What is Classical Education?
Classical education depends primarily on a three-part process of training the mind:
- Primary Level students (1st -2nd -3rd -4th) absorb facts like sponges. They love “rhythmic” learning (chants and songs; nursery-rhyme style learning). These accumulated facts lay a systematic foundation for more advanced learning. This is what chanting the alphabet and numbers, counting by twos and fives and tens, singing a song about the states and capitals, etc. does for the student. It plants information in a usable form in their minds. Later, they can recall this information and begin to apply it to more studies.
- Middle School students (5th -6th -7th -8th) learn to think through a problem. First they are taught by a teacher, and then they practice the newly taught information on all their various subjects, applying the earlier learned facts, and the more recently practiced processes.
- High School students (9th -10th-11th-12th) now begin expressing themselves concerning subject matter and assignments. This is when they also begin delving deeper into specific areas that interest them personally (elective and independent study).
In the field of classical education, primary levels of learning are often called the “grammar stage.” Some may remember that those early years of school were called Grammar School. At this level the building blocks of learning are first laid, just as grammar is the building block of all language. During these first years of schooling, the brain is ready to absorb information, children at these ages are always memorizing things, and especially if they are put to music or have a distinct rhythm. Classical education, at this stage, does not involve self-expression or self-discovery, but, instead, is all about the learning of facts and rules.
By 5th grade, a child’s mind is becoming more thoughtful. It is ready to begin analyzing (thinking – reasoning). Middle school students are more likely to ask “why,” than to ask to memorize more things. This is the beginning of the “Logic” Stage. It is a time when children start paying attention to their surroundings, to the cause and effect of things. It is when little light bulbs begin flashing in their minds. They get excited about doing research, about manipulating things and making stuff work. This is the time when they are more willing to make an effort and spend some time on figuring something out, rather than simply asking for an answer. Now they begin to see connections in different fields of study, they start to understand how certain things fit together and others do not. Sequencing makes sense, it is “logical.” A student is ready for this “Logic” stage when they begin to think abstractly (to day dream). Now they can be introduced to subject matter that is not easily memorized, but requires thinking through and problem solving.
At this stage, things get a little more difficult.
- The “logic” of writing moves the student from simple sentence structure, to paragraph development, and more. They now must state their ideas, but also “support” those ideas with details.
- The “logic” of reading involves much more than simple “decoding” the letters and words on the page, and it is more than absorbing the storyline. Now they must seek the nuances, the meaning, grasp the plot, understand the importance of each character and how the author developed them.
- The “logic” of history demands a student search for why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than just reading the story-line.
- The “logic” of science requires a student learn, and practice, the scientific method.
The final phase of a classical education is the “Rhetoric” Stage (High School). In the first two years of this stage, a student learns to write and speak with force and originality. This is when the student applies all those rules learned in the middle years to the foundational information learned in the primary years, and now expresses their own conclusions in clear, forceful (compelling, elegant language. At this stage, students also begin to “specialize” in whatever branch of learning attracts them: science, history, literature, art, music, languages, early college courses, apprenticeships, internships, etc.)
However, there is more to this than meets the eye – more than simple patterns of learning. Classical education is language-focused; learning is accomplished through words – written and spoken – rather than through images (pictures, videos, television, and games).
Language-learning and Image-learning require different habits of thought. The mind works harder for language-learning; when reading the brain must translate the symbols (letters) into a concept (picture). Images on a screen, however, allow the mind to be passive, to skip the decoding step and let someone else to do that part.
A classical education, then, has two important aspects which separate it from modern educational practices:
- It is language-focused
- It follows a specific three-part pattern
- Primary: the mind is supplied with facts and images
- Middle: the mind is given (taught) logical tools for organizing facts
- High: the mind is equipped (through strenuous practice) to express its own logical conclusions in a persuasive manner
To the classical student, all knowledge is interrelated, it’s connected. For example:
- Astronomy is studied along with the history of scientific discovery, which leads into the church’s relationship to science and from there to the confusion of medieval church history.
- Reading The Odessey takes a student into Greek History, the nature of heroism, the development of an “epic” in literature, and man’s understanding of “religion” (philosophy).
The world is full of information, and finding the links between fields of study can be mind-twisting. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its outline – beginning with ancient history, progressing to modern – through reading and discussion the history, science, literature, civilization, and culture of each age.
Remember, in the classical form, the focus is on teaching the student “how to”: how to read, how to solve math problems, how to think through to a solution, etc. It is all about making connections – connections from yesterday to today to tomorrow. It’s about realizing that all subject matter connects through history, since there is a past, present, and future to everything under the sun.
Classical learning is, above all, systematic, in direct contrast to the scattered, disorganized nature of modern public education. It is also rigorous, which develops virtue (moral excellence and character). Aristotle defined virtue “as the ability to act in accordance to what one knows to be right.” The classical form constantly asks the student to push himself, to work against his natural inclinations (laziness, distractions, wishful thinking, etc.), to reach the ultimate goal: mastery.
The Classical Pattern of Study
Twelve years of education = Grades / Levels 1st – 12th
Three reputations of the 4-Year pattern: Mankind’s History is the outline for all areas of study.
|Mankind’s history is the “outline” for all areas of study.|
- Ancient History
- Middle Ages (Dark ages; Medieval) History
- Renaissance & Reformation History
- Modern History
All students study these four time-periods, but at varying levels of challenge.
Simple & Basic – Grades / Levels 1-4
Moderately Challenging, with some depth – Grades / Level 5-8
Quite Challenging & Thought-Provoking – Grades / Levels 9-12
The other subjects are linked to the time-period being studied.
Literature & Composition:
Ancient History Greek & Roman Mythology – Early Medieval Writings
Plato – Herodotus – Virgil – Aristotle
Medieval & Early Renaissance Beowulf – Dante – Chaucer – Shakespeare
Renaissance & Reformation Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) to Dickens….
Modern Updike – Roth – Hemingway – Whitman – Asimov – Bradbury….
Science is also a four year pattern which roughly corresponds to the periods of scientific discovery.
Ancient Biology (the study of life) – Classification (order) – Human body
Medieval & Early Renaissance Earth Science
Renaissance & Reformation Basic Astronomy
Early Modern to Today Chemistry – Current Basic Physics – Computer Science
These patterns lend coherence to the story of history, science, and literature, all the way through to more modern subjects of today, as opposed to the fragmented, and often confusing, plan of study in public schools today. Today education seems to be primarily about “covering” specific subjects, testing on the work covered, and then switching to another subject. “Where are the connections,” you might ask? How does today’s public school primary school work get a student prepped for middle school work, and how do they both set a student up for learning success in high school? There is little or no connection from one level to the next, no familiar work to build on, often not even a sense of order to why one studies this area of a subject over another. Let me give you a brief example of how a classical school accomplishes that task:
- 1st graders listen as the teacher reads the story of The Iliad from a picture book.
- 5th Graders read a middle-school adaptation of The Iliad.
- 9th Graders then read The Iliad , in its traditional high school edition and are able to plunge in, and understand the depth of nuance, undaunted.
- The “logic” of classical learning: one thing leads to the next, each level is connected; the student deepens their knowledge and their understanding, by working with the same basic materials.