Classical education, which is enjoying a huge revival, is a method of teaching academic subjects in school classrooms. It is experiencing a revival since it was greatly abandoned throughout the 20th century for more “modern” teaching methods. Because of this, many people are unfamiliar with its principles and effectiveness. Much scholarly material has been written describing the classical method, and for serious inquiry, those sources should be consulted. However, there is a simple beauty to the classical method that applies far beyond academics, and in fact, its effectiveness in the classroom may be better appreciated by considering it in non-academic contexts.
At the heart of classical education is a three-part method called the trivium. The three parts are (1) grammar, (2) logic, and (3) rhetoric. These terms have their narrow meanings in regard to language, but also broader meanings which apply to all other subjects and disciplines. These three terms can be thought of as (1) fundamentals, (2) connections, and (3) creative expression. There is a progression to these three steps of learning. One cannot be expected to express a high level of creativity without mastering the connections of a subject, and likewise, one cannot be expected to understand the connections without mastering the fundamentals. To build a sound structure one must begin with a firm foundation. One can certainly perform at some given level without mastery of fundamentals or connections, but true excellence is predicated on it.
Anything that can be learned, academic or non-academic, (language, math, science, history, geography, music, dance, sports, driving, welding, heavy equipment operation, business, cooking, sewing, fishing,…) can be learned best classically; that is, learning and practicing the fundamentals, understanding and applying the connections, and creatively and eloquently expressing your knowledge and actions. Two non-academic activities that illustrate the value of the classical approach are baseball and cooking.
So how do you learn to play ball? Get on a team, go to a couple practices, and play the game, right? Well, you can have fun, maybe even get some runs, but you’ll never make the varsity squad that way, not to mention the major leagues, prodigies excepted. What is the classical way to give yourself the best shot at excelling at baseball? Start with the grammar of baseball, the fundamentals, the basic tools: catch, throw, hit, hit for power, run. These basic tools must be exercised individually and repeatedly to have them ingrained - to become proficient at them. They must become second nature, performed without thought. This requires repetition and drill. That can be hard work, but it pays off. You must also know the glossary of baseball terms and the equipment used so you can effectively communicate with others about the game.
Next is the logic - the connections of the game, the strategy, the knowledge about how to apply fundamental skills and information in any given situation. If you do X, then you can expect Y. If there is a man on first with no outs and you lay down a good bunt, you can expect to advance him into scoring position. These connections also need to be ingrained and reflexive. Once again, this requires review and repetition, but also reflection, analysis, and critical thinking.
Now having mastered the fundamentals and connections you confidently take the field. Knowing the other team expects a bunt, you get the right pitch and lay a line drive to the right field corner and, instead of moving the runner to second, you score a run and put your team ahead. That’s the rhetoric, the creative expression of baseball, being able to excel in a unique way.
How can you excel in a unique way in cooking? Can the classical approach be of any use there? What is the grammar (fundamentals) of cooking? Surely you need to know about measurements and proportions, cookware, ranges, ovens, cuts of meat, different forms of pasta, types of knives, herbs and spices, preservation techniques, cooking methods, etc.
The logic, the connections? There are cooking styles, the effects of different combinations of herbs and spices, cooking methods, combinations of beverages and foods, preparation and order of courses, the effects of presentation, to name a few.
And the rhetoric, the creative expression of cooking? It can be anything from the confidence of getting it all done together on time, to a new recipe, development of a unique flavor, or preparing a gourmet meal for the satisfaction and enjoyment of your guests.
Not interested in being a baseball star or a gourmet chef? The point is that regardless of the endeavor you choose, the classical approach, grammar - logic - rhetoric, provides a framework, a progression toward your goal, a path to excellence. That is one of the great values of it as an educational method. Students learn how to learn. The skills learned, the strategies acquired, the confidence gained, the character developed from a classical education gives students a path to excellence in whatever field or walk of life they wish to pursue.