What Is Classical Education?

The phrase “classical education” is thrown around a lot today. However, many people do not know what this phrase actually means. For that reason, I generally avoid using it. That being said, I think classical education is the best model of education.

So what is it? There are two main distinctives of the classical model: (1) the use of the trivium; and (2) a focus on the heritage of Western civilization. I would include the study of Latin and/or Greek under this latter category, but for ease I will discuss this under a separate heading. Let’s look at each of these aspects of classical education.

(1) The Trivium

This was the method of education used in medieval universities. Trivium means “three roads” in Latin, as the method consists of three stages—(1) grammar, (2) logic, and (3) rhetoric. The grammar stage covers the basics of each subject. The logic stage (also called dialectic) sorts out of the data of each subject. And the rhetoric stage focuses on the presentation of what has been learned (speech, debate, writing). 

The trivium is the best method of education because it considers how children grow intellectually. In other words, it goes “with the grain” of human development. Young children are best suited to memorize lots of information and learn the basic facts of math, history, etc. (grammar). As they grow to middle school age, around 12 or 13, children develop the ability to reason (logic). This is a good time to teach them the formal study of logic, as well provide opportunities to debate issues with other students. Finally, high school students are in a position to polish their communication skills (rhetoric).

The trivium just makes sense. When you think about it, everyone learns skills this way (even as adults). For example, think about teaching someone the sport of basketball. You would first teach the basic skills—dribbling, shooting, passing, etc. Then you would move on to general team strategy, and eventually you would help them polish off their skills in competition. But even if someone is a professional basketball player, they still have to practice and improve their basic skills.

The trivium is a great way to think about teaching or learning any new subject or skill. We would be wise to apply this method to our own lives, including when we teach children. 

(2) The Heritage of Western Civilization

Classical education also focuses on the heritage of Western civilization. As Americans, we have a rich history behind us. Western civilization began in the ancient Near East with Israel, transitioning to ancient Greece and Rome, and culminating in European Christendom (from Constantine to modern Europe). Europeans then carried the Western Christian tradition with them when they came to America.

Leftists today want to ignore our Western heritage, but this is a foolish endeavor. Western civilization, and particularly Christianity, is what made Europe and America great. The rejection of Western history is leading to the decline of the West spiritually, morally, culturally, and even economically. That government schools and universities neglect such Western heritage should be a red flag to all of us. They not only avoid teaching our Western history, but they also substitute concepts that undermine it (Darwinism, egalitarianism, feminism, statism, etc.).

Classical education should implement Western studies in the entire curriculum. History and literature should cover the ancient, medieval, and modern periods. This means the literature courses should read Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Luther, Calvin, and others. And of course, one cannot understand Western history without a deep knowledge of the Bible.

History courses should place a heavy emphasis on church history. However, it is unnecessary to require a separate church history course. If one is studying Western civilization in depth, church history should be sufficiently covered. Ancient history courses should include the history of Israel. Medieval history courses should cover the early church up to the Protestant Reformation. (Medieval history basically is church history, which explains why secular government schools almost avoid the medieval period altogether.) Modern history courses should cover from the Reformation up through the modern day.

(3) Greek and Latin

Another aspect of Western civilization is the study of Western languages, the two most important being Latin and Greek. It must be said that students can also benefit from studying modern languages, such as Spanish or German. These are still spoken, and they are still Western languages. Learning any foreign language promotes mental discipline and develops one’s understanding of English.

However, there are significant advantages to studying the classical languages. Though neither ancient Greek nor Latin is spoken today, they are the historic languages of ancient and medieval literature. Thus a student of Greek can read the Septuagint, the New Testament, Homer, and Plato. And a student of Latin can read Cicero, Augustine, Calvin, and the majority of scholastic writing. The dominance of these languages explains why the majority of English vocabulary comes from Greek and Latin.

Latin is the more popular of the two in the classical movement for several reasons—(1) English uses the Latin alphabet; (2) Latin is even more prevalent in English vocab than Greek; (3) Latin is the basis for modern Romance languages, making it easier to learn Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. 

Response to Criticism

Occasionally, one will come across criticism of classical education, particularly from conservative Christians wanting to reject pagan philosophy and its stain on the church. This is a valid point. However, this does not prove that one should abandon the classical model. For one, the trivium is a method of education and has nothing to do with pagan philosophy. Second, Latin and Greek are languages used by the church and are therefore useful for the Christian. And third, one can provide classical education from a Christian perspective. I would never advocate divorcing the two. Though there are non-Christians who implement classical education, I am advocating classical Christian education.

Yes, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy have had undue influence on the church. But isn’t this all the more reason to study Greek philosophy? One cannot understand our history, including our errors, without at least a basic understanding of Plato and Aristotle. We should study ancient Greece and Rome from a biblical worldview, seeking to understand their virtues and their flaws. And of course, we should spend even more time studying Christian culture and history. I therefore conclude that there is no good reason to reject the classical model.

We should be appreciative of the classical movement today, and we should seek to implement the classical method and its emphases at every level of education. Our children will be thankful we did.