Classical Education

For the first three centuries of North American history students were taught using the classical method.  This style of learning dates back to the reign of Charlemagne in Europe, which was modeled after the Roman method, which was copied from the Greeks.  It has a long history and a proven one.  Most of the greatest thinkers and statesman, business moguls, and inventors were taught using this method.  In Europe this method was reserved for the wealthy elite who could afford to send their sons to expensive schools and hire tutors for their daughters.  In America the method was for everyone and led to a public about who Alexis de Tocqueville remarked:

“There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.”

In a nutshell the classical method involves learning lots of facts in order to create a framework, a bedrock, a foundation upon which to stand and then learning to express oneself effectively and finally actually understanding and discussing the great (and not so great) ideas of the past and present.  These three goals are met through a method called the Trivium.

The youngest students, about age 6 to 9, are in the grammar stage.  Grammar means the basics, the foundation.  They learn to read, write, and do basic math, but also cover a great deal of history, science, geography and other facts about the world in a broad manner.

The second age group, from about 10 to 13, are in the dialectic stage.  At this stage they continue to read a great deal and learn facts about the world, but they also learn more advanced forms of expressing their ideas about those facts.  They begin to learn to write persuasively and to discuss what they have read.

The third age group, from roughly 14 to 18, are in the rhetoric stage, the stage where you apply all the ideas and facts to yourself.  The teacher at this stage is a guide.  Kids study upper level math, advanced writing and speaking, high level sciences, and the Great Books (which fill the literature, writing, geography and history portions of a curriculum).  The teacher discusses the Great Books with the student and helps them come to their own conclusions–the student may never know what the teacher thinks.

So Rome fell?  The grammar stage teaches you the facts of the Fall of Rome, the Dialectic stage teaches you how to write and understand what others have written about the Fall of Rome, the Rhetoric stage teaches you how to dismiss what everybody else has written about the fall of Rome, make your own conclusions, and figure out what it has to do with you.

In short a classical education is rigorous, liberal (meaning covering many topics), and truly teaches a person to think, not to merely regurgitate facts.  This method is not merely useful for students who plan to go into philosophy, it is for anyone who desires to be adaptable, teachable, and intelligent in decision making for their whole life.

To teach kids this way, you choose basic math, grammar, and writing programs then you add in the history, science, geography, and arts in a four year rotation.  The first year you teach earth science/astronomy, ancient history, world geography, and drawing skills.  The second year you teach biology, medieval history, world geography, and art and music appreciation.  The third year you teach chemistry, renaissance/colonial history, world geography, and more arts.  The fourth year you teach physics, modern history, American (or your countries) geography, and again more arts.  Then you repeat the whole cycle for the middle grades and again for the high school years, each time increasing in amount of work and difficulty of subject matter.

There are several books devoted to implementing a classical education in practical terms.  My favorites are The Well-Trained Mind and A Thomas Jefferson Education.

Karen and I are developing the Layers of Learning program that borrows heavily from the classical method, as well as grabbing bits and pieces from other methods of learning.  Our program will cover the history, science, geography, and arts portions of the program and give recommendations about what to use for math, grammar, literature, writing, foreign language and so on for the K through 12th.

I’ve also created a printable list of materials to use in teaching the Classical Method.  The list includes mostly secular materials, but also Christian ones, which are labeled as such.  Secular materials allow for the parent to add in their philosophy and religious beliefs as appropriate.  Materials were chosen based on how well written and complete they are, their ease of use for the parent/teacher, their kid appeal, and cost.  Really great but super expensive programs got the ax from this list.

No materials are listed for religious/ethics studies since there is such diversity among families in this regard, but we do think this topic should be a regular part of your education, though  it can be accomplished in the evening during family time rather than during school time if you wish.

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4 Responses to Classical Education

  1. Dave Justus says:

    It seems that this ignores any history but that of Europe and the United States. While I don't have any problem with having a good grounding of this history, it seems that the rest of the world should be covered at some point.

    I would also recommend some practical computer skills, obviously that isn't classical, but learning the discipline and precision required to make a computer perform as expected is a valuable skill, even if you don't end up writing code for a living. It is also a good way to apply logic, mathematics and even art. At the very least, I think anyone who wants to be considered educated in the modern world should be able to type (although admittedly technology may change that requirement).

    While the great books are worthy, they pale in comparison to the vast stores of human knowledge we have available today. Learning to access and search that information is another valuable skill, although much of what you write about has direct applications to this.

  2. Michelle says:

    Actually when you use history encyclopedias as your "outline" of a course of study (from grades 1 through 8), you hit on the history of the whole earth. But yes, the European and American history are definitely the only ones represented in the Great Books Study. The companion history book though does cover the history of other parts of the world.

    As for other books/writings from other parts of the world or times the great books deal with philosophical issues that are always relevant, not technological or scientific facts that are developing. You still have a standard science education throughout–actually much more thorough than most methods.

    Adding a computer programming or operating course to the curriculum would certainly enhance it. As for typing, by the time a kid hits HS they should be typing most of their work. Typing instruction programs are easy to find and use as well.

    Over the next couple of weeks, we'll highlight several other styles of education that are popular today. They all have their pros and cons and they all have the potential to give a student a well-rounded thorough education. Hopefully parents or educators are deciding their methods based on what works best for the child and the teacher. They can do that better if they have some idea of the options out there.

  3. Michelle says:


    Do you have any specific recommendations for a computer application course that would be user friendly for parents or teachers who don't know the subject themselves? I'd really love to hear it.

  4. Dave Justus says:

    I don't know of any specific courses. I mostly picked up my computer knowledge on my own, so actual formal training is a mystery to me. I would suggest either Visual Basic or just HTML coding as a good place to start. I know their are books and resources online. HTML coding (perhaps moving into doing some Java or PHP scripting.) The language itself doesn't matter to much, in all likelihood what is being used today won't be in 10 years, but the methods of thought and even just the concept that you can handle computers is invaluable.

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