What is Classical Education?

books-stackMany newcomers are confused by the term “Classical Education,” even though they’ve been convinced that it sure is a good thing! With increasing frequency over the spring, our homeschool conference booth hostesses have been asked, “How are you Classical Ed?” or “What makes your curriculum Classical Education?” This is a great question to ask when you’re researching your choices as a homeschooling newbie. I’d like to take a few minutes to explain about this term, and how it’s being used in the homeschool marketplace today.

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears, just-starting-out homeschooler (in the mid-1980’s) “Classical Education” was–believe it or not–a new buzz word. Homeschool leaders had just rediscovered a highly influential article by Dorothy Sayers, given in 1947 at Oxford University, entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” While Sayers has been critiqued by some as both a Christian and an educator, it is inarguable that this essay sparked a lasting movement among homeschoolers.

Sayers’ essay was most notably promoted among American Christian homeschoolers by Doug Wilson, who published in 1991 the book Recovering the Lost Tools of LearningWilson was working within the Christian school movement, but was supportive of homeschooling. As the Christian Classical Education movement took off in the 1990’s, a number of classical Christian primary and secondary schools were begun, and in 1997, many of these joined forces as the Association of Classical and Christian Schools.

Both these Christian schools and the homeschoolers of those years who tuned into the Christian Classical Education movement sought to combine Medieval teaching methods as proposed by Sayers with discipleship in a biblical worldview. The central concept that unified Christian Classical Education devotees was that there was a “trivium” (meaning “three way; road” in Latin) defining stages of learning for any academic subject, and that these correlated well with the stages of learning through which children developed. Thus:

  • Grammar Stage (roughly grades K-6): The focus is on learning the fundamental rules, terms, and/or facts of a subject
  • Logic (or Dialectic) Stage (roughly grades 6-9): The ordered relationship of fundamentals (or categories and connections between them) in a subject
  • Rhetoric Stage (roughly grades 8-adult): Where the grammar and logic of a subject are understood (analyzed) and recombined (synthesized) to form advancement in knowledge

Intersecting with the Sayers/Wilson axis was another strand of classicists who identified a list of so-called Great Books: “those that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a similar but broader designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler [was the one who is best known for popularizing this Classical content. He] lists three criteria for including a book on the list:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; “This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest.”
  • the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.”

The term “Classical Education” has not gotten less buzzy since my early years, but what has happened over a 30-year span is that different authors (myself included) have interpreted the practical application of the core tenets of Classical Education to emphasize their favorite elements of the overall approach. And here’s where confusion can come in. Let me give you some examples without naming any names (because I don’t want to mischaracterize any of them inadvertently).

  • Some authors emphasize the importance of teaching formal logic during the logic (or dialectic) stage.
  • Some make skilled public speaking (rhetoric) the end game of their program.
  • Some programs center attention on the commonly agreed upon content of a liberal arts education: the Great Books of Western Civilization, promoting the reading, studying, and continuing tradition of the liberal arts.
  • Some center on the fact that young children memorize well, and have created a rigorous program for rote memorization

These differences of emphasis and application can lead to confusion for newcomers to the Classical Education scene. It’s not unlike the bewilderment that a young Christian convert feels when he or she first encounters some of the stickier theological issues that divide us. One can wonder: aren’t Protestants and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers all claiming to follow Christ? Which is right, and why?

As I wrote in my book Love the Journey, I believe that the key to finding your way through the confusing underbrush of varying interpretations of Classical Education is to first identify for yourself what your key values and goals for homeschooling are.

Then, you should do some background reading to see if 1) you agree with the central tenets of the Classical Education goals and methods and 2) whose interpretation you most readily agree with for your own purposes. The beauty–and terror–of homeschooling is that you choose your own path!

I’ll end this post with a short summary of how we approach Christian Classical Education in Tapestry of Grace, since I can speak accurately of our program! We believe that the Bible is inerrantly true, and is the guide for life and godliness. We also believe that the Great Books provide a lens through which we can understand the development of Western Civilization: not only its thoughts, but its heart attitudes down through the ages, as we listen in–as it were–on the Great Conversation of the ages. After listening and thinking about others’ thoughts, students learn to express their own beliefs through both spoken and written words.

We seek to enable parents to use the three stages of learning that Sayers identified this these particular ways:

  • Grammar Years: Through great, carefully chosen, whole books–either read aloud or independently depending on age–introduce the stories of HIStory and grow familiar with key people, events, and dates in their story context.
  • Dialectic Years: Through a combination of independent reading and guided discussion of history and literature, help students to form categories for (and populate these with) the information introduced in younger years, such that students make connections between those categories, and begin to use the tools of formal logic in order to internalize (own) a Christian worldview as they relate the true stories of history and fictional ones of literature to biblical theology.
  • Rhetoric Years: Using the Great Books of Western Civilization and other resources as independent reading, and with an emphasis on Bible survey and Church History, we enable parents to mentor students, through guided discussions, to think together about the story of mankind and God’s sovereignty over, and intervention in, that story.

The end game for the Tapestry of Grace program is to help parents to develop thinking, Christian disciples and apologists who thoroughly understand not only their own worldview, but those of others that they may encounter as they go out into the world to fulfill the Great Commission.

If you want even more details–including our statement of faith and purpose for Tapestry of Grace–click here.

2 thoughts on “What is Classical Education?

  1. Pingback: Love the Journey » Myth Busters Series: Accurate Information Straight From Lampstand Press

  2. Eliza Cranston

    Thank you for this great information on classical education! I’m thinking of homeschooling my daughter and had heard the term, but I wasn’t sure what it entailed. I like the focus on reading “Great Books” and I agree with this criteria, but I’m wondering if there is any effort to read great works from other cultural traditions. Does classical education include Asian and African literature and philosophy?


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