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What Is Classical Education?

By Martin Cothran
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #62, 2005.

Martin Cothran explains the essentials of this old (but newly popular) homeschool method.
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Martin Cothran

A lot of people still think classical education is just too hard. Is that true? Yes, classical education does involve a lot of hard work and time, but that shouldn't hide the fact that what classical education is and how it works is not complicated, but quite simple.

Let's begin with an analogy. If you were to plan a trip, say you would need two things: a destination and a roadmap. Likewise, to educate a child, you need two things: a vision and a plan. The vision, like the destination, tells you where you are going; the plan, like the roadmap, tells you how to get there. The classical vision itself is simple, and so is the method of achieving that vision.

Any educational approach should be judged by how it defines education itself. According to the classical view, education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue (and, we might add, taste) through meditation on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. That is the vision of classical education. We can quibble about how difficult that is to achieve, but the vision itself is simple enough to put into one sentence.

If wisdom and virtue are our destination, then what does the roadmap of education look like according to the classical view? How do we achieve this lofty sounding goal?

Our roadmap to wisdom and virtue is also fairly simple. The curriculum of a classical education program is made up of two basic parts, the first involving skills and the second involving content.

The First Part of Classical Education: Skills

According to classical education, there are certain intellectual skills that should form a fundamental part of any education program. Traditionally, these skills have been called the Liberal Arts.

In medieval times, there were considered to be seven fundamental intellectual skills: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. These seven "arts" were essential intellectual skills that every learned person was expected to know as a matter of course.

There is an important distinction among these seven arts or skills. The first three (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) were called the "trivium," and had to do with the qualitative disciplines of language. The second four (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were called the "quadrivium," which had to do with the quantitative disciplines of mathematics. In other words, the skill emphasis in classical education is on language and math.

Today, classical education is identified most noticeably with the trivium. The trivium is stressed because there is already a marked emphasis in modern curriculums on mathematics - the kinds of skills emphasized in the quadrivium. But in the realm of language, the modern curriculum is not nearly so sure-footed.

While we now understand that the early years of language instruction should be spent on learning how to read, what do we do after that? In fact, the major problem in language arts instruction today can be summed up this way: most educators don't know what to do after phonics.

Latin: The Next Step after Phonics

In the old classical curriculum that predominated in this country until about the 1920's (and still characterizes the best European schools), there was no confusion about what to do after phonics. When a child learned to read (somewhere between the second and fourth grades) they were expected to begin a study of grammar - the first of the seven Liberal Arts. But they didn't study grammar in English; they learned grammar through a study of another language. The language used most widely for this purpose was Latin.

Latin was used to study grammar for several reasons. First, because Latin nouns change their form depending on how they are used in a sentence, the student is required to know the ins and outs of grammar in a way not required in most modern languages such as Spanish, French, Italian - and English.

The second reason for using Latin for grammar instruction is that it is highly regular. While most other languages have rules governing them, the rules are often broken. In Latin, the rules almost always apply. This allows the student to see the structure of language in its clearest and most simple form.

Students are typically ready to begin their Latin grammar study in about the third grade.

Families starting Latin study this early will reap the most benefits from Latin, since the heavy emphasis on grammar will allow them to avoid having to use an English grammar program.

There are two important decisions parents deciding to teach Latin will need to make. The first question a parent must ask is: "Does the program teach Latin through grammar or through immersion?" Most modern language programs teach language inductively, through an immersion approach. The reason for this is that the point of most modern language programs is to teach the student to speak the language conversationally. The point of learning Latin, however, is not to converse in it. The point of learning Latin, in fact, is not necessarily to understand Latin, but to understand other languages - including our own - through it.

The second question that should be asked is, "Does the program stress classical or Christian Latin?" This question has to do with both the content of the Latin that will be studied and how the language is pronounced. More is made of Latin pronunciation than is really necessary, since it is not really a spoken language anymore. But one of the things that should be considered is that Christian Latin pronunciation (the way it was pronounced in the Middle Ages) is simpler and more natural sounding that the Roman or classical pronunciation.

For beginning Latin study, a good mix of Christian Latin and Roman history content is probably a good idea. Later on, when the student is ready to translate, a decision will need to be made about which authors to emphasize - classical authors such as Caesar, Cicero and Virgil, or easier Christian works. In a Christian Latin approach works such as the Vulgate Bible and St. Thomas' writings would be read before they more difficult Roman authors.

  Grades K-2 Grades 3-5 Grades 6-8 Grades 9-10 Grades 11-12
Language Skills Reading Penmanship Introductory Latin Grammar
Intermediate Latin Grammar
Traditional Logic
Advanced Latin Grammar
Translation of Vulgate (Latin)
Translation of St. Thomas (Latin)
Traditional Logic/Material Logic
Greek Grammar
Translation of Caesar (Latin)
Translation of Virgil (Latin)
Translation of Xenophon (Greek)
Inductive Logic/Fallacies
Classical Rhetoric
Math Skills Arithmetic Mathematics Higher Mathematics Algebra
Geometry & Trigonometry
Classical Studies   Famous Romans
Greek Mythology
The Trojan War
The Golden Age of Rome
European geography
Homer's Iliad & Odyssey
Ovid's Metamorphoses
Livy's Roman histories
Plutarch's Lives
Caesar's Gallic Wars
Virgil's Aeneid
Xenophon's Anabasis
Thucydides' Peloponnesian War
Greek plays
Christian Studies Bible Stories Bible Stories Bible Stories Translation of Latin Vulgate (Latin) Translation of New Testament (Greek)
American Studies American symbols & traditions Basic historical facts & American geography American history
Declaration of Independence & U. S. Constitution
Famous Documents
Lives of famous Americans
Live of famous Americans
Classical roots of American culture
English Studies Classic children's literature Classic children's literature Classic children's literature Early English literature Modern literature
Science Nature stories Nature stories
Botany & Zoology Biology & Chemistry Physics

Logic: The Original Thinking Skill

Communication skills would be incomplete if they only incorporated an understanding of how language was structured. Logic was the natural follow-on to Latin because, while Latin studies the structure of language, logic studies the structure of thought. Since language involves words, and words represent ideas, the only way to fully understand communication is to study how ideas are represented in words. This is the role of logic.

Logic instruction can begin as early as the seventh grade, since students are beginning to understand abstract concepts. Students will already have begun a study of mathematical abstraction in their math curriculum. Through logic your child will gain an understanding of linguistic abstraction. An understanding of logic will not only prepare children to engage in debate when they are older, but will provide them with the tools to understand and participate in the rational discourse they will encounter in high school and college.

A parent will also need to choose between programs that emphasize traditional logic and those that emphasize modern logic. Traditional logic is language oriented, while modern logic is more mathematical. If logic is to be a part of language study, as it is in the classical curriculum, then traditional logic would seem to be the best option. One way to view the differences between the two approaches is to consider that traditional logic is how human beings think, while modern logic is how computers think. Because of this, modern logic is a great way of preparing a child for computer science.

Rhetoric: The Good Man Speaking Well

In classical rhetoric, a student will learn how to use the grammar he has learned in Latin and the reason he has learned in logic to persuade others of what he knows to be true. Quintilian, the great Roman teacher of rhetoric, said that the goal of an education is a good man speaking well. The role of rhetoric is to bring this about.

We enjoy a great deal of structure on the math/science side of the curriculum, but we often fall into the trap of thinking that, while math is entirely objective, language is entirely subjective. In the old system of classical education, this was never seen as true. In the same way that a good math program provides the science side of the curriculum with a solid foundation, so the systematic language arts taught in the trivium provides the language side of the curriculum with a foundation equally as solid. It is the old way of doing language arts.

The Second Part of Classical Education: Western Civilization

We said earlier that classical education could be broken down into two parts: skills and content. The skills, we said, were made up of the Liberal Arts. What, then, is the content side of classical education made up of? A short answer to that question is easy to provide. The content of classical education is Western civilization.

Lynne Cheney, the wife of the current Vice President and the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, once said that a person can not pretend to be educated unless he has a familiarity with Western culture.

Western civilization is made up of three emphases; what may be called the Three Cultures.

Greece: The First Culture

The first of the three cultures emphasized in Western history is that of the Greeks. Why would we want to study the Greeks? The first reason is perhaps obvious: the Greek culture of ancient Athens fundamentally affected our history and the way we think. Any analysis of why we do what we do and think what we think will be incomplete without a study of the Greeks.

The Greeks were philosophical man in miniature. Just about every idea - good and bad - originated with a Greek. Therefore, a study of Greek thought and culture is indispensable in telling us who we are - for good and ill.

The Greeks also provide us with much of our cultural vocabulary. Their mythology, for example, has remained a cultural reference point throughout Western history. Not only is a knowledge of Greek mythology necessary for an understanding of Greek works such as Homer's Iliad, but even great Christian works of art (Milton's Paradise Lost is just one example) make frequent references to them.

Rome: The Second Culture

While the Greek were thinking lofty thoughts, the Romans were conquering the world. The Romans were the great governors of ancient times. They were political man in miniature. Many of the issues we face in our own times can be found expressed succinctly in some story from Roman history. The Greeks could hardly govern themselves, but the Romans ran the world for 1,000 years.

When the founding fathers were looking for the theory of government, they read a book by a Greek: Aristotle's Politics. But when they went looking for advice on the mechanics of government, the went to the works of Roman authors such as Publius and Cicero. While Greek political history provided the founders with cautionary lessons, the Roman Republic was seen as a model of good government.

Israel: The Third Culture

The Greeks and the Romans make up the ideal and the practical in Western civilization. In Israel, we have a clear example of how God deals with nations and with individuals. We learn what God expects of his people as a community. In the history of Israel as a nation we see Him blessing his people and humbling them. In the testimony of individuals such as David, we see him doing the same thing with an individual man. Israel is spiritual man in miniature.

All three of these cultures can be seen as being fulfilled in Christianity, where truths sought by the Greeks, the good of the community sought by the Romans, and the Messiah expected by the Hebrews were all provided in Christ.

Classical education, in summary, gives both the intellectual skills and the intellectual content required to consider ourselves truly educated.

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