The History of Classical Education
Classical education is nothing new. It is a return to the proven educational philosophy and method widely used for centuries. Although it was not distinctly developed until the Middle Ages, it has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman civilization. By the 16th century it was used throughout the Western world. This system educated the world's great thinkers for nearly two thousand years, including America's founding fathers as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Martin Luther.
The Switch to Progressive Education
In the late 19th century proponents of a new educational theory began to promote their philosophy. The most famous of these was a philosopher and psychologist named John Dewey. He is known as the Father of Progressive Education. Dewey believed his educational reforms would transform society. He promoted changing to a child-centered model in which the needs and desires of the child strongly influence the educational focus. Emphasis was placed on creativity, self-expression, informality in the classroom, and a cooperative group learning process. The roots of progressive theory took hold and have continued on into the 21st century.
The Roots of the Return to Classical Education
Dorothy Sayers, an Oxford-educated British author born in 1893, was concerned about the decline she witnessed in education. In 1947 she presented an essay at Oxford titled The Lost Tools of Learning.
Is not the great defect of our education today…that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils "subjects," we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning
In her essay Sayers defended the effectiveness of the trivium, the educational methodology that was standard before the advent of modern "progressive" education. In 1981 Douglas Wilson and others desirous of a high quality education for their children founded Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, modeled after the trivium Dorothy Sayers described in her essay. Wilson published Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning in 1991, and interest in classical Christian education was revived. There are now hundreds of classical Christian schools all across the country, and their popularity and numbers are growing. Secular private and public magnet schools have also seen the success of the model and have joined in the revival of this methodology.
The Philosophy of Classical Education
Classical education involves the three-part process of training the mind called the trivium which corresponds to the child's developmental stages.
- Grammar stage: In this stage the building blocks of knowledge and facts are absorbed. Memorization, chants, and jingles are key tools for learning. The early years of elementary school are spent in this stage.
- Logic stage: Students learn to reason and relate facts to one another. In the middle school grades the student enters this stage of "higher-order" critical thinking.
- Rhetoric stage: Students use foundational knowledge and logical understanding learned in the previous two stages to effectively and eloquently express knowledge and ideas in verbal and written form, as well as to engage in creative problem-solving. The art of persuasive expression is learned during the high school years.
In summary, classical education is a time-proven developmental method of teaching children mastery of all subjects that begins with the fundamentals, builds to integration of knowledge, and culminates in eloquent and creative expression.
Raising the Bar—the Classical Christian Education Difference
Put into practice, the classical Christian educational philosophy informs not only the content of the curriculum; but also when content is taught, and how it is taught. Characteristics include direct instruction in an orderly classroom. Students are expected to work hard, but that does not mean they do not have fun! Learning is a joyful endeavor.
Classical education focuses on language (spoken and written words rather than images). This trains the mind to work harder as it translates symbols into concepts.
An important part of classical education is exposing children to objective beauty and works of excellence: real literature, quality music, and great works of art. Students read classical Western literature at all ages. History is taught using original source materials. For instance, when studying early American history, the writings of Jefferson and the founding documents are actually read. This is much more informative and interesting than just reading a history textbook!
Students in classical schools study Latin—and for good reason! Latin is not a dead language—it is historical. It lives on in almost every Western language, including English. Latin study trains young minds to think in a logical, orderly fashion, and provides increased competence in English.
Classical education teaches children how to think using reason and logic. And logic is not just an educational goal—it is a subject that is taught. Socratic questioning and discussion is used to guide the student into deeper understanding.
Even though classical education is an ancient way of learning, it is not old-fashioned. Up-to-date subject matter based in science and technology is taught—using classical methods.
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get your any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity