I wanted to educate my children using the classical method. I thought
this would be very hard and time-consuming. This turned out not to be
the case. Let me share my journey with you.
12 Rigorous Years?
When I began my journey toward an authentic, classical, Christian home
education, I initially welcomed the strict boundaries about which I had
heard so much. “Classical education has three stages of four years each:
four years apiece for the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages”—so I had
been told. Since I had not been classically educated, I needed someone
to tell me what to do and how to do it, and trusted what I heard.
The twelve-year structure helped me get my mind around the whole
process, but I have to admit that I struggled with the layers and layers
of rigorous academic requirements. There was so much to do!
In my zeal to craft well-trained minds, I dutifully piled on the work.
Subjects like grammar, literature, handwriting, Bible, history, math,
science, Latin, logic, art, and composers crowded out the pleasures of
childhood as my kids completed task after task. With a sense of
accomplishment, I closed out year one of the Grammar stage, only to
begin feverishly preparing for Grammar stage, year two. I purchased
oodles of curriculum that never seemed to meet our needs, and
relentlessly squeezed more and more into each jam-packed day.
Time marched on as we ticked off the early years and approached the
Logic stage with a distant glimpse of the Rhetoric stage. How would we
ever get it all done? My kids slaved away daily, and I even created
weekly schedules that were segregated by subject down to the hour. Talk
Being obedient little troopers, my children never complained about the
heavy load. But inwardly I grieved over the daily burden that I had
placed on these innocent little shoulders. What in the world was I
Although I had good intentions when I began homeschooling, all I had
really done was to change my children’s environment and to tack on more
subjects, such as Latin, logic, and classic literature. My “classical”
homeschool looked like public school on steroids.
This wasn’t satisfying, so I decided to research the history of
education in hopes of discovering the distinguishing features of a real
What I discovered was not a simple fix; it was a complete paradigm
shift that was both shocking and exhilarating. An authentic classical
Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world
and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists,
involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could
then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of
influencing society. Three chronological stages were never part of the
Focusing on Ideas
Born in ancient Greece, classical education flourished for nearly a
thousand years in the West until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the
fifth century A.D. In this “original” classical education, learning was
seen as the path to a higher nature through the exploration of abstract
concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty. The expectation was that
such examination would lead to noble character and gracious behavior.
The Greek word for instruction or discipline, paideia (“pie-DAY-uh”),
refers to the process of forming an enlightened, mature mind. The
paideia of a Greek child began with reading and writing; however, the
spoken word took precedence over the written word. Literature was
written to be read aloud. Entire passages of The Iliad and The Odyssey,
epic poems by Homer, were committed to memory for later recital.
Classic literature was selected for study (usually Homer, Euripides,
Menander, or Demosthenes), and the student copied the text in Attic
Greek. Next, the text was read aloud, with particular attention to
effective delivery of meaning and meter. Then the text was translated
from Attic Greek to Koine Greek (the spoken language), and certain
passages were committed to memory. Finally, the moral of the passage was
evaluated. Once the classic was thoroughly read and understood, three
written paraphrases were composed: strict, freer, and original.
Aspiring young leaders studied rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, or law.
Every leader was expected to publicly discuss any subject with skill, so
training in rhetoric was rigorous. Once the extensive rules of rhetoric
were mastered, young men analyzed model passages of famous orators and
practiced writing their own versions. Eventually, they were equipped to
write their own stylish speeches.
The philosopher Socrates, whose teaching methods were unveiled in the
pages of Plato’s writings, was the most famous educator of ancient
Greece. He employed a form of inquiry known as “Socratic dialogue.” In
its purest form, Socratic dialogue is a series of leading questions
posed by the teacher or tutor that assist the student in self-discovery
Mastering the Skills
Adopting the Greek idea of paideia, the Romans created a system of study
known as the “seven liberal arts.” These were divided into two phases:
the trivium (which literally means “an intersection of three roads”) and
the quadrivium (“an intersection of four roads”). Young patricians
pursued the first level of learning: the trivium. This included
simultaneous acquisition of three skills: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Once these three skills were substantially mastered, students studied
arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music theory, which together
comprised the more difficult and mathematically-oriented quadrivium.
Roman students followed Greek methods for learning how to read, write,
and deliver orations. In addition to translating the Greek classics,
Roman children memorized the Latin writings of Virgil, Terence, Cicero,
and Horace. The speeches of Cicero, Livy, Cato, and the Gracchi were
studied and imitated. Buildings were not set aside for education;
rather, a few pupils gathered around a learned man in the courtyard.
During Jesus’ life, the Roman Empire occupied Palestine. The influence
of the Greco-Roman concept of education was so pervasive that some
rabbis worried that their Jewish heritage would be obliterated. Their
concerns were misplaced, however, as the skills of the classical trivium
were adopted by Jews to translate, study, memorize, and recite their
classic text, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
Interestingly, anyone familiar with the classical trivium will recognize
a fellow rhetorician in the Apostle Paul, as his letters are full of
classical rhetorical devices. Christian leaders in the late Roman
Empire, particularly clergy, were regularly trained in the classical
Adding Christian Content
Appalled by the fact that only ecclesiastics could read, during the 9th
century A.D. Emperor Charlemagne established the “Palace School” in
Western Europe for himself, his family, and young noblemen. The skills
of the trivium and quadrivium were both taught. Believing that ancient
classical education could not serve its true purpose unless integrated
with Christian teaching and writing, Charlemagne also required study of
the Old and New Testaments, the writings of the early Church fathers,
liturgical books, biographies of the saints, and canon law along with
the ancient Greek and Roman texts. Thus, the mind was enlightened by
studying great writers and their books, not discrete subjects.
Like the Greeks, Romans, and Jews before them, these students translated
source documents from the original language to their vernacular
language. Young men of this period learned Greek and Latin for the
purpose of reading the original texts. A Koine Greek translation of the
Old Testament, created in Alexandria during the third to first centuries
B.C., allowed Palace School scholars to bypass Hebrew if they wanted,
since they could read the entire Scriptures in Greek.
Some monastic orders emulated the Palace School and opened monastic
schools throughout the realm. These schools enabled many members of the
peasant class to become literate. Thus, Charlemagne ignited the spread
of classical Christian education beyond the palace, though his goal was
only to perfect leaders through the study of Greek, Roman, and Christian
thinkers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Preparing for Leadership
In the 1600s, Massachusetts Puritans were the first to establish public
and private schools to educate the general population in Christian
ethics and prepare young men for leadership positions in church and
state. Puritan sons pursued a rigorous classical education. Ancient
Greek and Latin classics were read in the original language; extensive
knowledge of western history and literature was acquired. Additionally,
advanced arithmetic and specialized occupational training in surveying
and navigation were taught. Key writings of the Protestant Reformation
augmented the curriculum. Similar elite schools opened in New York and
Schools in the Southern colonies were rare due to the rural dispersion
of population, so young men of social status were initially home
educated, then privately tutored in ancient languages and classic
The Switch to Training for
As the immigrant population increased to 2.5 million during the
mid-1800s, a group of educational reformers advocated for tuition-free
“common schools” and compulsory attendance for all American children. In
1852 the first compulsory school law was passed. Although there were
pockets of resistance nationwide, such opposition was generally
localized, and by 1918, every state in the union had ratified compulsory
During the early stages of American public education, a philosophical
debate arose as to whether secondary education should prepare the
student for college or for a vocation. In 1892, the National Council of
Education recommended 12 years of total study (six years elementary,
three years junior, and three years senior) in four curricula tracks,
two of which were for college-bound students. All four tracks resembled
a classical Christian education in that western literature, composition,
and the histories of Greece, Rome, England, France, and America were
Were it not for the lack of qualified teachers and the persuasive
educational bureaucrats who argued against the classical model, a
secularized version of a classical education might still exist in the
American public school system. However, in 1918 the U.S. Department of
the Interior rewrote the principles of public education and effectively
replaced the classical model with pragmatic aptitude training, with a
focus on preparing students for eventual employment.
A New Way of Thinking
Once the reality of what I was learning began to percolate in my mind
and heart, I was delighted with my new discovery. Classical education,
as originally interpreted, was exactly what my husband and I wanted for
our children. My home became an educational laboratory as I began to try
out various ways to teach the three skills of the classical trivium.
Creative, efficient learning now happened year-round in our home. My
preteens were soon ready to move beyond the trivium to exploring ideas
within the confines of their unique interests and our family’s preferred
themes. Now we have a vision for raising thinkers who will truly
influence their culture, just as their Western ancestors did so long
Adopting the original interpretation of classical education is much
easier than you may think. If you have been operating under the
three-stage model for any length of time, the freedom of a real
classical Christian education is liberating. Released from the imposed
structure, you can relax and enjoy your children as you teach three
simple skills: language, thought, and speech.
If you recall, the ancient definition of the classical trivium is the
intersection of three roads. Each of the three skills represents a road.
Each of the roads culminates in a point which I call “substantial
mastery.” Over the years, you teach your child each of the three skills,
performing periodic evaluations to assess mastery. This process will
take years, but depending on when you start and how your child
progresses, you will eventually reach the intersection of substantial
The potential for creative learning is only limited by your imagination
and inspiration. No longer bound to certain methods, curriculum, or
artificial structure, you are free to teach the three skills of
language, critical thinking, and communication in ways that uniquely
meet the needs of your family.
Upon mastery of the three skills, your role as parent shifts from that
of teacher to guide. The teen who has substantially mastered the three
skills of the trivium has all the necessary tools to study any
discipline in depth.
Authentic classical education has always been primarily interested in
meaning, so your first task is to give your children the tools for
learning, and your second task is to supervise the discussion and
interpretation of ideas during the post-trivium years.
In future columns, I’ll show you how to teach the three skills of the
trivium as well as how to establish criteria for examining and
evaluating ideas during the high-school years.
Diane Lockman, author of Trivium Mastery, practiced nine years as a CPA
before cheerfully coming home to be with Meredith and Connor until they
were old enough for school. When Meredith was in first grade, Diane
heard about homeschooling. She looked into it and a few weeks later,
persuaded David to let her pull the kids out of school. Diane is the
founder of The Classical Scholar (classicalscholar.com), a site for
teaching other homeschool parents how to teach in the classical style.
When she’s not reading, writing, managing the kids’ education, or
teaching live classes, Diane enjoys sewing period costumes.