitted as a whole person for any position he may seek in life. With this fundamental point of agreement, the different schools of thought diverge.
How Do We Get There?
“For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command. To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door.”
Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”
One group believes that for a learning approach to be considered classical it must seek to educate in the same way the Greeks and Romans did, studying the “classics” in their original Greek and Latin.
Others who would call themselves classical educators simply mean that they read the “Great Books.”
What has been termed the “neo-classical” group base their approach on the writings of Dorothy Sayers and her explanation of the trivium (or three stages of learning) that was in use in medieval times.
The Well-Trained Mind uses Dorothy Sayers’s framework to lay out a system of education that is at once language-intensive, history-focused, logic-infused, and highly disciplined, while producing “literate, curious, intelligent students who have a wide range of interests and the ability to follow up on them.”
The framework of classical education, defined in this way, makes use of the three stages in which children (and adults) learn any subject — the trivium.
- In the Grammar Stage, the foundation of each discipline is laid. This is a time of gathering facts, being exposed to knowledge, and developing basic skills.
- The second stage is the Dialectic Stage in which the student learns to reason or apply the basic facts he has learned. In this stage logic is introduced. The student concentrates on the cause and effect, or the “why,” of a subject.
- The final stage of the trivium is the Rhetoric Stage in which the student learns to communicate what he knows about the subject at hand in the most convincing way.
As the popularity of classical education has grown among home educators, there is an increasingly wide variety of support materials available. Most of these assist the parent in applying a classical model of education at home. These materials range in scope from a simple outline to a complete syllabus.
There is also wide variety in the methods employed at each stage. For example, some lean toward the “drill and cram” in the grammar stage, while others advocate a more hands-on approach in the early years. Secular classical education studies Homer and Plato from a humanist point of view. In a Christian classical education, some will study these “classical” topics from a Christian worldview, while others will choose to avoid them altogether.
Finally, you will find the age grouping for each stage varies with the source. As a general guideline:
- Grammar Stage — ages 7-11.
- Dialectic Stage — ages 12-15.
- Rhetoric Stage — ages 16-18.
Whether or not you decide to strictly follow the classical method of learning, there are many valuable ideas to borrow.
Teach Them How to Learn
One of the early proponents of returning to a classical education was Dorothy Sayers who wrote an essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She advocated teaching our children how to learn so that they would have the tools of learning at hand, enabling them to teach themselves any subject.
- The Lost Tools of Learning
The complete text of the essay by Dorothy Sayers.
Educating the Whole Person
It is in this sense that a Charlotte Mason approach is considered “classical” in nature by some. Both methods realize that the sum of a person is more than mere academics and that, without the character or wisdom to apply what is learned in a magnanimous way, the person has not been educated.
Education of the whole person is impossible in an institutionalized school setting, but tutors and home educators know that this education is the most fundamental — and really is already happening inside our homes. For more on this topic you might enjoy Out of the Heart.
Classical education is very systematic and very language-focused, requiring students to understand how words work in sentences. In the past, Latin was considered the foundation of the study of grammar. Some would argue that grammar makes no sense without it! In fact, studying Latin grammar may be all of the grammar you need.
Latin is logical and systematic, training the mind. One who knows Latin understands the logic of language. We come across Latin often in our daily lives, but rarely do we realize it. Depending on the source, Latin comprises anywhere from 50% to 70% of our English language. Latin is also used extensively in the arts and sciences. For these reasons and others, it can be a valuable addition to any learning approach.
During the Dialectic Stage, students engaged in a classical education begin a study of logic. Logic augments studies in math and science. Through logic we can also learn how to make well-reasoned arguments and discover fallacies in others’ arguments.
There are many different ways to study logic, from a full-blown logic course to other, more natural ways, but the point of the task remains the same: to encourage our children to think through big ideas, understand them, and measure them against Scripture — bringing every thought into captivity to Christ.
Another element that a Charlotte Mason education and a classical education have in common is narration. Narration also trains the mind by helping a student organize his thoughts, peruse through the subject matter selecting those thoughts that fit, and providing a cogent response. In the early years, narrations are oral; in the later years written. Eventually a classical student is trained in the art of public speaking and debating.
One of the skills that is often overlooked in homeschooling is communication. Our children may have many opportunities to speak to others, whether as part of their career choice or when called to defend their faith. A polished presentation cannot be overestimated when it comes to effective communication skills.
The Well-Trained Mind
This book is a parent’s guide to bringing an “academically rigorous, comprehensive education — a classical education” home. The philosophy behind a classical education, detailed guidelines in curriculum, scheduling helps, and recommended resources are very clearly explained, making a classical education easy to implement. Read our entire review.
Out of the Heart
Why we educate the whole child.
A few Latin resources.
The Classical Difference
New research that touts the advantages of classical education over most other types.
Classical Education Helps
If you are really into learning about the various forms of classical education you may also enjoy:
Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education by David Hicks
Both Charlotte Mason educators and many classical educators recommend this book. Great reminder of why we are doing what we are doing and that education must be founded upon something. It is a heavy read but certainly worth the effort.
Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin by Tracy Lee Simmons
A sort of counter to the modern classical education movement that makes a case for the type of classical training common to the founders of America with a focus on classical languages and reading the classics in those languages.
The Latin-Centered Curriculum: A Home Educator’s Guide to a Classical Education by Andrew Campbell
Campbell tries to lay out a classical curriculum course that would be in keeping with the premises described in Simmon’s book above. Many prefer the first edition which has been linked to here.
Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans
One more way of looking at things. Addressed more to schools than tutoring or home teaching, the authors provide practical ways to provide a Christian liberal arts education. “To succeed in the world today, students need an education that equips them to recognize current trends, to be creative and flexible to respond to changing circumstances, to demonstrate sound judgment to work for society’s good, and to gain the ability to communicate persuasively.”
Classical Education for Christians
Article by Doug Wilson that explains why a Biblical approach to classical education is not only possible, but desirable. “The classically trained Christian student doesn’t have to hide from history. Without worshiping the past, he knows he can—and must—learn from it. In fact, without these studies in history, literature, rhetoric, and theology he will become a slave of the passing popular opinions of our day, incapable of leading others back to the timeless ways of God.”
Why Our Model of Classical Education May Look Different
“…Classical schools and online recommendations while agreeing on the basics of trivium learning differ from each other in the practical application of this classical pattern to learning.” Susan Wise Bauer reminds us that there is more than one way to implement any method in our home!